The Accommodation Of Hedonism

From what I read, Christopher Hitchens, the renowned atheist who recently passed away from cancer, would not have shied away from the label hedonist. After all, Wikipedia notes that he referred to himself as an Epicurean.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hedonism as “the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life.”

Not many people would quibble with the idea that it’s right and proper for a sane person to go about finding satisfaction of desires. I mean, are we supposed to look for unhappiness instead? Are we supposed to search out opportunities for slavery or deprivation?

Actually the fact that so few Americans would find fault with a life lived in pursuit of pleasure clarifies the guiding philosophy of our day. We are, quite frankly, hedonists.

I shudder at the thought because I remember studying hedonism in school in connection to ancient Rome where toga-wearing Caesars were fed grapes by scantily-clad slaves, where they would gorge themselves then throw up so they could continue “enjoying” the feast, where orgies were routine. Drunkenness and debauchery seem the most appropriate words to describe what I thought of in conjunction with hedonism.

And now, hedonism is us.

Little did I realize back in those school days that in my lifetime young girls would binge and purge, that drunkenness and debauchery would describe a lot of college life, that “threesomes” would become a TV joke, that “dating” would be replaced by one-night stands and marriage by “relationships.”

As if all this isn’t bad enough, I look at the Church, and I see many professing Christians accommodating hedonism. Some do so in an unapologetic, aggressive way, saying that God has promised His children good gifts so we ought to be holding Him to His word by naming and claiming what we want.

Others are more circumspect, involving themselves in political movements that would ensure a continuation of the privileges of living in a wealthy, capitalistic society.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not an advocate of socialism in any form, but neither do I believe the Church should take up the fight to preserve capitalism. The truth is, one system is built on laziness and the other on greed, so it’s a little like picking your poison.

Except, with our hedonistic beliefs these days, not so many people recognized the poison of greed — unless, of course, it’s corporate greed. Corporate, that great nameless monolith that we can blame for all the ills of society, because goodness knows, Man certainly can’t be to blame.

In a round about way, this brings me back to my beginning — that innocuous definition of hedonism in the dictionary, the one so few people would mind being associated with. It’s hard to call someone greedy when they are simply trying to satisfy their desires, the same as everyone else.

There’s an unspoken understanding that people should play fair in the process, and those who don’t such as Fanny Mae and Bernie Madoff, deserve our wrath. But those racking up millions by playing baseball or basketball in Southern California? Glad to have you here among us. And wouldn’t we like to be just like you!

The problem for the Christian in accommodating this attitude, even in our subtle ways, is that we no longer imagine satisfaction without the pleasures of life, as if somehow God isn’t enough to satisfy us — just He, Himself.

How ironic when Paul says that to live is Christ. In a short passage to the Colossians he refers to knowing Christ as wealth, riches, and treasure. I wonder what we the Church in America would name as our wealth, riches, and treasure.

Published in: on January 5, 2012 at 6:51 pm  Comments (9)  
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  1. Great post, Becky! It really makes me think…

    I want to be happy; to be content. As you pointed out, we all want those things. But–I don’t necessarily equate the fulfillment of those desires with earthly wealth or doing just anything that I want to do, nor do I think that it is hedonistic to seek happiness. I think it’s how you seek happiness and fulfillment that is defined as hedonistic.

    And I think my personal button relating to this issue is “freedom.” I want to be independent and self-supporting. And right away when I write that, I remember that I can’t provide my needs, but that God is! So I try to be faithful and put in the hours of work on my end and ask God to bless my efforts because I also know He doesn’t approve of laziness.

    I don’t think that it’s possible to be hedonistic when you’re seeking to live your life for God’s glory. While being in the will of God doesn’t guarantee perfect happiness, it does create a wonderful peace of mind that I think is worth more than mere happiness could ever account for!


  2. C. S. Lewis: “The Weight of Glory”

    If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

    In Piper’s ‘Desiring God’ he said “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” I’m still trying to understand that. If God does things for His own glory (which I believe), then wouldn’t everyone be most satisfied in Him according to the statement?

    I think the problem is in channeling our ‘hedonistic’ desires into the eternal. The offer of rewards has with it the necessity of sacrifice, of taking up our cross. This has the feel of squelching some of our desires.


  3. Great thoughts, Becky.

    I’d suggest that capitalism can by used for God’s glory, not only greed, because pride-based stuff-grubbing is the distortion of original goodness: ambition, and work for the glory of God. However, with you I wholeheartedly agree: that definition of “capitalism” has been long gone from our society and its Puritan work-ethic roots, themselves rooted in the Scripture. We rarely see anything but the distortion of it. However, those stories — of businessmen seeking to honor God, and even competitors, in their actions! — are out there. I particularly enjoyed a book called Rescuing Ambition, about this, and I feel we need more of these Christian business “biographies” to show how God-honoring business/profit might work.

    In Piper’s ‘Desiring God’ he said “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” I’m still trying to understand that. If God does things for His own glory (which I believe), then wouldn’t everyone be most satisfied in Him according to the statement?

