January 27, 2018

John Piper's False Doctrine of Utilitarian Happiness in Worship

Should our worship of God be mainly understood as self-seeking in order to experience pleasure?

Recently, Jesse Morales argued in defense of John Piper's doctrine of Christian Hedonism (his full argument is posted following this article in blue text). And Jesse is very much on target in proposing that the concept of Christian happiness needs to be fleshed out. This is perhaps more important now than any other time in history. It's a good idea to break down doctrinal ideas as much as possible for the sake of discerning truth from error as much as is helpful, and I'm thankful for Jesse's interest in clarifying the truth.

With all of the devoted followers of John Piper out there, it's a bit surprising how few are interested in discussing and defending his doctrine. The main reason that I published the following argument, as described in a previous post, was to pinpoint error and deny wiggle room for potential sophistry and to invite important discussion. This CHAI argument has yet to be successfully challenged:


1. According to the law of identity, "joy in God" is not God, and God is not "joy in God."

2. Seeking as the highest aim anything but God is idolatry.

3. Therefore, seeking joy in God as the highest aim is idolatry.

In reply to Jesse's response, he did not deny John Piper's opinion that the prime objective of the Christian life is basically seeking joy in God as the highest aim. This is a repeated central theme in Piper's material. For example, we see in Piper's summary article that I discussed previously this claim: “...we should pursue happiness, and pursue it with all our might.” There is a 2015 video post of Piper's titled, "It Is Right to Live for Maximum Pleasure". A 2017 post titled "Joy is Never Optional" states, "God commands all people, everywhere and in all times, to pursue their maximum pleasure." Piper explicitly requires that our worship of God is based on seeking joy: "Christian Hedonism does not put us above God when it makes the joy of worship its goal." (DG p 95)

In addressing the first premise of my Argument Against Christian Hedonism as Idolatry, Jesse summarizes his opinion that it is “misleading” and “questionable” to affirm that the person of God is not the same as “joy in God” because he believes that more emphasis should be placed on His will and His sovereignty:

“God cannot exist apart from His will, and “joy in God” is part of his will. So to state that “’joy in God’ is not God” is misleading.”

In response to this, I'd like to outline that God's sovereignty is only one of the many perfections of God that identify God's nature and, as Don Stewart urges, it's a mistake to try to focus mainly on one or two attributes of God in worship and in life:

"We Cannot Divide God Up
Although it is helpful to look at each of the individual attributes of God that Scripture has revealed, we cannot divide God up into a number of different parts. He is a unified being. We should not think of His attributes as separate parts of His being. God's entire being is holy, righteous, all-knowing, everywhere-present, etc."

Regarding God's joy, this aspect is never mentioned when God names Himself and defines Himself. Rather, we see agape self-giving love in 1 John 4:8 as the prime characteristic (the opposite of self-seeking eros) and we see in the Old Testament that God self-identifies mainly as “I Am” with qualities of divine altruism and a manifold benevolent nature: “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming,

"The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,” (Exodus 34:6 NIV)

Jesse then will attempt to justify the obsession with happiness by claiming that feelings are “more than just an end product” with the implication that justifications he offers will somehow make the ultimate utilitarian view of God acceptable:

“Piper, however, sees happiness as more than just an end product or resulting feelings.”

It's important to distinguish various aspects of Utilitarianism and not to try to dismiss it too quickly. One definition holds that the "the benefit of a majority" is the goal, while Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, described utility as the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action. If we include God's own eternal pleasure in the sum of all pleasure, then John Piper's philosophy applies to this definition of Utilitarianism because Piper defines the ultimate good as God seeking and obtaining His own maximum happiness.

In his book Desiring God, Piper claims that the "chief end" of God is to "enjoy Himself forever." (DG revised p41).

This view is incorrect because according to scripture, God does not exist for any ultimate "chief end" but God simply exists as the all-content and non-contingent unchanging "I Am" of perfect self-giving goodness. As designed and created beings, we have a telos, a purpose, but God does not. And if we follow the explicit and narrow objective of Christian Hedonism to seek our own happiness, then we will be living a life of idolatry. When you let all of this sink in, you will hopefully realize why Piper's editing of the Westminster Shorter Catechism was truly an error. We don't actually glorify God "by" seeking and experiencing our personal happiness above all. Rather, enjoying God is one of many aspects by which we can glorify God.

