Paying the Piper

A Critique of John Piper's Desiring God

People who know John Piper personally, or who have sat under his preaching, tell me of his humble Christian spirit. I believe them. Such people tend to read this book as a footnote to the person and character of the author, rather than for what the words actually say. I think that's wonderful, and I wish them joy and peace and happiness serving God the way John Piper himself does, rather than according to what he teaches in this book. Such people will not like this review. Read something else.

I never met John Piper, I never heard him speak, I only read this book. But what I read, I read carefully. My professional specialty is semantics, the correct understanding of a written text (so it may be accurately translated into another, very different, language). I read a borrowed copy of this book four years ago, so I'm not in a position to go back and update it with new insights. However, my experience is that going back over something I wrote several years ago does not improve it. This is about the book Piper wrote. The book has not changed, and neither does my review.

Tom Pittman
2006 January 18

(2014 January 29 addendum) I have only ever read one book by Piper, so these remarks here apply only to that one book. Mostly John Piper seems to stick pretty close to Scripture. If somebody encourages you to think otherwise, you might look at my recent thoughts on the matter, in my blog post "Piper's Pickle" -- TP

The subtitle of his book "Christian Hedonism" (CH) accurately reflects Piper's unChristian focus on personal pleasure. Although he has found a lot of Scripture that seems to support his perspective, I think he missed the main focus of both Jesus Christ's teaching and example, which is self denial. The result looks credible the way heresy looks credible. That's unfortunate, because our generation and our culture is already too self-centered. What we need is a prophetic word calling us to repentance, not urging us further into narcisism.

Detailed Remarks

p.15 First page, Piper completely changes the meaning of the famous Westminster Confession by changing "and" to "BY". He rightly sees that the theologians did not intend two ends of man, but one; he fails to see that the one end is clearly stated in the verse he quotes, "do all to the glory of God." In Piper's corrupted version, the chief end of man is his own pleasure, while the glory of God is but an incidental result of that; the intent of Scripture seems to me to be rather the reverse.

p.16 Piper tries gamely to rescue his aberrant theology by qualifying it "in him." Nice try, but the chief end is still whose pleasure? Not God's, but mine! Piper's problem is that he has started this trek on the wrong path: a fixation on self, on his own motives for worship or whatever. Puritans and Hedonists travel the same selfish road -- looking in opposite directions, to be sure -- but neither of them going in the right direction. Anyone who would follow Christ (that is, be a Christian) must deny himself; self-denial is not about me, not about my pleasure nor my lack thereof, not about me at all. It is about Christ, first, last, and always.

Some time ago one of the ladies in my church complained about her husband in my hearing, that he is "out of touch with his feelings." He actually is a fine, off-the-scale Thinker type like myself, so I took it as an equally valid (or invalid, as the case may be) critique of myself and proceeded to look for ways to test this hypothesis. I soon had ample opportunity to test it on myself, as my feelings welled up over some relational problem. I have feelings, and I felt very deeply the hurt and rejection I experienced with that event (whatever it was, I no longer remember the specifics: they were, after all, unimportant :-) but those feelings were simply unimportant to me in the Big Picture, so I soldiered on and nobody knew the difference. Pleasure is like that. It's a feeling, and God gives it to us -- partly to motivate those who have not yet attained "Complete Enlightenment" so that they will still do good (albeit for their immediate satisfaction), and partly as a just reward for a job well done because the Judge of the Universe is after all still just -- but they are incidental to true worship, and not its purpose.

p.17 The end of the C.S.Lewis quote, "We are far too easily pleased." This is an interesting insight, the significance of which apparently eluded Piper. If the chief end of man is our own pleasure, then we shall surely be satisfied far too soon with whatever pleases us at the moment. No matter how hard Piper struggles to break free of this tarpit, he cannot succeed, because his focus is always on himself. It is only as we get our focus off ourselves and onto Christ as the final end of all that matters, that we (incidentally) achieve the greater joy that comes from that. But if you look for the joy, then too soon we become like the kid on a long car trip, "Are we there yet?"

p.19 The capstone of Piper's emerging hedonism is but another milestone in the larger path, hopefully to be left behind like the rewards we train young children with, so that they will subsequently learn to do good without such bribes. Lewis is quoted, "praise... completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation." In other words, enjoyment leads to praise. Piper turns that around and lets praise lead us to enjoyment. Wrong direction.

p.19 "We have a name for those who try to praise when they have no pleasure in the object. We call them hypocrites." I don't. Hypocrites are people who praise what they do not consider praiseworthy. That's different. Did you see the movie Patton? He stands on the crest of the hill in Africa and shouts into the wind in the direction of Rommel (the German "Desert Fox") "I read your book!" This is unhypocritical praise, but it is not pleasure in Rommel. Playing subtle word games like this does not enlist my enthusiasm for Piper's thesis.