    Hmm, not necessarily, for the rather strange (to us, anyway) reason that God is also glorified when He metes out His justice. Therein lies that perennial paradox of divine sovereignty and meaningful human choice, which I shall not utter here …

    Bob, I found it helpful to look up the philosophical theory of “best of all possible worlds.” This, with a Christian spin, holds that because God does all things to maximize His glory, and He created this world, then it stands to reason that this is the best possible world (universe) that could exist in accordance with God’s nature. God thought it best to create this universe, to show what He was like, and over which He is sovereign — yet still with meaningful choice playing a part in His absolute plan decreed from eternity.

    All this, to be sure, is secondary to Scripture and only supported by what we find in the Word about God’s motives. Not does it by any means remove all mystery (for example, why God would permit/allow/whatever sinners to be punished forever, rather than save all).

    But for those whom God has awakened to His own blazing wonders, who find (as Lewis wrote) that all their other desires are not too strong but too pathetic — these find what Piper rather uniquely calls “Christian Hedonism.” This does not mean that they turn into Osteen-style greedmongers, who believe they ought to “live as a child of the King” just so they thank Him for their stuff (a la the praying Pharisee in Luke 18). It does mean that Christians see God Himself as the only source of true satisfaction and joy. “All the things of earth will grow strangely dim / In the light of His glory and grace.” God Himself is the One we crave and in Whom we delight — which leads to renewed appreciation for other things, but also a willingness to suffer in this life, and forgo lesser pleasures.


  4. Stephen,
    Spiritual things are so mental. It will be easier when they are tactile.
    Thanks for your thoughts.


  5. As a Christian, I am constantly trying to get closer to God. I was reading Julian of Norwich last night and she certainly found delight in God who made us for love and with His love, to be loving to all. This is simple but difficult at the same time but, at times, I have discovered joy and seek to be more loving and compassionate.
    I am most satisfied in life when I am helping others; for me this is pleasure.
    As usual, Becky, you made me think!


  6. Krysti, I think you’ve isolated the key point — happiness isn’t the issue; it’s where we look to find happiness. God does promise us green pastures and still waters, but He is the Living Water, He is the Bread of Life. We are to look to Him and find in Him all that satisfies our souls. When we look elsewhere, even when we look to His gifts instead of to Him, we are missing the mark.

    Thanks for getting this conversation off to such a great start.



  7. Bob, here’s the thing. I think it’s possible to desire spiritual things rather than desiring Christ. I think the experience of God can be so beautiful, so intense, so dear, that we long for the experience over and over. But the experience is not God.

    Same with other rewards. For years I went through a cycle of intimate moments with God, followed by a desire for intimate moments with God, which ruined the intimacy I was experiencing with God, then repentance, and an intimate moment with God.

    The problem was the shift in my desire, from longing for God to longing for an experience.

    I started to make myself crazy, trying to discern my motives, trying to want the right thing. I don’t think there’s a five point plan to follow to lead us away from desiring the wrong things or the right things in the wrong way, or the right things more than we should in comparison to desiring Christ. Such would make the matter more complicated than it needs to be, I think.

    It boils down to loving Christ and loving Him more today than I did yesterday, I think. When we love someone, really, we don’t feel differently about them when they have bad breath or are wearing grubby clothes. Or when they’re in the hospital or forget our birthday. Our love isn’t conditioned on the pleasure we’re receiving, because none of those things is particularly pleasurable.

    So too with Christ, our love for Him should be divorced from any pleasure we derive from Him. We love Him because He is worthy, above all others, to be loved.

    And then, amazingly, as our love grows, even in the unpleasantness of life — not His unpleasantness, to be sure, but the suffering we might encounter because of our relationship with Him or our obedience to Him — we find a deeper love, a greater intimacy, a stronger trust. Rewards inexplicable.

    I’ll have to think some more about your question regarding Piper’s statement. Off hand I think the answer lies in God giving us the ability to choose Him or not, but I know that flies in the face of what many think about God’s sovereignty.



  8. Stephen, it looks like I responded to you in my response to Bob. Thanks for joining in this conversation.

    I guess because I see and have experienced the confusion between loving God and loving His gifts/rewards/the experience of intimacy with Him, I balk at the “Christian hedonism” term. Put together with the Oxford English definition, the two seem entirely incongruous. To love God should be our highest goal, not to experience pleasure in God’s presence or because of what God has given, or any other thing.

    Hence, I think Piper is missing the boat with that characterization. We ought not to be so divided — enjoying the good gifts of Christ moves us off point. I should love and enjoy Christ whether I am in want or in plenty, and that includes whether I feel close to Him or not. Loving Him in this way is the secret to contentment.

    C. S. Lewis was saying essentially the same thing in the quote Bob included. Christ is the holiday at the sea. All else are the mud pies we look for, long for, rejoice when we have, moan and groan when they are gone. But goodness, we have a holiday at the sea! Who cares about the mud pies, which ones we have and which ones we don’t?



  9. Jane, thank you for your comment.

    This is simple but difficult at the same time

    So true! As I said in one of my earlier comments — to Bob, I think — I went through a period where I was making myself crazy trying to analyze my motives. Was I doing this or that out of self-interest or because I loved God and wanted to obey Him? I was constantly checking and repenting and checking to see if I was repenting for the right reasons. It was hard.

    And now it is easy.

    I know my motives are a mixed bag. All I can do is throw myself on His mercy and ask Him to teach me to love Him as I ought.

    One thing I know, though — my relationship with God is about Him, not me, and yet He delights in giving to me through it. What a gracious, generous God we have.



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