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.