God actually does want you to be happy

The only worse teaching than “God just wants you to be happy” is “God doesn’t want you to be happy.” Of course, not that many people teach this specifically, but a number of people come close. Some of them do this by hammering in a more spiritual sounding point, something along the lines of “God is more interested in you being holy than being happy.” And, technically speaking, they’re right. If God had to pick between giving you a holiness boost and a happiness boost, I’m sure He’d pick holiness.

But the problem lies in the question itself, not so much in the answer. Or, to be clearer, asking whether God prefers your happiness or holiness more is already a bad way of putting things. It’s kind of like asking if my I would rather my son be happy or healthy. If I love him, I want both very much and would not wish to choose between them. But at the same time, a large part of the reason I want him healthy is because it will make him happy. A basic problem with unhealthiness is that is leads to unhappiness, or at least makes happiness all the more difficult. While I definitely wouldn’t mind making Nathan temporarily unhappy to make him healthy (I’ll get him his shots and medicine as needed), the point of that temporary unhappiness is so he can play happily later instead of being miserably ill. If the cure were worse than the disease in the long run, I’d probably pass it up.

What we tend to miss, then, is that holiness is a lot like health. In fact, holiness could be considered spiritual health. Health, after all, is when the various parts of our body work together in the right order and harmony. Holiness is when the various parts of our lives—thoughts, feelings, and actions—work together in the right order and harmony as defined by how God has made us to live.

This is why, for all our disagreements, I think John Piper is really getting at something important with his so-called “Christian Hedonism.” Piper is very right to say that there is nothing wrong with wanting or trying to be happy. Instead, what makes trying to be happy right or wrong is the way in which we do it. Sin may make us happy in the short term, but it causes misery in the end. Living by faith in Christ, on the other hand, may make us unhappy today as we take up our crosses, but it will turn out far for the best. And while Piper usually focuses on the eternal payoff, holy living pays off in the “short-long term” as well. Sexual restraint protects us from broken homes, broken hearts, and often broken bodies. Generosity and mercy build meaningful relationships and improve mental health. Getting wasted every weekend may be fun, but all too often leads to regrettable choices and mistakes that can never be undone. And this list can go on. Virtue is hard work and can involve suffering, but it makes a brighter life. Vice can be thrilling, but it quickly drags us into the lonely dark.

All of this comes back around to creation, to the subject of my last post. God made life to be lived and enjoyed. He smiles to see His children playing on the playground of the world. But He won’t—He can’t—tolerate sinful play. However much fun it may seem in the moment, it will ruin everyone’s day. This is the great sin. What God wants is to call His children in as the night falls to feast on bread and wine, with joy and laughter bought at the steep price of His true Son’s blood.

So, why make this point? Am I picking on words and phrases to be a pain or know-it-all? By no means! This is something that I believe causes serious trouble when forgotten. This is because everyone wants to be happy, and they feel that, in some way, it is right for them to look for happiness. And it is God who crafted their hearts with this desire. So when they hear it preached that God’s not concerned with their happiness, or if they only hear rules and “don’t’s” without a clear explanation of how God gives these commands because He truly does want their smile, it is far too easy to conclude that God is simply against joy and fun. They start to view God as a grumpy old man aggravated by seeing young people enjoy themselves. And I’m not talking hypothetically. This is something I have seen and heard myself.

Once this mistake is made, their God-given desire for happiness leads them away from the very unhappy picture of God they have developed. And while sinful pleasures aren’t as good for joy long-term as God is, they’re way better on any time scale than the Curmudgeon God who they have come to believe gave us Christianity. This becomes their excuse for sin. And sin will ruin their happiness, which God will not take lightly. God will not, of course, let them get away with their excuses, but we should be taking those away first with good theology. If we don’t, they won’t be the only ones having to give an account.

