Last month I was speaking to a seminary faculty about the themes in Becoming Worldly Saints when a professor shared that he had pondered the pleasures of creation on his walk into work that morning. He had thanked God for the rising sun, the singing birds, but then wondered whether he might be enjoying God’s world a little too much. When does wholesome enjoyment become sinful idolatry? Where is the line, and how can we tell when we have crossed it?
We discussed the question and concluded it isn’t possible to enjoy God’s creation too much. God isn’t worried that we take too much pleasure from Thursday’s Thanksgiving feast, a winter sunset, or Caribbean vacation. All of these pleasures come from his hand, and he wants us to enjoy them to the full (1 Timothy 6:17). God isn’t a stern nanny who takes the sundae away when there are three spoonfuls left. “That’s it. You’ve had enough fudgy pleasure. One more bite and you’ve gone too far.”
The problem with enjoyment is not quantity but quality. We can not enjoy God’s world too much, but we can enjoy it in the wrong way. We can put our hope in earthly pleasure, asking it to deliver what only God can provide. This is the sin of idolatry that we must avoid.
How can we tell whether our full enjoyment of creation has become idolatrous? I rely on the Greek term, adiaphora, which means “things indifferent.” Sixteenth century Lutherans used this concept to determine which aspects of the Christian faith were essential and which were adiaphora, areas where Christians could disagree. The concept is also helpful in areas of Christian freedom. We must decide what matters of conduct all Christians should agree on, and what matters—such as eating meat offered to idols—are adiaphora, neither here nor there.
Applied to the pleasures of creation, we should enjoy every wholesome pleasure as much as we can, as long as that pleasure remains adiaphora. We are permitted to fully enjoy mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, as long as we are willing to give them up. We are allowed to enjoy a new car, hot tub, and high definition television, as long as our joy does not depend on having such things. We are permitted to enjoy any earthly pleasure that we are prepared to let go.
Here’s the point: We must live with open hands rather than closed fists. Open hands both give and receive gifts, and they must do both. Sharing good things with others is a great check on idolatry. We only know for sure that our pleasures are adiaphora when we give them away. But the same open hand that gives to others is also free to receive new pleasures from God. Don’t feel guilty when this happens, but enjoy the food, family, and football as God intended. As much as you possibly can.