When I read about the persecuted church or people suffering because they’re deprived of basic needs, I look around at the crazy abundance and health that I enjoy. And I feel guilty. Why was I born into this era and this family? I could have been born in the stench-filled belly of a slave ship, or grown up in daily terror of tribal warfare. I wrestle with what my response should be to this unfair situation. It feels wrong to enjoy comforts and delights in such excess when there are billions living without.
One possible response to this – that honestly turns my stomach and makes me very uncomfortable – is the thought that I should sell all my possessions and give them to the poor (Matt 19:21). Should I sacrifice my every comfort attempting to alleviate as much misery as possible? This is certainly one path that God calls many to. But being a father and husband complicates the issue. First Timothy 5:8 warns that he “who does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (NIV). Yes, I could sell everything but I also have a duty to keep my kids and wife warm, fed, and clothed. There is also the question of education and the protection of their spiritual and emotional well-being. It appears unwise for me, in this stage of life, to uproot them and move them all to a red-light district. But then again the gospel is about risk, sacrifice, and loving Christ above your family.
These are thorny thoughts that I would rather block out of my mind. I feel reluctant to thank God for the gifts he has given because I’m not sure it is right for me to enjoy them. The larger issue, of course, is not “doing what I’m comfortable with,” but living life the way my Creator wants me to. How does He want me to respond to this material abundance?
Made to worship
We are commanded repeatedly to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” David said, “I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall continually be on my mouth” (Ps 34:1). We are told that giving thanks for all things is God’s will for us (1 Thess 5:18).
Rejoicing, praising, and giving thanks all flow from deliberately choosing to enjoy God’s gifts to us. God created our desires and the corresponding pleasures that satisfy these desires. He made us dependent creatures, hungry for food and something to worship. Our longing for beauty and pleasure is not an evil we need to fight, but a gift meant to turn our gaze upward.
Do Not Love the World…
James cautions that “whoever wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). At first glance, it seems that a desire to enjoy material goods is at odds with our relationship with God. But elsewhere John clarifies what is meant by “the world”: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
The worldliness that the Bible condemns is not the enjoyment of God’s creation but lust for the things we don’t have and shouldn’t have. God creates a desire and then satisfies it in a way that strengthens our relationship with Him. Satan stirs up desire for the things we don’t have and that will forever be out of reach, or if attained, will poison us, so that we will be in perpetual misery and discontent.
If these are the battle lines – slavery to endless lust on one side, and satisfaction in God on the other – then the most powerful spiritual warfare we can enter into is to seek enjoyment in the things God wants us to enjoy.
Throughout history, Satan has deceived men and women into thinking that this material world is evil, that true enjoyment of God can only be found in renouncing all physical pleasure. But this ignores the fact that God is the creator of the physical realm. By tuning into our five senses and savouring life with gratitude and praise, we are proclaiming to the spirit world that God is the Creator of heaven and earth. This world belongs to God and it is good, because God is good.
Enjoyment: the great safeguard against temptation.
Paul cautioned against those who try to overcome their sinful lust by mere denial and regulations, “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle.” He went on to say, “These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:21, 23).
Don’t flatter yourself. You are not strong enough to go against your God-given hungers for pleasure and worship. You must worship something. You must seek pleasure. You cannot change your dependence. But by God’s grace, you can direct your hungers to God and His gifts. Our cravings for illicit worldly pleasures are not best defeated by starvation, but by finding satisfaction in the things God wants us to enjoy.
Isn’t seeking enjoyment and happiness selfish?
Making our own desires and emotional well-being our number one priority is self-centered and destructive. Jesus said that the most important commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27). God wants us to have a relationship with Him. A healthy relationship is based on enjoying each other. To truly love someone is to want them to enjoy life. We forget that pleasure, delight, joy, and happiness were first God’s idea and have been experienced in the love-giving flow of the Trinity for all eternity. Misery, depression, and guilt are ugly corruptions introduced by Satan’s fall. He masquerades as an angel of light claiming that pleasure and happiness are found most fully in joining his rebellion, but it is all a devastating lie. God is the source of all good gifts (James 1:17).
When God is inviting us into the abundant life He offers, wallowing in guilt and misery is self-centered. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). God’s gifts are meant to show us His loving kindness and reveal His great and generous heart.
We were made to worship and adore and even to delight in being entertained by God’s creativity and humor. (If you doubt that entertainment can be from God, you need to spend more time around babies!) We are not miniature gods who are self-sufficient. If we are not worshipping God and gratefully delighting in His gifts, we are guaranteed to become idolaters. The only way to defeat idolatry is in the enjoyment of God. What is truly selfish is to not seek to enjoy God and His gifts.
I want to be clear: God can be enjoyed by enjoying His earthly gifts, but only when our enjoyment is accompanied by gratitude and praise. When we neglect to give thanks to God for His gifts and fail to turn our enjoyment into praise, we fall into idolatry, and the gifts meant to satisfy our thirst will turn into salt water. Pleasure and happiness pursued for their own sake lead to boredom and apathy. We will burn out our pleasure receptors and moan with Solomon, “All is meaningless.”
