January 20, 2021

The Spiral of Despair in Christian Hedonism: Steve Brown’s Take on John Piper

brown.jpgOne of my unmet goals on the internet has been to start a blog devoted to a critical discussion of the theology of John Piper. I love Piper and his work has a huge place in my journey, but I am ever more convinced that his “Christian Hedonism” would greatly benefit from rigorous assessment. There are great strengths, and some fairly serious problems, especially in the area of Christian experience.

So I was surprised to find Christian Hedonism critically assessed by Steve Brown of Key Life Network. Steve Brown has to be one of my favorite “reformed” teachers, if for no other reason than he has a great sense of humor and an unending appetite for the gospel of grace. His current on-line article at Key Life’s website won’t be there long, so I want to excerpt his assessment of the possibilities for the spiral of despair in John Piper’s theology of Christian Hedonism. I’ll excerpt from the mention of Piper to the end.

Now let’s talk about God.

John Piper, of course, has written a lot about “Christian Hedonism.” And, contrary to what it sounds like, he is not a heretic. In fact, what he says is quite orthodox and profound. He says, for instance, that being a Christian is desiring or delighting in God. Thus, playing off the well-known words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism–Q. What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever–Piper says that our chief end is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever, that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.

While I agree with that, it is a bit too religious for me. In fact, once I realized that I could glorify God by enjoying Him, I started really, really working on enjoying Him, expecting that, in the enjoyment, I would glorify Him. It didn’t work. The more I worked at it, the less I enjoyed God. In fact, by trying to enjoy God, I ended up desiring to…well…uh…go to a movie or buy an ice cream cone.

Then I started feeling pretty guilty about the movie, the ice cream and all. It became a spiral of guilt. I decided that I was a “worm” and, after all that Jesus had done for me, I ought to enjoy Him more. What kind of Christian was I anyway if I enjoyed a movie and an ice cream cone more than God?

I decided that I probably wasn’t even saved.

That was when I had an attack of sanity.

Have you ever decided to enjoy something by working at it?

For instance, I don’t like okra. I’ve never liked okra, I don’t like okra and I will never like okra. I’ve tried to enjoy it because I have some weird friends and family members who think okra is one of the major food groups and that everybody ought to enjoy it. On the contrary, I think okra is hairy and slimy and, even after one fries it, one can’t get out of one’s mind what it was before it was fried…hairy and slimy.

(Just as an aside, I’ve decided that the forbidden fruit tree in the Garden of Eden was an okra tree. In those days, snakes walked. Why shouldn’t plants be trees? God said, “Don’t eat that stuff. I never meant for you to eat it. It’s hairy and slimy.” Adam and Eve said, “We don’t care. We’re going to eat okra anyway.” And you know all the trouble that caused. Now you know: It started with okra.)

Enjoyment is a hard thing to program. I figured that maybe enjoying God was an acquired taste. So I stayed with it which led to more guilt…which led to more effort…which led to more guilt…which led to more effort…which…well, you get the picture.

So I went to a movie and here is the important and surprising thing: God went to the movie with me!

In fact, God was everywhere I was and wouldn’t let me alone. I tried to keep Him in “His place” at church but He pursued me…gently, kindly and graciously. God never demanded that I love Him or enjoy Him the way He loved me and, it had become apparent, enjoyed being with me. He was fond of me and you can’t hang around someone who likes and enjoys you without growing to like and enjoy him or her back.

Do you know the only time I can remember Jesus ever asking anyone if they loved Him? It is found in John 21. After breakfast, Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (vs. 15). Then, two other times, Jesus asked the same question. It was almost as if Jesus wanted to make sure of Peter’s heart…or, better yet, to have Peter sure of his own heart.

Please note three things that had happened before Jesus wanted Peter to understand about how love worked. First, Jesus chose Peter because Jesus liked Peter. Second, Jesus had been hanging out with Peter for three years. And third, Peter had messed up terribly and, each time, had been forgiven and loved. It was then that Peter realized how much he loved Jesus…and enjoyed Him. Later, Peter, after talking about the great grace of Christ said, “In this you rejoice!!!” (1 Peter 1:6, exclamation points mine). You can file that under enjoyment.

