Religious people often try very hard to follow the rules. We believe in an absolute morality, a very clear line between right and wrong. In doing so we sometimes point out others’ failures, sins, and weaknesses with nauseating ease, which is of course the very wrong thing to do most of the time.
Most of us, however, are equally hard on ourselves—we know our own failures, sins, and weaknesses to an irritating degree. To overcome this, religious people try to be a holy people. They try to abstain from things that are “unclean,” as it were, and seek things that are clean.
For Christians, this creates a tension. On the one hand they believe that God is perfect, and that he expects—even demands—perfection from his people. On the other hand they know they can never be perfect. God filled this hole with his son Jesus Christ.
So, how do Christians live in a world where they are supposed to be perfect, yet know they never will be? This tension has been fermenting in the human soul for thousands of years.
For some Christians, the solution is to chase seemingly “spiritual” things—reading the Bible, praying, listening to Christian music, watching Christian movies (whatever those are), and using Christian jargon. The things of earth seemingly stand in contrast with spiritual practices, and some spiritual people go so far as to avoid mainstream culture altogether.
And this is the irony. In trying to be holy by abstaining from good and pleasurable things, we’re actually suffering from idolatry by elevating creation to an unholy level. We don’t view the Creator or the creation in good, healthy ways.
How then do we love God and love the world?
In some Christian hymns you’ll find phrases like “Turn your eyes upon Jesus . . . and the things of earth will grow strangely dim.” Just the other day I heard a pastor at a very large church say, “I hate this world. I can’t wait until I get to leave it and be with Jesus.” Even some Bible verses speak this way: “Do not love the world or the things of this world”; “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?”; “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” You can even buy a bumper sticker that says Not of This World, if you’re into that kind of thing.
This leads many people to adopt a gnostic, monastic mentality. Be austere and dress plainly, they think. Stay away from art and culture because it’s fleshly and sinful. Abstain from earthly pleasures in order to become more spiritual. Another way gnosticism spreads is by “redeeming” culture with overly spiritual fads. You don’t have to say #redemptivecoffee or #coffeewithjesus to enjoy a nice cup of coffee and honor the Creator.
Of course, sometimes the world is terrible. Floods and riots in Baton Rouge, explosions at weddings, deep corruption in governments and businesses, death and sickness and gossip and a thousand other things of earth draw us toward hatred of this world. But stopping there is no way to live.
Spiritual people also know that because God is infinite, we are supposed to have infinite joy in God. If we have joy in anything else—say, our families or novels or pumpkin crunch cake—we are not thinking about God rightly. In the name of holiness we abandon the world. Eventually, people with this theology begin to feel a low-grade guilt about not enjoying God enough, thus vaulting them into either surly asceticism or wild hedonism.
I have been guilty of this. It’s hard not to be. We all have a line, some subjective standard, that says, “Beyond this is too much.” I used to purse my lips, and sometimes still do, at what I believed to be extravagant spending. One time at a college football game, where millions of dollars were spent on RVs, parking spots, advertisements, and season tickets, I said to my dad, “Could you imagine what could be done with all this money instead of being spent on a football game?” But isn’t that what Judas said just before he was possessed by the devil to kill Jesus?
That line we use to measure others is nearly invisible from the other side. While looking at others’ wealth it’s easy to forget my own. It’s easy to forget about my $1,000 MacBook or my big 4K monitor or my nice Honda, not to mention my own moral failures. It takes zero creativity to look at a giant house and smugly think, “Do you really need that?” The lower classes always look down at the upper classes. Someone could quickly look at my Apple Watch and think, “Do you really need that?” No, in fact, I don’t.
This tension is not easily resolved. It is easy, however, to see how gnostic tendencies creep their way into the lives of the faithful. How does one enjoy the Creator and his gifts in creation? What do we do with those Bible verses that say “do not love the world” and those that say “God so loved the world”?
Joe Rigney, a professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary, wrote a book to fill this tedious hell hole and set us free from annoying ourselves and others about worldly pleasures. The Things of Earth addresses the issue by first introducing heavy theology, and then by softening its edges into more practical applications.
Using arguments from the apostle Paul, C. S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, and others, Rigney helps us see why moral high-horsing is just as sinful, and just as ironic, as anything else. This passage from Colossians 2 is hounding enough.
Be careful not to allow anyone to captivate you through an empty, deceitful philosophy that is according to human traditions and the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. . . .
