Cracking the Insidious Code Part IV: John Piper’s Self-Absorbed God
John Piper’s theology of God, which has been widely read for years as it was circulated in his book Desiring God (1986), is his imaginative idea alone, and not biblical. In Piper’s words, his theology proper is “The bedrock foundation of Christian Hedonism,” (DG p31). The bedrock aspect to which he refers is the self-enjoyment of God. He emphasizes this self-enjoying attribute of God as preeminent among all the attributes of God, and frequently refers to God’s self-enjoyment as happiness. Piper asserts, “If God were not infinitely devoted to the preservation, display, and enjoyment of His own glory, we could have no hope of finding happiness in Him,” (DG p31). Piper also says since God is sovereign, He must be “the happiest of all beings” and such “infinite, divine happiness is the fountain from which the Christian Hedonist drinks,” (DG p32). Piper writes: “God has been uppermost in His own affections for all eternity,” (DG p44). It follows logically, if indeed happiness is the chief attribute of God, then God is ruled by his emotional wellbeing that must seek to sublimate all other attributes to the pursuit of a state of supreme feelings of happiness at all times.
Piper’s theology depersonalizes God. Rather than knowing God through the only means by which He has made Himself known (Scripture), Piper teaches that all worshipers must seek to feel God or experience Him (p117-121). He writes: “We are commanded to feel, not just to think or decide,” (p300). Piper works feverishly to promote his so-called god by manipulating Scripture to suit his end goal. What’s more, Piper inserts into the Bible feelings and emotions that are simply not there.
John Calvin rightly warned against such foolish tampering when he states:
Scriptural teaching concerning God’s infinite and spiritual essence ought to be enough, not only to banish popular delusions, but also to refute the subtleties of secular philosophy…But even if God to keep us sober speaks sparingly of his essence, yet by those two titles that I have used he both banishes stupid imaginings and restrains the boldness of the human mind. Surely his infinity ought to make us afraid to try to measure him by our own senses. Indeed, his spiritual nature forbids our imagining anything earthly or carnal of him.1
Piper used Psalm 115 to build his Christian Hedonist philosophy and remake the God of the Bible in the image of man. He narrowed his exposition of the psalm on verse 3 which states, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” His interpretation of this psalm is simple: “God has the right and power to do whatever makes Him happy. That is what it means to say that God is sovereign,” (p32).
Is Piper right in his understanding of both the psalm and the sovereignty of God? Is God’s happiness synonymous with His sovereignty? Has Piper maintained a high view of God through a right understanding of Scripture? Is Piper’s Desiring God a popular delusion? Has he truly explained God as He has revealed Himself or has Piper imagined God through earthly thoughts? An examination of Psalm 115 is necessary in order to answer these questions.
A Closer Look at Psalm 115
Psalm 115 is a psalm of 18 verses loaded with theological significance. The Psalmist writes:
Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to Your name give glory
Because of Your lovingkindness (mercy),
because of Your truth.
Why should the nations say,
“Where, now, is their God?”
But our God is in the heavens;
He does whatever He pleases.
In every matter pertaining to God, Scripture is the guide to knowing God as He is, not experience or feeling. It is interesting to find that the very psalm Piper quotes to build his erroneous Christian Hedonist foundation is the same psalm that tears it down. For example, the psalmist says God gives glory to His name because of His lovingkindness and truth. But Piper says, ‘God’s glory is upheld because of His personal pursuit of self-absorbed happiness.’ Before going on any further, a look at three significant words, (loving-kindness, truth and delight) is necessary to grasp the weight of the psalmist’s intended meaning.
The word lovingkindness in the psalm is typically rendered as ‘lovingkindness, steadfast love, mercy, or kindness.’ Lovingkindness is translated into the English from the Hebrew word חֶסֶד (hesed).2 The Hebrew word occurs over two hundred times in the Old Testament; over half the time in a Psalm. Lovingkindness (hesed) is commonly used to describe God’s interaction with humans. Hesed more so is used to speak to the actions of God
toward His faithful worshipers.3 To go one step further, recent work has been done in the area of linguistic and semantics fields demonstrating that God’s lovingkindness is based on a deep and abiding relationship between two persons where one party (God) is fully capable to give assistance to the needy party (Man) who in life is at a loss to do anything about changing or improving his deplorable condition.4 Here are a three examples of the way hesed is used in the Psalms, from the NASB.
• He loves righteousness and justice; The earth is full of the lovingkindness (hesed) of the Lord’ (Psalm 33.5).
• He has remembered His lovingkindness (hesed) and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God’ (Psalm 98.3).
• For Your lovingkindness (hesed) toward me is great, And You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol’ (Psalm 86.13).
Psalm 136 is a wonderful example of God’s hesed to his people.
Hesed is one of the richest, most powerful words in the Old Testament. It reflects the loyal love that people committed to the God of the Bible should have for one another. Hesed is not primarily something people “feel.” It is something people DO for other people who have no claim on them. Joy and hesed are not synonymous or equivalents of one another. From the above it is clear that hesed has many of the same characteristics as the glory of God, but with more of an emphasis toward His worshipers and not so much Himself. Hesed also is closely tied to the New Testament understanding of Agape love (self-less love). Piper would have Christians believe that hesed is the overflow of joy in God. But that is simply imaginative and/or philosophical thinking.