OK, there's his entire thesis. He said so. The rest of the book is defending this thesis against the inevitable detractors, people who (like people of faith down through the ages) really did get the whole Christian message, and see Piper's thesis as defective. If Piper really had the Truth, then the Holy Spirit would have shown it to the Church, and this book would have been superfluous. Through all of history, there have been those people like Joseph Smith and Elijah and now Piper, who became convinced that "everybody is wrong, and I only am left" with the truth. God told Elijah to put a lid on it, and Paul (referring to that incident) reminds us that throughout history God has his "7000 men of Israel who have not bowed the knee to Ba'al and whose lips have not kissed him." Piper's is a much subtler form of the Nicolaitan heresy, but that's what it is.

p.20 "CH... does not mean God becomes a means to help us get worldly pleasures." No, in Piper's CH God becomes a means to help us get OTHER-worldly pleasures. Sort of like the 70 virgins awaiting the Muslim suicide bombers, in heaven. Not a big difference, really.

p.20 "CH does not make a god out of pleasure." At least Piper goes in the right direction, but he does not convincingly support this claim.

p.20 He denies saying "an act is right because it brings pleasure" and distinguishes that from "the amazing... fact that some dimension of joy is a moral duty." True, these are not the same, but they are brothers. Classic Hedonism affirms the first, which implies the second, but Piper could not sell his thesis with that first line in it. The second line seeks not all pleasure, but at least some pleasure. Mature Classic Christianity does not seek pleasure at all, but at the same time does not reject any good gift that God provides.

p.20 Piper finds "in the Bible a divine command to be a pleasure-seeker" -- sort of like a separatist Calvinist finds in that same Bible a divine command to refuse fellowship with Arminians because they are unbelievers. I find neither of those "divine commands", and I don't think any honest reader can.

p.21 Piper quotes seven verses that urge us to do what we do cheerfully, then makes the unwarranted philosophical leap to his CH. He has got the cart before the horse. Certainly we should do those things cheerfully, but that does not make joy the goal of doing those things; it is only the attendant mood. The stated goal, the essence of Christianity and all Godliness, is serving others.

p.22 Piper lucked out on the wording of the Heidelberg chatechism, but it hardly qualifies as Scripture.

p.22 "Quick and superficial judgments will almost certainly be wrong." King Ahab said it better: "Let not him who puts his armor on boast as him who takes it off." Careful analysis of the deep issue here might appear to be as "quick and superficial" as Piper's opening chapter appears. That sword cuts both ways, and one should be careful how one swings it.

p.23 I have no doubt that Piper can show "CH comes from the Bible." So also does Nicolaitanism, and asceticism and flagelationism and Papism and a host of other essentially non-Biblical doctrines. As to whether the Bible actually teaches it, we shall see. The score so far is not very encouraging.

p.33 We don't know what the chief end of God is. He has not told us. Piper is building this chapter on sand.

p.34 God may have the right and power to do whatever makes Him happy -- and He may not have such power: We do not know. We only know He has the right and power to do what He chooses. Whether happiness is a part of the equation, we are not told. It matters not one whit what we might imagine about the happiness of God. We only know what God has told us, and happiness is not in the list. If it were, you can be sure that Piper would have found such a verse in the ten years since he first published this book and defended his theme against nay-sayers (during which he also got support from his disciples), and he would have quoted that verse here in the 10th anniversary edition. But he does not.

It seems to me that Piper is committing the logical fallacy of Begging the Question (aka circular reasoning). He wants the Bible to teach CH, so he reasons inductively from his own fixation on pleasure to the supposition that God is likewise so motivated, then deductively from this supposed nature of God to its appropriateness in himself. While Scripture often admonishes us to imitate the virtues exemplified in God and His Son (the back half of this circle), it nowhere gives any support for imagining that God is like us -- least of all in reflecting our own selfish lusts such as CH.

Being now convinced of God's purpose in His own happiness, the rest of this chapter seems to build on that groundless point. It deserves no further comment.

Ch.2 This chapter on conversion is mostly unadulterated evangelical, and therefore unobjectionable, except...

p.67 "Surely..." Piper uses speculative words like this rather frequently. I do not approve of speculating about the mind of God where God is silent, no matter whether it is my friends (such as ICR) or foes (such as the atheists, both speculating on what an omniscient omnipotent loving God would or would not create). I also don't think much of it when Piper does it.

p.69 "It is not saving faith." Oh my, now Piper has degenerated into vilifying the faith of the people who disagree with him. Saving faith is clearly spelled out in Scriptures like Rom.10:9, with no reference to the pursuit of joy nor anything like that in the whole of chapter 10.

