A lot of people are throwing Victoria Osteen under the bus for her recent comments, with claims of heresy and blasphemy topping the list. What is remarkable is how similar her quotes are to quotes by John Piper, regarding his concept of his coined, "Christian Hedonism." Ultimately, this is the question: "What do you believe is the true basis of- and motive for glorifying God?" Both Osteen and Piper offer that enjoying pleasure is the primary means by which we glorify God, thus, they both agree to the central tenet of Christian Hedonism. Mrs. Osteen is being raked over the Internet coals for a video clip in which she stands by her approving husband at church (the largest church in the U.S., BTW) and says the following:
"I just want to encourage every one of us to realize that when we obey God, we're not doing it for God — I mean, that's one way to look at it — we're doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we're happy. That’s the thing that gives Him the greatest joy.”
“So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you're not doing it for God really. You're doing it for yourself, because that's what makes God happy. Amen?"
Everyone from Bill Cosby (in a pirate YouTube spoof) to the ex-gay Christian blogger, Matt Moore are basically heaping it on against Osteen's apparent-cheapened brand of Christianity. Personally, I do not agree with most of the Osteen family teaching approach, including these quotes. However, what I find interesting is that no one seems to be pointing out the overlap here with John Piper's teachings. I am very disturbed by false teachings and felt a need to point this out, for anyone interested in seeking to discern truth from error. In his pursuit of lifting the importance of pleasure, Piper changed the shorter Westminster Catechism, as follows:
"The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever" – John Piper (his version of the shorter Westminster Catechism)
The real shorter Westminster Catechism states the following:
"Q. What is the chief end of man? A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever."
One small edit by Piper makes a big difference in terms of defining what supposedly glorifies God.
Piper summarizes his position here:
"My shortest summary of Christian Hedonism is: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. We all make a god out of what we take the most pleasure in. Christian Hedonists want to make God their God by seeking after the greatest pleasure — pleasure in him."
A person can feel satisfied and be living in idolatry and delusion. So, at best, this maxim is misleading and dangerous. In elaboration, Piper states:
“We all make a god out of what we take the most pleasure in. Christian Hedonists want to make God their God by seeking after the greatest pleasure — pleasure in him."
This statement really is about idolatry: "We all make a god out of what we take the most pleasure in." And this might be more accurately stated as, "We all tend to idolize what we feel gives us the most pleasure." However, instead of seeing the tendency towards idolization as sinful, Piper turns this around and implies that we should idolize pleasure in God, "seeking after the greatest pleasure" - as a means of trying to glorify God. Piper claims that he does not, "make a god out of pleasure"- but essentially this is exactly what he proposes in his various explanations.
Piper's Hedonsim landing page is peppered with false statements, such as: "Christian Hedonism says more; namely, that we should pursue happiness, and pursue it with all our might." If you study the whole of scripture, however, we are called to pursue the person of God with all our might, not subjective happiness. Scripture defines the person of God is our reward, treasure, and goal, that is to be pursued with greatest passion (Genesus 15.1, Psalm 62, Philippians 3.8).
Piper offers a false dichotomy in support of his "Christian Hedonsim," as follows: "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." Piper's argument is a straw man argument, though. A spiritual person familiar with scripture does not do good "for its own sake" - but to please God. So Piper's dichotomy of either seeking moral good towards a goal of personal pleasure, or for its "for its own sake"- is a fallacious argument.
This idolization of Christian pleasure is clarified as wrong for at least three reasons. First, our gift of pleasure in God, and God Himself, are not one in the same, so Piper is correct in insinuating that we are talking about idolatry. Second, when we idolize something, we do it based on lust for something in return, not based on the pure motivation of worshiping God for who God is, the one good, merciful, perfectly holy and just Creator. This approach that Piper is suggesting does not reflect the true and pure love of God exemplified in scripture, the selfless love defined as "agape love." Third, this approach more reflects secular ethical Egoism than Christian ethics. If God is truly most glorified in us by us seeking and finding our greatest pleasure in Him, then this is an egocentric approach to ethics, whereas most would argue that Christian ethics are either more based on Divine Command Theory or deontological theory, which holds that you do the right action because it's right, and not for any other reason.
There is nothing wrong with finding pleasure in God, even our highest pleasure, but that is never offered in scripture as a basis of ethics or as the intended highest value or highest purpose of existence. God's will, God's glory, and God's pleasure form the basis of ethics and the highest purpose of existence. If that somehow is a great let down, or is drudgery to accept for someone, then there needs to be an epiphany of who and what God is, versus who and what we are.