Enjoyment vs. Accumulation
Jesus warned very strongly against the dangers of covetousness. “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15 NIV). He commanded us to not lay up treasures on earth but in heaven (Matt 6:19).
Satan and his cohorts (not to mention the hundreds of ads we face daily) are always shouting at us, “Enjoyment is only found in getting more and better stuff.” But true enjoyment and satisfaction is always only a prayer of thanksgiving away. Actively enjoying what you have is the best remedy against the deception of greed. (If only I wasn’t so frequently forgetting this simple truth…)
Jesus said we must deny ourselves to follow Him. What about taking up our cross and sacrificing for others?
Jesus calls us to take up our cross. However, this does not mean carrying around a burden. A cross only meant one thing; imminent death. The original sin for Adam and Eve was wanting to be God. Since the fall, that is the default nature we are born with. We want to make the rules; we want the glory and fame. This state of mind cannot align with God who refuses to share His glory with another (Is 42:8). Before we can be made right with God, we have to die to this natural state. We have to lose “our self,” that inborn desire to be the god of our little domain. The New Testament also calls this repentance.
Our pride robs of so much joy because we think we can only enjoy what we have earned or what we deserve, and we become jealous when others receive gifts we don’t think they deserve. But the essence of God’s story to us is undeserved grace: We deserve his wrath and punishment but instead receive His forgiveness, and an abundance of treasure and spiritual wealth. Instead of the dungeon or slavery He adopts us and makes us His child. Our pride and the resentment that accompanies it must be killed before we can truly enter the abundant life that is found in God.
Doesn’t God want us to live for others and make their happiness a priority?
Yes, but the only way we will have the strength to serve others is when we are strengthened by the joy of the Lord. Nehemiah told the Israelites, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)
When are you most likely to serve others? When you are miserable and depressed or when you are feeling joyful? The more we are in fellowship with God, I think the more we will be filled with His joy and delight in life (John 15:11). And the more we are filled with His spirit, the more we will seek to serve and make others happy.
When we are truly filled with the love of Christ we will be moved to relieve suffering wherever we find it. If we don’t care, we should be concerned about our soul. “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17)
God cares about the women caught in sex slavery, the millions of babies being slaughtered, the children starving to death. He calls us to action. But the pain and misery of this world needs to be healed from the inside out. To meet the physical needs of people without leading them to the spiritual healing that can only be found in God is only a short term fix.
Before we can bring Christ’s healing to the nations, we must first follow His example of putting our fellowship with God first. If we try to serve others without being filled by God, and refreshed by His joy, we will become ineffectual, burned out, and cynical.
What about suffering?
If God wants us to enjoy life, why do we suffer? Why have so many of the great saints had chronic bouts of depression? Only God knows the complete answer to these questions. He sees our vulnerability to turn His gifts into idols and forget their greater purpose: to turn our eyes in worship to Him. Losing one or more of His gifts is a painful wake up call to our creaturely weakness. Nothing humbles us and shows us just how much we are not God like suffering does.
Times of deprivation and suffering can also lead to times of heightened enjoyment. We are always adapting to the pleasures around us and becoming numb to them. Suffering can reset our ability to find pleasure in life by making us able to appreciate, by contrast, how good we have it.
God also uses suffering to save us from greater misery. The worst kind of suffering is not in sorrow or loss of earthly goods, but in the loss of fellowship with God. To be enslaved to your own guilt and self-obsession is true misery that leads to masochism and suicide. Just like the pain of having an abscessed tooth pulled heals the greater pain of a gum infection, so God uses external suffering to heal our soul and call us back to Him.
Yes, life is unfair. You have been given far more than you deserve. And yes, God will at times ask you to sacrifice some of your gifts for the good of those around you. But the response to your abundance should not be guilt or mere self-denial. God’s overwhelming love for you means that He wants you to find delight in Him. He loves you with a more ardent passion than the most star-struck lover, with a tender care far deeper than the most sacrificial parent has. He created you to worship Him, to be enthralled with His beauty, to crave the pleasures only He can give you. In the eternal Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is an unending river of joy and delight. God made you to enter into this joy-drenched fellowship.
Do not mope around in guilt, hoping that God won’t notice how good you have it! Don’t magnify your own sufferings and trials to make yourself feel worthy of your good gifts. Don’t try to equal the scales of justice by self-flagellation and denial. Instead, be mindful of the gifts that God is giving you right now. Are you holding a giggling baby? Treasure that soft skin, and praise God for what babies teach us about our weakness and His tenderness. Are you wrapped up in the warm embrace of a spouse? Relish the moment, and praise God for the gift of bodies and how marriage reveals God’s love. Is your tongue dancing the tango as each taste bud is tantalized by exotic flavour? God designed your tongue and the flavours that enchant it.
Finally, as believers, one of our greatest sources of enjoyment is God’s story. History is full of unbelievable cruelty and grief. But God is in the midst of a rescue operation that will ultimately undo the misery our rebellion has caused and restore this planet to lasting peace, harmony, and beauty. God is on the move; His love and wisdom will have the final say. We were enemies and orphans but now are invited to be the children of an indescribably kind and tender Heavenly father.
God is good.
Shout it to the heavens, shout it to the rebellious fallen hosts. God is good and greatly to be praised!