Literary flourishes and Christian Hedonism: the pretty ribbon round John Piper’s pietistic asceticism (part 2)
there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. (2 Peter 2:1-2)
Yesterday’s post included a quote from John Piper where he used the expression “conquests of joy”. Those who are familiar with Piper’s work will recognize that the expression “conquests of joy” is an allusion to Piper’s favorite topic, Christian Hedonism, in which the catch phrase is God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
Here’s an example of Piper enthusing about Christian Hedonism [link]:
Do you want to glorify God the most with your life and experience his glory the most? Then the answer is: Pursue maximum satisfaction in him. That’s what so many Christians have never heard, and they have a hard time believing.
And I’m devoting my life to try and make it look biblical—like it is—and to help people overcome the obstacles that are in the way, such as “Duty is more noble than hedonism.” Some say that it’s more noble to do something because you have to do it than it is because you delight to do it. It’s more noble to worship God out of some sense that he deserves it than out of the fact that he is so magnificent and glorious that I can’t help it. And I disagree with all of that!
God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
Hmm. I am not sure why Piper thinks he has to make something look biblical if he knows it already is, but I for one do not see that it is biblical no matter how much he tries to make it look that way.
Since 2010 I have been trying to alert John Piper, or if not him, at least the staff at Desiring God, to my concerns. I notified John Piper, via email@example.com, about my Critique of CBMW’s Statement on Abuse when it was first published in 2010 (we republished it at this blog here). This is the only communication I’ve made to DG for which I’ve received a reply and I only got that reply after I sent a second email asking them to confirm that they had forwarded my message to Piper. Their email reply said “We have received your email and it has been forwarded on to Pastor John’s assistant.” Lest anyone excuse Desiring God by thinking that they could not possibly be expected to have enough staff to read all the emails and letters they must get, let me remind you that Piper does not personally get any of the royalties from his books, he has arranged his affairs so that all the profits from his books go to a Desiring God Trust Fund which can distribute the funds to worthy causes. That means that there would be plenty of money available to employ enough staff, should they wish, to read all the correspondence they receive and respond appropriately and thoughtfully.
I have contacted John Piper / Desiring God a number of times since, expressing my concerns about Piper’s teaching and inviting him to join us in the Cry For Justice. I politely snail mailed Piper a copy of this post, I’ve provided him with feedback from our readers (here) and at times I’ve been challenging (here) but never rude. With only one form letter reply to me over this time, it looks like I’m being ignored. Of course I’m “just a woman”.
But Peter Masters, author of the article Christian Hedonism — Is it Right? published in Sword and Trowel in 2002 is a Reformed Baptist — which Piper supposedly is too — and Masters is the senior pastor at Metropolitan Tabernacle, the church Spurgeon pastored for years, and also the editor of Sword and Trowel. Surely Peter Masters’ voice should be heard, even if mine or Jeff Crippen’s are not. Sword and Trowel is a magazine which “enjoys an extensive readership throughout the world, particularly among ministers and church leaders and which has by far the largest circulation of any magazine (world-wide) adhering to reformed and Baptist distinctive” [source]. Surely more academics in seminaries across America should be disquieted about Piper, but they seemingly are not; in fact, he is being given more and more clout, for example, he has been invited to give a special lecture this March at Westminster Seminary Philadelphia.
Here is another quote from Piper. It shows (1) the arresting use of language: he changes the wording of the Westminster Shorter Catechism by switching one word for another, and (2) the legalistic twist giving a sting in the tail. It’s from a sermon by Piper titled Worship, the Feast of Christian Hedonism. The words in bold were emphasized in the original transcript at the Desiring God website.
The chief end of man is not just to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. And if we don’t enjoy him, we don’t glorify him.
That sting in the tail — If we don’t enjoy him, we don’t glorify him — is an inevitable consequence of Piper’s theology because he makes enjoying God the most important virtue and the unifying principle which holds all the Christian life together. I opened yesterday’s post with a short quote from Christian Hedonism — Is it Right? by Peter Masters. Here is a lot more from that article:
Christian Hedonism says that the pursuit of happiness in God is the overruling source of power and energy for the life of the Christian. The proposer, Dr John Piper, is a prominent evangelical preacher in the United States, who began to popularise his views in 1986 with the publication of his book, Desiring God. In this he maintains that delighting in God is the pivotal issue in the Christian walk; the central and the most important part of the life of faith.
Dr Piper makes much use of the little sentence, ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.’ Indeed, the pursuit of joy in God is held as being one and the same thing as glorifying God.
