You are all aware, I’m quite sure, that there is an eternity of difference between saying, “Delight yourself,” and “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4). The former is pagan or secular hedonism. The latter is Christian Hedonism. So let’s unpack this notion that our delight or joy is to be in God. And the question is: Why, and what does that mean?
In order to answer that, I want to direct your attention to a footnote. Strange as it may sound, often times the most powerful and transforming of truths can be found in footnotes rather than in the main text of a book. In the 2000 edition of The Pleasures of God, on page 26, footnote 3, John Piper writes this:
“The truth that God is infinitely happy in the fellowship of the Trinity is . . . the ground of our ever-increasing happiness, as God grants us the unspeakable privilege of enjoying God with the very joy of God” (p. 26, The Pleasures of God , note 3).
Although I’m sure that this truth is unpacked and explained in a variety of ways elsewhere in the book, for some reason this particular way of articulating the foundation of Christian Hedonism has always stuck with me and exerted a profound influence on the way I think about God and my relationship to him.
Piper’s point here is that if God is not infinitely happy in the fellowship of the Trinity, we forfeit and lose all hope of ever experiencing our own “ever-increasing happiness.” The foundation of Christian Hedonism is that God is himself a joyful and infinitely happy God who “grants us the unspeakable privilege” of enjoying him in the same way that he enjoys himself. His joy in himself becomes our joy in him through the gracious, redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
I assume you are familiar with those many biblical texts that undergird and give meaning to what we call Christian Hedonism. Of the many passages that I could cite, there are a handful that have one common element, one theme that unites them, or perhaps I should say that there appears to be an underlying assumption they all share apart from which Christian Hedonism makes no sense. Listen to these texts and see if you can identify what I have in mind.
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
“For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence” (Psalm 21:6). This could be translated more literally, “you make him joyful in joy with your face.”
“They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Psalm 36:8).
“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master’” (Matt. 25:23; also v. 21).
“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
“But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13).
What is it that ties all these texts, and many others that I don’t have time or space to mention, together? Or, to put it in other terms, what is the underlying assumption in each of these passages that alone serves to make sense of them all? The underlying assumption, apart from which none of these texts makes sense and apart from which there is no validity in Christian Hedonism, is that God in himself is infinitely joyful. He is, in himself, pure, unadulterated delight. He is, in himself, holy happiness.
This joy or happiness or delight that is found in the Godhead is primarily the joy and delight that God takes or finds in beholding himself. No one has expressed this with greater clarity than has Jonathan Edwards. He did so in his attempt to explain the mutual relationships that exist among the three persons of the Godhead.
“When we speak of God's happiness, the account that we are wont to give of it is that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of himself, in perfectly beholding and infinitely loving, and rejoicing in, his own essence and perfections. And accordingly it must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of himself, as it were an exact image and representation of himself ever before him and in actual view. And from hence arises a most pure and perfect energy in the Godhead, which is the divine love, complacence and joy” (Discourse on the Trinity, Yale, 21).
Some of you may have words to describe what Edwards just said, but “clarity” isn’t one of them. So let me try to explain what he means. Edwards speaks of God having “a most perfect idea of himself” which is “an exact image and representation of himself.” This “perfect idea” or “exact image” of himself, of course, is the Word of God, the Son of God, the second person of the Godhead. He, that is the Son, the second person of the Trinity, “is the eternal, necessary, perfect, substantial and personal idea which God hath of himself.”
Between the Father and the Son there is “an infinitely holy and sweet energy” or love and mutual joy, each one delighting in the other, which is nothing other than the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead. Edwards feels justified in drawing this conclusion:
“And this I suppose to be that blessed Trinity that we read of in the holy Scriptures. The Father is the Deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the Deity in its direct existence. The Son is the Deity generated by God's understanding, or having an idea of himself, and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the Deity subsisting in act or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth, in God's infinite love to and delight in himself. And I believe the whole divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the divine idea and divine love, and that therefore each of them are properly distinct persons.”
I realize I probably lost most of you with that quotation, so let me unpack it for you.
The inner life of God is such that the Father gazes upon himself, or beholds the perfect idea of himself, which is the Son. The Son gazes back, and in this mutual admiration and enjoyment they together spirate or breathe forth perfect happiness, which is the Holy Spirit. God is thus eternally happy in that he perfectly and infinitely beholds himself, which is the perfect idea of God, and love arises in this mutual beholding, a love or delight that Edwards identifies as the Holy Spirit.
