This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “King & Country: The Story That Changes Everything,” coming in summer 2017.
I have a confession to make: pizza is my passion. I believe strongly that pizza is the perfect meal. Endless varieties of toppings and sauces mean that I literally could eat it for three meals a day and be content. I consider pizza to be the highest pinnacle to which food can reach in a fallen world.
Granted, there is definitely a sinful strand of gluttony and idolatry intertwined with my co-dependent relationship with pizza. I am on a diet right now, partly because my love of pizza means I have weight I need to lose, but mostly because I need to disentangle my heart (and stomach) from its idols.
But here’s my question: is it okay to love pizza? Is it “unspiritual” to wax poetic about pepperoni? Apart from genuine biblical categories of sin, how should I think about “the things of earth” like pizza? Or chocolate chip cookie dough, another one of my deep-seated delights? Or, to move away from food, what about all the other cool stuff in the world? How should I think and feel about my iPhone, my car, the leather journal sitting on my desk? The beach, sunsets, fireflies, snowmen, thunderstorms, shooting stars?
Is it “unspiritual” to love these sorts of things? Does eagerly anticipating my upcoming week at the beach distract me from glorifying God? Would it be more godly to write on a simple notepad rather than my leather journal? Does holiness mean hating cookie dough? (Lord, I hope not!)
Or put it another way: if I was a “better” Christian, would I use and enjoy all those things more, or less? To be honest, for most of my Christian life, I would have given the answer as a forceful “less.” Holiness meant self-denial, and being “spiritual” meant forsaking the things of earth to love God alone. Food and toys and experiences were distractions from my main purpose of “glorifying God.” A better Christian, I thought, would use and enjoy the things of the world less and less, in the pursuit of enjoying only God more and more.
I was wrong.
Now, don’t misunderstand me; frugality and discipline and a simple lifestyle are virtues. Jesus talks at length about self-denial. Our kingdom mission in a suffering, hell-bound world must of necessity entail a certain level of “war-time living,” a sacrificing of some comforts and pleasures for the sake of rescuing lost and hurting people. God promises neither health, nor wealth, nor prosperity to us on this side of the restoration of all things. And a love for anything that supersedes or interferes with a love for God or people is idolatry, a disordered desire and misplaced worship flowing out of the polluted springs of our sinful nature.
And yet the notion that being “spiritual” means downplaying or abandoning the physical is both false and dangerous. It has no root in Scripture, and in fact the whole storyline of the Bible flies in the face of it. We are physical creatures, made to experience and enjoy a physical creation. Our calling as image-bearers is to use and improve everything in the world, bending it to blessing so that it delights ourselves and others. Abandoning the enjoyment of the world isn’t “religious,” it’s an abdication of everything our religion calls us to. Loving God more doesn’t mean loving stuff less.
The apostle Paul makes this argument in an astonishing paragraph in his first letter to Timothy. He argues urgently that the enjoyment of physical pleasure is right and good and holy, and that any notion to the contrary is actually deceitful and demonic (I told you it was astonishing).
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and the teaching of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)
Even now, reading that paragraph again, I shake my head in amazement. Trace the flow of his argument, and you’ll be amazed too. False teachers are coming, he says, with a deceitful and demonic message. The heresy which Paul says these false teachers are peddling is that physical pleasure is bad. They forbid marriage, because a pleasure so eminently physical like sex couldn’t possibly be a good thing. And they command asceticism and abstinence from food because if you really love God you’d give up worldly stuff like that.
The words that Paul uses for this kind of thinking and those who advocate for it is shocking. “Deceitful.” “Demonic.” “Liars.” “Seared consciences.” “Departed from the faith.” Part of me wants to say, “Calm down, Paul, it’s just food and sex. Is this really that big of a deal to reject the enjoyment of those things?”
It’s true, the specifics of what you do and don’t enjoy aren’t terribly important. But Paul is reacting against the worldview behind such claims, a worldview which was beginning to seep into the church then and which, I fear, is the default assumption of most American Christians today.
Near the end of Paul’s ministry, the heresy of Gnosticism was beginning to rear its head. Gnosticism borrowed elements from Greek pagan philosophy and married them to an ostensibly Christian message. To Gnostics, the goal of the Christian life was freedom from physical desires and, ultimately, the physical world altogether. They posited that the physical creation was bad, or at least unimportant, because what really mattered in the Christian life was spiritual knowledge and spiritual experience.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Gnosticism is the air we breathe in the church today. As I argued in the previous chapter, it’s modern-day Gnosticism that makes us think heaven is about floating clouds and harps, and not a resurrected and remade world. It’s modern-day Gnosticism that reduces Christianity down to some spiritual ideas about God’s love and grace and an invitation to believe those things in your heart, while ignoring or downplaying the Bible’s message of cosmic restoration. It’s modern-day Gnosticism that, moving beyond mere personal preference, looks down on the “physical” aspects of a worship service—whether it be modern innovations like lighting, instruments, and fog machines, or ancient practices like stained glass windows and incense—as “unspiritual” or “worldly.” And it’s modern-day Gnosticism that leads us to think that being more spiritual means caring about physical concerns less and enjoying physical pleasures less.
Countering the Gnostic tendencies of the first and twenty-first centuries, Paul advances a radically different worldview. The physical pleasures which Gnostics say to avoid are the very pleasures which “God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” There are several phrases in there worth unpacking.