Why should this article set out to assess this teaching? The answer is that many pastors and people are being influenced by it, but very serious cautions need to be sounded.
It is not surprising that believers find Christian Hedonism or ‘delighting in God’ interesting and attractive. To delight in the Lord is a magnificent and biblical exercise. But Dr Piper’s formula for its use undoubtedly alters the understanding of sanctification long held by believers in the Reformation tradition, because it elevates one Christian duty above all others.
Delighting in God, we repeat, is made the organising principle for every other spiritual experience and duty. It becomes the key formula for all spiritual vigour and development. Every other Christian duty is thought to depend on how well we obey this central duty of delighting in the Lord. The entire Christian life is simplified to rest upon a single quest, which is bound to distort one’s perception of the Christian life and how it must be lived.
Whatever the strengths of Dr Piper’s ministry, and there are many, his attempt to oversimplify biblical sanctification is doomed to failure because the biblical method for sanctification and spiritual advance consists of a number of strands or pathways of action, and all must receive individual attention. As soon as you substitute a single ‘big idea’ or organising principle, and bundle all the strands into one, you alter God’s design and method. Vital aspects of Truth and conduct will go by the board to receive little or no attention.
. . . You cannot reorganise the Lord’s way of accomplishing the fruits of godliness without many duties being swept out of view. ‘Single-principle’ systems do not intend to cause harm, but, inevitably, they do. To borrow a piece of modern scientific jargon, biblical sanctification is a system of irreducible complexity. Not that it is too complicated – having only seven or eight well-known component virtues which must all be kept to the fore in ministry.
. . . Dr Piper’s main proposition – that we must delight in the Lord – commends itself to us all. It touches every conscience. It is scriptural. It is necessary. It is neglected. Accordingly this scheme for Christian living will naturally seize our attention and challenge us. The great problem arises from it being made the supreme issue of life, and the core of our obedience to God. Is the key aim to delight in God? Is the root of all righteousness to delight in God? Is delight in God the only true and worthy motivation for good deeds? In Dr Piper’s scheme, every other Christian virtue, from love to temperance, is dependent on this. We cannot have either motivation or energy for the life of faith unless our prime aim is to be delighting in God. This, in a nutshell, is the method which is proposed.
Dr Piper’s publisher calls his book a ‘paradigm-shattering work’, and bids the reader join Dr Piper ‘as he stuns you again and again with life impacting truths you saw in the Bible, but never dared to believe.’ The reality is that no one ever saw them like this in the Bible until Dr Piper pointed them out in the 1980s.
A special matter for concern is Dr Piper’s use of Scripture, because his books appear to establish every point with a host of relevant quotations. He takes the reader through every step with biblical validation. This obviously commends his viewpoint to readers, but the Scriptures quoted never actually support the thesis Dr Piper presents. . . .
There is no adequate and balanced view of trials and heartaches in Dr Piper’s system. In fact, as far as I can see, the only way he addresses spiritual heaviness is to urge repentance for coldness of heart. This is the kind of shallowness even a brilliant man will stumble into once he subsumes the whole range of biblical principles and virtues under one.
. . . At times Dr Piper reflects a fear that his teaching could lead to a mystical serenity. His fear is well grounded, and this writer is sure that it does lead to this. He frequently uses the language of direct mystical communion. Although the joy pursued is derived from reflecting on the Lord, the end is still subjective, and this will lead to a self-conscious nurturing of happiness. This will become for many an unhealthy preoccupation, emotions being artificially ‘cranked up’ (a feature of other single-dominant-issue movements).
. . . All single-dominant-issue schemes tend to be blind to individual matters of deep concern. Their major preoccupation creates a kind of tunnel vision, and perception fails. Dr Piper concentrates on seeing his delighting system in all the Bible, so that his recognition of the rules and principles which bear on other issues is seriously impaired.
. . . When delight is everything, doctrine suffers a setback. When subjective emotions are unduly elevated, the proving and testing of all things becomes impossible. On charismatic matters, and on modern worship matters also, Dr Piper is – to put it gently – an unsafe shepherd, and the fault lies not in his Bible, nor in his capacities, but in his system. As the better aspects of his ministry earn respect from his readers, so the poor guidance on potentially disastrous issues will mislead them.
