“Take two hours to ask ten questions of Galatians 2:20, and you will gain one hundred times the insight you would have attained by quickly reading thirty pages of the New Testament or any other book. Slow down. Query. Ponder. Chew.” – – John Piper, Brothers, We are Not Professionals
The following article was written by John Piper and posted on the website of Desiring God.
Adolf Hitler deceived his own people and the appeasing world-leaders as he methodically annexed Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to the German Reich (1938–1939), ostensibly to defend Germans in those lands, but with the manifest justification that the Germanic race is superior, and therefore destined to rule. While accusing others of brutalizing the Germanic diaspora, he was systematically murdering Jews and dissenters in the homeland. The choice was “Heil Hitler!” or elimination.
Hitler had written in his proto-Nazi manifesto, Mein Kampf, “The great masses will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.” He built his Reich on this conviction. But it wasn’t just the masses who proved gullible. It was major allied powers.
How do you deceive a whole nation and much of the world? You use unbridled power to control the dissemination of truth. You stigmatize detractors as dangerous to order, and disrespectful of good authority. You inspire young people with utopian hopes and racial supremacy. And in time, you eliminate dissent with punishment, not persuasion.
In the week before the unprovoked German invasion of Poland in September, 1939, the newspapers in Germany delivered headlines that were government-dictated and false. The papers claimed that chaos ruled in Poland and that the German population was at risk. This prepared the German people to praise the invasion. The Big Lie continued to work.
Free Press and Free People
Meanwhile in Britain, the mood of the people, and the open press, were gradually setting things in motion that would expose and remove the folly of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had given Hitler everything he wanted in the vain belief that he was not being lied to in all his attempts to satisfy Hitler’s claims.
In a free democracy, Chamberlain could not keep the truth of German aggression from the English people. He could not blind them to their immanent peril.
Truth: Real, Precious, Powerful
The primary lesson that I draw from this history for America at this moment is the reality, the preciousness, and the power of truth in the public square. When I say America at this moment, I am thinking of 1) the killing by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota, 2) the sniper killing of five police in Dallas, 3) the FBI non-indictment of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after her repeated, FBI-acknowledged falsehoods and “extremely careless” handling of classified material, and 4) the continued defense by national leaders of the legitimacy of killing children in their mother’s wombs.
The events underline the vital necessity of embracing the reality, preciousness, and power of truth in the public square at this moment. Let’s take them in reverse order — power, preciousness, then reality.
The Power of Truth
The fact that most people carry cameras now — in their smartphones — has made the killing of black men by the police a matter of powerful truth. Of course videos can lie. They are only part of the story, often limited to a short clip of the end of a larger event, offering us only one angle. But they also deliver truth, undeniable truth. Whatever stories and rationales for these killings are brought forward, they will have to square with the visual truths of these videos.
This means that the enormous power that resides with the police will be increasingly accountable. This is a good thing. And any political move to make it legal to prevent videos at crime scenes, or confiscate videos without a warrant, or destroy audio-video evidence should be viewed as Nazi-like silencing of truth in the public square.
Or Is Truth Powerful?
While the power of truth is rising with the ubiquity of the smartphone, truth seems less powerful in holding high-ranking people accountable. The five hours of testimony by James Comey, Director of the FBI, on July 7 before Congress left many of us speechless at the concessions of Secretary Clinton’s falsehoods, concessions of her recklessness in handling national security, and the insistence that law-breaking, in her case, would need to include intention to break the law.
But even if the former Secretary comes through this scandal unindicted, the power of truth is not dead. It may yet press itself on the people — if not the investigators. Where the media remain free, and dissent is not punished by the law, the power of truth will track down every deceiver. And sooner or later, it will be shouted from the house tops.
The Preciousness of Truth
Truth is also precious. Suppose a black man is seated in his car with his hands raised, having just told an officer that he has a weapon and a concealed-carry permit. And suppose the policeman tells him to hand over his ID. The man in the car knows that if he reaches for his wallet he may be shot, and the story may be told that he was going for his gun. Among the many precious things at this moment, one of the foremost is this truth: You should not shoot me for reaching for my ID the way you told me to. Or to put the truth another way: It is wrong to shoot a man for complying with police instructions. This is a truth. And it is precious beyond all reckoning.
