Posted by: Alex | June 5, 2011

Word Games and the Joy of Worship in Desiring God

Continuing to work through John Piper’s manifesto, Desiring GodLast time we dove headlong into a detailed philosophical discussion of the foundation of Christian Hedonism as Piper lays it out in his first chapter.  My conclusion was that there were several serious problems facing Piper’s model which prevented it from really getting started.  I also noted, however, that what Piper is doing is very similar to the theology of Plato and Aristotle, and that his few subtle changes to their “classical” theology is what makes the problems his model faces particularly vicious.  Most of the Christian tradition has to some extent interacted with the model of Plato and Aristotle, so that Piper is indebted to them is not entirely new.  In fact, my observation reading through the book has been that Piper alternates between two modes of writing.  First, he makes very general theological statements borrowing from the “classical” tradition which many, perhaps most, Christians would affirm without much reservation.  Then he switches gears a bit and tries to work in the subtle twists to the tradition which distinguish his “Christian Hedonism.”  These twists are were I have generally found his argument most problematic.

So for instance, take the second chapter of the book, which is about conversion.  Most of what Piper writes is so very broad that I think any evangelical could affirm it, whether they claim to be Calvinist, Arminian, Wesleyan, or from some other theological camp.  Piper doesn’t use much “technical” language- there is no talk of predestination in this chapter, for instance.  As I read it I thought that his description of God’s grace initiating salvation could just as easily describe the Wesleyan notion of prevenient grace as it could the Calvinist doctrine of regeneration (though he does actually use the term “regeneration” his discussion of it is not nearly specific enough to exclude the Wesleyan idea).  Ultimately, most of the chapter is not at all controversial because it is just so broad and non-specific.  Which is not really a complaint- this is one of several chapters where I have genuinely admired Piper as a pastor who could minister to the entire “big tent” of evangelicalism, whether or not they accepted all the finer points of his theology.  After my deeply critical reading of his first chapter, I found myself in agreement with many of the points Piper makes in this chapter.  Or, I guess I should say, at least with the way those points are written in this chapter, which is, again, without much specific content.  I suspect if we got into a more technical theological conversation that agreement would disappear rather quickly.

Where Piper attempts to throw a twist into the very generally Christian account he has put forward is with his discussion of “joy.”  He notes first the standard tradition:

How then does this arrival of joy relate to saving faith?  The usual answer is that joy is the fruit of faith.  (71)

Piper wants to tweak this normal understanding, however, and to do this he invokes the text that will become more or less his cornerstone for much of this book:

But there is another way of looking at the relationship of joy an faith.  In Hebrews 11:6 the writers says, “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”  In other words, the faith that pleases God is a confidence that God will reward us when we come to Him.  (71)

Here is Piper’s hedonism at work: we pursue God with our reward in mind.  What is interesting is that Piper immediately puts limitations on this- he is well aware of the dangers of leaving that statement as is.  The health, wealth, and prosperity gospel could well be called Christian Hedonism if all Piper meant by it was the bare statement “pursue God with your reward in mind.”  Piper I think would be quick to critique such preachers, however.  He intends for this reward to be taken in a heavenly sense:

“Surely the reward we long for is the glory of God Himself and the perfected companionship of Christ” (71).

Here is where I think Piper’s hedonism turns into a mere word game.  Recall the more traditional approach we talked about at the end of the last post.  The motive there is an admiration for God, a longing for God.  This longing is not motivated by reward but by the object of its admiration- God Godself.  Certainly this longing produces joy- the master critic of art is joyed at the sight of a master creation.  But not because of some “reward” given by the creation to the critic but because of the creation itself.  Piper’s emphasis on the “reward” seems superficial because it seems to take the eye off of the object and put it back on the person, which seems selfish and near-sighted.  His immediate redefinition of “reward” to mean God Godself actually reverts, it would seem, to the more classical model.  So what has Piper done that is different?  I’m honestly not sure, but whatever subtle change he thinks he has accomplished in this word game, it becomes the basis for the rest of his project.

The third chapter, on worship, seems very similar to me.  Piper wants to promote worship that has both “heart and head,” claiming that “worship must engage emotions and thought” (81).  Nothing terribly controversial there until we see where Piper wants to go with this.  Piper wants to claim that “worship is authentic when affections for God arise in the heart as an end in themselves”  (92).  As he unpacks that it seems to me that he means that the emotions produced by worship are the goal of worship.  To defend against the accusation that this misses the point of worship, Piper writes the following:

Someone might object that in making the joy of worship an end in itself, we make God a means to our end rather than our being a means to His end.  Thus, we seem to elevate ourselves above God.  But consider this question:  Which glorifies God more- that is, which reflects back to God more clearly the greatness of His glory- (1) a worship experience that comes to climax with joy in the wonder of God?  Or (2) an experience that comes to climax in a noble attempt to free itself from rapture in order to make a contribution to the goal of God?  (95)

I would argue that Piper has proposed a false dilemma here if he intends for the first option to be exclusive to his understanding of “Christian Hedonism.”  It would seem that the more traditional approach we described at the end of our last post could just as easily claim this first option as Piper could but say that the motivation is admiration for God, not the experience of joy.  This need not be emotionless, as Piper fears, but neither must it put our emotional experience as the end goal of worship.  Piper’s insistence that worship be about the “self-interest” of the worshipper, about the emotions produced (particularly the emotion of “joy”) is what distinguishes his particular model, but it seems intuitively backward from what we normally understand worship to be- adoration of the object for its own sake.  As an aside, this focus on “self-interest” and the invocation of Ayn Rand in this chapter have led me to the conclusion that “Christian Libertarianism” may be a better description of Piper’s system than “Christian Hedonism.”  I think that will pan out more in later discussions.

Now for a true confession:  I am a little intrigued by Piper’s notion of worship because of how we frequently talk about worship- “that music really works for me”; “that experience was what I needed” or the opposite- “that just doesn’t do anything for me,” etc.  As a worship leader, I have struggled with the question of whether I should be trying to create an experience, if doing that is “manipulating” the emotions of the congregation into feeling something that may just be in their head.  I’m about to start a summer job where I will be leading worship for hundreds of youth at a camp in New Hampshire.  Should I be striving to make them “feel” something or should I be trying to “get out of the way” so that they see something of God, whether or not they feel anything emotional?  What I think Piper may be on to is that this is not really an “either/or” question- our experience of God is bound to be on some level emotional.  But there are two ways to look at that: (1) the emotion is a response to the experience of God moving and the real object is the experience of God or (2) the emotion is the goal of the experience.  What I hear Piper arguing for is the second of those options and something in my gut still says the first is the more theologically correct.

What do you think?  Should our self-interest, our “reward,” be our motive for approaching God?  Is “joy” the goal or the consequence of seeking God?



  1. […] Check out two other posts, The Foundation of Christian Hedonism in Desiring God by John Piper and Word Games and the Joy of Worship in Desiring God, for more on the discussion. Tomorrow I leave to begin my summer job as worship coordinator at the […]

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