Piper’s Obsession with Happiness

John Piper, founder of Desiring God ministry, is obsessed with happiness.  As a Christian Hedonist, he openly expresses his overwhelming longing to be happy.  He eagerly accepts the truism of Blaise Pascal: ‘All men seek happiness. This is without exception.’ Piper writes: ‘This statement so fit with my own deep longings, and all that I had ever seen in others, that I accepted it and have never found any reason to doubt it’  (DG, p19).

Having read CS Lewis’ sermon, ‘The Weight of Glory’, Piper was convinced that ‘it is not a bad thing to desire our own good… I had never in my whole life heard any Christian, let alone a Christian of Lewis’s stature, say that all of us not only seek (as Pascal said), but also ought to seek, our own happiness’ (DG, p20).

Piper’s longing for happiness

In a sermon, Twenty-Five Years of Desiring God (March 25, 2011), preached at Ligonier Ministries National Conference, Piper claimed that God has hard-wired human beings to seek after happiness and pleasure. He said: ‘I wanted to be happy. To this day I want to be happy. I can’t not want to be happy. I can no more not want to be happy than I cannot get hungry after eight or nine hours of not eating. It is not a choice. It is the way you are wired in the image of God. God made you to be a longing being, a yearning being, a craving being. Our hearts are desire factories, because God made them that way. You don’t have any choice in this. You cannot choose not to want to be happy. You cannot, which means there has to be a solution to your quest for joy being right, and God’s passion to be glorified being right. And it was the discovery of how those came together which was the emergence of Desiring God.’

In his attempt to make hedonism appear biblical, Piper conflates several words with joy, such as pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, contentment, gladness, because he says the Bible does not distinguish between them.  He says these words are all jumbled together in Scripture, but they all point to the same truth—the Bible is commanding us to be happy.  ‘I mean all of them in God. When I am using them positively I mean happiness in God, joy in God, pleasures in God, delight in God, satisfaction in God. And when I say it that way they are all gloriously right. They are right and to be pursued with all your might.’

Unresolvable Tension

In his sermon at Champion Forest Baptist Church (Nov. 2017), John Piper discusses what he calls Christian Hedonism, the Biblical concept that we should live our lives devoted to pleasure in God, summarised in the phrase: ‘God is most magnified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.’ Piper describes the spiritual struggle he had before he became a Christian Hedonist. He tells us that despite growing up in a Southern Baptist Church, in a happy, gospel-saturated home, when he went off to college, ‘there was a tension deep in my soul I could not resolve. I knew two things. I knew from the Bible and from my father that God intended me to live for his glory. My dad would say, “Whatever you do, son, ‘whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31).”  I knew that Johnny Piper wanted to be happy. I could no more not want to be happy than I could not hunger if I skipped two days of eating.’ (Quote from sermon)

What troubled Piper was an assumption that seemed to hang in the air ‘that if I did something good in order to be happy, the God-centered morality of it was compromised. All I could remember were the preachers who said, when they summoned me to live for God’s glory, things like, “Put your will on the altar and do God’s will.” In other words, there’s always tension between my desire to be happy and God’s desire to be glorified. One of them has to go.’

As a 22-year-old Wheaton college student Piper was troubled by what he saw as a conflict between his desire to be happy and God’s will.  He thought that to deny himself meant obliterating all hope of happiness.  Clearly, at this time in his life, as a young college student, he did not understand that obedience to God’s will brings joy and happiness to a believer. The truth of the great old hymn, ‘Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey’, had not penetrated his thinking.

The discovery of Christian Hedonism

Then in 1986, under the influence of CS Lewis, Piper discovered ‘that his desire for happiness and God’s desire to be glorified are one and the same’ and this discovery resolved the tension in his life as he ‘discovered’ the new doctrine of Christian Hedonism—a doctrine that had somehow eluded the Christian Church for two thousand years!

Do all men seek happiness?

But is Pascal’s statement, which has had such a large impact on Piper’s thinking, true?  Do all men seek happiness? Are all men, created in the image of God, hard-wired to seek happiness? To answer such a question, we must turn to Scripture—does the Bible teach that all men seek happiness?  The first point to make is that the Bible speaks about the spiritual condition of all men— ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.23).  However, as a rule the Bible does not lump all men together, for Scripture makes a clear spiritual distinction between two groups of people, namely, the godly and the ungodly. In Genesis 3.15 we learn of enmity between the Seed of the Woman (Christ), and the seed of the serpent (Satan). This theme runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.  All biblical history is about the struggle between the people of God, and the sons of disobedience who supress God’s truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1.18).

In Psalm 1 we read of the spiritual conflict between the godly and the ungodly. ‘Blessed is the [godly] man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly… but his delight is in the law of the Lord’ (v1-2). The godly man is blessed of God. He loves the law of God, and flourishes like a tree planted by the rivers of water. Whatever he does shall prosper (v4).  The ungodly man is like the chaff which the wind drives away; the way of the ungodly shall perish (v4-6).

In the New Testament there is a sharp distinction between true believers, referred to as the children of God, and unbelievers, referred to as the sons of disobedience, who are dead in their trespasses and sins, without God and without hope in this world. So do believers and unbelievers (all men) equally seek after happiness?

Our Lord, in the Sermon on the Mount, referred to the blessedness of those who share in the salvation of the kingdom of God.  ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God’ (Matthew 5.8).  Those who are truly Christ’s disciples, who have denied themselves and taken up their cross, daily, (Luke 9.23) are blessed of God; ‘all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose’ (Romans 8.28).  Even when they are persecuted for righteousness sake they are blessed by God, ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5.10).

Do true believers, who have turned toward God in repentance, and come to Christ in faith, and know the joy of sins forgiven, seek after happiness?  Of course not!  They have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, adopted into the family of God, and know God as their heavenly Father; their names are written in the Lamb’s book of life; they are risen with Christ, and they seek those things which are above, for ‘their life is hid with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3.1-4).  Believers are exhorted to ‘put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and holiness’ (Ephesians 4.24). The joy of serving the risen Christ is the greatest joy known to man this side of heaven.  True believers do not seek after worldly happiness, for they know the blessings of their heavenly Father.

The ungodly who are dead in their sins and live in spiritual darkness, who walk in the vanity of their darkened mind, serve the lusts of their own hearts (Romans 1.21-24). Controlled by the passions of the flesh, they enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season—they even take pleasure in the sins of others (Romans 1.32).

What is missing from Piper’s life?

Why then does Piper have such a deep longing for happiness?  What is it that is missing from his life?  What is striking about Piper’s ministry is that he seldom preaches the need for repentance unto life.

We must conclude that Piper’s obsession with happiness reveals a deep flaw in his understanding of the Christian faith.  His heretical doctrine of Christian Hedonism offers a counterfeit view of happiness that is deceiving many.