STUDY SEVEN: HEDONISM
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2015
Hedonism ...? What on earth is that? Something from some isolated village far removed from modern civilisation? Far from it! The animistic villager, seeking at every turn of his life to placate the spirits, is most probably further from hedonism than you or I! (Note the distinction between hedonism and heathenism.)
A. WHAT IS HEDONISM?
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines hedonism as the belief ‘that pleasure is the chief good or the proper aim’ and ‘behaviour based on this’. This pleasure-seeking mentality surrounds us, indeed it is part of each one of us. From that first denial of God’s rights in Genesis 3 right up to the present moment, our inclination is to go for what pleases us whether or not it conflicts with what pleases, or is due to, God. So firmly is this self-pleasing entrenched in the normal ebb and flow of our lives that most of the time we don’t realise we are doing it.
The issue is compounded in contemporary society by the impact of humanism and relativism which have eroded concepts of absolute right and wrong by removing the concept of God. Mankind is left with no valid external basis on which to choose and is therefore free to choose whatever pleases him.
The basic concepts of hedonism are simple and bold:
 If it feels good, or makes you feel good, do it!
 If it feels good, or makes you feel good, it is right!
 Pleasure is the ultimate good.
 I am the centre of my world.
The hedonistic mind says: Whatever gives me a buzz, or thrills me, or gives me the warm fuzzies - that is good and that is right. My feelings determine how I assess actions, experiences or circumstances. My feelings determine my choices. I accept only what makes me feel good, happy, comfortable, excited, and so on. I reject what disturbs or troubles me, or is too demanding or difficult, or threatens my personal pleasure. I also reject whatever has ceased to thrill me. I reject what is boring.
As a society, this self-centred, sensual, pleasure-seeking, thrill-seeking mentality motivates much of our recreational activity, dictates our choice of moral standards, and colours our attitude to law and our attitude to work.
B. SCHAEFFER ON HEDONISM
‘It is especially easy to become contaminated in the area of morals. Today’s world does not just have false moral standards – it has no moral standards in any absolute sense. We think immediately of sexual morals, but it is not just sexual morals. It is all morals in private and public life. Modern men, in the absence of absolutes, have polluted all aspects of morality, making standards completely hedonistic and relativistic. The world has dressed these up in its own vocabulary and called it situational ethics. Every situation is judged subjectively with no absolute to which to appeal.’ [Vol 3 p55 No Little People]
‘If one abandons the Christian solution – the return to the absolutes and universals possible because of God’s speaking clearly to man – there are three (and only three) possible alternatives. The first is hedonism – namely, that every individual does exactly what he wants to do. Hedonism can function as long as you have one man. But as soon as you have more than one person in society, chaos immediately follows. Imagine two hedonists meeting each other over a swift stream on a single log. Here you have the dilemma. But hedonism still holds many, even though they stay in the system. They are there for their own hedonistic advantage.’ [Vol 4 p27 –The Church at the end of the Twentieth Century]
‘We live in a society today where all things are relative and the final value is whatever makes the individual or society “happy” or feel good at the moment. This is not just the hedonistic young person doing what feels good; it is society as a whole. This has many facets, but one is the breakdown of all stability in society. Nothing is fixed, there are no final standards; only what makes one “happy” is dominant.’
[Referring to a paper about abortion]. ‘ The conclusion of that page was, “The problem is not determining when actual human life begins, but when the value of that life begins to outweigh other considerations, such as the health or even the happiness of the mother.” The terrifying phrase is “or even the happiness.” Thus, even acknowledged human life can be and is taken for someone else’s happiness. With no set values, all that matters is my or society’s happiness at the moment. …
‘And, of course, it is increasingly accepted that if a newborn baby is going to make the family or society unhappy, it too should be allowed to die…. And it’s upon such a view that Stalin and Mao allowed (and I’m using a very gentle word when I say “allowed”) millions to die for what they considered the happiness of society. This then is the terror that surrounds the church today. The individual’s or society’s happiness takes supreme preference even over human life.
‘We, because we find ourselves in a society with no fixed standards, are surrounded by a “no-fault” everything. Each thing is psychologically pushed away or explained away so that there is no right or wrong. And, as with the happiness of the mother taking precedence over human life, so anything which interferes with the happiness of the individual or society is dispensed with. This too can be called nothing less than hedonism.’ [Vol 4 p341-2 –The Great Evangelical Disaster]
C. HOW DOES HEDONISM CONFLICT WITH GOD’S TRUTH?
Contrast the priority of hedonism (personal or social happiness) with the priorities commanded in these Scriptures.
