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TREATING DELIGHT AS DUTY IS CONTROVERSIAL
“Christian Hedonism” is a controversial name for an old fashioned way of life.
It goes back to Moses, who wrote the first books of the Bible and threatened terrible things if we would not be
happy: “Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joy and a glad heart…therefore you shall serve your enemies” (Deuteronomy 28:47–48).
…and to the Israelite king David, who called God his “exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4); and said, “Serve the LORD
with gladness” (Psalm 100:2); and “Delight yourself in the LORD” (Psalm 37:4); and who prayed, “Satisfy us in the morning with Your lovingkindness, that we may…be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14); and who promised that complete and lasting pleasure is found in God alone: “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Psalm 16:11).
…and to Jesus, who said, “Blessed are you when people insult you…. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven
is great” (Matthew 5:11–12); and who said, “I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 15:11); and who endured the Cross “for the joy set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2); and who promised that, in the end, faithful servants would hear the words, “Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).
…and to James the brother of Jesus, who said, “Consider it all joy…when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2).
…and to the apostle Paul, who was “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10); and who described the ministry of his team as being “workers with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24); and who commanded Christians to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4); and even to “exult in…tribulations” (Romans 5:3).
…and to the apostle Peter, who said, “To the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Peter 4:13).
…and to Saint Augustine, who, in the year 386, found his freedom from lust and lechery in the superior pleasures of God. “How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose!… You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure.”4
…and to Blaise Pascal, who saw that “all men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end…. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”5
…and to the Puritans whose aim was to know God so well that “delighting in him, may be the work of our lives,”6
because they knew that this joy would “arm us against the assaults of our spiritual enemies and put our mouths out of
taste for those pleasures with which the tempter baits his hooks.”7
…and to Jonathan Edwards, who discovered and taught as powerfully as anyone that “the happiness of the creature consists in rejoicing in God, by which also God is magnified and exalted.”8 “The end of the creation is that the creation might glorify [God]. Now what is glorifying God, but a rejoicing at that glory he has displayed?”9
…and to C. S. Lewis, who discovered “We are far too easily pleased.”10
…and to a thousand missionaries, who have left everything for Christ and in the end have said, with David Livingstone, “I never made a sacrifice.”11
Christian Hedonism is not new.
So if Christian Hedonism is old-fashioned, why is it so controversial? One reason is that it insists that joy is not just the spin-off of obedience to God, but part of obedience. It seems as though people are willing to let joy be a by-product of our relationship to God, but not an essential part of it. People are uncomfortable saying that we are duty-bound to pursue joy.
They say things like, “Don’t pursue joy; pursue obedience.” But Christian Hedonism responds, “That’s like saying, ‘Don’t eat apples; eat fruit.’” Because joy is an act of obedience. We are commanded to rejoice in God. If obedience is doing what God commands, then joy is not merely the spin-off of obedience, it is obedience. The Bible tells us over and over to pursue joy: “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous ones; and shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart” (Psalm 32:11). “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy” (Psalm 67:4). “Delight yourself in the LORD” (Psalm37:4). “Rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20). “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).
The Bible does not teach that we should treat delight as a mere by-product of duty. C. S. Lewis got it right when
he wrote to a friend, “It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can.”12 Yes, that is risky
and controversial. But it is strictly true. Maximum happiness, both qualitatively and quantitatively, is precisely what we are duty-bound to pursue.
One wise Christian described the relationship between duty and delight this way:
Suppose a husband asks his wife if he must kiss her
good night. Her answer is, “You must, but not that
kind of a must.”What she means is this: “Unless a
spontaneous affection for my person motivates you,
your overtures are stripped of all moral value.”13
In other words, if there is no pleasure in the kiss, the duty of kissing has not been done. Delight in her person, expressed in the kiss, is part of the duty, not a by-product of it.
But if that is true—if delight in doing good is part of what doing good is—then the pursuit of pleasure is part
of the pursuit of virtue. You can see why this starts to get controversial. It’s the seriousness of it all. “You really mean this?” someone says. “You really mean that hedonism is not just a trick word to get our attention. It actually says
something utterly, devastatingly true about the way we should live. The pursuit of pleasure really is a necessary
part of being a good person.” That’s right. I mean it. The Bible means it. God means it. It is very serious. We are not playing word games.
Let it be crystal clear: We are always talking about joy in God. Even joy in doing good is finally joy in God,
because the ultimate good that we always aim at is displaying the glory of God and expanding our own joy in
God to others. Any other joy would be qualitatively insufficient for the longing of our souls and quantitatively too short for our eternal need. In God alone is fullness of joy and joy forever.
“In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Psalm 16:11).
From the Hardcover edition.