Piper’s Commandment

At the centre of Piper’s philosophy of Christian Hedonism is a new commandment, ‘Delight yourself in the Lord’, taken from Psalm 37.4.  This verse is so critical to Piper’s message of hedonism that he refers to it ten times in his famous book, Desiring God (1986)—more than he refers to any other verse in the Bible. Indeed, the first two lines of Desiring God emphasise the crucial importance of Psalm 37.4 to Piper’s Christian Hedonism.  He writes:

‘This is a serious book about being happy in God. It’s about happiness because that is what our Creator commands: “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37.4).’

Piper goes on to assert that disobedience to this commandment is a serious offence, for God ‘threatens terrible things if we will not be happy’.[1]

The purpose of this short article is to show how Piper is misusing Scripture to create a new commandment for the Church.

Piper explains that when he came to understand ‘that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him’[2], he turned to the Psalms ‘and found the language of Hedonism everywhere. The quest for pleasure was not even optional, but commanded’[3] In Desiring God, Psalm 37.4 is quoted ten times, nine times using only the first five words of the verse, and never with an ellipsis (…).  In other words, Piper repeats his biblical slogan, ‘delight yourself in the Lord’, which he claims is a commandment of God, nine times.

In dealing with some of the objections to Christian Hedonism, Piper writes:

‘I say that God commands that we find joy in loving God: “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37.4).’ He also says: ‘I find in the Bible a divine command to be a pleasure-seeker… I am a Christian Hedonist not for any philosophical or theoretical reason, but because God commands it…’[4] In a chapter on worship, he writes: ‘The real duty of worship is not the outward duty to say or do the liturgy. It is the inward duty, the command: “Delight yourself in the Lord”! (Psalm 37.4).’[5]

Speaking on the subject of Christian Hedonism at the 1997 Passion Conference in Atlanta, Piper commented on Psalm 37.4:

‘This is not a suggestion, this is a commandment. If you believe “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is something you should obey, then you should also obey “Delight yourself in the Lord”.’

By equating his quote from Psalm 37.4, ‘Delight yourself in the Lord’, with the Seventh Commandment, Piper is suggesting that his ‘delight commandment’ has the same moral authority as God’s Ten Commandments. In effect, Piper has made his ‘Delight yourself in the Lord’ the 11th Commandment.

Piper’s new ‘delight commandment’ stands at the centre of Christian Hedonism.  Here is verse 4 of Psalm 37 in its context, using Piper’s preferred English Standard Version:

1 Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers!

2 For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.

3 Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.

4 Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires [request] of your heart.

5 Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.

6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.

But is Piper right to insist that verse 4 is a commandment of God? Indeed, we must deal with the obvious question: Is Piper rightly dividing the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2.15), or is he misusing Scripture to promote his own agenda?

Creating a Slogan

The first thing to notice is that Piper’s usual practice in Desiring God is to quote only part of verse 4, and that he has done so in nine out of ten cases, and always without using an ellipsis to show that part of the verse has been omitted. To take a short phrase out of a verse, effectively creating a slogan to prove a theological point, is a dangerous practice and not the correct way to handle Scripture. The apostle Peter warns of those who seek to distort the Scriptures, twisting them to teach something vastly different from the intended meaning of the Bible (2 Peter 2.3; 3.16).

Ignoring the Context

The second thing to note is that Piper has taken verse 4 out of context, so we have no idea how it fits into the overall message of the Psalm. Taken out of context, the Scriptures can be twisted to say just about anything.  Seeking the biblical author’s intended meaning demands interpreting Bible verses in context.  By extracting verse 4 from its context, Piper is creating the impression that the verse is a commandment of God about being happy. He has already told us:

‘This is a serious book about being happy in God. It’s about happiness because that is what our Creator commands: “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37.4).’

While Piper’s slogan makes Christian Hedonism seem to be biblical, it is an obvious misuse of Scripture.