Jesse adds to Piper's utilitarian mission towards the chief end of happiness with a layer of supposed pragmatic necessity:

“To him it’s an emotion WITH A FUNCTION. That’s why Piper defends that they are not making a god out of pleasure but rather “we all make a god out of what we take most pleasure in”. God designed humans with a need for “happiness”, which is a desire for fulfillment, or satisfaction, or pleasure. We are not complete self-satisfying beings, only God is.”

The supposed basis of our obsession with self-interest is that "We are not complete self-satisfying beings, only God is.” First, it does not logically follow from 'We are not fully complete' to 'Our chief end in life is to seek our own personal happiness in God.' Second, scripture actually declares that we are actually complete in Christ in our new nature and in being joined to Christ: "And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power" (Colossians 2:10 KJV).

Paul Helm offers a number of criticisms against Piper's utilitarian approach towards God. With its focus on 'a morality of pleasure' being supposedly necessary and yet unmeasurable, "Christian hedonism falls at the first fence, along with its non-Christian cousins." Helm implies that any such moral measuring is essentially not biblical: "Hedonism of whatever kind implies a calculus."

As support Jesse offers the following well-known Piperism: “We all make a god out of what we take most pleasure in.” The full related quote by Piper hints at the rationale behind the quote:

John Piper's Rationale for Objectifying God Based on Idolatry

“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.”

An explanation of Piper's argument for objectification and idolatry:

If we all have a human tendency to objectify things that are not God and worship them as idols for the sake of our own personal happiness, then it is perfectly valid for us to redirect this tendency towards God and objectify God for the sake of our own personal happiness.

Not only is the logic of Piper's rationale flawed, but the advice is directly opposed to prime commands to love the whole person of God with agape love and not to commit idolatry.

A careful reader of his work will notice that Piper takes Psalm 37:4 as our supposed greatest command and then rejects what Jesus plainly described as the greatest command, to love God with self-giving agape love with all of our being (Luke 10:27). In other writings, John Piper expresses a very high view of God's erotic love and a low view of agape love to the point wherein he offers the following summary as he discusses a book by Lewis Smedes:

“I want to argue that some of Smedes' own insights lead to the conclusion that agapic love as he defines it does not and should not exist in humans and that all our loves are erotic.”

To point out all of the problems with Piper's exaltation of eros would be too elaborate for this post. But I would offer this:

If the rationale behind your doctrine compels you to directly oppose God's prime commands, then your rationale is flawed. No amount of specious reasoning is going to alter the fact that God's greatest command is to love Him as a complete person (not as a giver of a feeling) with self-giving agape love. And no amount of added points are going to justify a doctrine based on idolatry.

Jesse offers a scripture in order to try to validate the objectification of God for pleasure:

“For whatever we get happiness from that becomes an object of love. It is similar to Jesus’ statement, “for where your treasure is there is your heart also” (Matthew 6:21).”

Jesse here is applying the same type of rationale that Piper uses in his Argument for Objectifying God Based on Idolatry, however, the context of Matthew 6:21 shows that Jesus was not referring to seeking treasures in heaven over and above loving God with agape love as our main objective and main command from Christ, as described in Luke 10:27. I would challenge any Piper follower, and John Piper himself, to present one verse in scripture that actually advises us to objectify the person of God for the sake of pleasure. This is the context of Jesse's reference:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”(Matthew 6:21 NIV)

This brings up another point. John Piper has a tendency to twist the meaning of scripture that does not match his philosophy. Craig W. Booth outlines many examples of Piper's scripture twisting and the censorship of opposing ideas out of scripture references. In a different post I outline how Piper completely distorts Jesus' parable of the treasure hidden in the field: “Piper essentially plays a shell game with Jesus' parable such that the treasure of the kingdom of God, and all that this means, is replaced with the thrill of finding the treasure as being the treasure itself.” (Matthew 6 NIV)

The last line of reasoning that Jesse offers is to assert that the human desire to seek happiness above all is the default pattern of human behavior that we cannot avoid or change:

“Piper does not see men as autonomous or neutral, he believes man always acts according to his nature to seek happiness.”

This is followed by the claim that scripture backs up the view that we are controlled by our humanistic nature to seek happiness above all:

“Scripture clearly agrees with this because it is full of appeals to our desire for happiness. God keeps giving promises of rewards, of crowns, of joy, of pleasure, etcetera.”

While scripture does indeed compel us to celebrate the gift of happiness and admonishes us to rejoice in God with a healthy sense of joy, there is not one single scripture in the Bible that tells us to seek our own happiness in God above all other desires and above the person of God Himself.