I don’t know if that is what happened in the case of Philando Castile in St. Paul. That is not my point. My point is truth is precious. In saying that it is precious, I am saying that it has a claim on the conscience of officer and accused. Both should treasure this truth: You should not shoot me for reaching for my ID the way you told me to. It is wrong to shoot a man for complying with police instructions. When a victim of injustice has no power, he still has something very precious. He has this transcendent truth: You should not do this to me. This is wrong.
Or suppose a white police officer, in complete self-control, is standing guard to protect demonstrators against police violence. And suppose he is in the rifle-sights of a sniper who aims to kill as many whites as he can. And suppose that police officer has never disrespected or mistreated a black person in the way of his duty. At that moment, it is a precious truth — precious beyond calculation — that killing him because he is white is wrong. This truth is so precious a whole city — a whole nation — might treasure it highly enough that it becomes part of a foundation of a common life together.
Truth Is Precious for the Unborn
Truth is also precious for babies in their mothers’ wombs. It is a precious truth that a baby should not be killed simply because a stronger person chooses to have the baby eliminated. That is what Nazis did with Jews and Poles and homosexuals and stubborn Lutheran pastors. They did not treasure this truth: Killing people because of race or nationality or religion or position in the mother’s womb is wrong.
That is a precious truth. Wherever a society ceases to treasure this truth, eventually violent elimination of unwanted humans happens. It has been happening to the unborn for a long time. And it is no secret that the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, prioritized the elimination of black babies. And there may well be causal lines between the abortion of blacks and the aim to eliminate them in other ways. Such lines are drawn in the soul of a society.
The Reality of Truth
Finally, the reality of truth. It is a great irony that the philosophical, academic, and social power of left-wing elites since World War II have devoted themselves to showing that there is no truth. It has no transcendent reality. Truth, they say, is an outmoded enlightenment construct created to justify political, racial, and gender privilege.
This is an irony because it is precisely these left-wing elites that cry most loudly against injustice, not realizing that the limb of truth that they just sawed off is the only one that can provide trans-racial, trans-political, trans-gender, trans-cultural support for justice, and decisive resistance to injustice.
These advocates for freedom from truth cover their evisceration of truth-claims by crying out against the oppression of the poor and weak. But in nullifying truth, they strip the poor and weak of the one great weapon they still have: the truth that there is such a thing as justice, and this is not it. Truth is a mighty weapon in the hand of the weak. The powerful have been playing academic word games for seventy years with deadly fallout.
If you nullify the reality of truth, you make the finger on the trigger to be god. If God doesn’t make right, might makes right. If truth has no reality, what can an innocent man say when he is about to be shot? Black driver with no record, or newly married white cop. May he say, “Stop! This is not right”? That is a claim to truth. The truth is: Innocent people should not be killed. If that truth is not real, whoever has the guns is “right.” For there is no transcendent “right” or “true.”
But there is a transcendent ground of truth. The reality, preciousness, and power of truth are rooted in God and his Son Jesus Christ. God sent his eternal Son into the world to clarify and establish the truth. Jesus said to Pilate, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).
Then a few hours later, he died, so that sinners who embrace him as the truth might be forgiven all our sins (Acts 10:43). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). Then he rose again from the dead to vindicate his truth, and sent his people into the world as witnesses to the truth.
He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And again, praying to his Father in heaven, he said, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). Jesus Christ is Truth in person. Scripture is Truth in writing.
Nevertheless, since God made all people in his image, and since he reveals himself in nature (Romans 1:18–23) and in the human conscience (Romans 2:14–15), Christians are not the only people with access to truth. This is why a pluralistic society may find common ground that makes possible some measure of civic order.
Nevertheless, the fullness and apex of truth is found in Jesus. And the Scriptures he authorized are the only authoritative access to what that fullness of truth is. This means that when all is said and done in history, the reality, preciousness, and power of truth will triumph. At the coming of Christ, the whole cosmos will be brought into the sway of truth — The Truth.
Until then, followers of Jesus bear witness to the truth. We wave the banner of the reality and the preciousness and the power of truth. And we renounce all policies, procedures, laws, customs, and tyrannies that obscure or silence the truth — whether in police procedures, national politics, or the industry of child-killing cloaked in the evil rhetoric of reproductive freedom.
John Piper. Pastor. Author. Theologian. Christian Hedonist.
