You might think I have it in for John Piper. You’d be wrong.
I once spotted the great man at the back of All Souls (he’d come to hear John Stott preach). I came bounding up to him after the service intending to tell him that I’d quoted him in my sermon that morning. But for some reason I decided that this would be proud – as though I was bragging about being a preacher. (I know that’s nuts. But not as nuts as what happened next). Having rejected my opening gambit mid-bound, I found myself in front of him with nothing to say. And what did I blurt out? I can’t quite remember it exactly but it was something very close to “I’m a big fan.”
Can you imagine a less Piper-esque line?? He didn’t know what to say. Which made two of us. The whole embarassing situation was only resolved when my wife, God bless her, held out her hand and asked him about his trip.
If you ever catch me shaking my head ruefully and tutting, chances are these 90 seconds are running through my head.
Anyway, I love John Piper. I’ll never forget a mission trip to central New South Wales in early 2002. I’d just read Desiring God and the idea of a happy God and that my satisfaction in Him was the way to glorify Him – it was truly liberating. And I remember being inspired to greater service by my enlarged appetite for joy. In 40 degree heat, I spent my time carrying around trays of ice-cold water for everyone and beaming at the thought of my reward (Matt 10:42).
And I loved (and still love) quotes like this from the opening of chapter 4:
Disinterested benevolence toward God is evil. If you come to God dutifully offering Him the reward of your fellowship instead of thirsting after the reward of His fellowship, then you exalt yourself above God as His benefactor and belittle Him as a needy beneficiary – and that is evil.
In 2003 I ran a discussion group on Desiring God and enthusiastically recommended it. But with one significant caveat. Chapter 1! I didn’t like chapter 1. I lacked a lot of the vocabulary to articulate what I didn’t like, but I didn’t like it. And neither did anyone else in the discussion group.
Chapter 1 sets out the foundation for Christian Hedonism – the happiness of God. But the happiness of God is defined explicitly in terms of His self-centredness. “The chief end of God is to glorify Himself.” And this God-talk was not really trinitarian. In fact, talk of God pre-eminently loving Himself came before talk of how the Father loves the Son. First His happiness is spoken of as the glory of His unrestrained sovereignty, the magnification of His own divine perfections etc. Then Piper turns to say “one of the best ways to think about” God’s self-glorification is to think about the Father-Son relationship. Why? Because the Son is the Father’s Image, therefore loving the Son is a way of God loving Himself.
Do you see the logic? First it is asserted that God loves Himself – and this is supported largely on philosophical grounds (i.e. God’s the best, He’d be unrighteous to value anything higher than what’s best, ergo He must be supremely interested in Self). Then he turns to Trinity and says, “See? God loves His Image – He’s a self-lover.”
But if we begin with Trinity then the Father’s love for the Son reveals not a self-centredness but an other-centredness. God is happy not because He is self-absorbed (no-one – not even God is happy in self-absorption!). God is happy because He is other-centred. There is an over-flowing life of mutual self-giving in the triune relations. That is the happiness of God. And that is what we are invited into.
So once we’ve made that correction I am happy to call myself a Christian Hedonist. (How could a hedonist be other than happy to be so!?). I continue to see problems in Piper’s doctrine of God and I still want to challenge the ‘glory’ which he speaks of. But I’ve very much valued his teaching on hedonism. And I think it can be strengthened (not weakened) by the insistence that happiness is found – from Top to bottom – in self-giving love.
Anyway, if you want to see how I ran the Desiring God discussion group – the handouts are here. Session 1 is where I diverge from the book.