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Myth: To Reject Christian Hedonism Is To Reject Joy
Copyright © 2002 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth

All Or Nothing

What a shock I received recently when a brother in Christ wrote me an e-mail stating that he had given up on me. He erroneously concluded that joy was "an abomination" to me because I had rejected the doctrine of "Christian Hedonism". That was when I realized that converts to "Christian Hedonism" had created a new myth. It is the myth of "all or nothing" when it comes to joy.

Bedrock of Error

At the very foundation of this new myth is the term "hedonism". To be any type of hedonist requires that the aim of your life and the objective of all your actions is to pursue the desires that bring you pleasure. By definition, if you have set up "joy" as the aim of your life around which everything you do revolves, then you are a hedonist.

On the other hand, if "joy" is only one of many things that motivate you, then you are not a hedonist. Under normal circumstances, we Baptists used to call that "living a balanced life".

Assuming you have come to believe what Dr. John Piper has written about joy being the highest spiritual fruit, then living a life filled equally with all the fruits of the spirit, including joy, is the same thing as rejecting joy entirely. For the hedonist, there is no middle ground. Consider Dr. Piper’s own words where, in spite of the biblical evidence to the contrary, he calls out for all men to make the selfish pursuit of their own joy the "highest calling", the "chief end", the reason for man’s very creation, and the "aim of life".

"To that end this book aims to persuade you that ‘The chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying him forever’." (Piper, Desiring God, page 15)

"The radical implication is that pursuing pleasure in God is our highest calling." (Piper, page 21, The Dangerous Duty of Delight)

"Maximizing our joy in God is what we were created for." (Piper, page 16, Dangerous Duty)

"The aim of life is to maximize our joy." (Piper, page 19, Dangerous Duty)

"Unless a man be born again into a Christian Hedonist he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John Piper, Desiring God, page 55)

This is the bedrock foundation of hedonism—that all of life, every activity, even salvation, is dedicated to pursuing "joy". Therefore, to conduct an activity on the basis of any other motivation or emotion causes one to lose their title of hedonist. Even more horrible to contemplate, for the hedonist, is that if someone were to admit that not everything in life is motivated by joy, then that person would be rejecting the very primer of hedonism, the book Desiring God—Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. And if one rejects the book Desiring God, then the true hedonist must conclude that the one who rejects the book is also rejecting the very concept of joy.

In short, to be against hedonism is to be against joy, in their perspective.

But the reality is that Desiring God is not a book "about joy". It is about making joy the all-important "aim of life", the Christian’s "highest calling" above all else. Piper’s thesis statement admits that the book is a call for all men to become hedonists of joy, not a call for men to make joy simply an important element of living. Desiring God is not simply "about joy", to be more accurate, it is "about hedonism".

How Important is Joy?

Just how important is joy to the Christian? Can one reject the all-or-nothing approach of hedonism and still be living all-out for God? Can one not make "joy" their aim-of-life without leaving joy behind entirely? What is the biblical answer?

Without argument, the "highest calling" of mankind is to "love God". This is clearly and unambiguously taught in Mark 12 and in Matthew 22.

"’What commandment is the foremost of all?’

Jesus answered, ‘The foremost is,

‘Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

There is no other commandment greater than these.’"

(Mark 12:28b-31, bold emphasis added)

And what commands are in third place behind "love God" and "love your neighbor"? All of them—there are "no commandments greater than these".

All the biblical commandments to have joy are lesser commandments. Lesser in importance and lesser in priority to "love God", and lesser than "love your neighbor".

To pursue joy is not even important enough to have been included in the Ten Commandments. Moreover, in the New Testament, Paul lists three times his "priority list" of spiritual endeavors as "faith, hope, and love" and does not deem "joy" important enough to include in the top three (1Thes.5:8, 1 Thes.1:3, 1 Corinthians 13:13).

Does this lack of priority on "joy" mean that it is unimportant? Not at all.

Joy Takes Its Place, Not First or Second, But Still Important

Of the many fruits (out-workings) of being in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit, joy is high on the list.

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness" (Galatians 5:22)

As a fruit of the Spirit, it should be obvious that joy is a necessary attribute of the healthy Christian life. Therefore, pursuing joy, in combination with love, peace, faith, hope, and others, is what keeps the Christian balanced and motivated.

Indeed, joy is even commanded to be a part of the believer’s life in the Old Testament.