What we should be teaching, then, is not the technically correct answer to the misguided question of whether God prefers happiness or holiness. Instead, we ought to say, “Of course God wants you to be happy. But He knows better than you do what makes us happy. After all, He designed up. So let’s crack open the Bible and see what God has to say about what makes a happy life. You ask if partying will be involved? Let’s turn to Revelation 19:6-9…”

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God wants you filled with jam

G. K. Chesterton had a way with words, a way with humor, and a way with Christian thinking. These qualities are what make the inspiration for the title of this post. It comes from his book, What’s Wrong with the World (a book which, according to Chesterton, is what’s wrong with literature). It opens with a partial answer: what is wrong is that we don’t know, care, or agree about what it would look like for things to be right. This leads to brief discussion about how efficiency, so prized in his day, for its own sake is meaningless. Doing things efficiently is only valuable inasmuch as what you are doing itself is valuable. Almost everything you can do will be efficient toward one goal but inefficient toward another. This brings him to the following:

Maeterlinck is as efficient in filling a man with strange spiritual tremors as Messrs. Crosse and Blackwell are in filling a man with jam. But it all depends on what you want to be filled with. Lord Rosebery, being a modern skeptic, probably prefers the spiritual tremors. I, being an orthodox Christian, prefer the jam.

If this doesn’t crack you up, my condolences. But while it’s obvious what makes the quote funny, it’s less obvious what he means. Why exactly would a Christian prefer jam to spiritual tremors? To put the question a different way, what’s so Christan about being filled with jam?

The connection between Jesus and jam may not be obvious, but it’s important. It goes all the way back to creation. It goes back to God’s choice to make our world, not just a world of ghostly spirit beings, but a world of real, tangible, images of God in fatty, bloody flesh.

When we think about creation, there are a lot of ways to talk about its point. What is the point of created life? We could say that it is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, but that’s not very specific. What does glorifying God mean and look like, anyway? Does that mean the point of life is an endless church service, praying and singing and doing sacraments? I’m sure that sounds right to someone, but why did God make such a big world if that was all that mattered? Some people accuse God of being boring because of church, but they forget that it was His idea to send us there only once a week. So what are the other six days for?

Maybe the other six days are for glorifying God, too. But again, what does that look like, if not church? It can’t simply mean reading our Bibles and praying, otherwise even (or especially?) the most spiritual people will struggle not to have a life of mostly filler.

So maybe the point of life means giving God thanks and praise in everything we do. This seems more likely, but more questions arise. Does this mean we’re missing the point whenever we do, well, anything without before and after offering a special prayer of thanksgiving and praise? I realize we’re all sinners, but… Is living life how God intended actually quite that, dare I say, tedious?

Chesterton recognized that it is not. He saw the secret to created life: God made it for living. He understood the old quote from Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” God is happy and glorified in all of our enjoyment of His creation, including the whole of our lives. God made this world and every part of our existence, and just like a father who builds a playground, He laughs to see His children playing. This doesn’t mean, of course, that He tolerates misbehavior or ingratitude, which unfortunately color so much of our lives. But even when we enjoy creation without gratitude, or when we live a happy life riddled with sin, the living and the enjoying are still good in themselves, just compromised and corrupted.

Right at the heart of Chesterton’s philosophy was this simple truth. God made life to be lived, lived in joy and gratitude rather than endless dour introspection or sanctimonious blessings on every last thing. We should always remember the Source of life, but the best way to honor Him to precisely to live the life He provides. So be filled with jam, do the work God has set out for you, love the people He has put in your life, and trust in Christ to sanctify the whole thing. We don’t go wrong by enjoying life too much, but by cutting our enjoyment short by poisoning pleasures with sin or ingratitude. So kill the sin, thank God, and live.

To be like Jesus, be despised but not despicable.

“Jesus said we would be despised.”

I hear Christians say this all the time. Usually it comes in the context of offering controversial opinions based on the Bible or Christian tradition. And technically they are correct. Jesus did tell the disciples that His followers would be ridiculed, persecuted, and hated for His sake.

But… This isn’t all there is to say about the matter. Too often people use this as an excuse to present biblical teachings in an inappropriate, rude, or even wicked way. (And sometimes they’re not even biblical teachings so much as cheap caricatures of them.) Doing this is unacceptable. Truth can and sometimes must be offensive, but its offense must never be wielded as a club.

Being clear: rudeness is not Christian. Name-calling and slandering are not Christian. Treating people as though they did near bear the image of Christ is not Christian. And Jesus did not tell us to do any of those things. Truth can be very offensive, but this offense can be made worse or better by how, when, why, and where we preach it.

Jesus promised that we would be despised, but He only blessed those who are despised for His sake. When we misbehave, acting arrogantly or abusively in our truth-telling, we will be despised not for Christ’s sake but for our own. In fact, adding rudeness to truth turns the truth into a kind of lie, since it gives off the signal that the God—who is Himself truth—approves of our behavior.