This dynamic of delight within the Triune God is both the foundation and pattern for what God’s saving grace produces in the experience of the elect. Our “religious affections” are the same experience of God that God has of himself. And in this is God glorified. Edwards sums it up in his sermon, “Nothing Upon Earth Can Represent the Glories of Heaven” (Yale, 14:153):
“How good is God, that he has created man for this every end, to make him happy in the enjoyment of himself, the Almighty, who was happy from the days of eternity in himself, in the beholding of his own infinite beauty: the Father in the beholding and love of his Son, his perfect and most excellent image, the brightness of his own glory; and the Son in the love and enjoyment of the Father. And God needed no more. . . . ‘Twas not that he might be made more happy himself, but that [he] might make something else happy; that he might make them blessed in the beholding of his excellency, and might this way glorify himself.”
Religious affection doesn’t start with us, it starts with God. The Triune God experiences delight and joy and satisfaction in and with himself, which in turn, by saving and redemptive grace, becomes the experience of the elect as they find delight, joy, and satisfaction in God. Thus God glorifies himself by graciously enabling his elect to participate in his own self-delight and self-satisfaction.
We as creatures, in our own affections, mirror God’s own inner life. That is to say, there is in us a correspondence to the inner life of the Trinity. Just as God (that’s the Father) understands himself (that’s the Son) and finds joy in it (that’s the Spirit), so we, by his grace, understand God and find joy in him. And in this is he most glorified.
Thus “religious affections” are not merely a way to account for our psychological or spiritual makeup or even to explain the nature of spiritual revival as occurred in the First Great Awakening. Religious affections are nothing short of the primary way in which God’s purpose in creating the world is realized. God’s elect and redeemed creatures, that’s us, mirror in our experience of him his own experience of himself. Religious affections in the elect, that’s us, are God’s preeminent way of glorifying himself.
This is what leads me to conclude that fullness of joy is said to be “in God’s presence” (Ps. 16:11), not because joy is a thing or object or stuff that exists outside of God, off to the right or left, as it were. Joy is not a creation of God. Joy is an attribute of God. Joy is not something that God gives. Joy is something that God is. The pleasures that are forevermore, that never lose their capacity to enthrall and delight and fascinate, are not pleasures that God thought up or spoke into existence ex nihilo. They are the pleasures that God himself experiences in being God. God takes immeasurable delight in who he is. He thinks on himself, sees himself, ponders himself, reflects on himself in the person of the Son, loves himself, and feels pleasure.
Thus we need to get something straight about the joy that eternally energizes the heart of God and serves to make God God. Joy is not like the billions of stars that fill the galaxies. Joy is not like an apple tree or a beam of light or a quark. Joy is not a product of creation. Joy is not something external to God that he has brought into existence out of nothing. Joy is thus not something extrinsic to God that he gives but something intrinsic to God that he is. God is able to awaken and sustain joy in us because joy is eternally present and sustained in him.
It makes no sense for us to hear the call or respond to the command to “delight” ourselves in the Lord (Psalm 37:4) if he is not himself a “delightful” person. Who would ever have thought it a good idea that would appeal to others to encourage someone to delight themselves in an ogre or a sourpuss or stern taskmaster or a killjoy or someone who struggles with depression or someone with a melancholy personality? This is the underlying assumption of the exhortation that we typically tend to overlook. We run immediately to the delight that we experience when we obey this command and fail to remember that there is a blessing and benefit in delighting ourselves in God only because God is himself an infinitely and immeasurably delightful person.
I think the same thing may be said about Psalm 16:11. There David provides us with an incentive to pursue God rather than the things of the world or the things of the flesh. It is in God’s presence that we will find “fullness of joy” and at his right hand that we experience “pleasures forevermore.” But why? What is the basis or the underlying assumption of this promise?
I don’t think David is merely saying that we should come to God and trust and believe him because he creates and gives or distributes joy and pleasure, although he surely does that. Lurking beneath the surface of David’s exhortation is his belief that God is himself characterized by and filled with joy and that God himself is sheer pleasure, unparalleled delight. In other words, both Psalm 16:11 and 37:4 are true first and foremost because of what they assume to be true about God himself.
Another way of saying the same thing is that God is not to be viewed primarily as a giver of gifts. Rather, he is the gift he gives. His experience of joy in being God and the pleasures he experiences as God are themselves what we find when we come to him, abide in his presence, and focus the pursuit of our delight on him.
So what is it that accounts for this unparalleled joy in God himself? Answer: God himself! The ground of God’s joy as God is God’s joy in God! If God only creates joy and then imparts it to our souls or if he only gives joy as an experience absent from his own internal life, then he can just as easily take it back. If joy isn’t intrinsic to who God is, he can give it or withhold it. And once he gives it, he can always withdraw it. But if joy is itself intrinsic to the being of God, then he can’t deny himself. He can’t act contrary to his own character. And the ground or basis for our pursuing God “for” joy is that we are confident that God “is” joy!