It is clear in his descriptions that Piper is promoting his "Christian Hedonism" in an attempt to attract non-believers to God, but this is not a valid reason for promoting idolatry. Jesus teaches us to build our lives on a firm foundation of scripture, and there are ways to logically test ideas and beliefs in order to see if they are valid. I would recommend reading this attached post and comparing the logic and scripture used there against the logic and references that Piper employs as a basis for glorifying God: How can we Most Glorify God in our Lives?
Quotes by other thoughtful Christians on pleasure, as pointed out at Newcalvinist.com, apparently had a profound effect on Piper. "I had never in my whole life heard any Christian, let alone a Christian of Lewis’ statute, say that all of us not only seek (as Pascal said), but also ought to seek our own happiness." These are two such quotes:
“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even those who hang themselves.” - Blaise Pascal
“If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” – C.S. Lewis – The Weight of Glory
Piper's main inspiration for hedonism is not scripture, but extra-biblical commentary. Pascal describes the natural tendency to seek personal pleasure and happiness. But, if you notice, examples of war and suicide are both negative ones. And Pascal does not sufficiently support his claim that seeking personal happiness is the proper motive of every man. If you take the Apostle Paul as an example, you will find that his primary motive is the sake of Christ, as noted at examples in this link. As far as C.S. Lewis is concerned, Piper is proof-texting Lewis while not considering other quotes by him that emphasize that we are not to focus merely on pleasure, but more so on loving others with the self-less agape love of God, as quoted at this link.
C.S. Lewis was probably not intending that an entire doctrine be formed based on his quote on pleasure and enjoyment. Lewis, like Piper, creates a false dichotomy. The primary aim of the Christian life is not "drink and sex and ambition" versus seeking mainly to enjoy a heavenly, "holiday at the sea." While the former is preferable to the latter as spiritual, our primary aim according to scripture is not our own enjoyment in either example, rather, it is to seek to glorify God and fulfill all of God's will for us. It's not a really question of earthly warm and fuzzy feelings versus heavenly warm and fuzzy feelings. The promotion of a warm and fuzzy faith and its wide reception by the Church is a sign that we are truly living in the last days.
Piper apparently takes the shorter Westminster Catechism as a focal point and jumping-off point for his Christian Hedonism, when it is also not scripture, but commentary on scripture. If you really want to tinker with this maxim, you should use truth-testing aspects of "necessity" and "sufficiency" in order to arrive at a valid maxim. The first part is both necessary, sufficient, and true:
"Man's chief end is to glorify God"
But if you begin to add in extras, then you have to ask if these are sufficient. The seeking of pleasure or enjoying of pleasure is not a sufficient basis of glorifying God, as I explain in depth here at this link. To reduce heaven to the mere reception of pleasure is not sufficient and cheapens the grace of God. Scripture shows that we will also be receiving fresh revelations of God's grace throughout eternity:
“And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians2:6-7 NIV). According to Peter, the grace of God is manifold, and this could be compared to a diamond with endless facets of fresh revelation. "As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God." (I Peter 4.10 NIV). With the understanding that experiencing God's glory is more than just experiencing pleasure, the following would be a more necessary and sufficient definition of man's chief end:
Man's chief end is to glorify God, and experience his glory forever.
While I believe that Piper has been very prolific as a writer and teacher, I don't believe that his published quotes on this theme of hedonism are backed up adequately by the body of scripture. Newcalvinist.com outlines a problem: "Piper’s error In his journey into hedonism Piper committed the serious error of starting with the ideas of men, and then turning to Scripture for support. This way of using the Bible is known as proof texting. It is the error of taking a passage of scripture out of its immediate context and setting it up, in opposition to its context, as proof of a doctrinal point."
As a result of his views, Piper went so far as to subtly change the original Westminster Shorter Catechism quote from, "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” into... "…to glorify God by enjoying Him forever." (emphasis on "by"). This one slight change became the main premise of his book. This is a quote from Piper’s website promoting his book, Desiring God:
“…this book aims to persuade you that the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever” (p. 18).
Has John Piper 'Osteenized' the traditional Westminster Catechism quote? Read a Victoria Osteen quote again:
“You're doing it for yourself, because that's what makes God happy. Amen?"
Both Osteen and Piper focus on the subjective quality of pleasure, as opposed to the objective greatness of God. The fact is, however, God is great and worthy of all glory, whether or not we feel good about it. The blogger “Wink” at the Parableman blog outlines that ultimately this issue of God;'s glory is a matter of focus. Wink used to follow Christian Hedonism, but now ascribes to what he calls “Affective Christianity”. The essence of Wink's premise is this: We are to be driven by the focus of what we value and desire, not by the value and desire itself. This is really the essence of faith.
