“God is most glorified when I am most satisfied in him” is a phrase I hear in a broad range of Christian circles. It’s the main thesis of John Piper in Desiring God. It’s an interesting concept, and one which I’ve heard used to justify a variety of theological and ethical positions so I figured I’d have a look at what the man himself had to say.
The basis of Piper’s argument is that God is the most happy being around because he is sovereign and his purposes are always fulfilled. God may be grieved in the short term, or in Piper’s terms, in the narrow lens, but even those grievous sins do not thwart his purposes and God sees this in his wide-angle lens: “This mosaic in all its parts – good and evil – brings him delight.”
God pursues his own glory and loves to behold his glory in his created works, which is where creation and redemption fit in. “And since this original happiness was God’s delight in his own glory, therefore the happiness that he has in all his works of creation and redemption is nothing other than a delight in his own glory.” So by us being joyful in God, God is made joyful and is glorified. This, according to Piper is why Scripture exhorts us to delight in God. And this joy is not just something for Heaven, but for right now, that we may glorify him now.
Key to this is understanding that our happiness can not be taken separately from God’s. “The pursuit of our interest and our happiness is never above God’s but always in God’s.” I think this is the essential building block in keeping this from becoming about selfishness. However, in our relationships both with God and others, Piper is clear: “Selfishness seeks its happiness at the expense of others. Love seeks its happiness in the happiness of the beloved.” The second half of the book unpacks this. What does it look like to live for God’s happiness and to serve others with money, marriage, missions?
As Piper introduced his thesis, I kept thinking, “But what about….?” What about self-denial in the Christian life? What about when it’s hard to be a Christian? What about when I don’t feel like worshipping God? Piper is well aware of the objections to his work though and addresses them along the way, as well as including a section specifically answering them in the epilogue. I liked that. I think it’s an indication of a well rounded argument and I certainly found many of my own objections answered.
Secondly, Piper argues that our deep desire for more of God, for satisfaction in him, is not our own selfishness but rather the work of the Spirit who has regenerated us. He uses a hypothetical conversation with Dorothy Day, who worked with the “poor, displaced and downtrodden” and said “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing”. I’ve included a bit here because it helped me to work out the mechanics of desiring God.
Piper [representative of the downtrodden]: Why are you doing this for me, Miss Day?
Day: Because I love you.
Piper: What do you mean, you love me? I don’t have anything to offer. I’m not worth loving.
Day: Perhaps. But there are no application forms for my love. I learned that from Jesus. What I mean is, I want to help you because Jesus has helped me so much.
Piper: So you are trying to satisfy your “wants”?
Day: I suppose so, if you want to put it like that…. I work for what brings me the greatest joy: your joy.
Piper: Thank you. Now I know that you love me.
It seems to me that John Piper has written this book as a polemic against dry spirituality. He is highly critical of Christians whose hearts are not engaged in the worship of God. He attributes such notions to the Kantian philosophy “that high moral acts must be free from self-interest.” Instead, he endeavors to show that the Bible’s message is quite different, that worship is to delight oneself in God and thereby carries emotion by definition. I think this is a poignant lesson and the book’s greatest strength.
I have one minor quibble with Piper’s book and a more significant one. The minor one is that he spends much more of his introduction quoting Blaise Pascal and CS Lewis than giving me a biblical reason for why I should consider Christian hedonism. But the rest of the book is pretty saturated with Scripture, so I’ll get over it.
My mores significant problem is that although Piper sees our desire for God as a result of our regeneration, I felt that his call to glorify God was too centred on me and what I can do. Consider this passage about worship:
There are three stages of worship… There is the final stage in which we feel an unencumbered joy in the manifold perfections of God… In a prior stage that we often taste, we do not feel fullness, but rather longing and desire… We honor the water from a mountain spring not only by the satisfied “ahhh” after drinking our fill, but also by the unquenched longing to be satisfied while still climbing to it…. In the lowest stage of worship – where all genuine worship starts, and where it often returns for a dark season – is the barrenness of soul that scarcely feels any longing, and yet is still granted the grace of repentant sorrow for feeling so little love.
I can see what Piper’s getting at here. He doesn’t want us to be lazy in loving and enjoying God. But this fails to account for the way that God is glorified in Jesus. A Christian leader once asked me what happens to our relationship with God when we are so dry, we can not or perhaps do not even want to pray. And as I held my breath for the answer, he spoke these heartwarming words, “When you are too dry even to pray, Jesus sits at God’s right hand and intercedes for you.” There is great comfort in this, that God is glorified through the work of the Son, even and perhaps especially when I do not have the strength.
And I draw great reassurance from this. For if I had to get myself right with God, to be totally spiritually satisfied and joyful before I was of any use, I would never even get started. I would lock myself in a monastery because my motivation for praising God will never be pure and I will never serve him purely for satisfaction in his glory. Until the return of Jesus, my every action will be polluted by sin. Even when I feel ‘unencumbered joy’. And so I am so thankful for Jesus and so grateful that God will be glorified, no matter what.
I’ve seen this book used to speak against self-denial in the Christian life; to justify a purely vertical relationship with God, apart from others; and also to seek one’s own pleasure, no matter how sinful. I was relieved to discover that Piper would be horrified by each of these ideas (though unsurprised that the human heart can twist these truths so easily). What’s on view here are Christians who delight in God, who deny themselves lesser joys so that they don’t lose the big ones. It is profoundly eschatological in that sense and yet it is a call for the here and now. It’s about a God who offers not just relationship with himself, the best and most satisfying gift of all, but indeed life to the full!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.