So in the end this really is just a rant against abusing the truth as a club with which to be jerks to other people. We can be despised for our message and for our love and still be like Jesus. But when we are despised for being obnoxious, inflammatory, cruel, or disrespectful, our own Scriptures condemn us. For we are called to be witnesses characterized by love, compassion, gentleness, a good reputation, and blamelessness before the world, in peace as much as it depends on us. To adapt from Jesus:

“What good is it if you speak the truth but harass and disrespect others? Do not even the most rabid SJWs do the same? And if you preach the offense of the cross but add to it your own offense, are you not a stumbling block to your hearers? Therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

P.S. This Babylon Bee article ties in perfectly with my point here.

The doctrine of objective coolness

How do we know what is “cool?”

I was having a discussion along these lines with someone the other day. He was saying more or less that if you think something is cool, it’s cool for you. This was part of his point that he doesn’t hate on what anyone else thinks is cool. Whether anything truly “is” cool is nothing but a matter of taste.

I was not entirely comfortable with this. Anyone who has read C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man will understand why. The claim my friend made about coolness could be rephrased like this:

When the man said This [waterfall] is cool, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall…Actually…he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Cool”, or shortly, I have cool feelings.

This might sound like common sense, or it might sound ridiculous, depending mostly on how you have been raised. But in any case, this is what my friend and many other people seem to think about coolness. When we call something “cool,” we really just mean that we like it and find it, personally, interesting. But this is a worse idea than it sounds.

As Lewis goes on to show in The Abolition of Man, there is no reason to stop at any one kind of value judgment. If the words “cool” and, to use his own example, “sublime” are just about our personal feelings, do any words about something’s value or worth mean something real, or are they all just personal opinion? Is anything objective, or is everything limited to our individual hearts? For example, if “cool” is just an opinion, then why not “worthy,” “just,” “fair,” “noble,” “true,” or “good”? Or what about “evil” and “wrong”? Obviously this is a deadly and treacherous path to take. We must be able to say that some things are really true, good, and beautiful. (If at this point my argument seems cut short, my answer would simply be this: read The Abolition of Man.)

So my point is that coolness is real, and coolness is objective. We do not make things cool by thinking they are cool. Things are not cool strictly within the confines of our hearts. Things are cool in themselves, and we respond to that coolness. So we call them “cool.”

But if I am right, how do we know what is objectively cool?

Easy: everything is cool.

God made everything, and He made everything cool. Everything in the universe from the lightest quark to the greatest of the supermassive black holes was designed with skill and intent by the omnipotent God. He crafted each and every part, and He knows and upholds all of it by His own pleasure.

This makes everything cool. Everything which exists right now exists because God chooses to keep it in existence. Everything is a carefully wrought gift of God, full of more parts, aspects, and dimensions than we will ever comprehend. So everything is cool. The reason we don’t find everything cool is that we are too small. We are limited by nature, habit, experience, and sin. We can’t take in all of the coolness that the universe contains, so we specialize on this or that thing which has a kind of coolness we can most easily see. But that doesn’t make other things not cool, nor does it mean things are only cool to us personally. For objective coolness is nothing other than the doctrine of Genesis 1:31. In the end, G. K. Chesterton was right:

There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.

When it comes to Christianity, listen to the experts (and they’re not who you think)

In most things, if you want to succeed, it is very helpful to have expert advice. This, I think, applies to the Christian life as much as anything. This might sound a bit off at first, especially if by “experts” you think I mean Bible scholars and famous pastors. Can’t you thrive in Christ without that kind of help?

But those aren’t who I’m talking about. Experts are generally people who have had lots of practice and have learned successfully from that practice. They’ve spent thousands of hours learning and training. Expertise is the result of a long, slow, devoted process.

What we often forget about Christianity is that, with this kind of qualification being the most important to define an expert, we have loads of them in almost every church. And they are unfortunately the people we tend to listen to the least. A lot of times we even treat them dismissively and condescendingly.

I call this group “experts,” and the Bible sometimes calls them “elders.” But too many people call them just “old people.”

Yes, it is of the senior adult Sunday school class that I speak. These experienced Christians often have behind them decades of service to Christ and tens of thousands of hours of “practice” at Christian living. But for some reason, at least from what I’ve seen, younger people make very little use of their wisdom.