The word translated as truth in psalm 115:1 is from the Hebrew word אֱמֶת (emet). A broader understanding of the meaning of the word includes constancy, duration, certainty, and dependability. 5 The Hebrew understanding of God’s truthfulness categorizes the word as an attribute or perfection of God. More often the term is paralleled with God’s lovingkindness (hesed) as it is in Psalm 115. Jack Scott, says this about emet:
Because these attributes of God’s truth and mercy [lovingkindness] lead to God’s peace toward sinful men, saved by God’s grace, the word is also often coupled with peace…there is no truth in the biblical sense…outside of God and is truth because it is related to God.6
It is interesting to note that lovingkindness and truth are in paralleled construction following the Hebrew stylistic grammatical emphasis. That is to say, any worshiper of God can stand in certain hope in the deep abiding love of God, as that which ensures He will always be ready to give assistance to those who love Him, even in the midst of a perverse world. The thrust of psalm 115 is founded upon this very principle: unlike the false gods of the world that are made with human hands and formed out of stone or wood or conjured up by human thought or imagination, Israel’s God is the God that loves with an unshakable enduring love that watches over His people. Because of God’s lovingkindness, He will never sleep nor slumber in His constant care for His people (Psalm 121:4).
Psalm 115 says nothing about the so-called happiness of God John Piper is attempting to insert into its text. In fact, if God’s happiness was indeed the chief of all His concerns, He would be disinterested in the welfare of Israel and careless about being so dutiful in watching over His people. The Bible does not teach that such a disinterested love exists in God.
The final word used in Psalm 115:3 to be grasped is חפץ (chaphets), typically rendered as “he pleases.” I have translated the verb as delight:
But our God is in the heavens;
He does whatever He delights.
The general idea behind the Hebrew understanding of delight is founded upon the activities that bring Him delight.7 The verb in the psalm is not a reflexive verb where God is viewed as the actor who delights in Himself. Also, the phrase “he does whatever pleases him” is a legal statement which “denotes the unlimited power of the supreme authority which enables him [to act sovereignly]…as a result of God’s doing as he pleases, he is to be trusted…for in the end God will bless the people who trust in him.”8
The psalmist is making the point that God is not first and foremost concerned about His own happiness through the preserving of His glory, as Piper asserts, but God is to be glorified by humanity and the angelic hosts because of His lovingkindness, truthfulness, and sovereign control over the entire affairs of the universe. The state of God’s delight toward the people of Israel has occurred as a result of Israel being in covenant relationship with God who keeps His promises. God’s promises are kept because absolute truth is one of His perfections. Thus God cannot lie. Lovingkindness ensures that God is not only truthful, but faithful to do all that He has promised toward those whom He loves.
Piper statement, “God has the right and power to do whatever makes Him happy” is nowhere close to the meaning of the psalm. The object of that which “pleases” God is not God Himself; rather, the object of God’s pleasure is His faithful worshiper who dwells in a world that is constantly in upheaval and yet still trusts in God. For that reason the psalmist begins to conclude his praise to God by saying:
The heavens are the heavens of the Lord,
But the earth He has given to the sons of men (v. 16).
Verse 16 answers the question one might have in verse 3, namely, what delights (or pleases) God the most? The delight of God is bound up in blessing those who worship Him by giving them the earth and all it contains. This the very same thing Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount as He listed the characteristics of those who are of the Kingdom of God: “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth,” (Matt 5:5). Nowhere in Matthew 5:3-10 is happiness a qualifier for those who are of God.
It rightly can be said about Psalm 115:3 that the delight of God is not bound up in His own personal happiness; rather, God’s delight is founded upon giving blessings to those who worship Him. That sounds very similar to the song of the angelic host who announced the birth of Jesus Christ:
Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men
with whom He is pleased (Luke 2:14).
In order for anyone to inject into the Bible an imaginative philosophy that is simply not in the text of sacred Scripture, one must begin such an endeavor by redefining God. That is precisely what John Piper has done: Piper has redefined God by fitting Him into a man-centered mold which upholds a man-centered philosophy. In the end, Psalm 115 says it all about Piper’s manmade god:
Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of man’s hands.
They have mouths, but they cannot speak;
They have eyes, but they cannot see;
They have ears, but they cannot hear;
They have noses, but they cannot smell;
They have hands, but they cannot feel;
They have feet, but they cannot walk;
They cannot make a sound with their throat.
Those who make them will become like them,
Everyone who trusts in them.
1. Calvin, Institutes I, 13.
2. Halot, 336-37.
3. D.A. Baer and R.P. Gordon, “חסד” in The New International Dictionary of the Old Testament & Exegesis, ed. William VanGemeren, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 211.
4. Ibid., 212.
5. Scott, Jack. “אמת” in Theological Word Book of the Old Testament. (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 52-53.
6. Ibid., 53.
7. Wood, Leon. “חפץ” in Theological Word Book of the Old Testament. (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 311.
8. Talley, David. “חפץ” in The New International Dictionary of the Old Testament & Exegesis, ed. William VanGemeren, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 232-33.