Today is my second attempt at reading Desiring God by John Piper. I say second, because the first time (about 8 years ago) I only got about 1/3rd of the way through it before I couldn’t take it any more. As one who leans Arminian (there is a great tension in Scripture), his take on Sovereignty was overwhelmingly annoying and frustrating.
Since then, however, some things have happened. I earned an M.Div from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I got some life experience. And I read C.S. Lewis’ “Surprised by Joy,” along with part of his “Reflections on the Psalms.” I realized that my own pursuit of Christ was somewhat lacking in Joy. Since I loved those works by Lewis, I thought that maybe another stroll through Piper’s well-known (and well-loved) work might be better received.
The introduction inspired hope in me. I knew I’d run into the whole Sovereignty bit again, but I had hopes that it would be more palatable to me this time around (maybe even paradigm-changing?!). I’m planning on teaching a series on Joy this month with our Senior High Youth, and I figured that this would be some great material to get me rolling in the right direction. I launched into the book…and after finishing the first chapter, I’m already tempted to give up.
Why? A couple reasons.
The first is a perspective that Piper adopted from (or at least shares with) Edwards (a note on Piper + Edwards):
Utilitarianism. That’s right. That (failed) philosophy championed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill which says the right thing to do is the thing that brings about the greatest possible good–the maximum happiness. Edwards sets up God with two different wills: a will of command (essentially the basis for the Law, what is the “right” thing to do) and a will of decree (a “sovereign” or “secret” will, essentially a Utilitarian will). Sometimes, those two wills contradict each other, in which case the sovereign/secret will of God wins out. In other words, God decrees what is “good,” and then acts in opposition to that.
You see, we have a dilemma if God has two such wills: one maintains an objective, unchanging standard of good (the “will of command”), yet a second will also exists wherein what is morally wrong from the objective, unchanging standard actually becomes “good” because God has decreed it (via the “sovereign/secret will”) to fit into some bigger mosaic. In other words, to call God “good” is pointless, because anything He does, including ordaining the suffering and eternal condemnation of those predestined to hell, is automatically considered “good” because of its contribution to the “greater good.”
This is Utilitarianism, plain and simple. Now, granted, God is capable of seeing how all the dominoes fall, so such wouldn’t be that big of a problem, except that Piper’s/Edwards’s system assumes God creates the very “moral dilemmas” by which some evil must be done in order to bring about a greater good. Which is all nice and good if you just play the trump card (“It was necessary in order that God be maximally glorified”) that no one will dare argue with (“Are you saying God doesn’t deserve all glory?”)
And yet all orthodox Christians are fond of referring to the fact that any sin, no matter how small, is worthy of eternal damnation. (Romans 3:23,6:23; James 2:10; Isaiah 59:2) Among other reasons, God is perfect (though I might argue against that if Piper’s view on Sovereignty is true) and thus cannot tolerate sin. Any sin corrupts all our deeds (Isaiah 64:6). The bottom line is that sin corrupts, it doesn’t make things better (least of all God’s glory). God can’t look on sin and be pleased. Nevertheless, Piper would claim that He does (“This mosaic in all its parts–good and evil–brings Him delight.” (p.39))
If you think I’ve got Him wrong, you haven’t read Piper–He truly believes that God’s sovereign will creates evil (though He will say indirectly enough that God isn’t guilty of wrongdoing) so that God can maximize happiness. On page 39, he quotes Edwards: “Though he hates sin in itself, yet he may will to permit it, for the greater promotion of holiness in this universality” (emphasis mine). Sin increases overall holiness?! The quote continues “though he has no inclination to a creature’s misery, considered absolutely, yet he may will it, for the greater promotion of happiness in this universality.” (For my thoughts on this, consider 1 Jn. 4:7-21 and 1 Cor. 13:6)
This is something that I just simply cannot see in Scripture, nor reconcile with the idea of a God who is “good.”
The second reason occurred to me as He began to talk about God’s supposed obsession with His glory. By the time I got to the end of the first chapter, it struck me:
Piper has contradicted Christ. When the Pharisees asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was, what did he say? “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt 22:27-29, NIV) You read it there first. He didn’t say “glorify God by enjoying Him forever.” Yet Piper claims that “The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”
Now Piper might argue that to love God fully means you will glorify God by enjoying Him forever, but even if that’s the case (and a more fitting way to phrase the command), then why didn’t Jesus put it that way? What if it’s not an “A = B” relationship but an “A includes B” relationship? What if loving God includes glorifying via enjoying Him, but also includes something else? Imagine that the greatest possible geometric shape was a quadrilateral. Then to say that the greatest possible geometric shape is a square would be less than true: for a trapezoid or a rhombus would be equally included in that greatness. True, the greatest possible shape would include squares, but could not be fittingly described as a square. Maybe the greatest possible thing is to love God, which includes enjoying Him (to his glory), yet also cannot be rightly described simply as that enjoyment.
Why write an entire book based around re-wording what Jesus has already (and quite clearly) stated: that the greatest thing we can do is love God? Even worse, why (in doing so) begin your argument with a catechism not explicitly found in Scripture?
So there you have it, or at least the beginnings of “it.” I know that it’s poor form to criticize part of a work before you’ve read it all, but lest this train of thought leave the station and never come back so clearly, I had to write it down now. (I’m unlikely to return to reading this book a third time!) I sincerely desire that the rest of the book somehow corrects the errors I’ve found here, but given that chapter 1 is over and chapter 2 has found it sufficient enough of an introductory treatise that it is building on it (rather than clarifying it), I must admit that I don’t maintain much hope.
Now, for the promised note on Piper and Edwards.
It is no secret that Piper reads Edwards a lot. In fact, read anything Piper and you will find a plethora of references, footnotes, and quotes concerning the guy. And while I’m glad that Piper has been so encouraged towards pursuing God by Jonathan Edwards, I also think it bears noting that Edwards was not as perfect as you might expect given all of Piper’s praise (Piper writes, “Again and again when I am dry and weak, I pull down my collection of Edwards’s works and stir myself up with one of his sermons.” p. 38). Edwards’s writings are not Scripture, nor should be considered as such. Just because Edwards wrote it, or said it, (however clearly or profoundly that might be), that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
Edwards is said to have kept a habit of studying 13 hours a day, although as a father of 11 children he spent only 1 hour each day with them. While others may idolize his devotion, I rather pity the fact that he did the greatest commandment so well and by comparison neglected the second. I write this not to vilify Edwards, but to encourage you to accept Scripture because it is God’s Word, and to accept the writings of others based on their agreement with God’s word rather than the fact that they came from a “great man” like Edwards.
In all fairness, I have far less trouble with Piper’s frequent quoting of CS Lewis, probably because I love Lewis’s writing. It bears mentioning that Lewis was not perfect either, and in fact in many cases states things that I believe to be contrary to Scripture.
Again, all this to say: before you go falling in love with Piper, or Edwards, or Lewis, fall in love with Scripture. Then read (and enjoy!) Piper, or Edwards, or Lewis, with a discerning heart and mind, always keeping in mind that Truth is found in Scripture, not pithy or profound statements by fallible human authors. Good preachers and authors may well help clarify it for us, but they ought not to add to or take away from it.
Note: Citations of page numbers refer to the 2003 Multnomah printing of “Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist,” by John Piper.