Blessing and Delight: Goods and gods (pt. I)

This post builds on my new proposal on Christ and Culture. If you haven’t read it, it would be good to start there.

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”

Everything God made was good. I think we in the church spend too little time on this point.

At least in the version of Christianity I grew up with, we gave more attention to holiness, truth, and justice than we gave to beauty and the goodness of God’s creation. My vision of eternal life looked like evacuation — getting out of this bad place to go to a good one with clouds and harp-strumming. I don’t know that I actually believed that was God’s intention for eternity, but whatever God’s intention, I didn’t consider that it would have much to do with this creation. One glad morning, when this life is over, I would fly away!

I was ready to dismiss most of the current creation as something to avoid, something that was thankfully going away. I was shocked when someone first pointed out that Adam and Eve were doing work before the fall. And that the popular Old Testament phrase “They will beat their swords into plowshares” suggests that work has a place in God’s new creation. I had seen it as a necessary evil until we were free from its drudgery.

And of course, any discussions of sex, alcohol, or money and possessions were all about dangers and avoidance. To be honest, as a foolish teenager, perhaps the warnings and fear were what I most needed.

But I’ve also seen how these messages have created a distorted worldview for people who grew up with them. Sex took on a shameful and dirty association for some people — one that has been difficult to shake, even after marriage, and left them to see themselves as irredeemable if they’d had sex outside of marriage. I actually remember writing a snide article in my high school newspaper mocking anyone who would drink alcohol, since we all know it’s disgusting and you would only drink to get drunk. (If you went to high school with me … sorry.)

In all, it was a rather dismal view of the world. “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”[note]See Colossians 2:21 – then see the surrounding conversation.[/note] It was much more comfortable with John the Baptist, who came neither eating nor drinking, than it was with Jesus in his eating and drinking (surely only because the water wasn’t safe to drink, I would say).

Thankfully, I’ve had a shift in my mentality, and at least from my vantage point, other Christians are also seeing more of the goodness of God’s creation. In a variety of ways, we can celebrate God’s gifts by delighting in what he has given.

Sex

Our church’s retreat for 5th graders on sexuality begins with the creation account. “When God looked at everything he had made, including humans, God declared creation supremely good. You are supremely good. Your body is supremely good.” The first words kids hear about sex and sexuality on the retreat are “Our bodies, sexuality, and sex are all gifts from God—gifts which express God’s love and grace to us.”

From the earliest creation accounts, God gives sex as a means of union and intimacy and procreation. Robert Jenson’s brilliant commentary on the Song of Songs notes how intimacy and eroticism aren’t foreign to God. In fact, they give us a better understanding of God’s love. About the Song of Songs, he says:

“Israel does not here long for forgiveness of sin or rescue from disaster or for other gifts detachable from the Giver, as Western theology tends to conceive salvation, but simply for the Lord himself. Moreover, the longing is aesthetic rather than ethical; it is longing for the Lord’s touch and kiss and fragrance. The Lord is simply lovable, and salvation is union with him, a union for which sexual union provides an analogy.”

How about that? Sexual union as an analogy for union with God. That’s a much better starting point than shame, guilt, and rules.

Food and drink

One of the first uses of the tithe in the Old Testament was for people to gather food and drink and come together for a great feast. They would eat 10% of their annual food supply in nine days. And they were instructed to use money “in exchange for whatever your soul desires—for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for other intoxicant, or for whatever your soul requests.”[note]See Deuteronomy 14:26[/note] Think of Thanksgiving, only for nine straight days.

The church doesn’t usually have trouble celebrating the goodness of food. We’re more known for our potlucks than our fasts. This is good. We need to have times for feasting together.

In many parts, our relationship with alcohol is more troubled. At the least, it should be more complex, given the great harm that alcohol has done to people, families, and communities. More on that in the next post. But have we overstepped when we consider any consumption of alcohol evil?

C. S. Lewis discusses this in Mere Christianity:

“Temperance [originally] referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further. It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers; [Islam], not Christianity, is the teetotal religion. Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he wants to give the money to the poor, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself. But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying.”[note]In Mere Christianity Book III, chapter 2.[/note]

Lewis distinguishes between abstaining from something because it’s bad, and abstaining from good things for good reasons. We have too often sounded like the former––condemning and self-righteous. We’d do better to act as the latter when abstinence is called for––prudent and righteous.