If you have died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you submit to them as though you lived in the world? “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” These are all destined to perish with use, founded as they are on human commands and teachings. Even though they have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility achieved by an unsparing treatment of the body—a wisdom with no true value—they in reality result in fleshly indulgence.
Even in Paul’s day, thousands of years ago, people were scrunching their noses and shaking their heads at all sorts of “worldly” practices. These are human traditions, and they have nothing to do with Christian practice or the God who created it.
A few years after writing this, Paul wrote an even harsher denouncement of this “self-imposed worship.” This time, in 1 Timothy 4, he called it “demonic.”
Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the later times some will desert the faith and occupy themselves with deceiving spirits and demonic teachings, influenced by the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. They will prohibit marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creation of God is good and no food is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. For it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.
Rigney argues that this kind of fault-finding is actually less spiritual because it’s not seeking the true spiritual pleasures of earth. We should be more pleasure-seeking, not less. Sin doesn’t come from enjoying this thing or that thing because sin isn’t even in the thing. He explains it this way.
To pursue holiness by stiff-arming created pleasures appears wise. Ascetic religion and severity to the body may impress lots of people. But their value in promoting godliness is null. The reason should be obvious: sin is not in the stuff. Sin resides in human hearts, and thinning out creation makes us thin idolaters. We exchange indulgent sins for ascetic ones, but rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic doesn’t alter the ship’s path. The flesh is still steering the boat, and a true course correction will require something more fundamental than a rejection of God’s gifts.
He goes on to argue that love for God is, in fact, love for the world—for s’mores and college football and iPhones. In one summarizing passage, Rigney writes about resolving this tension by loving both pumpkin crunch cake—a delicious creation—and his wife—the creator.
“If my enjoyment of the cake is real and deep and satisfying,” he says, “and if it issues forth in praise of my wife, appreciation for her efforts, and acts of love (like doing some dishes), then my love for the cake is no threat to my love for her.” Enjoying the creation is the proper response to enjoying the creator. “It’s good to be reminded that the giver—God—is ultimate. But then, once the supremacy of the giver is settled, the right and fitting response is to dive back into the pumpkin crunch cake and enjoy every last bite.”
The earth is full of beautiful, wonderful things. The Creator is a true artist. The skies, the waters, the animals, the human body—magnificent. Richard Feynman, one of the most renowned physicists of all time, once explained it like this.
What we’re looking for is how everything works, what makes everything work. The curiosity as to where we are, what we are—it’s very much more exciting to discover that we’re on a ball, half of it’s sticking upside down, it’s spinning around in space, it’s a mysterious force which holds us on it, it’s going around a great big blob of gas that’s burning by a fuel, by a fire that’s completely different than any fire we can make. . . . The truth is so much more remarkable.
Quite remarkable indeed. The creation’s creation, too, is quite remarkable. When you see a cinematic montage that moves you to tears, a photo narrative that sits in your stomach, or a new piece of software that makes your life so much easier, are these not praiseworthy? Tesla’s new Gigafactory or Roger Federer’s religious experience or, simply, the genius of Wi-Fi—are these to be rejected as well?
Enjoying Every Bite
One fall night a few years ago, my friends and I were sitting on a back porch by a fire pit roasting marshmallows and talking about how far we’d come since college. Some of them had their phones out taking pictures of themselves, of the fire, of the memories. They looked them over and wistfully talked about how cool it would look on Instagram. “Isn’t this so fun?” one said. Another friend leaned over and said to me in a low voice, “This is what I call pre-nostalgia.” The night had just begun, but we were too busy thinking about how great it had been.
The human species has an incurable gravitation toward irony, of course. A new pair of scissors is wrapped in a plastic that you must open with scissors. University professors are fired for a lack of diversity. We write mail merges with *|FIRST NAME|* to seem more personal. The very things we do negate and destroy the things we seek.
So it is in the life of the religious.
The things of earth are remarkable gifts from a remarkable Creator. These things should draw us into relationship with him, to communicate with a mysterious, invisible being about these very real, visible creations. Before you pull out your pocket-sized computer to take a few pics of the fire, before it’s double-tapped on Instagram, before the pre-nostalgia sets in, perhaps being in this place—living on this earth with these people—is exactly what we were made for.
by Joe Rigney
Crossway, pp. 271, $16.99
Cover photo by Jakob Owens.