When it comes to the matters related to physical life and how Christians should think about earthly enjoyment, the Church has rarely found herself securely balanced between the extremes of severe asceticism and unrestrained indulgence. Even the New Testament gives the indication that there has always been pressure to move toward one of these two poles. In Ephesus, there were lovers of pleasure; in Colossae, there were rigorous ascetics. In the early church there were those, like Augustine, who (personal reasons notwithstanding) rejected marriage and sought the pseudo-spiritual environment of a monastery. There were the hedonists and the Epicureans. Today we have the legalists and the health, wealth, and prosperity teachers. What we need a theology of enjoyment.
All Things Richly
When Paul addresses Timothy on the issue of earthly wealth, he offers counsel that confronts the severe ascetic and the unrestrained materialist. Because of the temptations that attended it, wealth, though not evil in and of itself, is never to be sought or desired (1 Tim. 6:9). True godliness will be ever accompanied by contentment (1 Tim. 6:6), and those who have significant wealth are to remain humble (1 Tim. 6:17a), give generously (1 Tim 6:18), and recognize that God is the ultimate source of all they have (1 Tim. 6:17b).
In case someone might conclude that such warnings against the danger of pursuing wealth imply that God himself is some sort of Scrooge, unwilling to give his servants even the slightest bit of coal with which to warm themselves, Paul reminds Timothy that it is God who “richly provides us with all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). The Creator does not dole out meager portions of pleasure to his creatures as though he were afraid they might get too carried away or deplete the supply; no, he provides all things richly.
Paul’s statement here is a much needed corrective to those of us who are unable to watch a college football game, eat a juicy steak, or enjoy a good trail run without wondering, at least a little bit, if whether or not we should spend our time on such indulgences. But saying that God provides us richly with all things to enjoy means far more than God providing us with many objects (or experiences) to enjoy.
Real enjoyment of this good creation cannot, as Solomon learned, become detached from a theological context (see Eccl 12:13-14). The attempt to enjoy this world apart from faith in and obedience to God will never, by design, lead to abiding satisfaction. We will either gorge ourselves out of fear of future loss, or hesitantly partake of innocent pleasures because we are constantly hounded by a vague sense of guilt. In both cases we have denied the goodness of our Creator.
Order and Proportion
When Jesus told his disciples to shun anxiety by putting their trust in their heavenly Father’s promise to provide for all their needs, he summarized his teaching with a simple, memorable statement: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matt 6:33). The “all things” refers to the food and clothing he mentioned in the previous verses. Instead of wringing our hands over our daily needs, we can make God and his kingdom the priority of our life because God will see to it that we have everything we need.
But again, this is more than a matter of getting stuff. Jesus is commanding us to set our highest affections upon God so that we might receive the gifts of earthly life in their proper order and proportion. We were made for pleasure–this truth is undeniable. And there is futility in, as C. S. Lewis has taught us, “trying to be more spiritual than God.” Indeed, the one who denies God’s good gifts for the sake of religion may be ensnared by the doctrines of demons (see 1 Tim 4:1-5). But Scripture and experience tell us that the good things of life taste their best when and only when we receive them the way God designed us to. And we were designed to receive them, not as the main pursuit of life, but as a gracious gift from the One who is the main pursuit of life.
Solomon says it like this: “The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and he adds no sorrow to it” (Proverbs 10:22). That is, when, in the course of our diligent pursuit of God, he provides us with things richly to enjoy, these gifts can be received with unhindered delight. Unfettered indulgence and reluctant partaking are both the result of pursuing something other than God. In the first case, it is the pursuit of pleasure has become the first priority; in the second, the pursuit of justification by works has taken root.
Because of God’s good gift of creation and his glorious gift of justification by faith alone, Christians are free to enjoy the good things of life and free to control ourselves from over-indulging in the good things of life. This will be the mark of spiritual maturity: appreciation for God’s goodness and glory in earthly enjoyments, and the ability to receive such pleasures in their right order and proportion. When we “seek first the kingdom of heaven,” we will truly “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).