Let me give you a good quote and some good advice:

The quote: Martin Luther said, “A law driver insists with threats and penalties; a preacher of grace lures and incites with Divine goodness and compassion shown to us, for he wants no unwilling works and reluctant services; he wants joyful and delightful services of God.”

Now the good advice: Quit trying to do and be something you can’t do and obviously can’t be. That’s religion and it will kill you. In order to pull that off, you have to be dishonest with God and with everybody else. Trust me. I’ve been there, done that and bought the T-shirt. It just doesn’t work and it will make you so religious that nobody will be able to stand being around you.

Instead, go to a movie and have an ice cream cone. Invite Jesus to go with you. John the Apostle said this: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 3:16, 4:18-19).

That’s it. Just let God love you and the time will come when–almost without knowing it–you will find that you love Him back and, not only that, you enjoy hanging out with Him…big time.

Steve Brown is articulating, in his own way, an ever more frequent criticism of Piper- a criticism that has increased since the publication of “Future Grace”: The command to delight yourself in the Lord has the potential to become a new legalism, and has real possibilities for bringing us to despair. (And I would add, to fanaticism.)

Brown is making a devotional point, but the critical point is one that needs to be roundly discussed. Is Piper underselling depravity and imposing a kind of “hedonistic legalism” on Christian experience? Will it drive us to joy or despair to constantly seek to delight in the Lord?

I believe Piper would say that we can delight in the Lord in the movie and the ice cream, and such experiences are not antithetical to a God-centered delight in God. But I also feel Piper often leaves hearers/readers feeling that the movie was a waste of life and time; a waste that could have been better spent in prayer, Bible reading, or otherwise “delighting” in the Lord.

Brown is raising a criticism that I first heard years ago, when someone quoted Bonhoeffer telling someone that on the subject of sex, one ought not attempt to be more religious than God himself.

Your comments?


  1. I mean that if I can expect a mystical infusion of joy in the middle of repenting/confessing for the hundreth time, then someone should say so. The Charismatics say as much. If my primary sin is I can’t love/delight in God 24/7 with all my heart, then I will despair. If the Christian life is a command (law) then where is the Gospel?

    As I’ve said, this would be Luther’s critique. Where does the despair the law brings stop and the joy begin?

  2. I think it’s a matter of taste. If you would like to glorify God in all you do, go ahead. I do that too. But other people sometimes just CAN’T.

    Still have to think a little about it, though…

  3. Benjamin Nitu says

    Carl F.H. Henry once said: Faith without reason leads to skepticism and reason without faith does so also.
    the question at hand is: What does God think of JP’s Desiring God?
    the answer can be found in only one place: the Bible.
    Acts 17:11: 11 “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
    iMonk has every right to express his doubts about certain aspects of Christian Hedonsim… but my question is on what ground do we do that?
    i know that iMonk is on the side of Karl Barth, as a result there is almost no final authority on which to rest upon.
    John Piper on the other hand, considers God’s inspired word to be the ground of his theology.
    so go ahead …. raise your objections, but please do it based on something more than : I feel so … I think so …
    let’s do like the Bereans, examined the Scriptures every day to see if what JP said was true.

  4. I think the emphasis of the article was on “entertainment” and not delight. You can be entertained by a movie and you can be entertained by God. They arouse a certain feeling in you that draws your appetites out to them temporarily. I think Piper isn’t talking about changing your entertainment as much as he is talking about changing a much deeper part. You delight in entertainment, therefore you see a movie or you pray -vs- you delight in God therefore you do what that would drive you to do

    As Americans we think of pleasure merely in the form of titilation, not of deep abiding pleasures. We are so wired to think about immediate gratification that we get tickled by God, not consumed by Him.

    So I think the criticism of Piper’s work comes from differing definitions of delight. If we are going for a shot of adrenaline from either the Bible or a movie, the movie will usually win. If we are going for the satisfaction of something much deeper, I don’t know a movie that would suffice.