As opposed to Piper's claims for "Christian Hedonism," faith is a greater means by which we glorify than feelings. This is a thread that runs throughout the entire scriptural record. The website Got Questions addresses the question of, "What does it mean to glorify God?" and feelings are not to be found, but the faith of Stephen is exemplified, who suffered physically in being stoned just before seeing the glory of God. And when you look at Hebrews 11, heroes of faith are listed that glorified God with their lives, not their feelings. And in conclusion the author states, "...the world was not worthy of them." (Hebrews 11.38a). The phrase "by faith" occurs 22 times in Hebrews 11, and is described as something of great "substance" - while the word "feeling" does not appear at all. Hebrews outlines that faith is a prime necessary aspect of pleasing God:
"And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him."
Firstly, because we understand that there is a certain blessing in seeking and following God, this does not mean that we should seek God primarily for His blessings. According to scripture, God Himself is our reward, not things that He gives us. Genesus 15.1 states: "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward." (NIV). A Psalm of David is titled, "My Soul Waits for God Alone" (Psalm 62). To extol and pine after anything other than God is idolatry, and this is essentially what 'Christian Hedonism" is subtly presenting.
Secondly, if there is a teaching or implication that we should mainly be seeking God based on feelings, then a lack of feelings will correspond with unnecessary guilt. Jesus was able to honestly share His feelings of distress, grief and separation at the crucifixion, because feelings are not the basis of our identity, purpose or significance (Matthew 26:37-38). And as Christians, our purpose is identified more so with gaining knowledge and the "mind of Christ" than achieving the, "feelings of Christ."
Piper's apparent proof-texting of scripture to support his pleasure thesis produced another problem. Many mature Christians had been warning of Mark Driscoll's very crude and inappropriate teachings on sexuality, while Piper supported Driscoll and his teachings, with no apparent public warning. I was immediately turned off to Mark Driscoll's teaching on the Song of Songs, when I heard him state that this book was not an allegory, but was merely a sex manual, basically a Judaeo-Christian Kama Sutra. Driscoll gave no basis for his opinion in his teaching, but just asserted it as a plain fact, which is at best a controversial assertion, not in keeping with the opinion of most mature Bible commentators. It seems that Piper's heightened focus on pleasure found in God may have influenced him to help promote Driscoll in this context.
Piper peppers his Christian Hedonism landing page with more false statements and false dichotomies. This statement is inaccurate:
"The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed..."
This self-focused hedonism is contrary to the whole of scripture. While happiness is an aspect of seeking God's glory, it is in no way the "proper motive" in and of itself. And the follow-up statement is a false dichotomy:
"...if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy, you cannot love man or please God."
It is not a choice between seeking personal happiness as your primary motive or abandoning any hope of joy. Scripture does not draw a distinction between seeking God's presence, plan and glory as the highest ends, and the joy that comes along with relationship in God in the process. To claim that the cart should move the horse is not only false, but this approach violates the primary commands of God and is idolatrous. Choosing not to idolize pleasure as a chief end is not the same as abandoning joy and the many other attributes associated with seeking of the the person of God. It is not a choice of no joy or idolize joy. No, not at all. And, based on the whole of scripture, the pursuit of mere joy is not a sufficient reason to pursue God and is not a sufficient basis of glorifying God. The following summary is based on a necessary and sufficient explanation of glorifying God:
God is most glorified in us when we most fully reflect the whole will of God with the deep love of God in the living Spirit of God.
Kant and Piper offer two Extremes
The antithesis of Christian Hedonism is Immanuel Kant’s promotion of obedience and selfless altruism as the only means towards achieving God’s glory: “As everybody likes to be honored, so people imagine that God also wants to be honored. They forget that the fulfillment of duty towards men is the only honor adequate to him.”
This approach seems to be a derivation of Christ’s words: “If you love me, keeps my commands.”(John 14.15 NIV) And perhaps (1 Samuel 15.22): "To obey is better than sacrifice." But Kant tacks on "duty towards men" as an extra requirement.
Kant’s logic seems to be as follows:
1. We give God glory only as we obey God and follow our duty towards men.
2. It is possible to be deceived by enjoying a type of pleasure in God while not actually obeying and
following our duty towards men.
3. Therefore, the most important aspect of the relationship and giving God glory is the will towards obedience and following our duty towards men.
