We had our annual church trip to Southport the other week. Despite all our warnings, there were still folks who had never been who were surprised that it was a seaside town where you can’t see the sea. There’s a lot of beach, but the sea is a long way out and is rarely seen very far in. We were there at high tide and even at the end of the pier, you still need binoculars to see the sea – the pier ends surrounded on all sides by sand. Admittedly, it sort of defeats the point of a pier – which was supposed to take you out to sea – but then it’s better than Wigan Pier, which isn’t anywhere near a beach or the sea!
We also had a good laugh when a dear sister came back with a big bag full of shells. We thought John Piper would be proud. As her pastor, I affirm it is absolutely fine for her to do so. She likes collecting shells and she did it to the glory of God. I am convinced she has not wasted her life, for it consists of more than shell collecting (even if she glorifies God as she does it).
We can be a bit gnostic about these sorts of things. “Spiritual” activities are not wasting our lives, non-spiritual things (whatever they are) might be. Collecting shells might be a bit frivolous and something of a waste, John Piper tells us. I don’t know what he would make of someone collecting shells and sharing the gospel with someone as they did it? Does it become valuable then? What if someone in your church loves collecting shells too, and you can go with them and disciple them while you do it? Have they wasted their lives or has the time been redeemed? These sorts of things get so confusing.
I am well schooled in this sort of thinking having grown up in a sabbatarian family and dealt with even stricter sabbatarians. Nowhere is the need to discern the spiritual from the profane more necessary than determining what activities may, or may not, be acceptable on Sunday. It can hardly be surprising that sabbatarianism pushes into a form of legalism so frequently because it roots itself literally in the Mosaic law. How can it end up being anything else?
But we push this gnostic thinking to all sorts of things. It’s fine to enjoy a walk in God’s creation but not enjoy his creation on a plate in a posh restaurant. We can enjoy reading the Bible, but if we read a novel that is profane. Watching a sermon on your smart TV is just about acceptable, but watching your favourite TV show is less acceptable.
Ironically, those who are so quick to separate the sacred from the profane frequently ignore the specific things that God says he has given us to enjoy. Psalm 104:14f is clear enough:
14 You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
15 and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
Indeed, it is notable that the Lord gives grapes, olives and wheat and man makes it into wine, oil and bread. But even then, these things are said to come from the Lord. The one who gives the ingredients, grants the skills and ultimately gives these things as gifts. All good gifts ultimate come from God.
But, of course, the gnostic-types come wheedling in, don’t they. Food is profane. And wine! Alcoholic drink. Deary me. Absolutely not. These things are evil. Not the sort of spiritual fare upon which our lives won’t be wasted. Only, what is frequently deemed unspiritual and evil is specifically something that God calls a gift. A gift, presumably, for us to enjoy to his glory. And imagine what God would have to say to such people?
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!Isaiah 5:20
Which is a bit awkward, isn’t it? We’re fine when we apply these verses to those who say things like abortion is fantastic. Yes, woe to them! They call evil good.
But what about us? We might not be calling evil good, but we do call what is good evil, do we not? For what is it when we call wine evil when God himself says it is a gift that gladdens the heart and is for us to enjoy? What is it when we sniff at people enjoying a nice meal in a restaurant to God’s glory when the Lord himself tells us food is his gift to us. Indeed, Jesus came eating and drinking and got called a glutton and a drunkard. Sounds rather like what many like to say about these things in the church today. What do we say when people collect shells because it makes them happy, and they enjoy what God has created, but we suggest they are doing nothing more than wasting their life?
I know, I know, Piper wasn’t having a go at believers enjoying God’s creation. He was talking about two people indulging nothing but whatever makes them happy, standing before the Lord on the last day saying they collected shells and did nothing else of any value. The shells aren’t really the problem, are they. The problem is the curve of their heart.
But if we can’t enjoy the good things God has created and gifts he has given, isn’t the curve of our hearts a bit skewwhiff? We may love the Lord, but can’t bring ourselves to love his gifts. Which makes for a pretty terrible birthday party at your house, doesn’t it? It’s the kids I feel for, to be honest. ‘Happy birthday! No gifts for you, you might enjoy them too much.’ Or, think of the sad adults giving their children some amazing gifts and the kids say, ‘thanks for that. But I can’t use them – I just love you so much I won’t even look at these.’ What was the point of buying them? Don’t you want your children to enjoy what you gave them? It’s a weird sort of love that just keeps saying ‘I love you’ and then refuses to use what you gave them to enjoy.
The point here is that our lives are to be lived to the glory of God. I’ve knocked Piper enough, so let’s highlight where he is exceptionally helpful. I am so grateful for the fact he continually highlights that our lives are to be lived to God’s glory with him as a our highest treasure. But I would want to argue that one of the ways we do that is to fully enjoy his good gifts. He gives good gifts to us to enjoy and we glorify him most fully when we enjoy what he gives us to enjoy. Which maybe means the Southern Baptists need to crack open a keg or two, eh?