Here is the second part of the pastor’s interview that began yesterday.
5. Some Christians, I can only imagine, will be inclined to push back on your book, arguing that the church is already too worldly and doesn’t need encouragement to “enjoy life”. How would you respond to such criticisms?
One friend asked if most pastors didn’t think their people were already too consumed with worldly pleasure. I said that if we frame it like that we’ve already lost. We talk like the serpent, who suggested to Eve that God really wasn’t on her side. If you think about it, every wholesome pleasure you enjoy was God’s idea first. He came up with the idea of sex, and chocolate, and strawberries, and strawberries dipped in chocolate. Why would we ever think he is against worldly pleasure?
What we must do is help people understand the different senses of “worldly.” Scripture uses the term “world” to describe God’s good creation (John 3:16) and also to describe sinful lust (1 John 2:15-17). We must free people to enjoy God’s world in the first sense while hating the sin of this world in the second.
Too many Christians suffer from low grade spiritual guilt. They enjoy kayaking, cycling, woodworking, gardening, and cooking, but they also feel bad about it. They suppose that if they were better Christians they would spend less time on things they enjoy and more time sacrificing for Jesus. They need to know that like any good giver, God wants them to enjoy his gifts. They’re actually being ungrateful if they don’t make time to enjoy what God has graciously given them.
One reader thought this message wouldn’t benefit the persecuted church. He’s wrong. The Apostle Paul was persecuted more than most, yet he told Timothy to remind preachers to emphasize the enjoyment of God’s good creation (1 Timothy 4:1-8). Persecuted Christians are not masochists. We may enjoy less in our moment of suffering, but we don’t need to become monks who bring suffering upon ourselves (early medieval Christians joined monasteries when the persecution ceased).
Once a pious Christian starts down this path, where does it end? In the name of sacrificing for Jesus, you can always enjoy less. A person may become a monk, denouncing marriage, comfortable clothes, and determined to live on rice and beans. Well, he can always give up the beans. This sort of sloppy piety, if followed consistently, will drive you insane. It did Martin Luther, who rebelled and ignited the Reformation.
When we tell people to enjoy creation, we risk that they might turn their enjoyment into idolatry. Idolatry is the root sin that we must always oppose. But we must not let our fear of idolatry lead us to drive into the other ditch. Some conservative Christian leaders are now teaching panentheism. This technical term means “everything is in God,” and has more in common with Buddhism than Christianity. These leaders are so afraid of making too much of creation that they make far too little of it. They say that our world is not actually separate from God, but merely exists as an idea in God’s mind. But if I am only an idea in God’s mind, then I do not have a real and separate existence. And if I don’t have that, then I can’t even properly love God. I can’t love the other if there is no other. And so these conservatives commit their own form of idolatry. In the name of loving God they eliminate the possibility of loving him.
Here’s the point. There is no “safe” position. Any sound doctrine can be abused. The solution is not to downplay the right teaching, but to teach rightly even as we warn against its abuse. We don’t discount grace because some people think it gives them a license to sin. And we must not discount the goodness of earth just because some people will use it as an excuse for idolatry. The solution to idolatry is not less enjoyment of earth. It’s telling people to put their hopes and trust in Jesus, which then frees them to enjoy the world he made and died for (Colossians 1:15-20).
6. How might an appreciation for earthly things fuel our spiritual passions?
We will rightly enjoy the things of earth only when we realize that we can trust Jesus. He is on our side. If we really believe that, then we will hunger to talk to him in prayer, hear from him in Scripture, and tell others about him.
Think about how big the gospel becomes. We are not merely selling fire insurance (though not going to hell is crucially important). We are not merely saving people from something but for something.
Here’s the gospel: would you like to live here forever, on a restored earth free from the ravages of sin? Or will you choose to burn forever in a lake of fire, separated from everything good and anything that might provide a bit of relief? Turn from your sin, the sin that is killing you, and put all your hope in Jesus. Your everlasting life will begin now, and you will rise to live on this earth when Jesus returns. If Christians understood this gospel message, wouldn’t they be more excited to share it with others?
7. In some ways your book strikes me as the foundation for a theology of culture. Why might a theology of culture be important? As Christians continue to wrestle with their place in the world, and their relationship to culture what counsel would you give for developing a Biblical theology of culture?
Abraham Kuyper, a turn of the twentieth century Dutch leader, said we must remember both common grace and antithesis. Common grace reminds us that Christians and non-Christians are in this together. We both want the best for our world, and we should join hands whenever possible. But Christians must never forget the antithesis. We see the world in fundamentally different ways from our non-Christian friends, and so there should be a difference in how we think and live.
The more a given topic approaches the question of God and ultimate meaning, the more antithesis we should expect to find. The more it approaches our shared experience, the more common grace we will enjoy. For instance, mathematics will exhibit more common grace (there isn’t a Christian way to do algebra), while literature will display more antithesis (does meaning lie in the reader, the text, or the author?).
In common grace we are for the world. Like exiles in Babylon, we pray for the peace and prosperity of our city (Jeremiah 29:7). But our Yes to our culture will at times demand that we say No to what it is doing. We will stand against the fallenness of our world because we are for the flourishing of our world. When we speak out against sin, we must always couch our No in the larger Yes of what we are for. We oppose casinos because we are for the poor, we oppose pornography because we are for true love, and we oppose gay marriage and polygamy because we are for children and the families that raise them.
Another helpful distinction discussed in the book is between the church gathered and scattered. The church primarily gathers to celebrate redemption and primarily scatters to serve creation. If we confuse these primary roles, the gathered church will lose the gospel and the scattered Christians will lose their jobs. We want to share Jesus at work, but these opportunities will come more frequently and fruitfully if our coworkers notice a difference in how we do our jobs. If we think our primary reason for work is evangelism, if we try to turn every contact into an evangelistic encounter, we probably won’t do our jobs well and we may even be fired. Who would want to hear about Jesus from that guy?
But if we always give our best because we realize we are serving the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:23-24), there is a good chance others will take notice and our witness will be compelling. What would it say to the world if the best anything was usually a Christian? What if the best carpenters, accountants, masons, teachers, lawyers, maids, and doctors turned out to be followers of Jesus? Wouldn’t that be the best advertisement for the gospel? The culture may not like what we believe, but they would have to admit that something special is going on, and they might be intrigued to take a long look at Jesus (1 Peter 2:12). Let’s do everything for the Lord Jesus, because it counts.