Many other things

We could add many more things to this list. 

  • Money & Possessions: Money is not the root of all evil (more on that in the next post). We find the words abundance and prosperity frequently throughout the Bible as a blessing from God. We find people delighting in God’s good gifts.
  • Work: See those notes above about work in Eden and work in the new creation. Work doesn’t have to be seen as drudgery, a necessary evil, something to flee as soon as we can retire or die, whichever comes first.
  • Leisure: Those who highly value work and accomplishment might instead look down on leisure as a waste. But this, too, has its place in God’s creation. As Thomas Aquinas said it, “God plays. God creates playing. And man should play if he is to live as humanly as possible and to know reality, since it is created by God’s playfulness.”[note]From his Summa Theologica, as quoted in Craig Brian Larson and Brian Lowery’s 1001 Quotations That Connect, quotation 602[/note]
  • Beauty:We can rejoice simply in the beauty of creation. Whether it’s standing at the top of Red River Gorge on a fall day, delighting in a Shakespeare sonnet or Anne Lamott’s prose, or going on an art gallery hop, Christians celebrate the beauty of creation. And we have an opportunity to participate in it with our own creative work.
  • Creation and Creatures: Humanity has been given dominion over all of creation. Power can go to one’s head, and I’ve seen this power do some terrible things to distort a good gift by acting as if we can abuse or disregard it. Wendell Berry provides a better perspective: “The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it. It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it.”[note]In What are People For?[/note]
  • Competition (?): I heard a presentation recently on baseball in heaven. It was a deep and thoughtful consideration of what we should expect of God’s new creation. The speaker argued that we should expect baseball in heaven (he thinks more highly of it than I do), but he said there would be no score. It assumed that competition is bad, something that would have no place in God’s eternal kingdom. But I wonder if that’s necessary. Must we see competition as inherently bad? It gives us some of our greatest opportunities for improvement and celebration. Even as a long-time Kentucky football fan, I believe we can delight and grow from competition, that we can enjoy it as something good in God’s creation. Whether it’s sports, cards, or board games, I bet you have some fond memories of competition––in the thrill of victory and even, perhaps, in the agony of defeat.[note]This is a more speculative argument than the rest. It’s a topic of interest for me, so I may take time in the future to do some deeper work on it.[/note]

People

Finally, we come to the crowning point of all created things: humanity. Humanity is created in the very image of God. All of us. And so we delight in others. We give them our attention and recognition and praise. We seek to ensure that all people are treated with dignity.

I’ve been intrigued by the various ways that Mike Mather talks about seeing others, delighting in them, and blessing them (see our interview). His church hosts birthday dinners for teenagers and shut-ins to have others speak words of blessing to them. They talk about greeting people with the line, “I see you,” and the response: “It is good to be seen.” It is good! It is good to be noticed and valued and treated with dignity.

Of all the places on earth, the church should be a place that celebrates and blesses people like no other.

To Bless the Good

The church should have more parties. We should have big celebrations with lots of food where we speak words of blessing and praise and encouragement to particular people among us. Those blessings would be to members of our congregations and to people outside of them.

If we really mean it — that everyone is created in the image of God and has something of that divine image in them — should there be any bounds to the list of those we would bless? There would be bounds to what we would bless (i.e. we would not speak words of blessing over unholy decisions, behaviors, or systems), but not to whom we would bless. We would bless not only those we regard as saints, but those we regard as sinners, too. Not only our friends, but our enemies. Not only those whose positions and policies we support, but even those whose positions and policies we despise.

What if the church were known as a place of blessing? What if we were known as a place of blessing for all people?

And the church should have more artists and advocates and entrepreneurs. We should celebrate people who see opportunities to create something good and beautiful and then do it.

Yes, but… 

As you’ve read, you may have wanted to say, “Yes, but …” “Yes sex can be good, but …” “Yes food and drink can be good, but …” “Yes we should bless people, but …”

In the next piece, we’ll deal with the buts. They’re real and necessary. But they’ve often led the Church to the point that we were unwilling to call good things good. Before we start dealing with our mishandling of God’s good creation, let’s stop for now to say, “It is very good.”

Next: On the Utter Meaninglessness of Everything: Goods and gods (pt. II)

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