God’s Word does not provide a single organising principle to govern and drive all the component duties of the spiritual life. ‘Christian Hedonism’ is not drawn from the teaching of the Lord, nor of Paul. However, the Bible does provide a clear prescription for the Christian life, listing a number of spiritual and moral duties, all of which must be given direct and individual attention. We are given famous lists (such as the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, and the lists of 1 Timothy 6.11-12 and Galatians 5.22-23) and we must set our minds to accepting a multiple-track righteousness. We will pay a high price for any kind of clever system that reduces biblical duties to an artificial formula, however sound and inspiring many of its elements may seem to be.
Dare we question the apostle when we read the list of 1 Timothy 6.11-12?
But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses’
Will we say, ‘But just a minute Paul, you have left out the organising principle. You have left out any wonderful simplifying factor. You have left off the formula which will make it all come together.’ Of course he has, because there is no such formula. It is multiple-track righteousness. Seeking happiness is certainly not our prime goal. This is the recipe for emotional self-indulgence, subjectivism, and self-centred mystical ‘communion’ with Christ.
Domestic abuse victims who have been ground under Piper’s theology know only too well that in Piper’s system there is no adequate and balanced view of trials and heartaches, and the only way he addresses spiritual heaviness is to urge repentance for coldness of heart. Of course, Piper’s system is not the only system that wounds people, but testimonies* from abuse survivors at this blog show that it’s very oppressive if you’re under it and even if a victim is just exposed to a little of Piper it can send her into a downward spiral. And the exhortation to ‘enjoy God’ make it so much worse when the God you’re being told to enjoy is a God who gives no permission to divorce or to remarry after divorce.
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage . . . (1 Tim 4:1-3)
Piper forbids marriage for innocent divorced people, sentencing them to a life of aloneness and celibacy. Yes, we know Piper allows first marriages, and he says that if you’ve remarried after a divorce you can be forgiven, so long as you admit you committed ‘marital sins’ by a) divorcing and b) remarrying. But that’s cold comfort for victims of abuse. The Syrophoenecian woman was given more crumbs from under the table than Piper gives to innocent divorced people. And Piper’s crumbs have fishhooks in them.
Here is part of comment by one of our readers at this blog [emphasis added; full comment here]:
I’m currently separated from my husband due to a long history of abuse (previously, I was separated for a short time due to his adultery). I’m still praying for healing and restoration but, am growing less and less hopeful of my ability to trust him again.
Right now my Church leaders are supportive of me but it hasn’t been easy to gain that support. There are still members that stand with Piper’s teachings and I’m afraid that should this end in divorce there may be issues in the Church.
It makes me feel like a Jonah, although in my conscience before God, I’m pretty sure that I’m NOT in the wrong. Pretty sure is still a scary place to be. I’m still not sure what is the truth. If I divorce do I really have to stay unmarried the rest of my life? I really want to do God’s will. I battle back and forth with asking myself am I using my husband’s sin as a way out of an ugly marriage? Am I supposed to be suffering for righteousness sake in the marriage? Is that really what these scriptures mean? And if I’m supposed to be suffering in this way, who is supposed to stand for the dependent children? Are they being called into this type of suffering too? My conscience is telling me that I’m sinning if I stay and allow them to be harmed.
Knowing of the abuse in our marriage, someone actually said that each day I’m separated from my husband is one more day that God isn’t being glorified in our marriage! So, according to this person, God is glorified when me and our children are being abused! I can’t wrap my head around that!
We hold that Piper and his followers wax lyrical in communion with a god of their own invention while victims of abuse bleed in the puddles of filth at the back of the church. That is why we call Piper’s theology a theology of asceticism. It may be a pleasurable philosophy for Piper and those of his followers who are enjoying the privileges of being relatively high-up in Patriarchal or Leadership status, but for those who are suffering an adversity like domestic abuse, it is a giant’s castle of imprisoning asceticism and there is no escape unless you rebel against Pipers’ theology.
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Here are posts and comments we have at this blog which testify to the oppression that victims of abuse have experienced when exposed to Piper’s teaching. I’ve given each testimony a number; the posts are listed first, then comments from readers which are in reverse chronological order. The total of 47 does not indicate 47 different individuals, as some people have written several times about how they were impacted by Piper’s teaching.
There are five comments from one reader which I have not listed here because I would like to discuss them in a future post.
Note: I attempted to obtain permission to republish the Peter Masters’ article from from Metropolitan Tabernacle. My emails have not been answered. I would be very happy for Metropolitan Tabernacle to contact me, should they wish, and I can remove the Master’s material if they request it.
Posts in this series
Part 2: Is this post.