Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Savoring the Glory of God By Means of Man-Made Pleasures

This essay is somewhat of a sequel to an essay I wrote about two years ago entitled “The Purpose of the World’s Pleasures” (I encourage you to read that one first before proceeding).  These are basically the important points of that particular essay: 
  • There are, of course, sinful pleasures – things that God has explicitly commanded us to avoid.  And even innocent pleasures can tempt us to idolatry.  But the act of enjoying the world’s pleasures by itself is not automatically sinful.
  • God has designed us to have desires.  And God is the Author of the world’s pleasures.  God intended for us to enjoy them.  God intended for us to be thankful for them.
  • The world’s pleasures are not the ends.  The purpose of the world’s pleasures is the same as the purpose of the world’s pains: it should lead us to God.  The world’s pleasures should eventually bring us to the realization that God is the only source of Ultimate Pleasure; the world’s pleasures should help direct our innate desires to Him.  The delight found in Him is incomparable, unspeakable, and full of glory.  Pleasures given up for it and pains endured for it are all going to be infinitely worth it. 
  • If we fail to seek the Pleasure beyond the world’s pleasures – settling with and prioritizing these lesser pleasures – then we dishonor God.  We pathetically give up the greatest glory for something preposterously lesser.  We are like, as the great C.S. Lewis puts it, “half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”       
  • Not all aspects of the world’s pleasures are good or helpful.  Our faith, our understanding for the purpose of pleasure, and our desire to glorify God will serve as “filters” when we are in the act of enjoying the world’s pleasures – retaining the positive, and discarding the negative.   

Now in this new essay, I will be expanding a bit more about the topic, but I will be focusing more on – as the title has made obvious – man-made pleasures. 

“Man-made pleasures”, for a better term escapes me at the moment, are all the products of human arts and mass media that we derive enjoyment from.  This includes pop culture, music, literature, gadgetries, movies, TV shows, games, etc.  In this essay, I will be arguing that God can and will use these “lesser pleasures” in revealing His infinite glory to us.  (Of course, it’s always a possibility that I err with my understanding and, thus, also err with my arguments.  I welcome correction from those wiser than me.) 


I have already tackled this in the previous essay.  But let me elaborate.  Let us start with what 1 Timothy 4:4-5 says:
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.
The passage provided these important points:
  1. God’s Creation – which includes the world’s pleasures – is good. 
  2. These are God’s gifts.  And we should receive them with thankfulness.
  3. These gifts – these pleasures that God allows us to enjoy – are sanctified.  

To be “sanctified” means setting something apart or transforming something into a means or state that can and will be used to glorify God.  This applies to everything (as stated by 1 Timothy 4:4) created by God – which includes, by extension, the creations of His creatures (I’ll get to this later).  Sanctification applies to people (John 17:17, 1 Cor. 1:2, etc.); sanctification applies on other things as well: food, money, property, practices (like what early Christians did with Christmas Day, December 25, which was formerly a date for a pagan festival), etc. 

So how are these things – particularly the world’s pleasures – sanctified?  In two ways, according to 1 Timothy 4:5: God’s Word and prayer. 

Firstly, God’s Word provides us with parameters on how to enjoy the world’s pleasures (no love for money, no sex outside of marriage, no drunkenness, no idolatry, etc.) as well as the revelation that God’s glory is manifested in the physical world and that the delight we derive from them must bring us to the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-4, Romans 1:20, Psalm 148:1-6, Colossians 1:16, Psalm 108:5, etc.).  So our adherence to God’s standards and willingness to learn about what He has to say about these pleasures brings sanctification to our enjoyment of the world’s pleasures. 

Secondly, through prayer, we are able to acknowledge that these pleasures that God allows us to enjoy are His gifts, and thank Him sincerely for we are able to freely enjoy His blessings because Christ already paid for them (Romans 8:32).  But aside from a means to say “thank you” to God, most importantly, prayer is the way we can ask His blessing and the Holy Spirit’s guidance in being able to really see the glory of God through the world’s pleasures.  By our own, we will easily fall to temptation and idolatry.  Only God can truly prepare our hearts to enjoy the world’s pleasures in the way He intended.  Only God can truly sanctify.   