As far as Kant's apparent logic goes, the "duty towards others" in reality does not seem to be a core necessity of giving glory to God. This phrase could be removed from the above premises and conclusion and it seems the argument might actually be stronger. It’s myopic to claim that obeying God and serving others are the only means of glorify God. Likewise, it is not only when we are enjoying God that we are bringing God glory. I find both Piper and Kant to be too exclusive, narrow and too simplified. It s a part of our human nature to seek out an over-simplified ideal to live by. John Piper wrote and promoted his popular book based on the idealization of desiring pleasure in God. In our pleasure-obsessed society, this is a disservice to the Church and to the "whole counsel" of God. The Apostle Paul wrote, "for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God." (Acts 20.27 ESV) - And this is a valid ideal.
Victoria Osteen was berated for basically promoting the same idealization of pleasure as Piper, but in a more simplistic and crude manner, and without the claim of "Systematic Theology" to appeal to. Either way, the focus on subjective pleasure alone as an ultimate ideal appears extra-biblical and misleading as an alleged sole true basis of- and motive for glorifying God. And the corollary opposite: idealizing duty, asceticism, altruism and self-sacrifice, as Kant proposed, is also inaccurate and misleading. I would offer that there is a vast and valid spectrum of considerations for glorifying God.
The Manifold Means and Motives for Glorifying God
1. There is only one Creator God – As Creator, God alone is worthy of utmost glory and eternal worship. This emphasizes that our rightful, infinite moral duty is to worship the one true living God, (see Romans 1.25). Glorifying God is offered as a logical result of who God is, in the first of the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me."
2. The highest form of glorifying God is derived not from feelings but from entering into a harmonious relationship with God through faith in Christ's atonement. This relationship involves spiritual re-birth. (see John 3.3-5). From there, bearing fruit through our relationship with Christ is a valid means of glorifying God: "This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." (John 15.8). And obedience to God is also a valid means of glorifying God: "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments." (John 15.15 NASB)
3. There are many valid motives for glorifying God: Because God is beautiful in perfection and the Lord of all, because of God's salvation and love, because His ways are just and true, because He is holy, because He is our deliverer, because God is marvelous and does marvelous things, because God is great, He deserves reverence and awe, God gives wisdom, knowledge and understanding, in addition to many other reasons.
4. Piper's teaching flies in the face of established exegesis and doctrine: "Evangelical theologians since the Reformation have consistently taught that God's infinite glory is a personal attribute of God, distinct and independent of the existence of any other beings, and therefore not subject to human feelings for its definition or degree." (Grenz, Stanley J. "Theology for the Community of God" P.21)
Both the Old Testament and New Testament offer aspects of both duty towards God and the enjoyment of God. The OT Psalms, for example, emphasize comfort and enjoyment in God, in contrast to the many descriptions of the Law. The New Testament Covenant emphasizes harmony with God through a close interpersonal and loving relationship.
We enjoy the New Covenant by knowing and following God in a dynamic manner, hearing that inner voice that gently guides us, all through the agency of the Holy Spirit, as the essence of that living covenant. The scriptural basis is found in Jeremiah 32. When we live in harmony with God in a love-relationship and acting in concert with God's will and God's character, we glorify God in the highest possible manner. God may lead us into times of pure enjoyment in his presence. And God may also lead us into times of taxing, prolonged work or painful, self-less sacrifice for others, as exemplified in Christ's work on the cross. If we idealize our own pleasure, we may eventually fail to have compassion for those in need, who truly need our help. If we idealize altruism and self-sacrifice, we may burn out by not spending enough time enjoying and meditating on the pleasure of knowing God.
The beauty of living out a balanced, New Testament ideal is that it will keep us from getting into a long-term rut. Living out our relationship with God promotes life as an open adventure of living in the present and following God based upon day-to-day guidance. This ideal compels us to spend more time with God seeking his face because we realize all the more how utterly dependent we are on God. And dependence on God is a beautiful paradox. When we are fully dependent on God we are also tapping into all that potential. This compels us to be open to taking on what seem to be serious risks in life that we would otherwise probably not be willing to take. Do you tend to side with the more narrowly defined views of John Piper, Victoria Osteen, or Immanuel Kant? Or do you see a broader spectrum of points wrapped up in the concept of glorifying God? Do you believe that too much focus on our pleasure smacks of idolatry? Your views and comments are welcome.
(Post updated on 01/26/17)
Five Heresies of Christian Hedonism
John Piper's Hypocrisy and Destructive Trump Narrative
How can we Most Glorify God in our Lives?