Enjoying the Earth Without Loving the World

Oct 27, 2009 |Gary Thomas

Do you consider the world to be a mother or a prostitute?

Quick question: Do you consider the world to be a mother or a prostitute?

I'm serious.

Do you see the world God created as a giant temptress, waiting to lure us away from true faith and devotion, or do you see it as a mother who nurtures our faith and disciplines us toward pure devotion and abundant life?

There's a "catch" behind my question, of course. The Bible presents the world in both lights. Various passages warn about the world's allure, while other passages celebrate its abundance and goodness. The great question is how do we reconcile these two apparently opposing viewpoints?

Unfortunately, many traditions focus on one in exclusion to the other. Most often, we choose the negative: The world is a threat, a menace, a temptress. Such traditions deeply suspect any enjoyment in this world and seriously undercut the beauty and goodness of God's creation. They speak as if our job as imprisoned souls is to deny any sensual experience of any kind — and certainly any pleasurable sensual experience — lest we lose our appetite for prayer, worship and Bible study.

Recent traditions of Christianity have had, in my view, a very slanted and negative view of the world, in a way that injures our souls, opposes abundant life, and dishonors the God who created a wonderful place for us to live.

When John tells us not to love the world or anything in the world (1 John 2:15-17), and James tells us that friendship with the world is hatred toward God (4:4), they do not instruct us to despise the sound of a baby's laugh, the taste of cold watermelon on a hot, sunny day, or the drama of achievement; instead they warn us away from finding our happiness, meaning and fulfillment in social systems, polluted appetites, or actions that antagonize God. John makes this crystal clear when he says in his Gospel that God himself loves the world (3:16) and when in one of his letters he defines the world's sinful cravings as lust, boasting, and wayward desires. In other words, the Bible condemns polluted pleasures.

The problem is that we take the Bible's condemnation of the "world" as condemnation of the "earth." This serious mistake has unfortunate consequences to our souls and our view of life. Much of the "world" stands against God and rebels against Him; God created the earth to reveal Himself to us and to provide a place where we can enjoy Him.

Open Windows

I am bold enough to believe that God created this earth not to tempt us, but to reveal Himself to us. Even this fallen world provides windows through which we may glimpse the One who created it.

In her wonderful book Cold Tangerines, Shauna Niequist describes how becoming pregnant made her almost mystically alive to the world's truest and purest pleasures:

One of the best things about being pregnant, I think, is how vividly I taste and feel and smell things. A soft chair can truly make me believe that all is right with the world, and sweet corn and ripe peaches just annihilate me with their flavor. Lavender soap can make me almost pass out with happiness. I have never been so easily and deeply satisfied.

God's design displays utter brilliance. I can't imagine a more intelligent thing for a creator to do than to make a pregnant mother — who is literally re-populating the world — intoxicated with the beauty of life. If she's going to prepare the way, why not make her an enthusiastic fan?

And yet so many Christian teachers persist in setting God's earth up against God's Kingdom — as if the two always oppose one another. We celebrate redemptive activities like prayer and worship, but then pit them against other human realities like marriage, exercise, traveling, reading for pleasure, and laughter.

Don't get me wrong; the hearts of healthy believers naturally gravitate toward worship, singing and thanksgiving. All of these good things bring great joy and pleasure.

God isn't just our redeemer, however; he is also our creator. He made us and He made this world. So when we participate in this world as He made it, we celebrate him every bit as much as we honor Him when we do things that reflect His redeeming work. In fact, it insults Him to deny the glory of His creativity. When we speak of God only as Savior, we use Him as a rescuer — but He is much more than that. He invites us to truly enjoy Him and all that He has made, no longer using God merely to enjoy the world (setting us free from addictions, reclaiming our finances, restoring health), but also using the world to enjoy God.

This is a call to embrace the world in a way that may seem radical to many Christians. How can it honor God to ask him to solve our problems, fix our families, and remove the stain of sin — while ignoring what He delights to create, color and fashion? This is as foolish as someone learning to play the guitar simply to develop stronger and more nimble fingers, or taking up playing the flute so that he can improve his ability to breathe. It misses the beauty and poetry of the entire exercise, reducing this world to a utilitarian throwaway bereft of the mystery and wonder of an infinitely creative and generous God.

I grow weary with the teaching that, even for the redeemed, this good world that God created competes with Him instead of pointing me to Him. I weary of the thinking that separates pleasure from God; as if I'm supposed to "love" God more than I love engaging in a favorite pastime, like running, or enjoying a bite of chocolate. What a bizarre comparison! The fact is, I enjoy chocolate because God gave me taste buds, and any pleasure I derive from eating it is a pleasure designed and sustained by God.Augustine put it this way: "When you enjoy a man in God, it is God rather than the man whom you enjoy...." I can talk about enjoying running or eating chocolate as temptations toward idolatry, or I can talk about them as acts of worship, acknowledging and celebrating the God who makes physical exertion or eating that chocolate both possible and enjoyable. "To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure" (Titus 1:15).