The Bible has made it apparent that the majesty of the physical realm – Creation – serves as “appetizers” or “signposts” that should direct us to the glory of the Creator.  As what Psalm 19:1 says of the wonders of the heavens, they “declare” the glory of God.  C.S. Lewis shared this anecdote to wonderfully illustrate how the majesty and pleasures of this world are merely pointing us to the Source of supreme majesty and pleasure:
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place.  Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.
“Looking at the beams” is settling with the world’s beauty and pleasures – hence, idolatry.  “Looking along the beams” is tracing back the “beams” of the world’s pleasures towards its Source, which is God, where supreme beauty and pleasure lie. 



We are created by God in His image.  God designed us to have innate creativity, intellect, and capability of making beautiful creations in our own limited attempt to physically express or represent God’s glory, just as what the Creator did with His Creation.  Whenever we create – making the most of our God-given talents and abilities – we also “declare” the glory of God as much as what the heavens do in Psalm 19:1.  Therefore, man-made creations, are still, by extension, part of God’s Creation wherein he reveals His glory. 

Even the artistic outputs of non-believers – people who create without God consciously in mind – can still “declare” the glory of God.  Art is art, and beauty is beauty, regardless of who made it – a Christian or a non-believer.  Art and beauty are concepts invented by God, hence, ultimately, art and beauty comes from God.  Every human being – Christian or non-believer, consciously or unconsciously – deeply aches for God’s glory and is always compelled by the intuitive sense – whether he or she admits to it or not, realizes it or not – that there is Something beyond, Something bigger than what he or she can physically perceive.  Thus, human efforts and artistic outputs are still governed by a sovereign God that directs everything so that His intention of displaying His glory through physical representations – which includes man-made pleasures – comes through, regardless of the creators’ personal motivations.  A non-believing creator might have not honored God with his purpose, but, unbeknownst to him, he was nonetheless used by God to declare His glory when he exercised his creative impulses.    

The danger of a man-made pleasure is not necessarily because of the non-believer that created it.  Enjoying man-made pleasures created by non-believers is never an issue.  In this world, we always come into contact with services, products, and goods handled or built by unbelievers.  Your lunch might have been the cumulative contribution of an unbelieving farmer, an unbelieving fisherman, an unbelieving proprietor, and an unbelieving cook, and yet you still eat it.  The doctor that you have consulted about your health might be an unbeliever.  The mechanic that you went to to fix your car might be an unbeliever.  Your employer – the man providing your income – might be an unbeliever.  And so on.  It’s basically the same principle with enjoying a man-made pleasure created by an unbeliever.  God is sovereign over this world and everything we receive ultimately comes from God by using people – Christians or non-believers.           

Man-made pleasures, even those created by non-believers, are permissible to a Christian to enjoy (1 Cor. 6:12) because they are ultimately from God, and everything from God is good (1 Timothy 4:4), and God can sanctify them (1 Timothy 4:5) and make use of them to reveal His glory.  So for a Christian, someone who knows the truthful connection between the world’s pleasures and God’s glory, there is really no such thing as “secular.”  When he’s enjoying something secular by itself, like a Michael Jackson concert, it becomes sanctified when he is enjoying it with the holy purpose of seeking God’s glory – “looking along the beam” of MJ’s amazing talent. 


The world’s pleasures, by stirring our sensations and emotions, arouse our deeper, inherent yearnings for greater awesome things than what we see in this world.  And, personally, outside of the complexity and loveliness of natural Creation, no other pleasure of this world is able to match fiction on blowing my mind away and awakening the desire in me for something bigger beyond my perceived reality.  That’s why I’m extremely fond of fiction

Some think that fiction is merely a “distraction” or an “escape” from reality.  Nothing can be more wrong.  Fiction “awakens” us to reality.  Kevin Vanhoozer wrote:
The sad truth is that many of us are, at best, only half awake. We think we’re engaged with the real world—you know, the world of stock markets, stock-car racing, and stockpiles of chemical weapons—but in fact we’re living in what [C.S.] Lewis calls the “shadowlands.” We think we’re awake, but we’re really only daydreaming. We’re sleepwalking our way through life—asleep at the wheel of existence—only semi-conscious of the eternal, those things that are truly solid that bear the weight of glory.
The world is full of wonders.  When we first come in contact with them, we probably had been awed.  But, over time, we got used to these wonders, taking them for granted, and our sense of awe is replaced with boredom and apathy – we “fall asleep.” And one of the best ways for us to “wake up” is through fiction.  For fiction articulates reality in a new light, providing for us an enhanced focus on the actual marvels found in things we had dismissed as ordinary.  As what G.K. Chesterton has perfectly analyzed:
When we are very young children we don’t need fairy tales: we only need tales.  Mere life is interesting enough.  A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.  Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales— because they find them romantic… This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples are golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.

