Christian Hedonism for Children
In an episode of “Ask Pastor John”, John Piper is asked by a French pastor:
“How can I best communicate Christian Hedonism to my children during our family worship? Their ages are 5 to 12. What should be my aims and goals? Any tips for a dad like me?”
In his response, entitled ‘How Do I Teach Christian Hedonism to My Kids?’ (19 September 2018), Piper says he loves the question, and then he makes it clear that it’s not necessary to use the term ‘hedonism’ when teaching children.
Perhaps even children can see that Piper’s phrase ‘Christian Hedonism’ is self-contradictory. Christians are those who follow Christ and deny themselves, whereas hedonists are those who follow pleasure and indulge themselves; these two belief systems are mutually exclusive. And yet Piper uses the term ‘hedonism’ to describe new his brand of Christianity?
In responding to the question, Piper says parents need to do two things—clarify and exemplify. When it comes to clarifying, he has three suggestions.
Piper’s three suggestions
‘First, show that the Bible commands rejoicing. For example, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4.4). Now the children see they are not only permitted to be happy; it is required that they be happy “in the Lord.” Of course, that will involve a lot of conversation with the children about how to pursue this joy, or this happiness, especially if they don’t feel it… You can help little children understand the difference between being happy that they have a mommy and being happy that mommy gets them some breakfast. “Which would you rather have: Mommy or breakfast?” you can ask…’
Here Piper is emphasising an essential component of his hedonism, namely, that God commands His people to be happy, and he wants parents to teach this to their children. In his sermon, Enjoying God, preached in Dundonald Church, London (3 June 2018), Piper asserted that ‘the central command in the Bible is be happy.’ But this is a false assertion and contrary to the teaching of our Lord who taught that we should love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind. This, Jesus said, ‘is the first and great commandment’ (Matthew 22.37). Piper assertion that ‘children are not only permitted to be happy; it is required that they be happy in the Lord’ is entirely without biblical warrant. He is wrong to say that the exhortation to ‘rejoice in the Lord’, is a command to be happy. Joy and happiness are not the same thing.
Piper again: ‘Second, show the kids what it means to become a real Christian by going to Matthew 13.44: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Now, children can grasp why this man was really, really happy to sell everything. They’ll get this. If you ask them, “Why was he happy to sell his toys — all his toys?” They’re going to say, “Well because the treasure was worth more than the toys.” That’s what they’re going to say, which is right…’
‘Third, tell them my rose story, but rewrite it for kids… this is a story you can tell your children to clarify the very essence of Christian Hedonism, which is that God is most glorified in you when you’re most satisfied in him… Because when Tim [the 12-year-oid elder brother] finds his happiness in spending time with Eric [the 8-year-old younger brother], Tim honors Eric. He treats Eric like he’s really something. Eric intuitively feels this. He feels honored. He feels loved. He feels cared for. And he feels enjoyed…
‘Then you tell your children that this is a parable. It’s a story about how we should relate to God. When we enjoy God, or when we want to spend time with God, God is honored. So our being happy in God is what makes God look great. Making God look great is what the Bible says we’re supposed to do: “Glorify God in everything” (see 1 Corinthians 10.31). We have to pursue happiness in God if we’re going to make God look amazing. That’s the way I would try to clarify Christian Hedonism for the children.’
Here Piper is teaching that the pursuit of happiness makes the ‘god’ of Christian Hedonism look great. But the holy God of Scripture is glorified by the holiness and righteousness of His people. Without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12.14), and the sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre over the Kingdom of God (Hebrews 1.8).
The teaching of Scripture
We have heard Piper’s spiritual guidance for parents on how they should teach their children. He places little importance on what the Bible has to say on the subject. He entirely avoids the teaching of the apostle Paul, who quotes the Fifth Commandmant. ‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6.1-4, KJV). And, ‘Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord’ (Colossians 3.20). We note that God is pleased with children who are obedient in everything.
Central to biblical teaching is God’s Commandment that children should obey their parents—this message flows through the whole Bible. The God of Scripture demands obedience from his people. God’s testing of the patriarch Abraham is the outstanding biblical example. God promised Abraham, ‘and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice’ (Genesis 22.18).
As a committed antinomian Piper avoids mentioning the Ten Commandments of God. But Scripture is clear that children should be taught the Commandments of God. ‘And these words [Ten Commandments], which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children…’ (Deuteronomy 6.6-7).
The psalmist reinforces this teaching. ‘Give ear, O my people, to my law… For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children. That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments’ (Psalm 78. 1, 5-7). The biblical message is that children, even from an early age, need to be taught to fear God, to love Him and to obey His Commandments.
Piper entirely ignores the wisdom of Proverbs, which instructs father and mother to teach their child the ways of God. ‘My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother’ (Proverbs 1.8). Here is divine wisdom: ‘My son, if thou wilt receive my words and hide my commandments with thee… Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God (Proverbs 2.1,5). And, ‘My son, despise not the chastening [discipline]of the Lord; neither be weary of his correction: for whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth’ (Proverbs 3.11-12). Therefore, parents are instructed: ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it’ (Proverbs 22.6).
Exemplifying Christian Hedonism
Piper suggests two things to exemplify Christian Hedonism. ‘The first is that our children need to see us enjoying God: enjoying him in worship, enjoying him in devotions, enjoying him in ordinary tasks of life… The second thing I would say might not be as obvious. We should enjoy our children — not just enjoy God, but enjoy our children. We have made the case with our little story that a person is honored when they are enjoyed. We want to honor our children. The Bible says, “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12.10).
Piper quotes a part of a verse from Romans to support his point that parents should honour their children. But this verse is taken completely out of context; Roman 12.10 is not about parents honouring their children. Indeed, Piper’s assertion that parents should honour their children is the opposite of what the Bible teaches—he has turned the Fifth Commandment on its head. ‘Honour thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee…’ (Deuteronomy 5.16). Nowhere in Scripture are parents told to honour their children, but Piper has twisted the Commandments of God to suit his heretical dogma of hedonism. Obedience to the Fifth Commandment is essential for the wellbeing of the family, for the stability of society, and the moral instruction of children.
An evaluation of Piper’s message reveals much about what he really, really stands for. A word count of his talk shows that the words enjoy/enjoyment are used 24 times, 17 in the text and 7 in cut-outs for emphasis; the word happy is mentioned 10 times. The word discipline is not once mentioned, and neither are the words obey/obedience mentioned. At the heart of biblical teaching is that children are to be taught to obey God’s commandments, and to obey the instruction of their parents. Obedience is essential for a godly life. Even the Lord Jesus, in his humanity, learned obedience through suffering; He became ‘obedient to death—even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2.8). He endured the ultimate test of obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross of Calvary. The Lord Jesus was made perfect through suffering. His perfect obedience ‘became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him’ (Hebrews 5.9).
The discipline of God
The Bible instructs parents to discipline their children, as they bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. As God disciplines believers, whom He loves, (Hebrews 12.6), in the same way parents are to discipline their children, whom they love. God’s discipline is a sign of his love and is for our good. We must conclude that Piper’s guidance for parents, which does not mention obedience, is unbiblical. Parents must be warned that Piper’s teaching is dangerous, for it presents a God who is indifferent to whether or not His people obey His commandments. It must, therefore, be avoided at all costs. Parents have a God-given responsibility to protect their children from the heresy of Christian Hedonism.