Forgive the Label, But Don’t Miss the Truth
If you must, forgive me for the label. But don’t miss the truth because you don’t like my tag. My shortest summary of it is: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Or: The chief end of man is to glorify God byenjoying him forever. Does Christian Hedonism1 make a god out of pleasure? No. It says that we all make a god out of what we take most pleasure in. My life is devoted to helping people make God their God, by wakening in them the greatest pleasures in him.
- When Jesus warned his disciples that they might get their heads chopped off (Luke 21:16), he comforted them with the promise that, nevertheless, not a hair on their heads would perish (v. 18).
- When he warned them that discipleship means self-denial and crucifixion (Mark 8:34), he consoled them with the promise that “whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (v. 35).
- When he commanded them to leave all and follow him, he assured them that they would receive “a hundred-fold now. . . with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:28-31).
If we must sell all, we should do it, Jesus said, “with joy” because the field we aim to buy contains a hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44).
What I Mean When I Use This Term
By Christian Hedonism, I do not mean that our happiness is the highest good. I mean that pursuing the highest good will always result in our greatest happiness in the end. But almost all Christians believe this. Christian Hedonism says more, namely, that we should pursue happiness, and pursue it with all our might. The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy you cannot love man or please God – that’s what makes Christian Hedonism controversial.
Christian Hedonism aims to replace a Kantian morality with a biblical one. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who died in 1804, was the most powerful exponent of the notion that the moral value of an act decreases as we aim to derive any benefit from it. Acts are good if the doer is “disinterested.” We should do the good because it is good. Any motivation to seek joy or reward corrupts the act. Cynically, perhaps, but not without warrant, the novelist Ayn Rand captured the spirit of Kant’s ethic:
An action is moral, said Kant, only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual. A benefit destroys the moral value of an action. (Thus if one has no desire to be evil, one cannot be good; if one has, one can.)2
Against this Kantian morality (which has passed as Christian for too long!), we must herald the unabashedly hedonistic biblical morality. Jonathan Edwards, who died when Kant was 34, expressed it like this in one of his early resolutions: “Resolved, To endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.”3
How Others Have Said It
C. S. Lewis put it like this in a letter to Sheldon Vanauken: “It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can.“4
And southern novelist Flannery O’Connor gives her view of self-denial like this: “Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is sin.Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy – fully armed too, as it’s a highly dangerous quest.“5
The Kantian notion says that it’s O.K. to get joy as an unintended result of your action. But all these people (myself included) are aiming at joy. We repudiate both the possibility and desirability of disinterested moral behavior. It is impossible, because the will is not autonomous; it always inclines to what it perceives will bring the most happiness (John 8:34; Romans 6:16;2 Peter 2:19).
Pascal was right when he said “All men seek happiness without exception.They all aim at this goal however different the means they use to attain it. . . .They will never make the smallest move but with this as its goal. This is the motive of all the actions of all men, even those who contemplate suicide.”6
Why Being Disinterested Is Unbiblical
But not only is disinterested morality (doing good “for its own sake”) impossible; it is undesirable. That is, it is unbiblical; because it would mean that the better a man became the harder it would be for him to act morally. The closer he came to true goodness the more naturally and happily he would do what is good. A good man in Scripture is not the man who dislikes doing good but toughs it out for the sake of duty. A good man loves kindness (Micah 6:8) and delights in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2), and the will of the Lord (Psalm 40:8). But how shall such a man do an act of kindness disinterestedly? The better the man, the more joy in obedience.
Kant loves a disinterested giver. God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7). Disinterested performance of duty displeases God. He wills that we delight in doing good and that we do it with the confidence that our obedience secures and increases our joy in God.
Oh, that I could drive the notion out of our churches that virtue requires a stoical performance of duty – the notion that good things are promised merely as the result of obedience but not as an incentive for it. The Bible is replete with promises which are not appended carefully as non-motivational results, but which clearly and boldly and hedonistically aim to motivate our behavior.
What the Bible Says About Morality
What sets off biblical morality from worldly hedonism is not that biblical morality is disinterested, but that it is interested in vastly greater and purer things. Some examples:
Luke 6:35 says, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and you reward will be great.” Note: we should never be motivated by worldly aggrandizement (“expect nothing in return”); but we are given strength to suffer loss in service of love by the promise of a future reward.
Again, in Luke 14:12-14: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor . . . and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Note: don’t do good deeds for worldly advantage; but do them for spiritual, heavenly benefits.
But the Kantian philosopher will say, “No, no. These texts only describe what reward will result if you act disinterestedly. They do not teach us to seek the reward.”
