BFF: MacDonald, Lewis, and.....Piper???

John Piper gets knocked about not infrequently by admirers of George MacDonald, especially on account of the infamous video in which he and Tim Keller decided that the Scotsman was not really a Christian. It's easy to understand how MacDonald's statement at the end of his great sermon, Justice, that he turned "with loathing" from Jonathan Edwards' portrait of God, irked Piper, since Edwards is an icon to many Reformed theologians.

When Piper turned his back on MacDonald because of those words, it was his loss; even an arch supralapsarian Calvinist can find much of value in MacDonald's writing. However, if we decide that someone as intelligent and devout as Piper can have nothing of value to say to us, we also lose out. Not to mention that occasionally reading the best ideas of those we disagree with is good for us; sometimes we can be shocked to realize that we've been arguing against a caricature, not the real flesh-and-blood human being. 

John Piper's book, Desiring God, subtitled Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, has the goal of persuading the reader that

The chief end of man is to glorify God
enjoying Him forever.

Both MacDonald and Lewis had much to say about God as the ultimate source of joy in our lives. The true child of God, said MacDonald, trusts in the Father, "and looks to him as the source of life, the gladness of being." And of course this was a major theme for Lewis in Surprised by Joy and many other of his writings. So, in the Heavenly Tea and Coffee Shoppe, sometime in the distant future, I'm imagining Lewis and his "master" waving to Piper to pull up a chair and join their conversation. Here's some of what Piper has to say, from the first chapter of Desiring God

"When I was in college, I had a vague, pervasive notion that if I did something good because it would make me happy, I would ruin its goodness. I figured that the goodness of my moral action was lessened to the degree that I was motivated by a desire for my own pleasure....Then I was converted to Christian Hedonism. In a matter of weeks I came to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him. (Don't miss those last two words: in Him. Not His gifts, but Him...)

"During my first quarter in seminary, I was introduced to the argument for Christian Hedonism and one of its great exponents, Blaise Pascal. He wrote: 'All men seek happiness...The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.'

"This statement so fit with my own deep longings, and all that I had ever seen in others, that I accepted it and have never found any reason to doubt it...It is a law of the human heart, as gravity is a law of nature. This thought made great sense to me and opened the way for the second discovery. 

"I had grown to love the works of C.S. Lewis in college. But not until later did I buy the sermon called 'The Weight of Glory.' It goes like this: 

"'...If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit 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 about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us...'

"The next insight came again from C.S. Lewis, but this time from his Reflections on the Psalms. Chapter 9 of Lewis's book bears the modest title 'A Word about Praise.' In my experience it has been the word about praise--the best word on the nature of praise I have ever read.

"Lewis says that as he was beginning to believe in God, a great stumbling block was the presence of demands scattered through the Psalms that he should praise God. He did not see the point in all this; besides, it seemed to picture God as craving 'for our worship like a vain woman who wants compliments.' He goes on to show why he was wrong:

Piper then quotes Lewis, including his insight that 'all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise...The world rings with praise--lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet...I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.'

"I saw this not only in C.S. Lewis, but also in the eighteenth-century pastor Jonathan Edwards. No one had ever taught me that God is glorified by our joy in Him. That joy in God is the very thing that makes praise an honor to God and not hypocrisy. But Edwards said it so clearly and powerfully:

"'...God is glorified not only by His glory's being seen, but by its being rejoiced in...He that testifies his idea of God's glory [doesn't] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.'

[Sidenote: Observe, please, that MacDonald turned with loathing from Edwards' portrait of God, not from Edwards himself!]

"This was a stunning discovery for me," Piper goes on to say. "I must pursue joy in God if I am to glorify Him as the surpassingly valuable Reality in the universe. Joy is not a mere option alongside worship. It is an essential component of worship."

"Then I turned to the Psalms for myself and found the language of Hedonism everywhere. The quest for pleasure was not even optional, but commanded: 'Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart' (Psalm 37:4)...I found that the goodness of God, the very foundation of worship, is not a thing you pay your respects to out of some kind of disinterested reverence. No, it is something to be enjoyed: 'Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!' (Psalm 34:8).

Piper addresses objections that some might raise; for example, explaining that "Christian Hedonism does not mean God becomes a means to help us get worldly pleasures. The pleasure Christian Hedonism seeks is the pleasure that is in God Himself." And, responding to the critique of Richard Mouw, "Christian Hedonism is not a 'general theory of moral justification.'...

"The distinguishing feature of Christian Hedonism," Piper writes, "is not that pleasure-seeking demands virtue, but that virtue consists essentially, though not only, in pleasure-seeking." This conclusion, he explains, was arrived at because he "must come to terms with divine commands:

  • to love mercy, not just do it (Micah 6:8, KJV),
  • to do 'acts of mercy, with cheerfulness' (Romans 12:8)," and Piper provides many more quotes along similar lines. "When you reflect long and hard on such amazing commands," Piper observes, "the moral implications are stunning. Christian Hedonism attempts to take these divine commands with blood-earnestness. The upshot is piercing and life changing: The pursuit of true virtue includes the pursuit of the joy because joy is an essential component of true virtue. This is vastly different from saying, 'Let's all be good because it will make us happy.'"

Now, I don't want to downplay the enormous differences in the way that Piper and Lewis and MacDonald look God and man; some of their positions are polar opposites. And the reason that topics such as double predestination are of more than academic interest to me is that I take seriously the command to love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind; to love and find joy in the God of Edwards and Piper is, for this Christian, quite a struggle. But there is, nonetheless, much to be gained from reading Desiring God, and I'll conclude this musing with a few lines from Chapter 1, which is titled The Happiness of God

If God were not infinitely and divinely happy, Piper posits, there would be no basis for Christian Hedonism. It would be interesting to debate that proposition, but let's save that for another day; what interests me is approach Piper takes in supporting this idea: 

"Can you imagine what it would be like if the God who ruled the world were not happy? ...We would all relate to God like little children who have a frustrated, gloomy, dismal, discontented father. They can't enjoy him...the aim of the Christian Hedonist is to be happy in God, to delight in God, to cherish and enjoy His fellowship and favor. But children cannot enjoy the fellowship of their Father if He is unhappy. Therefore the foundation of Christian Hedonism is the happiness of God."

George MacDonald frequently based his sermons on the Fatherhood of God, and the relationship between the Father and us, his children. While the Scotsman was not one to supply proof texts to support each of his positions (I suspect he left that as our homework!), it's worth noting that Jesus himself guided our reasoning in this way, drawing inferences from our notions of what an earthly father would do--even fallen as we are!-- to hint at the far greater Fatherly goodness we can expect of God  (Matthew 7:11/Luke 11:13). Yes, Piper, MacDonald, and Lewis each reached different conclusions about God and man; but on this topic of the quest for joy, there is much on which the three men agree.