I hope it is plain so far that if you come to God dutifully, offering Him the reward of your fellowship instead of thirsting after the reward of His, then you exalt yourself above God as His benefactor and belittle Him as a needy beneficiary. That is evil.
The only way to glorify the all-sufficiency of God is to come to Him because in His presence is fullness of joy and at His right hand are pleasures for evermore (Psalm 16:11). We could call this vertical Christian Hedonism. Between man and God, on the vertical axis of life, the pursuit of pleasure is not just tolerable; it is mandatory—“Delight yourself in the LORD!” The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.
But what about horizontal Christian Hedonism? What about relationships of love with other people? Is disinterested benevolence the ideal among men? Or is the pursuit of pleasure proper and indeed mandatory for every kind of human love that pleases God?
Christian Hedonism answers: The pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. If you aim to abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, you cannot love people or please God.
When I preached on this once, a philosophy professor wrote a letter to me with the following criticism:
Is it not the contention of morality that we should do the good because it is the good?… We should do the good and perform virtuously, I suggest, because it is good and virtuous; that God will bless it and cause us to be happy is a consequence of it, but not the motive for doing it.
Another popular writer says, “For the Christian, happiness is never a goal to be pursued. It is always the unexpected surprise of a life of service.”
These quotes represent the flood of common opinion that a Christian Hedonist swims against all the time. He regards them as contrary to Scripture and contrary to love and, in the end, dishonoring to God.
No doubt, biblical passages come to mind that seem to say exactly the opposite of what Christian Hedonism is saying. For example, in the great “love chapter” the apostle Paul says that love “does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5). Does this mean that it would be unloving to delight in doing good?
According to the prophet Micah, God has commanded us not simply to be kind, but to love kindness. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). Does obedience to the command to “love kindness” mean you must disobey the teaching of 1 Corinthians 13:5 that love should not “seek its own” when you show mercy?
No. That is not what Paul is thinking. We know it isn’t, because in verse 3 he actually motivates love by our longing for gain: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (RSV). If genuine love dare not set its sights on its own gain, isn’t it strange that Paul should warn us that not having love will rob us of “gain”?
Giving Paul the benefit of the doubt, should we not assume there is a kind of “gain” that is wrong to be motivated by (hence “Love seeks not its own”) and that there is also a kind of “gain” that is right to be motivated by (hence “If I do not have love, I gain nothing”)? What is this proper gain? Jonathan Edwards gives a compelling answer:
In some sense the most benevolent, generous person in the world seeks his own happiness in doing good to others, because he places his happiness in their good. His mind is so enlarged as to take them, as it were, into himself. Thus when they are happy, he feels it; he partakes with them, and is happy in their happiness.
In other words, when Paul says, “Love seeks not its own,” he does not mean that love may not rejoice in loving. Rather he means that love will not seek its own private comforts and ease at the expense of others.
The moral value of an act of love is not ruined when we are motivated to do it by the anticipation of our own joy in it and from it. If it were, then a bad man, who hated the prospect of loving, could engage in pure love since he would take no joy in it; while a good man, who delighted in the prospect of loving, could not love since he would “gain” joy from it and thus ruin it.
Therefore, 1 Corinthians 13:5 (“Love seeks not its own”) does not stand in the way of Christian Hedonism. On the contrary, taken together with 1 Corinthians 13:3 (“If I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing”), it supports and clarifies Christian Hedonism: The pursuit of true gain is an essential motive for every good deed.
What is this “true gain”? In 2 Corinthians 8 Paul shows that genuine love always relates to God as gain. The situation is that the churches in Macedonia have demonstrated what true love is by the way they responded in generosity to Paul’s appeal for the poor in Jerusalem. Now he explains to the Corinthians what the nature of this love is.
We wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints. (2 Corinthians 8:1–4)
We know this is a description of love because in verse 8 Paul says, “I say … to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine” (RSV). So here we have a test case to see just what the love of 1 Corinthians 13 looks like in real life. The Macedonians have given away their possessions just as 1 Corinthians 13:3 says (“If I give away all I have”). But here it is real love, while there it was not love at all. What makes the Macedonian generosity a genuine act of love?
The nature of genuine love can be seen in four things:
- First, it’s a work of divine grace. “We wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia” (2 Corinthians 8:1). The generosity of the Macedonians was not of human origin. It was a work of grace in their hearts.
- Second, this experience of God’s grace filled the Macedonians with joy. “In a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality” (2 Corinthians 8:2). Their joy was not owing to the fact that God had prospered them financially. He hadn’t! In extreme poverty they had joy. Therefore the joy was a joy in God, not things.
- Third, their joy in God’s grace overflowed in generosity to meet the needs of others. “Their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality” (2 Corinthians 8:2). Therefore the liberality expressed horizontally toward men was an overflow of joy in God’s grace.
- Fourth, the Macedonians begged for the opportunity to sacrifice their meager possessions for the saints in Jerusalem. “Beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints” (2 Corinthians 8:3–4). In other words, the way their joy in God overflowed was in the joy of giving. They wanted to give. It was their joy!
Now we can give a definition of love that takes God into account and also includes the feelings that should accompany the outward acts of love: Love is the overflow and expansion of joy in God, which gladly meets the needs of others. Love is not merely the passive overflow, but the aggressive extension and expansion and completion of joy in God, reaching even to the poor in Jerusalem.
Piper, John. 2001. The Dangerous Duty of Delight. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers.