I want to talk about a discovery that I made by grace in the word of God fifty years ago. In the fall of 1968 came three months or so during which I passed from ignorance into knowledge concerning things that have shaped everything in my life.
The discovery has to do with the glory of God, and its massive centrality in the universe, and my happiness, and its massive power in my heart and my desire for it.
The discovery was how they relate to each other and how that relationship catapults delighting in God or the enjoyment of God to a place that is so pervasive that it changes everything in life.
I need to clarify something before I launch into explaining the discovery and how it changes everything.
Prejudice Against Joy
Most of you come to this room with preconceptions in your mind and feelings about the word joy or pleasure or happiness or delight or satisfaction. All that cluster of affectional, emotional language has associations for you — some of them positive, some of them negative, and you’re all over the map, because of your peculiar experiences.
“It’s not a sin to want to be happy.”
Let me give a clarification so that I can at least eliminate some misconceptions of what I mean when I talk about delight in God or joy in God or satisfaction in God. The way to clarify would be this: the Bible sometimes talks about sorrow and joy as though they were sequential experiences. First you have one, then you have another. And sometimes the Bible talks about them as simultaneous experiences going on at the very same moment. I can give you two examples. Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Everybody gets that, right? Something horrible is going on in your life for a season called “night” here, and you’re crying most of the time. And it passes or it gets fixed or something happens, and joy returns. That’s a sequence. First weeping, then joy. We get that. Everybody understands the difference between crying your eyes out and leaping for joy because something wonderful has happened.
Sorrow and Joy Mingle
However, the Bible also talks about them as simultaneous. For example, in 2 Corinthians 6:10, Paul describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” Sorrowful and yet unbroken — not sequential — unbroken joy. I don’t think that’s a contradiction, because we use language that way. Don’t we? We all know that sometimes we use the word joy or delight or happiness to describe those bright, cheerful, sunny, smiling expressions of that good feeling. That’s not sorrow.
But other times — and if you’ve walked with Jesus a while, you know this — we also talk about the sweet, precious, deep, unshakeable satisfaction in your soul through the worst of times. I’ll just give you a concrete illustration. When I was 28, I got the phone call that my mother had been killed in Israel in a bus wreck. My dad was in the hospital. They didn’t know if he’d make it. I never walked through anything like this before, so I just put down the phone. My little two-year-old, Karsten, was holding onto my leg like this and saying, “Daddy sad?” And I said to Noël, “Mama’s dead. And Daddy might not make it. That’s all I know.”
I went back to my bedroom, and I knelt down, and I wept for two hours. I know that during those two hours, there was that part in me that was saying, “She was awesome. Thank you for my 28 years with this woman. Thank you that she brought me to Jesus. Thank you that she understood when nobody else understood. Thank you that she’s in heaven. Thank you that she didn’t suffer. It was a brain injury. Thank you.”
I’d never before experienced the simultaneous reality of never being more sad in my life, all while my delight in God’s mercies to me and his rock-solid being there for me and trust in taking her to himself never wavered. That was a gift.
We know this. So when I’m using the word joy, satisfaction, happiness, delight, I’m talking about a kind of spiritual experience that sometimes is bright and cheerful and smiling and laughing and leaping for joy, and other times is just the unshakeable, sweet, deep satisfaction of your soul in God while you are weeping your eyes out.
Can you handle that? Don’t make what I say then superficial. Okay? Don’t hear me in the most superficial way you can imagine delight, happiness, joy, satisfaction, and so on. That’s my clarification so you know what I mean when I’m using this kind of language.
God’s Glory or My Happiness?
It’s fifty years ago. I grew up in a wonderful Christian home and never, never turned my back on what my parents taught me. And love them to this day. They both are in heaven I believe.
I went away to university when I was eighteen, seven hundred miles away from my home. I carried with me a tension that I couldn’t figure out. The resolution of the tension was the discovery four years later, but between 18 and 22 I kept trying to figure it out. Over here, my dad had taught me 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whatever you do, Johnny, whatever you do in word or deed, do all to the glory of God. This world exists for the glory of God. You exist for the glory of God. Make God look glorious by the way you live.” I love that and want to do that.
Over here was the real John Piper, in his heart, craving happiness. I wanted to be happy. I could no more turn that off than I could turn off hunger after skipping ten meals. It was natural, and I believe now it’s God-given. It’s not a sin to want to be happy. It’s not a sin.
I didn’t know how these two fit together. It seemed to be in the air that if you did a good deed in any way in pursuit of your happiness, it made the deed defective. It didn’t seem to be for God’s glory if it was for your happiness. That was the tension I lived with. I couldn’t deny this biblically. I couldn’t deny this experientially. And therefore, I lived quite torn during my college years.
Then, in the fall of 1968 in a class with Daniel Fuller, who introduced me to some writings of C.S. Lewis that I hadn’t seen before, and writings of Jonathan Edwards that I hadn’t seen before, and his own writings that I hadn’t seen before, I saw things that changed everything.
To Live Is Christ, To Die Is Gain
I’m going to try to show you from Philippians what I discovered. I don’t want you to embrace it because I think it, or because it sounds helpful. Philippians 1:20, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be” — exalted, honored, magnified, whatever word is appropriate.
This is what my dad taught me, right? “Johnny, use your body, use your mind to make Jesus look magnificent, to make Jesus look exalted. That’s why you’re on the planet. Do that.”
That’s Paul’s eager expectation and hope. I want in my body for Jesus to be exalted. That means I want to use my hands and my legs and my eyes and my mouth — I want to do everything with my body so that Jesus looks great, and it makes people want Jesus.
Track the Logic
So my question then became, as you can imagine, “How does that relate to Paul’s happiness, satisfaction, joy, delight?” Now watch the logic. I grew up in a very biblically-saturated home, and yet somehow had not been taught to follow the logic of passages. For me, Bible verses were like pearls on a chain. Here’s a pearl and a pearl. And these pearls are beautiful. I’d take a pearl with me all day long. Or a Bible verse is like a lozenge you put in your mouth, and you suck on it all day long, and you get wonderful sweetness from the verse. I still do that.
But what there is to be seen in the Bible when you don’t think of Bible phrases in terms of little pearls or lozenges, but as links in a logical chain that hang together. The link between verses 20 and 21, that link is forged with the word for, both in the NIV and the ESV because it’s really there in the Greek.
“The core demand of the Bible is not just embracing Jesus as Savior or Lord, but treasuring the Savior and Lord as your chief delight.”
So he says, I want Christ to be exalted, magnified, honored, made great, made to look magnificent “in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” That word for, and that logical connection, changed my life. Let me see if I can help you see what I see. How does that logic work? The word for here is “because,” right? “I’m confident Christ is going to look magnificent in my body, because to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Notice, “to live” in verse 21 corresponds back to “by life” in verse 20. And “to die” in verse 21 corresponds back to “by death” in verse 20. He’s giving a double argument. “Christ will be magnified in my life, because to live is Christ. Christ will be magnified by my death, because to die is gain.”
Now, I paused and looked at the second pair. “I want Christ to be magnified in my body by my death. Help me to die in a way that will make Christ look magnificent, and it will happen because for me to die is gain.” How does it work? How are you going to do that? What’s the basis of that? How does that work? Because to me to die is gain.
The Missing Piece
There’s a missing piece in the argument. It shows up in the next two verses. Philippians 1:22–23, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Now if I go back to verse 21 and say, “You just said to die is gain. What did you mean? How is it gain?” He answers that in verse 23, doesn’t he? “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” So what’s the gain? With Christ, far better. It is far, far better to be with Christ.
So let me paraphrase the logic now so far. “I want Christ to be magnified in my body as I die, and that will happen, because for me to die is to experience so much more intimacy and closeness with the all-satisfying Christ that I call it gain, even though I lose everything in this world.” Is that a fair paraphrase? Christ is most magnified in my body as I die, when my heart is most satisfied in him as I die. That changed everything.
No Greater Gain
I think that’s what it says. The reason I make Christ look great in the hospital bed, my family standing around me, knowing I’ve got an hour or two before I’m in the presence of Jesus, is if at that moment I can exude for them, “This is going to be awesome. Don’t weep for me. You may weep for you. Don’t weep for me. Gain, gain, gain.” That would make Jesus look pretty good.
How else are you going to make him look good if you’re not satisfied in him? If you’re cleaving to this world — “I don’t want to lose this family. I don’t want to lose this job. I don’t want to lose this dream retirement. I don’t want to lose this house. I don’t want to lose this sexual pleasure I’ve enjoyed all these years. I don’t want to lose anything here. It’s so precious to me. Jesus, wait, wait, wait” — you’re not making Jesus look good.
The saying that captures Christian Hedonism is God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. That’s my biblical argument for it: the logic between verses 20–21 of Philippians 1.
Joy Changes Everything
Now, if you see that, and you believe that, it changes everything.
1. Christian Hedonism changes how we think about duty and obedience.
I was at the FIEC Conference ages ago in Britain. It was Elizabeth Elliot — she wouldn’t mind if I told you. I love Elizabeth Elliot. She’s in heaven now. One of my heroes. She’s a no-nonsense, down-to-earth, go-die-for-Jesus kind of person. That’s the name of her biography of Amy Carmichael, A Chance to Die. Isn’t that an awesome title?
We were sitting on a panel together, and she had heard me talk like this — since it’s what I say everywhere I go. I’m trying to spread this message all over the world because it’s so wonderful. And she said, “I’m not so sure John that you should tell people to pursue joy. I think you should tell them to pursue obedience.” I responded, “You know what that sounds like to me? That sounds like saying, ‘I don’t think you should tell people to pursue apples. You should tell them to pursue fruit.’” The reason that doesn’t make sense is because apples are fruit. And the pursuit of joy is obedience. The reason it’s obedience is because the Bible demands it:
- Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord.”
- Psalm 32:11, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice.”
- Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
Those are all commands. I will not let anybody tell me, “You should be telling people to pursue obedience, not joy.” I say, “Of course we should pursue obedience — and the central command in the Bible is to be happy.” It’s radical. You go to hell if you don’t find happiness in Jesus. We’re not playing games here. This is not like icing on the cake. This is not just about obedience, like “Stay out of bed with your secretary and then you go to heaven.” No, you won’t. Only if you love Jesus more than sex will you go to heaven.
The core demand in the Bible is not just embracing Jesus as Savior or following Jesus as Lord, but treasuring the Savior and treasuring the Lord as if he is your chief delight. I hammered on this a few weeks ago at Together for the Gospel, because I knew I was talking to a lot of Southern Baptists there. I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and did not hear the message that delighting in God is essential to your salvation. I never heard that from my church. I heard, “Commit yourself to God. Decide for Jesus. Follow Jesus.”
And I realized, “Now wait a minute. There are all kinds of receivings of a savior when you don’t really even like the savior. You just want out of hell.” “I just want to stay out of hell. If Jesus is the ticket, I’ll take the ticket. I’ll carry him in my back pocket, and then I’ll enjoy everything else. He’s in my back pocket. He’s my ticket out of hell. Amen. Give me Jesus. Back pocket.” That’s not salvation.
And you might say, “Receive him as Lord.” “Okay, I’ll do what he says.” What if you do what he says, and the whole while, you’re begrudging? “I don’t like what he says, but I’ll do what he says because I don’t want to go to hell.” That’s not Christianity. Christianity is way more radical than that. Your heart must cleave to a Savior and cleave to a Lord, because you have seen in the Savior and seen in the Lord a treasure that is more valuable than anything. That’s Christianity.
2. Christian Hedonism changes how we think about conversion.
What does it mean to be saved? What does it mean to be converted? This sight of the glory of God through being happy in God changes everything. Here’s 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.” What’s the point of that? The kingdom of God has broken into the world in Jesus Christ. He’s the King, and the King has come. This little one-verse parable says that entering the kingdom — belonging to the King — is like finding a treasure hidden in a field. “I’m going to get this land at any cost. I’m going to have that field.”
That field is Jesus and his rule in your life. And how do you get it? Sell everything you have. And I missed the phrase “in his joy” he sold everything he had. In his joy, he sold it. Well, isn’t there sacrifice in the Christian life? Yeah, you have to sell everything. But at the same time, no, because you’re selling it with joy. The payoff that you get in Jesus is infinitely better than all your cars, and all your books, and all your computers, and all your hobbies, and all your friends, and everything else. He’s just vastly better.
That’s why David Livingstone said, “I never made a sacrifice.” He lived all that horrible suffering. I think he suffered from malaria nearly forty times in Africa. And he still said, “I never made a sacrifice.” What in the world?
3. Christian Hedonism changes how we think about faith.
What is faith? All of you should be fighting the fight of faith. Paul calls it “the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). What would that fight look like? When you get up in the morning, when you go to work, when you’re with your family, you fight the fight of faith. But what is that?
Here’s what Jesus said about believing. John 6:35: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger.” That’s not just a physical coming because Judas came to him physically, right? And he didn’t have faith.
“Evil is turning away from the infinitely satisfying God to things that can never satisfy and will only kill you in the end.”
Coming to Jesus is saying spiritually, “I’m finding you to be food.” “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes [there’s the word faith in verb form] in me shall never thirst.” That’s a parallel structure: “comes to me shall never hunger; believes in me shall never thirst.”
So how would you define believing in view of that parallel? I’d paraphrase it like this: Believing in Jesus is a spiritual coming to him so as to eat and drink to your soul’s satisfaction, so the world doesn’t hold any addictions for you anymore. Faith is very, very different than just believing facts or assenting.
I was at a conference once with R.C. Sproul, and he preached a message on faith. As an illustration, he put out a chair and said, “I believe that chair will hold me up.” And then he said, “But you don’t really believe in it unless you’re willing to sit on it.” He went over and sat on the chair. “Now you know I believe the chair will hold me up.”
I came on and preached after him, and I didn’t think that was enough. It’s not good form to correct your host, but I knew him, and we’re friends, so I said, “You know, here’s the problem with that illustration. There are people who look at that chair and say, ‘That chair will hold me up.’ Jesus is the chair, right? There are people who go over there and sit in that chair, and they think it’s an ugly chair that they wouldn’t put in their living room.” I said, “If you want to be saved, you have to love the chair.”
He’s watching this on a screen in the back room, and we were sitting on a panel afterward, and he came down. Everybody’s wondering, “Oh, what’s he going to say?” He comes out on the panel. He leans over and he says, “John, I love the chair.” I said, “I knew you loved the chair.”
But think about that in your evangelism, when you’re trying to get people to “sit in” Jesus as their Savior and their Lord. They have to see the chair as beautiful. If he’s ugly and unattractive and embarrassing, their heart hasn’t been changed. They just want out of trouble, out of their addiction, out of their hell, or out of their particular horrible situation. And he’s the ticket out. That’s not faith.
4. Christian Hedonism changes how we think about evil.
Here’s the definition of evil from Jeremiah 2:13. I wonder how you would define evil right now. What is the essence of evil in a God-centered universe? Jeremiah 2:13, “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
What’s the definition of evil in that verse? Here’s God as a fountain of living water. You drink at that fountain, you live forever. It is the sweetest, most satisfying water.
I was planting some hosta a few days ago. This comes to my mind here. I love hosta. You can’t kill them. I love it, because it makes great rows, and you can’t kill it, and you can cut it in half and plant another one, and it lives. It’s just wonderful for a person who kills things. It was hot as blazes last week in Minneapolis, and I was sweating, and my neighbor John from across the street came over to help me. About two hours into it we were finishing up putting some red chips on the garden and planting these hosta, and I went over to the hose and turned on the spigot and let the hose run until the water’s cool. Then I began to drink.
I turned to John and I said, “You know why people don’t enjoy Jesus?” He’s like, “No.” I said, “They’re not thirsty.” I said, “This is glorious. This water is glorious because I am so hot, sweaty, and thirsty.” Evil is tasting it and saying, “Bleh,” then going over and picking up a handful of dirt and saying, “That’s good.” That’s evil. That’s what everybody does in the world, until God is their treasure, God is their food, God is their drink.
So evangelism should be the easiest thing in the world. “Don’t eat dirt. Stop eating dirt. It will make you sick forever.” However, Satan has connived to make the dirt tasty and make the soul hungry for dirt that people need help. They need a divine miracle to recognize that this water will satisfy forever. That dirt will kill me. That’s our job to help people recognize that. Evil is turning away from the infinitely satisfying God to things that can never satisfy and will kill you in the end.
5. Christian Hedonism changes how we think about self-denial.
This is important because a lot of people will say to me, “Piper, your Christian Hedonism is unbiblical.” The problem, people say, is Piper is lopsided. He goes around telling people to seek happiness in Jesus when the Bible says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Bonhoeffer said, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And here’s Piper going all over the world saying, “Come be happy. Come be happy.”
I get why people think that’s lopsided, unbiblical, or skewed. So at this moment in the sermon, I’m fixing this. All right? Do I believe in self-denial? Well, I’ve already said, “Sell everything you have.” I’ve already said, “Dying is gain, so why wouldn’t you want to die for Jesus?”
Now, most of the world would look at selling everything and dying as self-denial. And it is. But it is not ultimate self-denial. Ultimate self-denial is heresy, meaning if you go to heaven and God stretches out his arms and welcomes you in, if you push him away and say, “No, no, no. I don’t need any of that. I was supposed to deny myself.” That’s heresy. That’s wicked. I just read an article this morning, where Greg Morse was writing about the Father welcoming the Prodigal home. I got teary-eyed. I said, “I just want to do this with my boy so bad.”
What I would say to the person who would use Mark 8:34 to criticize me is, “Read the next verse.” What’s the argument? “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). What’s the argument? “You want to save your life don’t you?” “Yes.” “So lose it.” Of course I believe in self-denial — because I believe in salvation. I want to be with God. I want to be with Jesus. I want to maximize my soul’s satisfaction forever. And the only way is to die with him, suffer with him, walk with him.
6. Christian Hedonism changes how we think about spending our money and giving.
Acts 20:35: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Second Corinthians 9:7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
If you love a cheerful giver, how do you feel about the begrudging giver? Giving is not a virtue in and of itself. God says, “I love a cheerful giver. I don’t feel the same way about a begrudging giver.” Which means that at the moment when you’re giving to the church, giving to your favorite charity — at that moment — you’ve got an issue right here.
How you do it, the spirit from which you do it, is what God is watching. That’s why this woman who gave two pennies gave more than everybody (Mark 12:41–44). She found so much contentment in God, she gave her last two pennies, and Jesus said, “That was more than everybody gave.” What in the world did that mean? It meant that God was watching the heart, not the act of giving itself. Christian Hedonism changes how you think about money and how you think about giving.
7. Christian Hedonism changes how we think about corporate worship.
What a killer of corporate worship if the people don’t know that God is glorified in them when they are satisfied in him. And what a freeing thing to invite people, week after week, into an assembly where they know the expectation is “God will look great here if you are thrilled with him.” The goal of the worship leader and the preacher is to spread a feast — a feast of lyrics in the song, a feast of truth in the sermon, and musical manifestations that give you the opportunity to release what God is doing.
That’s what corporate worship becomes because you know emotion is not optional. It’s essential. There are whole movements of Christianity that are suspicious of emotion, and here’s John Piper saying, “No emotion, no worship.” God is most glorified on Sunday morning when the people’s singing, praying, responding reflects most satisfaction in him.
8. Christian Hedonism changes how we think about disability and weakness.
Every church should care deeply about the emotionally broken, the physically broken, the relationally broken — those who are born that way, those who became that way through an accident, those who became that way through all kinds of difficulties. Every church should have a heart for the broken and the disabled.
“You go to hell if you don’t find happiness in Jesus.”
And Jesus says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Yesterday, I preached four times. I’m preaching once today. What a breeze, right? In the middle of the day, I’d preached three times. I’m sitting there in the back room waiting to do it one last time, and I’m just pleading with the Lord. Because I didn’t bring an energy drink. I had to depend on God. And he just reminded me, “Look, weakling. Look, tired old man, you’re about to go out there and say God loves to be at a disadvantage in order to show his power. You are at a disadvantage right now because you’re old and you’re tired. So what? Go do it. I’ll get the glory.”
And here’s what Jesus says: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” That’s what we want, right: for God to show his power? How do you do that? Here’s Paul’s response: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” The weakest people in our church — and that’s all of us in one sense. The weakest people in our church have a glorious opportunity to magnify the all-sufficiency of Christ in themselves and those who care for them.
9. Christian Hedonism changes how we think about the meaning of love.
What is love for people? A lot of people say, “Okay, Piper, what you’re going to create is a bunch of Buddha-like people, cross-legged in the middle of a field, being happy with God while the world goes to hell.” I say, “I don’t think so.” That’s not the way satisfaction in God works.
I’ll read you the most precious verse in the Bible on this for me. This is 2 Corinthians 8:2: “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity.” Where did this act of love called generosity come from? Paul’s answer is “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty.” So their joy wasn’t in their stuff.
Here’s my definition of love among people: Love is the overflow of satisfaction in God that meets the needs of others at any cost to ourselves. Love is the overflow — or you could say the expansion — of joy in God to include others in the joy at any cost to ourselves. I would die to make my joy bigger through your sharing my joy.
This view of joy does not produce isolated individuals who are happy in God but uncaring for other people. It does not. I’ve never seen it do that. All over the world where people are taken by this vision, they’re free to give their lives away for other people.
10. Christian Hedonism changes how we think about the meaning of ministry.
Every time there’s a building program, every time there’s a new structural change and vision that’s good for growth, the threat is always there: Are we going to lose sight of the essence, the core, of what it means to be a Christian? What are we inviting people to? We’re not inviting people to a new building. What are we inviting people to?
Paul says, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24). So here’s the apostle Paul defining his role as a minister: “I’m not trying to lord it over your faith.” That’s what I would say to you right now. I didn’t come to London to lord it over the men’s convention or to lord it over you. I don’t want to be your lord. I want to work with you for your joy.
Isn’t that an amazing way to define your life or your ministry? Every eldership team should think, “We are workers with this people for their deepest, longest joy.” That’s what’s going to free you to make a difference in this city.
Philippians 1:25, “I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.” Here’s a paraphrase from the context: “I believe I will not get to go to heaven right now for my deepest, longest, fullest satisfaction, but I will stay here for the satisfaction of expanding your joy.” What a deal. Dying is gain. Staying means more joy for other people through your expanded joy.