Ch.3 If you snip out the gratuitous (groundless) insertion of the word "joy" here and there, much of this chapter is a fine homily on the Samaritan woman, to which I have no objection. But...

p.78 Piper misunderstands Isa.29:13. It is not for lack of feelings that Jesus criticizes the Pharisees; 'heart' is better translated into English as "their head is somewhere else." Like modern neo-orthodox and Mormons, they use the right words, but they mean something different. It has nothing to do with feelings.

p.78 "Worship is essentially a way of honoring God." Close, but too strong. The Hebrew parallelism merely tells us that the "worship" and "honor" lines are about the same thing; it does not define one of them in terms of the other.

p.78 "Worship is gladly..." Piper recognizes that this conclusion is unjustified from the verses he quotes, and he spends several paragraphs trying to explain it, all without finding Biblical support for it.

p.79 "Where feelings for God are dead, worship is dead." Throughout this book Piper has confused the modern western 'heart' (center of feelings) with the Hebrew 'heart' (center of the person, or self, as distinguished from the gut, which is the center of the feelings). He draws all sorts of invalid conclusions from this confusion.

p.80 This is a nice homily on awe/worship, but unrelated to the topic.

p.81 Worship as an End in itself. This idea may be true, but not for the reasons given.

p.85 "The hedonistic approach to God is the only humble..." Non sequitur.

p.87 Piper concludes "from this meditation..." It is indeed a meditation, not a good and valid study. The revolt against CH did not kill worship; secularism killed worship. The warm fuzzies that Piper wants to think are worship are part of the problem.

p.88 "The heavens are appalled and shocked when people give up so soon on their quest for pleasure". If that is true, Jeremiah didn't say it. Non sequitur, there is nothing about pleasure in the whole chapter; it's about people abandonning God for idols.

p.88 It is interesting to see Piper draw his theology from Darwin's late disinterest in Shakespeare and other forms of art. I think the enjoyment of the arts are fine -- it is, after all, a gift of God -- but that hardly justifies it as the end-all and be-all.

p.90 What a strange twisting of Heb.11:6, which is about faith, the confidence that seeking God will find God: the reward of them that seek is patently to find [Matt.7:7].

p.93 The "inspired (hedonistic!) prayers of the psalmists" are not hedonistic. They enjoy joy, but do not necessarily make it their end.

p.97 "This will take some explaining and defending!" Maybe there is a reason for that. It's not obvious because it's not true. But Piper does a yeoman job trying.

p.98 There is an awful lot of arguing from 'is' to 'ought' in this chapter. This is postmodern and invalid. "Would it be wrong to enjoy being loving?" Of course not, but that does not make the enjoyment a command!

p.98 God commands us in Micah to "love mercy", not to "love pleasure". We should be merciful because it is rooted in the ground of our being (as it is in God), not for some ulterior motive of personal pleasure.

p.100 Be wary of casual dismissal of a verse that does not fit the author's thesis. Piper does not treat 1Co.13:5, he brushes by it to say the other verses support his thesis better. I'm unimpressed.

p.100 "In these I delight," says the LORD. Piper argues again from 'is' to 'ought'. God enjoys love, justice, and righteousness, so therefore you are commanded to seek pleasure. Non sequitur.

p.101 In 1Co.13:3, Paul tells us that giving away all that I have without love is worthless, and Piper validly concludes that the act of giving is not love, then goes on (invalidly) to infer that it is feelings that matter. Love in the Bible is not about feelings, it's about caring. They are different. In Paul Brand's books, he had feelings of disgust for the open sores of the lepers, but he cared for them enough to heal them. That's true love.

p.101 Piper asks rhetorically, "isn't willingness to die a sign of good motives?" After Sept.11 does anybody really believe that? Willingness to die is completely detached from care, and that is what Paul is saying. Care counts. Feelings are actually also irrelevant.

p.105 "Paul's pursuit of ... his own joy" is not what 2Co.2:3 is about. It is about restoring to faith and fellowship the guy [1Co.5] who was living in immorality and is now repented. There is rejoicing in Heaven when a sinner repents, but the goal is repentance, not the (incidental) rejoicing. Piper is again arguing from 'is' to 'ought'. This is getting annoying.