Though this is becoming less common, I tire of pastors who seem to always talk down sexual pleasure. God designed us for sexual pleasure, then He gave us neurochemicals and hormones that make us want to keep going back again and again — of course we're interested in sex! God made us that way; instead of condemning the desire, let's help people build lives seasoned, strengthened and blessed by holy sexual intimacy, seeing it as a wonderful and generous gift by a pleasure-minded and pleasure-giving God.

One contemporary writer sets up this dichotomy between love for God and enjoyment of the world in typical fashion:

But will Jesus be enough? The world seems to offer so much more, so much easier, so much faster. Is there in the beauty of all that Jesus is and offers sufficient joy to keep my soul satisfied and to stem its search for other delights?

It sounds perilous even to suggest that Jesus "isn't enough"; but the above quote sets up an unnecessary contradiction. How does it dishonor the beauty of Jesus to also seek the delights of art, human fellowship, and God-given joys? Jesus doesn't stem these delights; He focuses, sanctifies, and increases them. He created the "best wine ever" for a friend's wedding; He told his followers to look — really look — at the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. He laughed with His disciples and He wept when death took a friend away.

Redeemed by Jesus, I am finally set free to truly enjoy and participate in the things of this earth without becoming sinfully entangled by them.

That, in fact, is the point of this verse from Ecclesiastes: "When God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work — this is a gift of God.... God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart" (5:19, 20b). Look carefully at what God's inspired Word really says: When God gives someone possessions and enables that person to enjoy them — this is God's gift.

The ability to truly enjoy food without becoming a glutton; the ability to handle sensual pleasure without becoming a fornicator or adulterer; the ability to truly laugh, in a healthy way; the ability to manage wealth responsibly and without becoming proud or selfish — these are "creator" blessings that also require the redeemer's touch.

When the Bible says God "enables" us to enjoy them, we can fairly assume this enabling as a second work of grace. Some people who don't honor God may have such things, but not the grace to truly enjoy them. For them, the world may well feel more like a prostitute than a mother.

But not so for the redeemed! Given all this, doesn't it seem far more profitable to teach the church to thank God for good pleasures, rather than to obsessively fear that somehow we must compare and contrast our appreciation for a beautiful painting or a stirring piece of music with our enjoyment of reading through the Psalms and meditating on God's loveliness? God wants both acts to point us toward Him.

The contradiction between the world as prostitute or mother resolves itself in the love, acceptance, and mercy of a forgiving God. When God turns my soul toward Him, many of the very things that used to lure me away from His presence now become causes of celebration and stimulants of vigorous worship. Where before food might have captured my heart, now it captures only my taste-buds and makes my heart sing for such a generous God. Where before acclaim might have captured my soul, now it humbles me and leaves me standing in awe of such a capable God. Where before family might blind me to the eternal, now it gives me a picture of what it means to be part of his heavenly kin. While earthly pleasures aren't ends in themselves, they can effectively serve as signposts to God and doorways to gratitude and spiritual intimacy.

The Jesus Behind the Pleasure

And yet, all the time, I hear the common questions of guilt-laced piety: Newlyweds ask me if it's possible to love their fiancé "too much." Young mothers worry that they may love their babies more than they love God. I hear from believers who feel convinced that, if they play the piano, God will crush their fingers if it becomes "too important," or, if they're really into their jobs, they better volunteer at church or God will send them to the unemployment lines. While most of us don't verbalize these ideas, how often have we thought them?

The church has mastered the art of chasing joy out of virtually every human endeavor.

As just one example, let me explain the spiritual violence we do to young mothers when we shame them for feeling overwhelmed with love for their baby, in a way they may not feel, in that particular moment, for God. Neurologists now understand that when a woman nurses her newborn, her brain releases extra doses of oxytocin and prolactin, neurochemicals that trigger profound feelings of intimacy and a rush of emotional love. In fact, nursing also triggers the release of oxytocin in the infant. In the God-designed act of nursing, mother and child are all but melting into each other, overcome with intense feelings of adoration, intimacy, and closeness. Their brains ping with positive, pleasurable feedback. Scientists have found this chemical reaction to be so overpowering that mother rats chose their newborns over cocaine.

Our creator designed this interaction, and brilliantly so. In a season of life that calls young women to so much work — changing diapers, sleep-deprived nights, dealing with incessant crying and unpleasant smells — it's a mark of God's genius that He also provides for unusually intense emotional bonding.

When that young mother puts down her child and picks up her Bible, there's no way, on a neurological level, that 1 Samuel — and probably not even the Song of Songs — can evoke the same release of oxytocin. Making a young mother feel guilty about this — as if something is wrong with her — goes against God's created order. Explaining what's happening from a neurological perspective will help her understand why she feels so close to her child and perhaps not as close to her husband or even her God.

A more proper response is to teach young mothers to enjoy the intimacy of nursing and use it as a basis for persistent gratitude and worship. Instead of setting these feelings up as something to repent of, the church can urge women to embrace them as one more generous gift from a loving creator.

Here's another example, this one for young singles. How many times are singles told that they have to stop really "wanting" to get married before God will bring them a spouse? This stupidity not only depicts a taunting, teasing God (finally giving us something only after we've stopped wanting it), but it also undercuts the beauty of true marital intimacy, designed by God and generously given to us by God.

Keep in mind, Adam walked with God, enjoyed God, worshiped God, and talked with God far more intensely and directly than we do today. And yet it was God who said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him" (Gen. 2:18).

Catch this: God is literally telling Adam, "It is my opinion that the way you are living — just me and you — is not enough, at least not for now. It isn't good for you to be here with just me and no companion, so I'm creating someone else, a woman, with whom you can share your life and relate to me together."

Brothers and sisters, God told Adam, in one sense, "I'm not enough." Those aren't my words; they're His.

In some lives and in some situations, there will be "only Jesus" — God may take away our spouse, our children, our home, seemingly every enjoyment. And in those situations, yes, we will find that He is, really and truly, enough. But I believe wisdom teaches us such lives are invitation-only, to be entered into only under God's providence. They are not to be pursued as self-imposed obligations. The early church chastised young believers who sought martyrdom; it's one thing to humbly surrender to ultimate persecution. It's another thing entirely to arrogantly exalt yourself into heroic piety, primarily because you want to prove your maturity.

If you want to get married, good for you — that's a sign that you're willing to surrender to God's good, creative order. Don't let others make you feel guilty about it; do everything you can to find a suitable mate, asking for God's help without worrying about offending Him because you deeply desire what He, in fact, designed you to enjoy.

Having said all this, of course it is possible for us to put a person (a child, a romantic attachment, a friend) or a pursuit ahead of God; the Bible presents this as a real threat. We must hold all pleasures with a submissive hand. God makes no secret of how He uses pain, disappointment, difficulty and dryness to shape us into the image of His Son; Christianity will always sing the song of self-denial. But if we teach redeemed Christians to use feelings of love and pleasure to point them to God instead of competing with God, we can use the things of this world to help cement their faith, instead of loosen it.

I love the way C.S. Lewis handled this with a young reader who worried that she loved the Narnia character Aslan more than she loved Jesus. Lewis quite rightly replied that she loved the Jesus in Aslan; everything that drew her to Aslan was the spirit and character of Jesus, so she didn't really love Aslan more. On the contrary, Aslan merely demonstrated the beauty of Jesus in a way that she could understand it.

Marathon Mania

Imagine my surprise when I read one of my favorite Christian authors and he warned about people with empty souls who do things like "have affairs or run marathons." To date, I've run seven marathons, and am scheduled to run two more this fall and one next spring. I never knew doing so was due to having an empty soul.

In fact, I believe the opposite. Running offers some of my most enriching, soul-satisfying times of worship. I will never forget finally making it to the Boston marathon. Near the end of the race, as I turned left onto Boylston street, just 200 yards from the finish, I prayed every step of the way, enjoying that moment with God, reliving the years of my pursuit to be in that race, thanking him for making it possible. People were stacked eight deep along the sidewalk, but I kept looking up into the sky and may have appeared to be a mad man. I was all but oblivious to the human pandemonium and was instead intensely focused on my God, who made all this possible.

I can even imagine, in my old age, thinking back on my life and praying, "Remember, Lord, when we ran our first Boston marathon together?" because that's the kind of relationship I have with God. He is my truest friend (John 15:15). I'm inspired by the words of King David, who testified to this: "The LORD be exalted, who delights in the well-being of His servant" (Ps. 35:27). "He [God] brought me out into a spacious place; He rescued me because He delighted in me" (2 Sam. 22:20).

It is so sad to me that many Christians view God as, not exactly their enemy, but their accuser, their protagonist, constantly setting up temptations and challenging their heart, faith and integrity with almost gleeful delight.

God created an earth that, yes, has its points of temptations; but when we are touched by His Spirit, led by His hand, and guided by His word, that same earth can lead us to enjoy precious times of intimacy, develop souls overflowing with gratitude, and even lead us to worship the creative God who so brilliantly put all of it together.

There are times I practically burst with contentment and satisfaction; when just the right song comes onto my iPod during an autumn run in the woods; when the family is together, laughing and talking and eating a good meal; when my wife and I enjoy a soul-bonding time of intimacy; when I'm in the middle of a book that is keeping me enthralled; when God has used me, sinful me, for His ministry purposes; I think of how wonderful God is, how kind our Lord is to us, to provide us with such rich pleasure, such holy and pure enjoyment.

The more I surrender to God, the more I see this earth — and even the things of earth (food, sex, achievement, relationships, music, entertainment) as a nurturing mother, and less as a prostitute trying to lure me away.

Copyright 2009 Gary Thomas. All rights reserved.

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