The priority of the Christian is not his/her own pleasure but:
God’s glory and God’s kingdom, and
The well-being and good of the neighbour.
Opposed to this hedonistic mentality, the Biblical viewpoint is:
 What God says is right, is right.
 What honours God is right.
 The ultimate good is to know and to glorify God.
 Our chief aim should be God’s kingdom and his righteousness.
 God is the centre of my world.
D. HOW IS HEDONISM AFFECTING THE CHURCH?
As hedonism subtly infiltrates the mind of the church we find:
Churches focus on their own good (for example, numerical or financial growth) rather than on God’s glory.
Churches become market-oriented (seeking to please their “customers”) rather than Bible-based and Christ-centred.
Feel-good entertainment replaces the solid teaching of the Word.
The moral standard expected by the churches falls in order to please the people and keep them ‘on side’; the giving of offence is avoided even at the cost of Biblical standards.
The Gospel is reduced to a ‘come to Jesus and be happy etc’ message.
The Gospel is replaced by a message that titivates the emotions and the senses.
God and his salvation are reduced.
Emotionalism and shared experiences that give people a buzz are seen as more important than the preaching of the word.
E. HOW IS HEDONISM AFFECTING INDIVIDUAL CHRISTIANS?
Surrounded by a hedonistic society, indeed part of it, and deceived all too often by the self-centred, God-dishonouring mentality of many churches, individual Christians have been sucked into a God-dishonouring, self-pleasing mindset.
Christians become self-centred rather than Christ-centred
Christians have an inadequate concept of salvation, because of the inadequate message they have heard; the ‘come-to-Jesus-and-be-happy’ message has failure built into it, resulting in disillusioned Christians who wonder whether it is God who has failed them or they who have failed God.
Christians have an inadequate concept of sanctification
Christians find church services boring unless their emotions and other senses are titivated
Christians flit from one church to another in search of one that will satisfy their quest for programs that will give them the desired level of pleasure or excitement.
Submission to the authority of Jesus Christ the Lord is sadly lacking - ‘I’ll do as I please, thank-you-very-much!’
The Bible is read selectively – only those sections that please the reader being accepted and taken on board
F. WHAT CAN WE DO IN THE PRESENCE OF THIS INSIDIOUS, SELF-CENTRED, SELF-PLEASING MIND-SET?
 Submit to the authority of God as revealed in the Scripture. Be committed to obey his Word.
 Remember that God is the centre of the universe, not ourselves. Seek his good and his glory first.
 Recognise that instant gratification of personal desires is not the order of the day for followers of Jesus Christ. Christ set us an example – he did not please himself.
 Remember that the pleasures of this earth are but for a moment but the joy of the Lord persists beyond this world into eternity. Our suffering in this world cannot be compared with the glory that is our inheritance in the next.
All of the above could be misunderstood and the conclusion drawn that as Christians we’re not supposed to do anything that pleases us or makes us feel good. Such a conclusion is wrong. The Bible is not against pleasure, but against the attitude to pleasure in which my personal pleasure and my feeling good is the central consideration that determines my actions and choices, replacing God and his Word as the governing principle of my life. Hedonism ignores the fact that God is the one who is in charge. It ignores the fact that he has the right to tell me how to live.
Let us each examine our hearts and lives. Let us not be sucked in by the self-pleasing mentality of our world. Let us rather seek the mind of Christ, who, for our sakes, denied himself, denied his own good, and sought the glory of God, his Father.
G. FURTHER SCRIPTURES FOR YOUR STUDY
Study these Scriptures for further insights into the Biblical perspective on hedonism. What do they teach us? What should we avoid? What should we follow?
Genesis 3: for the original self-centred, self-pleasing rebellion against God.
Ecclesiastes: to learn from Solomon’s experience that pleasure seeking, along with a number of other pursuits, is like ‘chasing the wind’ (GNB), and to discover the godly alternative.
Matthew 26:39,42,44; John 17:1-5; Philippians 2:1-8: for insight into the mind of Christ which we are to imitate
Isaiah 43:7; Ephesians 1:12; 1Peter 2:9: for God’s purpose for us.