Desiring God and The Pleasures of God are two quite excellent books that come from the mind and heart of John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. I am somewhat unfamiliar with Piper’s wider ministry and so I am not in a position to comment on that, but regarding these two books there is much commendable to be said.
Piper takes a different approach to God, and our relationship with Him, than does anyone that I have ever read. While Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy, Packer’s Knowing God, and Pink’s The Attributes of God are must reads, Piper’s works add a new dimension: what he calls “Christian hedonism.”
What Piper means by Christian hedonism is that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” He opens Desiring God with a great thesis statement that controls the rest of the volume: “This is a serious book about being happy in God.” Then for over 300 pages Piper attempts in every way to convince us that God wants us to be pleased, satisfied, and deliriously happy with Himself. I believe he succeeds well in his goal. Along the way he tackles many tough questions that might seem to undermine his thesis, using solid thought, theology and Scripture.
The Pleasures of God heads in a slightly different direction. Here Piper attempts to show that, “We will be most satisfied in God when we know why God Himself is most satisfied in God” (p.9).
Both books are filled with wonderful footnotes in which Piper often deals with some of the meatier issues for those who are concerned.
The reader should be aware that Piper takes a Reformed, five-point Calvinist position (although some of the radical five-pointers would take him to task over his view that God loves the world). He is also a supporter of Covenant Theology and as such, in my opinion, takes some Old Testament passages out of context. Furthermore, he is bashful about clearly presenting his views on such issues as Lordship salvation. You may or may not agree with some of his assertions, and obviously they will affect his conclusions, but either way, much can be gained by a study of these works. Review by Gary E. Gilley
Although my review of Desiring God is mostly favorable, there are a number of areas of concern. I have therefore decided to include an additional, more detailed review by my friend Dr. J. D. Watson.
A Review of Desiring God
(by John Piper)
John Piper’s book, Desiring God, originally published in 1986 and now updated in a 2003 edition, is being applauded by many evangelicals: Jerry Bridges, Larry Crabb, Os Guiness, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, and J.I. Packer. Piper lays his foundation by changing the answer to the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (which he calls the “old tradition,” p. 18) to read, “The chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying Him forever” (p. 19). In other words, we glorify God the most when we are satisfied in Him. Piper dubs this with the term “Christian Hedonism,” which in his view is a call to abandon the short-term, low-yield pleasures of the world for the magnificent joys of knowing God in whom is fullness of joy.
A dear friend’s recommendation that I read this book, along with a fellow pastor’s positive review of it, whose opinion I respect, had me very much looking forward to sitting down to a good read (and I thank John Piper for the free copy I received in the promotional campaign). But while I agree that there are things to praise here, I have some serious problems with several points.
First, and foremost, I have to say that when I read the term “Christian Hedonism,” the book was for the most part ruined from there. Now, let me say up front that this does NOT mean that the author advocates an antinomian, do-as-you-please, eat, drink, and be merry lawless hedonism, nor does it encourage people to ask God to give them the weak, godless pleasures they enjoy. But the fact of the matter is that to make the term “hedonism” into something positive, much less Christian, is patently ridiculous. A quick look at the use of the term in both Classical and New Testament Greek verifies this.
“Hedonism” is a rough transliteration of the Greek hēdonē, which originally “meant something pleasant to the taste, and then pleasant generally.” To Herodotus [c.484-c.425 B.C] it meant “the pleasures of the senses,” and Aristotle [384-282 B.C.] “uses it as a synonym of chara, joy, in expressing pleasure in the practicing of the virtues and for aesthetic pleasure in works of art.” In later Hellenism, however, the term took a turn for the worse; it “was confined to its ethically bad elements,” was actually “used in contrast to chara, joy, and aretē, virtue,” and finally came to mean “the pleasure of the senses, of sex, and then the unrestricted passions.” This meaning is clearly carried over into the New Testament, where the term appears only five times, all in “later books,” and always with “a bad connotation.” [i]
In the Parable of the Soils, for example, the thorny-ground hearer is one whose life is characterized by the “riches and pleasures of this life,” which choke the seed of the Gospel (Lk. 8:14). Paul reiterates that the lost man’s life is typified by “lusts and pleasures” (Tit. 3:3), and Peter asserts that he who seeks “pleasure” will “receive the reward of unrighteousness” (II Pet. 2:13). Finally, James declares that fights and fusses among Christians come because we all are seeking our own “lusts” (4:1) and that we often don’t receive what we pray for because we’ll just “consume it upon [our] lusts” (v. 3).
With that etymology in mind, how can we possibly view hedonism in any positive light. It simply has no positive side as used in Scripture, regardless of any adjective we might put in front of it. One writer, in fact, makes this profound contrast, “We must beware of confounding hēdonē with the desire for true joy (chara) which is never rejected in the New Testament. Joy is satisfied rather by communion with God, often even in the midst of suffering and persecution.” [ii] While Piper actually does a good job of making the same point as the second sentence of that quotation, he undoes it with the term hedonism. The quoted writer is saying, “Don’t mix the two; hedonism and joy are not the same.” Indeed, trying to make hedonism Christian is like trying to make “gay marriage” an “acceptable alternative lifestyle.”
Which leads me to a question: why invent a term that you then have to spend several pages (or even a whole book) defending and explaining? Why not write a book on a Biblical term, such as the word JOY (chara). Piper could have written his entire book based on that Biblical word and done it much more easily. Why not do so? Why pick a provocative and contradictory term that has nothing whatsoever to do with real joy? Is the reason simply cleverness and marketability or is it a misunderstanding of language? In either case, it misses the Truth.
May I also interject that I found it a little presumptuous to use quotations from Jonathan Edwards (and others) in such a way as to imply that his words support Piper’s thesis. Now, while C. S. Lewis might have agreed with the term “Christian Hedonism,” in my wildest imagination I can’t fathom Edwards doing so. He knew what words mean. And speaking of Edwards, what about J. I. Packer’s recommendation on the back of the book? “Jonathon Edwards, whose ghost walks through most of Piper’s pages, would be delighted with his disciple?” Ghost? Doesn’t this push even poetic license a little far?
Piper also at times leaves out portions of verses to make his point, thereby leaving a false impression. For example, he quotes Psalm 147:11 thusly, “The LORD takes pleasure in . . . those that hope in his stedfast love” (p. 54). But he leaves out the middle portion of the verse. The entire verse reads, “The LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy” (KJV). I apologize for mentioning a translation issue (see my sixth point), but the Hebrew hesed is best translated “mercy,” not “love,” and the ESV’s use of “stedfast” is not even supported by a Hebrew word. Another example is Piper’s quotation of Jeremiah 32:40-41: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them . . . I will rejoice in doing them good . . . with all my heart and all my soul.” But here he leaves out half of verse 40 (“ . . . but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me”) and the middle of verse 41 (“. . . and I will plant them in this land assuredly”). In both these instances the foundational principle of the fear of God (Ps. 34:11: 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10; etc.) is left out. Is this because that particular concept might cast a small shadow on the author’s premise, which would then be one more thing he would have to explain?
Second, the oddest language Piper uses is in reference to salvation. While I most certainly agree that just because someone says, “I believe in Jesus,” that doesn’t make them a Christian (pp. 54-55). I totally reject the “easy-believeism” that plagues the Church today. But Piper goes on to make some rather odd (if not disturbing) statements. For example, he writes: “There are other straightforward biblical commands besides, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’ [Acts 16:31] . . . Could it be that today the most straightforward biblical command for conversion is not ‘Believe in the Lord,” but ‘Delight yourself in the Lord’? And might not many slumbering hearts be stabbed broad awake by the words, ‘Unless a man be born again into a Christian Hedonism he cannot see the Kingdom of God’?” (p. 55; emphasis in the original). Apparently simple Biblical wording is not enough. Later he adds, “The pursuit of joy in God is not optional. It is not an ‘extra’ that a person might grow into after he comes to faith. Until your heart has hit upon this pursuit, your ‘faith’ cannot please God. It is not saving faith” (p. 73). Should this be our new definition of faith?
Third, Piper reports a letter of criticism he received after preaching on his thesis. It read: “Is it not the contention of morality that we should do the good because it is the Good? . . . We should do the good and perform virtuously, I suggest, because it is good and virtuous; that God will bless it and cause us to be happy is a consequence of it, but not the motive for doing it.” Another popular writer also wrote: “For the Christian happiness is never a goal to be pursued. It is always the unexpected surprise of a life of service” (p. 112). Instead of taking this godly counsel, however, Piper regards these statements “as contrary to Scripture and contrary to love and, in the end (though unintentionally), dishonoring to God.” Really? How about I Corinthians 10:31? “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” While Piper quotes this verse three times (pp. 18, 56, 320), he doesn’t seem to get the full implication. The Bible simply does not say “that the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed,” as Piper teaches and goes to great lengths to “prove.” The Bible says that our motive is to give God glory.
Fourth, in a footnote on page 124, Piper writes, “Historically, ethicists have tended to distinguish these two forms of love [which he mentions in the text] as agape and eros, or benevolence and complacency. Not only is there no linguistic basis for such a distinction, but conceptually both resolve into one kind of love at the root. God’s agape does not ‘transcend’ His eros, but expresses it. God’s redeeming, sacrificial love for His sinful people is described by Hosea in the most erotic terms (11:8-9).” What?! I had to read that three times to even believe I read it. Here is another example of ignoring language. There is a very good reason why erōs (English “erotic”) never appears in Scripture, namely, because it speaks of the physical and sensual. Erōs is not used even for the physical relationship of a husband and wife because their love transcends sex alone. What is the history of erōs? “The Greeks’ delight in bodily beauty and sensual desires found expression here in the Dionysiac approach to, and feeling for, life. Sensual ecstasy leaves moderation and proportion far behind, and the Greek tragedians (e.g. Sophocles, Antigone., 781 ff) knew the irresistible power of Eros—the God of love bore the same name—which forgot all reason, will, and discretion on the way to ecstasy.” [iii] Another writer adds that the meaning of erōs (and the related eran) had degenerated so that they stood for lower things. Christianity could hardly have annexed these words for its own uses.” [iv] So Piper’s blending erōs with agapē, that high, selfless, Divine love in Scripture, is beyond comprehension. And words escape me on how to respond to the thought that God possesses erōs!
Fifth, the section heading on page 168, “Glorifying God Not By Serving Him, But by Being Served By Him,” is just one more example of Piper’s skewed premise. I just find such statements totally onerous at best and offensive at worst. Here are a few verses that are absent from Piper’s book: “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2:11); “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him” (72:11); “Take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law, which Moses the servant of the LORD charged you, to love the LORD your God, and to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and to cleave unto him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Josh. 22:5); “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29).
Sixth, while my intention is not to open the Bible translation can of worms, in spite of all the hype and marketing of the English Standard Version (which is one of the changes in the 2003 edition of Piper’s book), I am compelled to mention that this version is simply a resurrection of the corrupt Revised Standard Version. Yes, it makes some changes, but it’s just the new flavor of the month and another will come along soon.
To conclude, in my view, what could have been a wonderful book on true joy, John Piper’s Desiring God is more of a philosophical thesis than Scripture exposition. It’s founded at best on a questionable premise, which is then propped up by the author’s own reading of Scripture, not on sound principles of exegesis. It proves once again that much contemporary literature lacks sound interpretation and replaces it with “jargon that sells.” Read Puritan Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God instead; it will provide a lifetime of meditation.
Dr. J. D. Watson
Grace Bible Church
Sola Scriptura Ministries
[i] Colin Brown (General Editor), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (3 Vol.). (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), Vol. 1, pp. 458-9.
[ii] Ibid, p. 460.
[iii] Ibid, Vol. 2, p. 539.
[iv] William Barclay, New Testament Words (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1964, 1974), pp. 17-18.