Monday, February 1, 2010

Why Christians can have nice things

It took me a really long time to realize that if something is desirable, even pleasurable, it doesn't necessarily mean it is a bad thing. How tragic is our state of fallenness, that we consider good things to be evil in a world that God created and called "good" on the first day?

“Before the Lord God made man upon the earth He first prepared for him by creating a world of useful and pleasant things for his sustenance and delight. In the Genesis account of the creation these are called simply `things.' They were made for man's uses, but they were meant always to be external to the man and subservient to him. In the deep heart of the man was a shrine where none but God was worthy to come. Within him was God; without, a thousand gifts which God had showered upon him.” - A. W. Tozer, The Blessedness of Possessing

Idolatry had from the beginning been humanity's sin. The heart of idolatry is mistaking gift for Giver. When we take the treasures around us and elevate them to the status of God, that is idolatry. But the punishment is contained within the sin. The Διὸ παρέδωκεν, the “therefore God gave them over”of this sin is that we would cling with fervor onto something that is not meant to last; something that moth and rust destroy; something that will ultimately be lost with time. The self-contained punishment of God for our idolatry is that we would suffer loss and despair when that which was fleeting finally is gone.

However, enough Christian literature has been written about idolatry and wiser men than I have preached powerfully against it. I am interested in the antithesis to idolatry. What is the opposite danger? It is monasticism. It is a complete denial of earthly pleasures. Jesus never said, “do not enjoy treasures on earth”. That command is very different from “do not store up treasures in heaven” Treasures on earth are still that. They are meant to be enjoyed. They are the thousand and one gifts that God showered his children; gifts that were meant to be delighted in; gifts that were meant to direct worship back to the Giver.

Earthly treasures are vehicles by which God's children enjoy and treasure God. A gift is of worth to the degree that it points to and magnifies the One who ascribed its worth; the One who is by nature of infinite worth. Like a rainbow that leads to the pot of gold at the end, gifts are beautiful and enjoyable; but they are a means. God is the end of pleasure.

But this isn't the understanding of many Christians. Many sincerely pious but severely misled Christians believe that the less you enjoy life, the more you are glorifying God. If you are loving life, nurturing other hobbies, sharpening skills in other things, doing anything other than sitting at home and reading the Bible, you are committing idolatry. Isn't that the attitude that we have sometimes? How do we enjoy God, how do we treasure him and him alone; how do we worship him in the throne of our hearts? Only by reading Scripture and praying. It's not worship if you do something else. It's not worship if you enjoy life.

How is that treasuring God? I would like to say that those who live in denial of earthly pleasures are guilty of sinning against God. How? Because their actions undermine the goodness of Creation for the enjoyment of man. Their attitude throws the Lord's gifts back at him and declares them unworthy. And furthermore, the sheer dissatisfaction of living such a life of denial will inevitably lead to a deep-seated resentment in their worship of God. “Why is treasuring you so difficult, Oh Lord? I have given up everything for you, and life sucks now”

The person who lives in pious denial will eventually be crushed to death between a rock and a hard place. Anything they desire that is of the world will seem like idols by default. When they try to enjoy it, they feel guilt and shame. But when they say no and hide from it, they find that what they treasure isn't a treasure at all. “Oh Lord, if you are all I need, why did you make sports so fun? Why did you make video games so enjoyable? Why did you make the opposite sex so desirable?”

On the one hand, we have the temptation to turn gift into idol. On the other, we have the misguided notion of denying all gifts completely. So what is the aufhebung, the dialectic sublation of these two theses? The answer, at least practically in our Christian lives, is to get rid of the gifts and true joys that take away from your passion for Jesus. Those things that are prone in your life to become idols; those things that your heart desires more than their makers; those things must go. BUT, those gifts and true joys and delights that fuel your passion and love for the Lord, keep them and be thankful for them. To the degree that an earthly treasure increases your delight in the Lord, to that degree keep the treasure and glorify its Maker.

Take stock, Christian, of the treasures in your life. Which ones bring you into deeper delight and worship of its creator. Which ones take you farther from him?
Ultimately, a sign of deep spiritual maturity is the ability to guiltlessly enjoy earthly treasures in the context of God's gifts. The pursuit of academic excellence; a successful business; an art or work of art painstakingly perfected; the companionship of a girlfriend or boyfriend; the satisfaction of beating a video game; the elation that comes from achieving an athletic goal. All these things are gifts. They feel good because they're supposed to feel good. Our Father knows how to give gifts. He knows that we like fish better than snakes or stones. And those who are confident in that truth can truly enjoy life. In the end, those who are gripped with the goodness of God, who are confident in the security of their true, eternal, secure, heavenly treasure; they will not be afraid of going after what they desire.

It took me a long time to learn this. For a large part of my Christian life, I wasted away in despair; not understanding why not having any gods before Him made life suck so much. It was only after I worked all this out that I could guiltlessly live and enjoy. It was only after I made this realization that I could have nice things, do fun things, have a girlfriend, and all while give thanks to God that these gifts, though fleeting they are, are in my life.


  1. Two things. The first is that Francis Schaeffer said once something along the lines of "desire is sin if the desire is not based on love."

    The second: To begin, I really liked a lot of what you said. But I think you left out one consideration.

    It's an easy lie to view all the things we have as gifts from God. Let me explain. It we thank God for things we have that we gained directly (or indirectly) from injustice, what kind of thankfulness is that, and what kind of God? When I was in Nicaragua, people spoke about empowering poor farmers to use well the small bits of crappy hillside land "that God has given them." But, the only reason they have the crappy land is because Dole and Chiquita bananas forced all the small farmers off the good, flat, fertile land years and years ago. God had given them the good, fertile land, and it had been stolen. So now, do the owners of Dole and Chiquita sit down at the dinner table and give thanks to God for all he has given them? The language of "gifts" can baptize a lot of whatever the hell we want to do. I know that a lot of what I gain from the global power structure is not just. So what do I do with that then? Quietly accept it and thank God for his goodness to us? Become cynical and die? Or, know that loving justice and walking humbly with our God is difficult, but necessary for life. So we live lives of thankfulness and joy, yes, but also with the awareness that our privilege is most often at the expense of others around the world.

    I took a class on world development last semester, and at the beginning of the semester our professor said that what we would learn would make it harder to say our thanks prayers before meals. Not impossible to be thankful, but harder to unknowingly have this false kind of thankfulness and joy that ascribes to God the works of injustice. All I'm saying is that justice must be part of any conversation about a Christian view of possessions, because love has to be part of it. And love without justice is difficult to call love.

    How is Austria? Did you go to the Alps yet?

  2. Two responses:

    Your quote is "desire becomes sin if it fails to include the love of God or men" I wasn't carrying that around in my head; I just googled his name and the words "desire" and "sin".

    What you have to understand, Chuck, is that your response is sincere, but perpendicular to my point. The intersection in which our two agendas meet is that sin is universal and the source of all matters of pain and suffering in the world; whether individual or systemic. By individual, I mean when the idolatries of a person's heart ultimately leads to destruction and despair when that idol is lost. By systemic, I mean what you were referring to; the sin of corporate greed and diffused responsibility in a society leads to the pain and suffering of many people in other countries.

    In that last sentence, I was very tempted to write "many innocent people" because it sounds nicer and enhances the nature of the corporations sin; corporations like Dole and Chiquita. To do so would be rhetorically advantageous, but incredibly dishonest. The truth is, no individual is without idolatry, just as no corporation in our world is without greed.

    Anyway, I hope you understand, Chuck, that you're responding with your hobby horse and not to my post. I've known you for a long time as a close friend of mine and I know how passionate you are for justice, for defending those who aren't able to defend themselves. That's why it's even MORE important for you to understand this: Justice without the gospel is sin. Sooner or later, our feeble attempts at measuring up to God's perfect justice will fail and disintegrate and all that's left in the remains is self-righteousness. If we do not understand that the impetus, the motivation for bringing justice to the world is that our crucified savior took upon himself the ultimate injustice; if we don't understand that, then our well-meaning outrage will have no ground. It will have no ground because we are sinful and we ourselves have not been justified. If we're not justified, then on what basis can we bring about justice in this world?

    You knew this, Chuck. And that's why your freshman year you stopped going to that Salvation army church. Keep preaching the gospel. The good news cannot be preached without justice. The good news is that IN CHRIST, the lame leap, the blind see, the poor are rich, and the vertically-challenged tax collectors freely give away their possessions. But likewise, justice cannot be discovered without the gospel.