  5. If Piper’s “unrealistic high standards” makes you despair and therefore is to be rejected teaching, you’re really going to have a problem with Jesus (Love God with ALL your heart/soul/mind as a command still in effect, Be perfect, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees, anyone who does not hate his life/take up his cross/die to self cannot be my disciple), Paul (Aim for perfection, I beat my body and make it my slave, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, test yourselves, we will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ… therefore since we know what it is to fear the Lord we try to persuade men), the writer of Hebrews with his repeated warnings of fearing drifting away and like the Isrealites disobeying and therefore not ever entering our heavenly rest but instead throwing off EVERYTHING that so easily entangles us in running the race with perseverence and struggling against sin beyone the point of shedding our own blood because without a practical holiness noone will see the Lord, or James who says that a faith is shown by the superior Christian nature of our actions without which it is a worthless/dead/unjustifying faith and ends calling his Christian recipients adulteress people simply because they were not meeting James’ practical standards, or Peter’s repeated focus to the persecuted throughout his letters on “being holy” rather than belief/faith in the objective truths of justification and his admonitions like making every effort to ADD quality traits to their faith saying IF you possess these qualities you will be effective in your faith rather than nearsighted and blind and nullify in your mnind your cleansing from sin and IF you do these things you won’t fall, or John’s epistles over and over again making practical love and obedience and holiness the test for whether someone is truly a child of God or the devil despite what they claim or believe…

    Heck, the New Testament is full of a bunch of unrealistic legalists who expect that if we’re saved we should be acting like something other than ‘mere men’! Good thing we have so many evangelical teachers today to set our minds at ease and put our focus back in the right place.

  6. Having read and listened to Piper for some time now, I believe his whole “Desiring God” philosophy is more rooted in grace than legalism. Truth: Christians are to delight in God. Truth: Sometimes we don’t. Truth: Sometimes we need to fight for joy.

    I think what maybe convinced Piper to write so much about joy, though I’ve never heard him say this, is that Evangelical Christianity has polarized somewhat: on one side you have cold, dead orthodoxy, with no joy. On the other side there’s a total thirtst for experience, and when the experience doesn’t materialize, people are left joyless.

    Piper is just saying if we delight in God, the outflow will be one of sustaining joy.

  7. I can’t believe I’m posting a comment months later when probably only myself will read this. But then again is God not able to inspire me without the applause of men? I like Edwards and Piper and most all Calvinists precisely because they DO tend to drive people to the point of despair. That is the whole point! The more areas in our lives we start to approach despair in, the more potential for us to rely on God for his assistance. The just shall live by faith. As Piper alludes to, it is only in dissatisfaction that we seek to be satisfied. No one finds adequate fulfillment in God. That’s the journey God is worthy of. Life this side of heaven is sanctification, a process.

  8. Hi,

    I’m enjoying your discussion. Thank you. I am on a mission to find teammates for a team in Asia that seeks to ignite a churchplanting MOVEMENT. We need radicals…who are willing to die, even though we are not in a terribly sensitive area,(though it is difficult) but we want that kind of radical faith, because,
    we want to disciple in a way that believers will treasure Christ above all things. Interested?
    Contact me! We are a family of 5 who arrived on site 4 months ago and are in language learning. We are in a large urban center and the field is ripe for harvest!
    If your interest is sparked, email me.

  9. hello. I must admit that i did not read all of the comments (there quite a few) but a lot of the discussion seems silly to me (especially if you know the WHOLE of Piper’s teachings). I read about people who said that they dont like CH because it basically says your going to hell if you dont delight in God..well DUH!! what do you think heaven is?? Its delighting in God for eternity..if you dont want to do that then you arent going. Also, i think many have divorced CH from Calvinism (and Piper claims to be Calvinist because of CH) and this causes mis-understandings. Piper says “God commands of us what we cannot possibly do on our own. That is my definition of Calvinism” and i think that should be kept in mind. We CAN’T delight in God on our own power, thats why we must rely on Christ to do a miracle in our hearts every day so that we may see the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ”. Piper says its not easy and thats why he wrote “when i dont desire God” You need the calvinism because “it is God who works in you to will and to do His good pleasure”. you dont do it on your own, and therefore it cannot be legalism. The ability to find delight in God is a blood bought gift from God. That is the whole concept behind calvinism. We cant desire God without a miracle. God reveals to our hearts how amazingly satisfying he is, and we gain an appetite for something more wonderful than the world can offer.

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