Euphoric mysticism probably conjures up images of hippies smoking weed, doing yoga, and opining about Krishna. However, mysticism doesn’t only belong to eastern religions. It’s central to discipleship to King Jesus.
According to Merriam-Webster, euphoria simply means “a feeling of great happiness and excitement.” It’s pure ecstasy, that moment when you are on cloud nine. The word was derived from the Greek word euphoros, which means “healthy.” Since then, it has evolved to take on the connotations of a high derived from drugs or sex. For example, in 2019 Netflix ran a show called Euphoria that explored the complex, troubled world of teenagers’ search for meaning and pleasure in drugs and sex. In spite of these overtones, it’s an important word to reclaim as an integral part of the Christian faith.
We are pleasure seeking creatures.
This isn’t a bad thing—it’s how our Maker designed us. In fact, a failure to seek out pleasure is an indication that someone might be suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD). We feel pleasure when our brains release chemical messengers called neurotransmitters such as dopamine. God gave us these chemical messengers as signposts to lead us toward behaviors that are beneficial and lead to human flourishing.
Of course, the fall corrupted and disordered human desire toward destructive behaviors. This unfortunate reality has undermined the trustworthiness of the chemical messengers in our brains that signal pleasure. St. Augustine, a bishop from North Africa, made this observation in the fourth century: “The essence of sin is disordered love.” Disordered love that resides in our bodies is what Paul called “the flesh” throughout the New Testament.
“For the desire of the flesh is against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, in order to keep you from doing whatever you want.” (Galatians 5:17)
The sort of carnal hedonism that generally comes to mind when you hear the word euphoria is humanity seeking pleasure in all the wrong places. However, the solution to this dilemma is not to forsake pleasure altogether. This is an unhealthy form of asceticism that many well-intentioned saints have slipped into throughout the centuries. Rather, we should seek to have our desires reordered toward everything that is good and beautiful and life-giving. As C.S. Lewis put it,
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. 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.”
One of the most influential Christian thinkers of our time is the neo-Calvinist theologian John Piper. I’d say his greatest contribution to the church is his work on Christian hedonism. Hedonism, simply put, is the pursuit of pleasure. Not exactly what you might expect a gray-haired conservative theologian to be promoting. However, rather than working against the grain of our psychological makeup, Piper seeks to redirect our pleasure-seeking to what will truly satisfy. The now famous slogan of his ministry is “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Influenced by C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, and St. Paul, Piper contends that God’s glory is the goal of all redemptive history and that this glory is accomplished through our attainment of joy and pleasure in Him. This is Christian hedonism: pursuing pleasure in Christ. Piper defines it this way,
“Christian Hedonism is a philosophy of life built on the following five convictions: The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful. We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead, we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love. To the extent that we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: The pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is: The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”
These teachers of the way of Jesus have tapped into a revolutionary concept: following Jesus brings pleasure!
Okay, so maybe that was a little anticlimactic.
However, this truth must be believed deep in the recesses of our souls. We’ve got to trust that King Jesus has our best interests and deepest desires in mind when he gives us his commands and invites us to find joy in his presence. As David the poet-king put it:
“You will make known to me the way of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; in your right hand there are pleasures forever.” (Psalm 16:11)
This is so important if we are trying to present the way of Jesus in a manner that is compelling and attractive. Nobody is interested in joining a dry, crusty religion that will take all joy, pleasure, and fun out of their lives. Jesus himself said,
“I came so that they would have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b)
As a young person considering what a life of radical devotion to Jesus might mean for me, this realization was so crucial. Until I understood Christian hedonism, I thought that wholeheartedly following Jesus would be a total bore. My imagination needed to be awakened to the excitement and joy that discipleship had to offer before I was able to sincerely surrender my entire being to King Jesus.
I’m not going to try to make the case that following King Jesus is non-stop euphoria. Most of the pleasure to be found in discipleship is deep, nuanced, and subtle. This inner satisfaction is developed through spiritual formation, which we will discuss later. However, those moments of euphoria that the Holy Spirit allows us to experience are often the fuel that propels sustainable faith over the long haul. I certainly wouldn’t trade my limited yet profoundly tangible encounters with the divine for anything in the world.