“God created:” these physical pleasures are part of the world that God announced as “good.” This means more than simply saying that sex and food were created by God. It goes a step deeper: the pleasure we derive from those things was created by God, too. God designed the neural circuitry that makes sex pleasurable. He invented taste buds. The flood of dopamine that hits our brains at the smell of bacon was his idea. God wove pleasure into our experience of his creation. The stuff he made makes us happy, which is one of the reasons he said it was good.
C.S. Lewis’ clever book The Screwtape Letters imagines a correspondence between demons discussing strategies for temptation. In one of these “letters,” the elder demon Screwtape writes to the novice demon Wormwood about the subject of physical pleasure. He notes the reality to which Paul is referring:
“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s (God’s) ground…He [God] made the pleasure: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy [God] has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.”
Physical pleasure is God’s territory. He made and owns every one of them, and all that Satan can do is twist them to purposes for which they were not designed. We should be wise as to the ways that Satan and our own sinful souls corrupt God’s good pleasures, but we shouldn’t disparage them. To do so would be to say that what God created isn’t that good after all.
“To be received with thanksgiving:” To shun pleasure is to shun what God created to be received with grateful, joyful hearts. Again, don’t misunderstand me: there are times and seasons where abstinence, fasting, or self-denial may be called for (see 1 Corinthians 7:5, Matthew 9:15, and Mark 8:34 for some examples). Rather, the picture here is that the physical world is a gift from God, created for our enjoyment.
Here’s a helpful way to think about it. My three-year-old son loves Hot Wheels cars. Occasionally I will buy one for him when I’m at the store and bring it home for him as a surprise. If I give him a gift like that, and he isn’t thankful or happy for it but immediately puts it on the shelf and ignores it, that would grieve and dishonor me. I give him presents because I love him, and I enjoy seeing his eyes light up and hearing the wonder in his voice and watching him eagerly play with his new car. I derive joy from his joy. Sure, there are times when I tell him that it’s time to put the Hot Wheels track away. But I want him to enjoy his toys, I want him to play with them, and I want him to be thankful for them.
That is what God our heavenly Father is like. He delights to give his children good things. “Every good and perfect gift,” James writes, “is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). He wraps up sunrises and pizzas and wedding nights as presents for his children, and our enjoyment of those things brings him happiness. Like any good father, he loves to see us enjoying what he gives us.
And like any good father, he wants us to acknowledge and thank him as the giver of those good gifts. If I gave Caleb a new toy car and he rushed off to play with it without even acknowledging me, that would make me sad, and probably mean some discipline is coming his way. One of the reasons I give him new toys is because I want to train him in the art of thankfulness.
In the same way, God wants us to receive every good gift— every single sunrise, every bite of food, every enjoyment of our spouse, whatever—as a gift wrapped and delivered by him personally. Our enjoyment of those things is not intended to draw us away from God but to point us to him. Pizza was not intended to be a substitute for the divine presence my soul longs for. Rather, it is designed to be a springboard to worship. The moment pepperoni and cheese hit my tongue, song should rise in my heart: “Thank you, Father, for your good gifts!”
“By those who believe and know the truth:” This phrase is a bombshell. The full weight of its significance might be hard to see initially, so simplifying the sentence may be helpful. “God created [these pleasures] to be received… by those who believe.” God created all the world’s pleasures to be enjoyed by believers. Food and sex and dopamine and taste buds exist for his people. Every physical thing and every physical pleasure is the rightful property only of those whom God is raising up to reign for him. This means that rebel humanity has no claim to these pleasures, because those pleasures were not created for them. God did not create his world to be idolized and abused. Rather, he created it to be a cause of thankfulness on the lips of his people. Unbelievers’ enjoyment of God’s world is a stolen pleasure, taken from its rightful owner and twisted to idolatrous purposes. He made all these good things for me, his child, and not for them.
That shocking thought shouldn’t put a chip on my shoulder or cause me to look down arrogantly on those who use and enjoy the pleasures that do not belong to them. Because apart from grace, that would still be me. Before I was in Christ, every pleasure was a stolen pleasure, to which I had no right. My current claim to the enjoyment of those things is not owing to anything in me, but all to the mercy of God who rescued me and made me an heir to his kingdom.
Now that I am in Christ and a joint heir with him, the world and everything in it is my inheritance. One day the fullness of that inheritance will be mine, and today God invites me to enjoy every “worldly” blessing as a foretaste of that coming glory. Every bite of pizza is intended to be a springboard to worship, pointing back to the Giver of all good things. And every bite is also intended to be a signpost pointing forward to the day when I will enjoy resurrected pizza with resurrected taste buds in a resurrected world over which I reign with Jesus. If pizza is good now, just imagine how great it’s going to be then.
All this means that Christians should be the most celebratory people in the world. We are those who believe in the goodness and beauty of the created world, and we know the God who made it all for our enjoyment. Hearty, full-bodied gladness should be the dominant note that people see when they look at us. Yes, in a weeping world all our joy is accompanied by a thread of longing, because we do not yet have all that we hope for. But what if, instead of looking down our noses on a hedonistic world desperately seeking satisfaction in their fleeting treasures, we instead exhibited joy and gratitude for everything we have? What if our enjoyment of “worldly” things had such a deeper, more authentic quality to it that people started asking what our secret was? Then, perhaps, we’d have the opportunity to tell them about a kingdom in which everything is ours, and about a King who has saved and satisfied our souls.