Once our sense of awe on the world’s wonders and miracles are rekindled, fiction could then further reveal to us what reality really is.  Often it is not enough to just describe reality for what it is.  When the Source of the deepest meaning of reality lies beyond it, then likening reality to what it is not actually reveals more deeply what it is (it’s another C.S. Lewis-ian concept).  Fiction does this. 

Besides, God himself opted to display His Reality through representation, making Creation – our reality – as means of revealing His glory to us.  In the same way, fiction serves as representation of our reality.  Of course, I’m not implying that we are merely God’s “computer simulations” in a The Thirteenth Floor sort of way (it’s a cool, underrated movie by the way) – that our existence lacked no real substance.  It’s just that God’s Reality is so grand, that our physical reality is much of a “figment” of God’s Reality as fiction a “figment” of our physical reality.                  

Simply, we are creatures that often require metaphors and analogies and illustrations and such to thoroughly grasp concepts and aspects of reality.  It’s simply the way we are designed by our Creator.  There’s a reason Jesus spoke in parables.  God has always intended fiction to serve as a means of intensifying our appreciation, understanding, and perspective of reality – and beyond! 


Of course, the fact that God reveals His glory through man-made pleasures is no excuse for us to consume every piece of it just because.  What do I mean by that?  We still have responsibility of choosing wisely the kind and amount of man-made pleasures that we choose to enjoy.  Seeking God’s glory is the chief reason for everything we Christians do in this world, including our choice of man-made pleasures.  Thus, if it’s already apparent that God’s glory is absent from a particular man-made pleasure, or it’s failing to bring us towards Christ, but, on the contrary, is actually leading us away, then there’s no reason to continue consuming it. 

We all have to constantly remember that the greatest danger of enjoying the world’s pleasures is how easily the Devil can use them to tempt us to idolatry.  If we are just immersing ourselves to banal entertainment – failing to “look along the beam” – we are vulnerable to the Devil’s attack.  Just like with idle hands, idle minds are also the Devil’s playground.  Man-made pleasures, whether enjoying them properly or not, will always arouse our desires.  When we fail to direct these aroused desires towards God, the Devil always jumps at the opportunity to exploit and redirect our desires towards idols.  Looked at how the Serpent tempted Adam and Even to eat the Forbidden Fruit when their imaginations and desires (“You will be like God!”) were aroused. 

Hence, we have to be honest with ourselves if a particular man-made pleasure is truly aiding us in our pursuit of God’s glory, or if it’s turning out to be a genuine unhelpful distraction.  Are we more engrossed during prayer than watching a movie?  Are we spending more time reading our Bibles than novels?  Are we more thrilled with God than Stephen Amell?

If we discover upon reflection that enjoying a particular man-made pleasure is not really helping us in our pursuit of God’s glory, or, worse, it’s actually leading us to sin, then we should completely abstain from it.  The Bible calls for radical cutting off of things that tempt us to sin.  Matthew 18:6-9 tells us:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!  If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.”
Jesus means business.  If you’re always being lured towards pornographic sites, then cut off your Internet service.   If you’re spending more time and delighting more in watching TV than praying and reading the Bible, then sell or give it away.  If you’re always succumbing into drunkenness whenever you taste alcohol, then completely abstain from alcoholic beverages.

Take in mind that God doesn’t exclusively reveal His glory through man-made pleasures.  He can use other kinds of innocent pleasures as well.  He can even use suffering.  Abstaining from a man-made pleasure when necessary is not a loss at all.  Don’t think of it that you’re missing out on something.  Ultimate Pleasure is found in God anyway, and God has continually guaranteed that giving up something for Him is infinitely worth it. 


In conclusion: if God chooses to display his glory through something, whether through the natural facets and elements of Creation or through man-made pleasures, then we should proceed to enjoy them.  God designed us to have physical desires and sensations so that we can perceive God’s glory through physical manifestations.  And through them, we will realize that there is more to it than these, that there is a Delight that transcends the pleasures of the world.  The world’s pleasures are not the ends.  They are merely the means to sharpen our longings for something – Someone – greater than physical pleasures.  The ultimate objective has always been about finding our complete, supreme joy in God alone.  

No comments: