Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Food, family, friends, hunger, thirst, sex - and the quote I return to time and time again...

I will never forget the first time I read the following quote, almost two decades ago. I was so struck by it, that I wrote it down and have re-read it many times since. I have subsequently read it to friends, family and whole churches, and not many months ago I read it to a group on a church men's weekend. If you know me, you may have heard me read it somewhere - such has been its influence on my thinking.

It reads:
The effect of sin is to make mankind a slave of the things that were meant to serve him. This is one of the terrible, tragic things about it. According to our Lord, earthly, worldly, things tend to become our god. We serve them; we love them. Our heart is captivated by them; we are at their service. What are they? They are the very things that God in his kindness has given mankind in order that they might be of service to him, an in order that he might enjoy life while he is in this world. All these things which can be so dangerous to our souls because of sin, were given to us by God, and we were meant to enjoy them – food and clothing, family and friends and all such things. These are all but a manifestation of the kindness and graciousness of God. He has given them to us that we might have a happy and enjoyable life in this world; but because of sin, we have become their slaves. We are mastered by appetites. God has given us our appetites; hunger, thirst and sex are God-created. But the moment a man is dominated by them, or is mastered by them, he is a slave to them. What a tragedy; he bows down and worships at the shrine of the things that were meant to be at his service! Things that were meant to minister to him have become his master. What an awful, terrible thing sin is.   
These words were spoken around half a century ago by D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and they continue to exert a profound influence on my thinking even now.

The first thing that arrested my attention were the positives. One of my errors as a young Christian was to imagine that 'discipleship' (that is, following Jesus), must necessarily be unpleasant. If I was basically sinful (I reasoned), then doing good must by default be irksome and tiring. I had not reckoned with the balance of the  New Testament where Paul (for example) rails to Timothy against the false ascetics whose austerity seemed to forbid pleasure. So this quote woke me up, abruptly! The desires I knew for food, friendship, thirst, and sex were not expressions of wickedness in and of themselves; but were actually part of the design. I had adopted a compartmentalised approach in which I sometimes followed God, and at others times enjoyed pleasure; but assumed a tension between the two. Lloyd-Jones demolished this false dichotomy along with all the needless guilt that accompanied it. God, he says, intended us to have a happy and enjoyable life in this world. Monasticism is not the end of sanctification. 

The thing which then grabbed me were the negatives. While insisting that our basic drives are God-given, Lloyd-Jones explained why so much human misery stems from harm caused by the pursuit of these drives for sex, comfort and happiness. In his wise estimation, humanity was created with a nobility which meant that we stood above our drives, and were able to handle them for good; but because of the fall of humanity into sinfulness we have found ourselves beneath them, and subservient to them. In other words, things given freely  to enhance our happiness are, in our alienation, things which we find we must pursue in order to carve out a life of meaning. So legitimate hunger becomes greed, which becomes first obesity and then heart disease. Sex is starved of its love-making and marriage-enhancing power and becomes animal lust, and even within marriage can become an act that demands and hurts, not one which gives and cares. Likewise the natural desire for shelter and clothing and comfort (not wrong!), can degenerate into the squalid idolatry of the love of money, and of the tyranny of incessant accumulation.

These negatives and positives combined, defined an agenda which I have attempted (with varying degrees of success) to pursue. The Christian calling is then neither to deny the basic legitimate drives and needs which come from creation not fall, nor to pursue them at all costs, as if they were the source of happiness and contentment themselves. We are called neither to the monastery nor the brothel. We are not to retreat from the real world as if we were less-than-fully human; neither are we to recklessly pursue the desires we have, for this too is less-than-fully-human. The former denies the pleasures God has for us in the world, the second makes us servants of those addictive desires.

Lloyd-Jones' quote showed me the way in which humanity was created with a sense of dignity, bearing God's image and appointed to 'rule' the earth for Him. It is loaded with the assumption that sin belittles us, makes us smaller, poorer, and more pathetic. We often assume that sin just makes us 'dirty', this is true but Lloyd-Jones goes further and demonstrates that it also humiliates us.

The Christian life must be characterised then, by the legitimate use of these pleasures and joys; but also the exertion of self-discipline and control over them. If I am mastered by the love of money, I must learn instead to love God and to de-throne money. If I am mastered by lust, I am under its power, and it will distort me and prevent me from being a lover and make me merely a user. "What an awful terrible thing sin is" he says. If I extend my need for comfort and shelter into a money-making, consumable-purchasing quest for happiness; money has become my god and I care nothing for the poor of the earth. To say that these outcomes are below the intended created dignity of humanity, is to understate the case a hundredfold.

What hope is there for people people like me (and probably you), who find ourselves under sin's mastery? When we know that our agenda for today is driven by the love of money, reputation, lust, or greed and we understand the folly of it, where can we turn? 

The Bible insists that because God is love , the best way to describe how He deals with us is "gracious". The essence of this is that he does not demand that we master these appetites and reconstruct our own dignity in order to gain His approval; quite the opposite in fact. In the Lloyd-Jones quote he describes sin as being like slavery, like being 'mastered'. This means that we are in fact, quite unable to tame our animal lusts, or insatiable desires by ourselves even when we see the harm they are doing to those around us. As such we are not able to elevate ourselves to a position where we can completely restore our lost dignity or demand his approval. Instead God, through His Son Jesus Christ, offers us something truly astonishing. He offers us complete forgiveness for all that is past; and gives us back our lost dignity by sharing with us the inexhaustable dignity of Jesus. In so doing, the human soul is offered the staggering prospect of being satisfied and complete and whole; in knowing, worshipping and feasting on God himself. Such a person will find him or herself increasingly liberated from the agenda of sin, and re-established as master of their own desires. It is when this happens that family, friends, hunger, thirst, sex can be used as parts of our other-centred service in this world, and contribution to human happiness.

In the ancient world a slave could be released or more accurately "redeemed" if a ransom price could be agreed. The Bible insists that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross was exactly the required price to liberate us from the slavery that Lloyd-Jones describes above, and which so profoundly describes me. So here is my agenda for the day: I will not deny my place in the world and retreat into an other-worldly asceticism which is sheer ingratitude to God. Rather, when I eat my tea tonight I will say grace, thank God for it, and enjoy every last mouthful!  But neither must today consist in the quest for the satisfaction of my appetites at the expense of others. Rather I must pray, be satisfied in God and so liberated to serve others. And this will begin with my family. Where I succeed I will thank God, and where I fail I will be driven back to His graciousness to start again tomorrow.


Simon said...

That's a great quote, and good observations on it.

I find John Piper's teaching on 'Christian Hedonism' really helpful on this subject. The way for me to find ultimate satisfaction, peace, joy, all those things I crave consciously or unconsciously is to seek God with all my heart.

Ultimately by submitting my desires to God I get what I most desire. That's the beautiful irony of Christianity.

Great article, thanks!

Jimmy Johns said...

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