Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Happiness is.... [book review]

We all desire happiness and spend a lot of our time looking for it. Jon Piper spends over two hundred pages arguing that not only do we look for it in the wrong place, but that we don’t look hard enough. Piper quotes CS Lewis:
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
From this foundation Piper argues that in everything we do, whether it be spend money, pray, help others or praise God that we should aim to enjoy it. If we’re not enjoying it we are dishonouring God.

The book is clearly aimed at those who think that if you’re enjoying something you’re being selfish and not doing good. Duty and misery are the emblems of a do-gooder. Most of us probably don’t operate in this way, but it’s a useful reminder that if we give and help others purely out of a sense of duty it is likely to be embittering and we’re probably missing out somewhere. As far as the Bible goes Piper is on steady ground – the psalms tell us to ‘delight in God’, Paul exalts us to be a ‘cheerful giver’. This is no shallow outward conformity, but a deep rooted understanding that a good God created each of us and that we are incomplete and unhappy without Him.
This far, Piper is enriching and a reminder that doing good is a win-win situation, that in a moral economy there are no zero-sum gains. As John Donne famously wrote ‘when the bell tolls it tolls for thee’. We are all interdependent and only complete in relationship with others and with God. When other peoples’ identity is marred by poverty, broken relationships and sin so are we.

It is with the language in Piper’s book that I struggle. Enjoyment, pleasure and hedonism all have connotations of immediacy, short-termism and seeking a ‘buzz’ out of something. God never promised anyone this life all the time and we shouldn’t be seeking it. Piper understands this, but ends up tying himself in knots trying to explain it, whilst insisting on the framework and language of hedonism. He spends much time arguing that to enjoy God that you need to feel pain, cry and go through troubles, which boils down to the absurdity that to enjoy life you shouldn’t enjoy it – an absurdity. By majoring so much on enjoyment Piper implicitly discounts the pain and struggle of the vast proportion of the world’s population and history.

His argument makes far more sense couched in the language of underlying fulfilment and contentment. This doesn’t preclude joy, but allows for the pain and sense of injustice that we need to feel if people are to transform society rather than live in a happy bubble. An emphasis on a long term underlying fulfilment and delight would bring out the point that in order to pursue justice and compassion that is pleasing to God we must also seek completeness and our own happiness in God. Yet, by insisting on the framework and language of hedonism Piper skews his argument and partially hides the inspiring, intriguing and yes, delightful messages contained in ‘Desiring God’.

Desiring God was first published in 1986.

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