p.106 "Love delights to cause joy in others." No problem, so long as we don't restrict it to that sole benefit. Love delights to cause all kinds of good things to happen in others, joy being one of them.

p.106 "Love Weeps" makes no sense. Black is white. War is peace. Bunk.

p.107 "...and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he himself said..." Piper correctly notes the parallel infinitives in the Greek, which the NIV translates as an infinitive and a gerund (which would normally come from a Greek participle of attendant circumstances or basis). However, the conjunction in the Greek is a very mild 'te' and not the much stronger 'kai' which would imply equal force, so that the actual force of the construct is appositival: remembering the words of Jesus leads to and supports helping the weak. It is neither an end in itself, nor even the point of helping the weak. Piper further fudges his translation by changing 'oti' "because" to "that". I think the NIV is better in this case. I certainly would not capitalize "REMEMBER".

p.111 Piper here has his hardest and easiest time making his CH thesis. Hard because suffering is patently not hedonistic. Easy, because the disciples also saw that and explained it in terms of greater joy in heaven. What can I say? That's what is written. When I'm trying to sell a difficult situation, I also explain its benefits. Muslim suicide bombers are convinced of 72 virgins in Heaven (plus a pension for their families here on earth). Is that the point of the suffering? No, suffering is suffering, we put up with it. I know about "the joy that was set before him" verse explaining Gethsemane; I don't know what to do with it. Is CH therefore valid, because it wins this once? Hardly. Is evolution true because it wins in geology? Hardly.

p.117 "Now I know that you love me." Aside from being purely speculative, this is also pure word games. Fortunately, it's also not Scripture and deserves no further comment.

p.118 Piper's "organic relationship" now backs away from his previous point about enduring the pain for the joy to come. There really is no such organic relationship that Piper can point to objectively, he's just bringing back in the "do good for good's sake" argument that he so successfully demolished a few pages earlier. He writes with forked pen, because otherwise he has no answer to the Muslims who blow themselves up for the 72 virgins in heaven. Needless to say, I do not hold such duplicity in high regard.

Ch.5 I pretty much agree with all Piper says here, except for his understandable but unwarranted fixation on "joy".

Ch.6 I expected this to be pretty much like ch.5, and it was, except as noted...

p.137 "CH most emphatically does not do this [put my happiness above God's honor]." Methinks the lady doth protest too much. He most assuredly does do that. That's why he must so vigorously deny it.

p.141 He talks about a wrong kind of pursuit of pleasure, but Piper is unable to tell us how to know good pleasure from bad pleasure. There is no intrinsic difference. Pleasure is pleasure. Classic Christianity has an answer to this problem: don't pursue it at all! Enjoy what God gives you (with thanks), but pursue God, not pleasure.

p.144 "Glorifying God by ... Being Served" This is wierd, and contrary for example to Jn.21:19, where Peter is told that he would glorify God not in being served, but being killed.

p.144 Mk.10:45 contradicts Piper's argument. Jesus came to glorify the Father [Jn.12:27-28], not to get glory for himself, and he did this by serving and by dying. CH makes no sense at all in this context.

p.148 Piper's treatment of Mt.6:24 (how money becomes your master) is excellent. What can I say? Score one for Piper.

p.152 "...not a domestic intercom for increasing our conveniences." Is not convenience a form of pleasure? On what basis does Piper reject this hermeneutic here, but adopt it elsewhere? He is picking and choosing which verses he wants to infer a positive implication for pleasure, and which verses he does not want to. The result very strongly resembles Christian virtue, but it is not drawn from the Bible. Instead it works like the virtues atheists claim, the same as Christian virtues (and originally derived from a Christian heritage drummed into their heads at an early age by Christian parents or second-hand from Christian grandparents), but based without reason nor consistent logic on their presuppositions. It doesn't work for the atheists, and it doesn't work for Piper. Nevertheless, I'm glad both of them choose to mimic Christian virtues; the world is a better place for that.

Ch.7 Again, good insights and more of the Same-Old-Same-Old, with the following notable points:

p.160 Yup, Paul didn't say that in 1Tm.6:6, but don't be too quick to score this one for Piper. It is invalid for me to second-guess Paul (and he isn't here to ask), but suppose I Tom were writing a letter to my friend and not-quite-disciple Dennis (which is sometimes the case :-) and I wanted to discuss the deceitfulness of worldly wealth (which on occasion I have also attempted to do). I could with a clear conscience urge him with words very much like Paul's, "Godliness with contentment is great gain." But Dennis, knowing my aversion to CH, can now ask me if this doesn't teach CH? To which I would reply, Not at all, silly! This letter is being written to/about people who are stuck on this world's wealth; what do you want me to do, offer them nothing at all? Once they get into the habit of contentment, the Holy Spirit will take away the remaining lust for gain. Baby steps, Dennis, baby steps. But that's how I would answer the question Paul isn't here to answer for himself.

p.161 "Or content with what he has, he may intend to use the extra money for" [good Christian charities] (emphasis added). This is a common argument and a lie from the pit. If you look at the life of these people who say that, they are not giving all that extra money for charity -- they typically give less per capita than the poor people! There are always exceptions, but (a) They normally don't use this argument, and (b) they are notable for their rarity, as Piper correctly points out 2 pages later (p.163).