Of course, we have our excuses. I mean, some of our elders voted for Trump. Some of them say rock and rap music are of the Devil. Some of them are KJV-only. A lot of them don’t seem to understand our super-serious theological debates like Calvinism v. Arminianism. And instead of serious doctrine, a bunch of them seem to have nothing to say but “pray more” and “it’s all about loving Jesus.” Aren’t these all proof that the seniors don’t have what it takes to lead us in our Christian walk?

The responses to this kind of nonsense seem obvious to me. All generations have their flaws, and one flaw doesn’t poison everything else a person believes. If Brother Tom voted for Trump, that doesn’t mean he can’t give you sound advice on how to flee temptation, how to spend effective time with God in prayer and Bible reading, and how to share your faith with others. Maybe Mrs. Edith won’t use anything but the KJV, but she has been in so many ways transformed by the renewing of her mind.

There is also wisdom in the way many older people do seem to care less about theology and more about Christian living. For ultimately, it is the living which counts the most. The most ignorant Christian who has lived a consistent life of faith, hope, and love will be greater in the kingdom of heaven than the most theologically astute Christian whose sanctification never made it past infancy. As Paul said, knowledge without love is worthless, but love is enough to fulfill the whole law, with or without knowledge. Many people come to realize this more and more as they grow older, and we would do better to pay more heed for that reason alone. Mrs. Edith might not have anything to say except, “It’s all about loving Jesus, and don’t forget to pray,” but in 10 years when you’re spiritually burned out from life’s troubles, that may be the most nourishing thing you could possibly hear, and it will seem infinitely more important and memorable than how Peter Leithart exegeted that one text in 1 Kings.

So, in the end, I’m just saying that we (young people, Millennials, etc.) need to listen to the experts more. We don’t do a good job heeding our elders, whether because of pride or culture or whatever else. Of this we must repent. They know what they’re talking about.

The rape of the princess

Just a thought for all of you guys out there.

Every woman is a miracle. She is handwoven of God, His walking and breathing image before you. She is His daughter, His bride, and His sculpture as He is her Father, her Groom, and her Moulder. Even is she doesn’t now know or want Him, He made her, He died for her, and He is striving with her to bring her to glory. There is no woman on the planet for whom this is not true, and if there were, she would not be a woman but a succubus.

The point of this is to say that God has destined femininity for the glory of queenhood. A woman is the raw material from which a queen is formed, and for God, this is the point of the matter. In Christ, the human race is exalted to the highest place of royalty and honor under God, in which we will all participate if we are in Him. This makes men into kings and women into queens on the last day, and in the meantime, we are thereby princes and princesses, whether we want it and know it or not, and even if we never, in fact, reach out destiny because we despise the God through whom it must be realized. Every woman you will ever see is a princess, and the queenly glory for which she is being prepared is as close to the glory of a goddess as you can imagine.

More important than the woman’s status and destiny considered in itself, however, is the context in relation to God. She is God’s princess, the daughter of the One True King. She is the bride-to-be of the Lord of Lords. She is the masterpiece of the great Potter. He is the ultimate, the only real source of her glory. Everything good that she is or ever will be comes from Him. Her beauty, her honor, and her royalty are first and foremost His own, given as a gift.

But just as God gives to the woman all of her excellence as a gift, so He gives her entirely as a gift to whomever He chooses. Some women He reserves for Himself alone, and to give them a peculiar kind of glory He will share them with no man. But for many, even most, He gives them to a prince so that they can together learn how to become king and queen. He unites the two as one flesh, and He gives each to the other as an exclusive investment to be redeemed at the end of the world.

So what am I actually on about? It’s just something that occurred to me the other day. If a woman is a prince, and she is on sacred reserve for the King himself or one of His princes, that must determine how we treat her. This goes deep. It must affect how we see, think, feel, and act about and to her. We must recognize her dignity, her beauty, and her splendor as a queen-to-be. We must recognize as well that all of these are from God. Any offense against her is therefore against Him.

To get to the point, this is a lesson about lust (though of course there are many other possible applications). As Christ said, to look at a woman to lust upon her is wickedness, and it is easy to see why. She belongs to God. She is a princess for Him, perhaps with a prince waiting for her, or already with her. She is destined for the glory of the bride of the Lamb. To look at her and claim her in the mind, to reach out with your heart to grasp the one who is not yours, is to violate something sacred. It is to profane the goddess, to desecrate the image in the sanctuary, to rape the princess. She may not ever know, and she may not ever see, but God who exalted her, who adopted her, and who prepares her glory does. He sees the thought and knows your claim. He recognizes your depraved fantasy of grasping His princess and taking her for your own use. He will not ignore such a blasphemy. His royal household will not be desecrated. If the sons of Jacob slaughtered a village for defiling their sister, what will their God do to you? He is more merciful than they, so that He will forgive whoever repents. But He is also more just and furious than they, so that you would be better to fall into their hands than His if you do not repent.

Therefore look for your own princess. Receive her by grace. Do not touch her before the King gives her. Never look for or to another one. The wrath of royalty must not be taken lightly.

Why I favor dressing up for church

Feel free to dress casually.

From what I’ve seen, most church websites and bulletins these days are very sure to include something like this somewhere noticeable. They want it to be clear: we’re not a stuffy old church that insists you dress like businessmen and Victorian ladies if you want to experience the presence of God. We know God as living in a personal relationship. So come as you are and enjoy fellowship among equals all in this together!

For what it’s worth, I appreciate that. The legalism which had built up in vast swaths of the Western church over the centuries about what to wear was stifling and unbiblical. Even now, you occasionally hear horror stories from old Baptist congregations: an usher scolds some single mother for her choice of attire, and she misses what might have been a redemptive moment. Such nonsense is a shame in the strongest and most condemning sense of the word.

Nonetheless, in our efforts to remove legalism and open welcoming doors to outsiders, I fear it’s easy to miss some of the good from the old tradition. The impulse that led people to dress up for church was deep. It definitely goes beyond the generic answered reason of “giving God your [culturally relative] best.” I think there are actually two areas of theological significance which can give the practice real meaning.

First, there is the idea of the sacred. In church, we are not members of a club. We don’t gather for some mere earthly thing we have in common, whether politics, hobbies, careers, or family relationships. We gather to worship God the Father Almighty, the transcendent One who is infinitely different from and superior to us. We come in the name of Jesus, His beloved Son who mysteriously unites human and divine natures in Himself in order to bring us to God. We unite in the power of the Holy Spirit, the very personal presence and power of the God who made everything and everyone. This puts us on holy ground. When we gather as a church (not, I should specify, just “in” a church), we are entering the presence of a Holiness which is set apart from anything else we know.

So when we dress differently than we do elsewhere, it can serve as a sign, especially when done freely and not legalistically. It can symbolize and point to the fact that Body of Christ is not just another function of human life, but is the point where the radically different life of God meets us. This, of course, doesn’t bind us to any particular kind of clothing. But when we, by our clothes and other, more important things (you know, like love for each other and praise of God), mark out church as sacred time and space before God, we testify to the world that we’re dealing with something, or better Someone, different than everything else. (As a side note, this idea is not compatible with our “Sunday best” simply being the same as our business clothes, or formal wear, or any other category. It sets itself apart, even perhaps undermining the traditional ideas of what special clothes make sense to wear for church.)

The other possible Christian significance to dressing up at church has to do with our identity. As a people born again, we live in hope of a resurrection to glory. We are now, and one day will be more fully, members of a new creation. Everything will be made better. Redemption will extend to every nook and cranny of creation, including our bodies. All will be beautified and perfected. When Jesus comes back for us, we will all be our best selves both inside and out.

To dress up, then, also serves as a sign of the new creation. No one can deny that, culturally relative as it may be, dressing up makes people look nice. In all but the rarest instances, we look our best when we dress our best. And while our looks aren’t the point, they can be a sign for ourselves in the world: we look like our best selves now in anticipation of how we will become our best selves when Christ returns, and in fact we are already our best selves hidden in Him. The visible points us to what is now invisible so that we can remember and witness to what Jesus has done and will do.

Of course, none of this is meant to construct a new legalism where we must dress up at church to make theological points. The beauty of the sign is at least in part in its freedom, showing that we have been freed by Christ into new creation, not forced. We must not submit to any yoke of slavery. But my point is rather not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The legalism and formalism of yesterday’s “dress your best” church is and deserves to be dead, but that doesn’t mean we need to give up on the dress up altogether. We still have power to be signs if we want, or even to be signs by some other method. In any case, let each render to God according to his own conscience for God’s glory.