Based on how God self-identifies in scripture, the true essence and nature of God are based on agape self-love and benevolent goodness in holiness. And it is with this type of agape love that we are actually commanded to love the person of God above all things. God does not contradict Himself by admonishing us to disobey prime commands.

Are we commanded to love and worship all that God is with all that we are? Or are we commanded to seek our joy in God above all? We cannot live as biblical Christians and Christian Hedonists at the same time.

In support for the view that the prime commandments actually hold as true and valid, we are admonished in the New Testament to consider ourselves as crucified together with Christ and as new creations in Christ such that we should not live as slaves to any passion or desire that would cause us to sin or commit idolatry.

Galatians 2:20 states that we as Christians have been crucified together with Christ and it is no longer we that live but Christ lives that lives in us by faith. If this is true, then it removes one of the main excuses John Piper offers as a basis for his Christian Hedonism. Because of our new nature in Christ, we are no longer slaves to humanistic self-interest in worship.

Read Romans 6-8 for a more complete understanding of the crucified life and the true power of life in Christ. A closer look at the paradox of happiness and the teachings of Jesus Christ will help to flesh out the errors of Christian Hedonism. Also, the book “They Found the Secret” is a good read for anyone interested in understanding the power we have as believers as we live the “exchanged life” that Hudson Taylor described:

"I am no longer anxious about anything, as I realise this; for He, I know, is able to carry out His will, and His will is mine. It makes no matter where He places me, or how. That is rather for Him to consider than for me; for in the easiest positions He must give me His grace, and in the most difficult His grace is sufficient."

While John Piper urges that we are compelled to seek our own happiness above all based on our supposed fixed human nature, the Apostle Paul urged that it is not only possible but necessary for us to reject the imprint of this world and through the empowering of the Holy Spirit to surrender all of ourselves and our lives to God's complete authority and guidance. True worship is essentially based on surrendering our all and giving our all to God as an offering. This is what Paul defines as “true and proper worship” and strongly admonishes for all of us:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2 NIV)

A full love for God entails a full surrender to God in the full truth of God through a full relationship with God for the full glory of God.

One of the main problems with John Piper's teaching technique is his penchant for presenting false dichotomies. For example, in his book Desiring God he presents a false dichotomy between worship based on cold duty or seeking joy in worship:

"There it is! The feast of Christian Hedonism. How shall we honor God in worship? By saying, “It's my duty”? Or by saying, “It's my joy”?” (DG P. 94)
The biblical foundation for loving and worshiping God in a healthy and holistic sense is neither mainly a legalistic and cold sense of duty nor a self-interested sense self-gratification. Rather, it is mainly a sense of benevolent agape love that desires to please God as we are filled with God's Spirit of love. This supernatural love that has been poured out into all born-again Christians was described by Paul and is expressed through our thoughts, words, and actions:

"And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us." (Romans 5:5 NIV)

The fact that we enjoy a love relationship with God does not deny the fact that our highest obligation is towards God and that a deep sense of fidelity towards God is not only allowable but according to the whole of scripture is necessary:

"Whatever you do, work at it wholeheartedly as though you were doing it for the Lord and not merely for people." (Colossians 3:23 ISV)

John Piper conflates giving praise with receiving pleasure in his book Desiring God:

“This fact—that praise means consummate pleasure and that the highest end of man is to drink deeply of this pleasure—was perhaps the most liberating discovery I ever made.”[DG p.23]

Worship in Spirit and in Truth is in a sense altruistic because it is not mainly based on self-seeking and obtaining something from God. The Apostle Paul outlined this in Romans 12:1-2, Philippians 2:17 and 2 Timothy 4:6. In these verses, Paul summarizes how our reasonable worship of God is based on an absolute and unconditional self-surrender and self-giving to God. And this is affirmed again as he is about to die as a martyr. He offers his very life in an act of worship as a libation, a drink offering poured out to God.

It's also important to remember that the goodness and rightness of our worship are only possible because it is ultimately based on God working in us and through us. Walter Cantrell summarized an important related point:

"What makes us special is that God has chosen to deposit His Infinite Glory into our clay vessels, and whatever we do for Him is a reflection of His greatness and not our own."

The most common descriptions of praise and worship in scripture outline the idea of giving something to God, such as our unconditional surrender (Romans 12:1-2), and not mainly receiving something from God. In essence, true worship is more self-giving than self-gratifying. The true and noble worship of God knows no end. Even the elders described in heaven that were given crowns of reward cast these very same crowns as an offering back to their Lord (Revelation 4:10-11).