There is a good and reasonable reason to accept (or even seek) a promotion with a raise in salary, but it's not money-oriented. It is that in this economy, money is the objective measure of the value of our contribution to society. It is a fallen metric, to be sure, but it is objective, devoid of the lies managers usually give their employees to drive them harder. Piper could have said that -- and actually came pretty close -- but he missed it.

p.166 "Beware of commentators who divert attention from the plain meaning of the text." Amen! Piper included.

p.166 On Lk.6:35, how soon Piper commits that very offense which on the same page he warned against! The "reward" offered by Jesus in this verse is to be sons of the Most High; there is nothing about "joy" here.

Ch.8 Not being married, I can cop out on this chapter in good conscience. Besides, this book is getting tiresome. My (ahem) pleasure would be increased to be over with it.

Ch.9 I pretty much agree with all Piper says in the first few pages here, except for his understandable but unwarranted fixation on "joy", so I hit the fast-forward button.

Ch.10 Piper has a pretty hard time in this chapter (it shows). Most of what I read (except for the usual unwarranted fixation on joy) I could agree with wholeheartedly. Some thoughts while skimming:

p.214 In 1Co.15:19 Paul is arguing for the truth of the resurrection, not for any "joy" that might await our own resurrection. The pity of being found out to be a lie is precisely that: that we were deceived! Piper tries hard not to say (p.218) that the alternative to this deception is debauchery, but in any case Paul's argument does not intrinsically validate CH.

p.234 "If Joy in Suffering Is Admirable, Pursue It" Is that something like "If wine makes your heart glad, drink up" (see below)? Piper uses an intermittent hermeneutic that appalls me.

Summary Thoughts

It's nice that Piper included an index of scripture references. That way we can know whether he addressed the verses that come to mind against his CH...

p.246 Piper rests his entire argument against Rom.9:3 on the questionable interpretation of the grammatical imperfect as if it were subjunctive. Greek has a subjunctive mood for contrary to fact, but Paul did not use it here. It is true that God does not allow Paul to take the place of his fellow Jews in Hell, but not for Piper's reason [Ez.18:4]. Piper recognizes the problem with CH here, and he does not have a good answer. It appears he is not honest enough to admit this flaw in his argument.

Eph.6:2 "1st Commandment with a promise." Piper tells us all commandments come with a promise, so of course he does not discuss this contradiction to his CH. Maybe Paul got it wrong, but I don't think so. The Ten commandments are commandments in and of themselves; with the one stated exception, there is no promise of reward. The one exception is interesting, because the promise is understandable: "that you may live long in the land." When you honor your parents (by taking good care of them in their old age, per 1Tm.5:8), you thereby train your own children to do the same for you, so you actually do live long in the land.

Speaking of training children, the promises of reward in the Bible are like the promises of reward a parent offers his children to do right. You want the child to do right whether there is reward or not, but at least doing it for reward puts good habits into their little psyche, where it gets buried so deeply that even if they reject your religion, the good habits persist without the promised reward. Psychologists call the effect "cognitive dissonance" and it's incredibly powerful.

With all the effort Piper puts into finding every little verse that attaches joy to our motivation, it's curious that Ps.104:15 is not among them. Why? I'll tell you why: the last 7 verses of Pr.23 make it very clear that we should not seek the pleasures of wine. They are pleasures indeed, as the Psalmist clearly says, but they are deceitful pleasures. It would seriously degrade Piper's CH argument to point this out (so he doesn't). Some things bring pleasure -- and God designed them that way -- but that pleasure is not an appropriate end in itself. OK, Piper might agree with that statement, but the obvious implication is that we cannot take all Scriptural promises of pleasure as commands. Sometimes they are just incidental. God put the pleasure into wine, as part of His general Providence, and to mitigate the sorrows of the unbeliever [Pr.31:4-7] (note that we believers are the "kings" and "princes" of this passage; the "poor" and "in anguish" are those without the joy of the Lord).

Tom Pittman
2001 December 28