The Message of Psalm 37

The central message of Psalm 37, written by King David, is to encourage believers not to distress themselves (‘fret’) over the apparent wellbeing and prosperity of evildoers, but to place their trust in the Lord.  Matthew Henry comments: ‘In singing this psalm we must teach and admonish one another rightly to understand the providence of God and to accommodate ourselves to it, at all times carefully to do our duty and then patiently to leave the event with God and to believe that, how soever black things may look for the present, it shall be “well with those that fear God, that fear before him”.’[6]

The Psalmist is exhorting the believer to trust in the grace and providence of God.  David gives several exhortations, only one of which is to ‘delight’ in the Lord. He also tells us to ‘trust’, ‘commit’, ‘wait’—so to ‘delight’ is just one exhortation among several others. The apparent prosperity of the evildoer will soon fade like the grass. But the believer is to trust in the faithfulness and goodness of God’s promises; his delight and joy is in the Lord, who gives to the faithful believer the spiritual desire (request) of his heart to bring forth his righteousness as the light and his justice as the noonday. Therefore the encouragement in verse 7: ‘Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!’

The Flawed Foundation of Christian Hedonism

Piper simply ignores the context and does not handle the Word of God correctly, but manipulates it to support his hedonistic agenda.  The message of Scripture is that the path to true self-fulfillment (spiritual joy) does not lie in the preoccupation with self but in selfless preoccupation with God. A true follower of Christ denies himself and takes up his cross daily. But Piper is not saying that.

He says: ‘it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him.’ And: ‘I find in the Bible a divine command to be a pleasure-seeker…’

The problem with that way of thinking is found in the book of Ezekiel. The word of the Lord to the prophet reveals that the Israelites were preoccupied with the joy they received from their pride in the temple. God said to Ezekiel when He was about to take the life of Ezekiel’s wife as an object lesson to show the rebellious nation their sin, ‘As for you, son of man, surely on the day when I take from them their stronghold, their joy and glory, the delight of their eyes and their soul’s desire, and also their sons and daughters, on that day a fugitive will come and report to you the news’ (Ezekiel 24:25-26).

This verse has all the parts of Piper’s philosophy built in; God completely rejected the people delighting in Him with the selfish preoccupation Piper claims God commanded. The people were selfishly preoccupied with their pride in the city of David which God had given them (7:14-22). God even said that the silver and the gold of the temple was the stumbling block for the Jews as they delighted in His ornament He gave the nation as a costly gift. God demonstrated His love to the nation by blessing them with the Temple, but the nation refused to let go of their selfish pride and delight in the gift by turning their attention to God.

Piper’s understanding of Psalm 37.4 has nothing to do with self-denial. He understands the verse to mean a preoccupation with striving to be fulfilled through selfish pleasure sublimated toward God. In other words, Piper does not want the sinner to deny the selfish, fleshly pursuit of pleasure that is sourced in his fallen nature.  Rather, he wants the selfish sinner to merely become preoccupied with the pursuit of self-centered joy, and using God to get it.

We must conclude that Piper’s ‘delight commandment’ is not a commandment of God.  As a trained theologian, he has failed to divide the Word of Truth rightly, and shamefully misused Scripture to create a commandment of his own choosing.  This is a serious offence against God’s holy Word.  Piper’s false ‘delight commandment’ is vital to his hedonistic philosophy, and so the entire edifice of Christian Hedonism has been established on a flawed foundation and should therefore be rejected as little more than a figment of Piper’s imagination.

Pastor CW Booth of The Faithful Word.org, in an article entitled, ‘Delight Yourself In the Lord: Command or Promise? – or –  Taking Your Stand on Context’, provides a carefully argued, devastating crique of Piper’s use of Psalm 37.4.  Booth shows how Piper takes five words ‘Delight yourself in the Lord’, from one verse of  Psalm 37 and completely change its meaning and create a command of God.  This article is essential reading for those who are seeking to understand Piper’s Christian Hedonism.

To read Booth’s article click here

[1] John Piper, Desiring God, Multinomah,2011 edition, P9

[2] Ibid, p18

[3] Ibid, p23

[4] Ibid, pp24-25

[5] Ibid, p94

[6] Matthew Henry Commentary, Psalm 37, https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/psalms/37.html