Because God does not technically need anything it does not logically follow that we should not give of ourselves to God in worship. The giving of ourselves in worship is not contingent upon God's need but is a reflection of God's infinite worth. Worship has a paradoxical nature in that it is both a humble and noble act at the same time:

"My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king; my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer." (Psalm 45.1 NIV)

romaJohn Piper's requirement for self-seeking erotic love in worship is directly opposed to God's main appeal for self-giving agape love in worship that is outlined clearly in many verses:

“Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.” (Hebrews 13:15 NASB)
These points just touch the surface of what a true and biblical view of what loving and worshiping God entails, but they highlight important central truths that must be reckoned with in order to avoid the types of heresies that are prevalent today. Anyone interested in trying to defend Piper's doctrine in an interactive online debate is welcome to post a response in the comment section. Another argument opposing Piper's doctrine is titled Argument Against Christain Hedonism from Authority.

Note: References to Desiring God are from the Revised Version, 2011

Tags: true worship versus false worship, the concept of Christian happiness in worship, John Piper's false doctrine, What is wrong with Piper's Christian Hedonism? John Piper utilitarian ethics, Piper's Utilitarianism, Christian Hedonism criticism critique,

Following is Jesse Morales' Full Argument:


I appreciate the heart of this article by Rick Warden. It aims to counter a perceived error and protect those who might otherwise fall into it. Having grown up as traditional (non Christian Hedonist) Christian prior to learning and appreciating CH I understand where Warden is coming from since I thought the same way. But I have since come to appreciate CH so I believe I can offer some thoughts on it.


First of all I’d like to comment on the 3-point syllogism offered against Christian Hedonism at the outset. Basically I find that the first premise ("joy in God" is not God) is actually a false premise. God cannot exist apart from His will, and “joy in God” is part of his will. So to state that “’joy in God’ is not God” is misleading and therefore constitutes a false premise, making the argument (though logically valid) questionable.


Moving on to the heart of the discussion. What I see as the biggest issue differentiating Warden’s point of view and Piper’s is in the nature of happiness. Warden clearly believe that happiness is to be seen as “an effect”, a benefit, a by-product, merely as an emotion, as in “to feel a feeling”.

Viewed as an end product like that, it makes sense that Warden would see pursuing happiness as utilitarian, as using God as means to an end, and ultimately result in idolatry, hence leading to his view that CH is a heresy. So I am finding no fault with his conclusion, however in my opinion, his is an incomplete view of happiness when it is seen only as an emotion to be felt.

Piper, however, sees happiness as more than just an end product or resulting feelings. To him it’s an emotion WITH A FUNCTION. That’s why Piper defends that they are not making a god out of pleasure but rather “we all make a god out of what we take most pleasure in”. God designed humans with a need for “happiness”, which is a desire for fulfillment, or satisfaction, or pleasure. We are not complete self-satisfying beings, only God is.

We are meant to have an object of happiness or a source of joy. It used to be God until Adam and Eve fell and mankind since becoming “like God” made all other things their source of happiness rather than God. That function to pursue happiness is still there and it is the thing that produces sin in us because we seek for it apart from God.

Christian Hedonism comes in and corrects that. It says that scriptures indicate that humans seek happiness by nature, and where we seek happiness from is an INDICATOR of what we love or treasure or value or worship or, in other words, what we make a god out of. For whatever we get happiness from that becomes an object of love. It is similar to Jesus’ statement, “for where your treasure is there is your heart also” (Mat 6:21). So if you pursue happiness in money then you have treasured money and you have made money your god.

In his incomplete view of happiness, Warden sees men’s pursuit of happiness as only a “tendency” of humans, but Piper sees it as a function of humans, as God’s design in human beings. Piper does not see men as autonomous or neutral, he believes man always acts according to his nature to seek happiness.

Scripture clearly agrees with this because it is full of appeals to our desire for happiness. God keeps giving promises of rewards, of crowns, of joy, of pleasure, etcetera. God created us to be happiness seekers, it therefore makes sense that he appeals to that function and He promises to be the ultimate fulfillment of it as it was meant to be before the fall.

Christian hedonism then summarizes into humans, by seeking happiness in God, fulfill their God given function in doing so. Secondly, man rightly makes God as his God when he focuses that pursuit towards Him. It is the pursuit or the seeking of happiness in God that makes God a God to someone. So saving faith is not just the belief of a truth (mental assent) but the seeing of happiness in the truth and pursuing it (emotional trust).

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