It’s O.K. to pursue personal happiness in God. In fact it’s required

I know I’m late to the party, but I am persuaded that John Piper is right about so-called “Christian hedonism”: that God is most glorified in us (n.b. we exist to glorify God) when we are most satisfied in him.”

Only Piper, perhaps, had the audacity to give this biblical truth a name—an intentionally provocative one at that—but it’s not like I haven’t read or heard about the concept in the work of others. For instance, on PZ’s Podcast, whenever my hero Paul Zahl compares God’s love to the songs by Journey (“the greatest rock band”), he’s really talking about Christian hedonism. We ought to find our greatest joy in Jesus Christ. 

Did you hear that, Brent? You ought to find the greatest joy in Jesus Christ. Being a Christian is supposed to make you happy. Full stop. For as long as God gives you life in this world, he intends for you to be fully satisfied in him. And then get heaven when you die!

But, but, but… This sounds like self-interest. Yes, it does. Because it is. And that’s O.K.

We Christians are like the Prodigal Son. Why does he return home? Is it because, more than anything, he feels sorry for the emotional and financial harm he caused his father and brother and wants to make it up to them as best he can? Hardly! While his sorrow may have played a secondary role in his repentance, the primary reason he repents and returns home is that he’s starving. “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!” (Luke 15:17)

We are also like the Samaritan woman at the well. When you consider her impact on her town, she might be the most successful evangelist in history:

So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to him…

Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:29-30, 39-42).

What motivates her to serve Jesus in this way—if “serve” is even the right word? (Note by contrast our reluctance to speak a word of witness about our faith!) It is nothing other than joy, which results from her having found in Christ a “spring of water welling up to eternal life,” such that she will “never be thirsty again” (John 4:14).

To say the least, her joy—her happiness, her satisfaction in Christ—comes first. Before she “left her water jar and went away into town” (John 4:28), she experienced joy.

We present-day Christians often get it backwards. The message we often hear from pulpits and best-selling Christian authors is, in so many words, first, “leave your water jar and go into town” and then you’ll find your happiness. Or worse: Maybe you won’t find happiness at all, but that’s tough. Living the Christian life is about gritting your teeth and getting to work.

This is why “serving” Jesus should not be the primary metaphor for the good work we do for Jesus. Before anything else, as Piper likes to say, the gospel is not a “help wanted” sign; it’s a “help available” sign. And everyone needs that help at all times.

I often hear Christians say that they’re “blessed to be a blessing,” and I might agree with the sentiment, depending on what they mean. Do they mean, “God fills me first with such joy and satisfaction in his Son Jesus that it’s my pleasure to go out and bless others. Indeed, when I do bless others, I experience even more of Jesus, so that makes me even happier”? In which case I agree!

Or do they mean, “God has equipped me with these blessings in life—like money, health, and time—as a means to an end: in order to give myself away in service to others, such that pursuing my own personal happiness in life is misguided, sinful, and selfish.”  If that’s what they mean by “blessed to be a blessing,” I can’t agree.

Because in my experience, “being a blessing” in this way—as an end in itself—can never fill up my tank. I don’t want to do “service” in that way. Besides, when I do, I’ll only be filled with resentment. Don’t get me wrong: I can “white-knuckle” my way through service to Jesus with the best of them; I can fake people out; but Jesus, as always, sees my heart. I’m never faking him out.

Surely there’s a better way!

And there is! Whatever good work I do, I do because it makes me happy. Because Jesus makes me happy. Because drinking from his living water and eating from his “bread of life” satisfies my deepest longing. He intends for it to do so.

Jesus himself points to this truth in John 4:32 and 34, after his disciples wonder why Jesus suddenly isn’t hungry, even though it’s long past dinner time, and he hasn’t eaten yet: “But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ … My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”

Let’s imagine that this “food” to which Jesus refers is food that he wants to eat. It’s steak, in other words—not broccoli or Brussels sprouts. Is Jesus not helping himself (because who doesn’t want steak when you’re hungry) as he is also, at the same time, accomplishing God’s will?

Imagine being so happy in our heavenly Father—so nourished spiritually—that you can be completely satisfied in God even with a growling stomach! Jesus reminded us earlier that “man doesn’t live by bread alone”; here he lives it out.

Please don’t misunderstand: Notice I said above that being a blessing “as an end in itself” is a problem for me. Like the Samaritan woman, it isn’t a desire to “serve” or “be a blessing” that motivated her to witness to her fellow townspeople. It was the satisfaction of her soul’s deepest longing that she finds in Christ. Apart from this—if my experience as a failed evangelist is any guide—it’s unlikely that she’d find the courage or energy to do what she does. (After all, I can safely say that for the vast majority of us Christians, whatever currently motivates us to “witness using words” isn’t working. Right? Imagine doing it, first, because it makes us happy.)

This morning I was reading Zechariah, who prophesied in the time of the exiles’ return from Babylon, when the temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt. In this passage of hope, the prophet writes the following:

But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, declares the Lord of hosts. For there shall be a sowing of peace. The vine shall give its fruit, and the ground shall give its produce, and the heavens shall give their dew. And I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. And as you have been a byword of cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so will I save you, and you shall be a blessing. Fear not, but let your hands be strong (Zechariah 8:11-13).

“You shall be a blessing,” he writes, by which he’s referring to the blessing of salvation for the world that God promised to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3. God’s people Israel, he says, will now resume their role in the mission for which God created this nation in the first place: to bear witness to God and point to the forgiveness of sin that’s available through Israel’s Messiah Jesus. We are continuing this mission as the church—the Great Commission—although we do so now with the full revelation of God’s Son and his gospel.

But before we get to the mission… The vine shall give its fruit, and the ground shall give its produce, and the heavens shall give their dew. And I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things.” As I wrote in my journaling Bible this morning:

However these blessings from God manifest themselves in our lives today—as God’s people today—they are the wellspring from which mission flows. This was certainly true of the Samaritan woman at the well; surely it’s true for us! Our “blessing” of others—our mission to others—springs from a heart that finds its ultimate satisfaction in Jesus. We are blessed… then we bless others. The blessing comes first. If we try to reverse the order, we will find that living a Christian life is exhausting.

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