"But let all who take refuge in Thee be glad, let them ever sing for joy; and may You shelter them, that those who love Thy name may exult in Thee." (Psalm 5:11)

"Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones, and shout for joy all you who are upright in heart." (Psalm 32:11)

"Sing for joy in the Lord, o you righteous ones; praise is becoming to the upright." (Psalm 33:1)

What we have is a picture of the righteous ones of God, singing joyfully, shouting with joy, and praising God in a joyful manner. It should be obvious then that when we meet for worship and the song leader stands and initiates the songs, we should be singing for joy because of the great salvation God has granted to us.

Joy in Worship

Of course, a word of caution is needed. If your goal is to come to worship only to bask in the emotion of joy, you have missed the point of biblical corporate worship. Paul demands that every word spoken, and every song sung, and every prayer prayed, be done for the sake of verbal and intellectual edification of the saints. Corporate worship is all about verbal edification of the saints. All of 1 Corinthians 14 makes just that point.

"What is the outcome then brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification." (1 Corinthians 14:26).

"One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying." (1 Corinthians 14:4,5)

Worship services, then, are all about verbal edification. But let us also remember that in our singing, we can sing with joy. In our teaching, we can instruct with joy. In our praying, we can praise God with joy for all He has done. But edification of the saints is what makes worship authentic, not experiencing joy.

Spending Emotions Wisely

All emotions, including joy, are given to us by our Creator (Genesis 1:26). But what can we do with them, from a biblical point of view?

Almost every emotion that a man can experience was experienced by Jesus when He lived on Earth. And why not? Men are the created mortal images of the Eternal Father. God Himself experiences sundry emotions. Therefore, Jesus experienced sundry emotions.

Emotions are given by God to man to enable him to physically and mentally perform some activity. Emotions are powerful engines of biological motivation. What does that mean? Every emotion is triggered by an event outside the man, or, from a thought inside the man. Each triggered emotion prepares the body via complex gland networks to instantly undertake some form of physical or mental activity. All emotions have one biological purpose: to motivate and enable us to take some form of action. Each emotion enables different mental and physical abilities.

Anger causes us to surge with energy and to forget our fear. If this energy is properly channeled by a godly mind, it can be constructively used to purge a house of prayer from unbelieving money changers. The energy and strength (and the suppression of fear that accompanies the emotion of anger) can be used by principled men, as happened in one incident in the Vietnam War, to save unarmed innocent civilians from being massacred by unprincipled soldiers.

Fear, on the other hand, will cause your senses of hearing and eyesight to be greatly focused, along with providing your limbs with enormous amounts of available energy. The heightened senses can be used to locate the implied danger, and the energy that is suddenly available to your limbs can be used to run from the danger, or fight back against it. Once the danger is past, the biochemical reactions return to normal, but your limbs have been depleted of precious blood sugar, which is why one feels suddenly fatigued after being frightened.

Any emotion, anger, fear, joy, sorrow, can be misused, abused, wasted, or even just spent on our own lusts or pleasures. But that is not why God gave us bodies or emotions. He gave us bodies, not to spend on our own selfish pleasures, but to spend in the service of Himself and our neighbors (Romans 12:1-8).

This is where love enters the discussion. We are to Love God, this is our true "highest calling". This means we are to obey Him ("If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" John 14:15, John 14:21, Romans 13:8-10, 1John 5:3, 2 John 1:6).

As loving children, in obedience to Him, we should weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). Edify your neighbor (1Corinthians 10:23,24). Encourage your neighbor (Hebrews 3:13). Show pity and mercy to your neighbor (Jude 1:23). In short, God is telling us to spend our emotions in the service of others, or in the service of God.

Joy, sorrow, grief, and the other emotions motivate us to be doers. Doers of God’s word. Soaking up emotions for our internal pleasure, as if that were somehow an end in itself, is wasting what God has given us to use for the benefit of others. Spend your emotions wisely.


Psalm 37 tells us that if we cultivate faithfulness, do good, trust in the Lord, and delight in Him, He will give us the desires of our heart; and those desires are righteousness (v. 6). And perhaps this is the epitome of the balanced Christian life. Mix some delight and joy in with your "love for God", pursue faithfulness and run after doing good. The outcome will be righteousness. And righteousness is the peaceful fruit of obedience (Hebrews 12:11).

Joy is important. But joy is only one of the fruits of the Spirit, and it is not the most important fruit. Avoid the doctrinal error of putting your own pleasure first in your life. Reject hedonism, but keep the joy you have in God. And always pursue "loving God" as your highest calling, your aim of life, your foremost and greatest commandment.

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