My Response to These Assertions
Two answers: 1) It is very bad pedagogy to say, “Take this pill and I will give you a nickel,” if you think the desire for the nickel will ruin the taking of the pill. But Jesus was a wise teacher, not a foolish one. 2) Even more importantly, there are texts which not only commend but command that we do good in the hope of future blessing.
Luke 12:33 says, “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail.” The connection here between alms and having eternal treasure in heaven is not mere result but aim: “Make it your aim to have treasure in heaven, and the way to do this is to sell your possessions and give alms.”
And again, Luke 16:9 says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into eternal habitations.” Luke does not say that the result of a proper use of possessions is to receive eternal habitations. He says, “Make it your aim to secure an eternal habitation by the way you use your possessions.”
Therefore, a resounding NO to Kantian morality. No in the pew and no in the pulpit. In the pew the very heart is ripped out of worship by the notion that it can be performed as a mere duty. There are two possible attitudes in genuine worship: delight in God or repentance for the lack of it.
Corporate Christian Hedonism
Sunday at 11 a.m., Hebrew 11:6 enters combat with Immanuel Kant. “Without faith it is impossible to please Him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.” You cannot please God if you do not come to him as rewarder. Therefore, worship which pleases God is the hedonistic pursuit of God in whose presence is fullness ofjoy and in who hand are pleasures for evermore (Psalm 16:11).
What a difference it will make if we are Christian hedonists and not Kantian commanders of duty! Jonathan Edwards, the greatest preacher-theologian that America has ever produced, daringly said, “I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.”7 The ultimate reason Edwards believed this was his duty is his profound and biblical conviction that
God glorifies himself towards the creatures also [in] two ways: (1) by appearing to them, being manifested to their understanding; (2) in communicating himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself. . . . God is glorified not only by his glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. . . . [W]hen those that see it delight in it: God is more glorified than if they only see it. . . . He that testifies his idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.8
The Ultimate Foundation of Christian Hedonism
This is the ultimate foundation for Christian Hedonism.
As Christian Hedonists we know that everyone longs for happiness. And we will never tell them to deny or repress that desire. Their problem is not that they want to be satisfied, but that they are far too easily satisfied. We will instruct them how to glut their soul-hunger on the grace of God. We will paint God’s glory in lavish reds and yellows and blues; and hell we will paint with smoky shadows of gray and charcoal. We will labor to wean them off the milk of the world onto the rich fare of God’s grace and glory.
We will bend all our effort, by the Holy Spirit, to persuade people
- that “abuse suffered for the Christ [is] greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (Hebrews 11:26);
- that they can be happier in giving than receiving (Acts 20:35);
- that they should count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus their Lord (Philippians 3:8);
- that the aim of all of Jesus’ commandments is that their joy might be full (John 15:11);
- that if they delight themselves in the Lord he will give them the desire of their heart (Psalm 37:4);
- that there is great gain in godliness with contentment (1 Timothy 6:6);
- and that the joy of the Lord is their strength (Nehemiah 8:11).
We will not try to motivate their ministry by Kantian appeals to mere duty. We will tell them that delight in God is their highest duty. But we will remind them that Jesus endured the cross for the joy that was set before him (Hebrews 12:2), and that Hudson Taylor, at the end of a life full of suffering and trial, said, “I never made a sacrifice.”9
Read a condensed version of this article titled We Want You to Be a Christian Hedonist.
1. For the full story of what I call “Christian Hedonism,” see John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1996); or the small version, The Dangerous Duty of Delighting in God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2001).
2. Ayn Rand, For the Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1961), p. 32.
3. Resolution #22 in Edwards’ Memoirs in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), p. xxi.
4. From a letter to Sheldon Vanaukehn in Vanauken’s book, A Severe Mercy (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 189.
5. The Habit of Being, ed. by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), p.126.
6. Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées, trans. by W. F. Trotter (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), p. 113 (thought #425).
7. Jonathan Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4, ed. by C. Goen (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), p. 387.
8. Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies,” a-500, ed. by Thomas Schafer, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 13 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 495. Miscellany #448; see also #87, pp. 251-252; #332, p. 410; #679 (not in the New Haven Volume). Emphasis added. These Miscellanies were the private notebooks of Edwards from which he built his books, like The End for Which God Created the World.
9. Howard and Geraldine Taylor, Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, n. d.), p. 30.