The Things of Earth
This month's book response comes from Paul Davis who serves on the building team at Cornerstone.
As we read through book responses, may our ears be attentive to the Spirit and may our minds discern and consider truth well. Also remember the words of the Preacher from Ecclesiastes: The writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments.
What should believers do with the "things of earth"? Enjoy them? Reject them? Appreciate them with a twinge of guilt? What? Even the Bible seems to have two opinions. The apostle Paul in Colossians 3:2 says: "Think about the thing of heaven, not the things of earth," while in 1 Timothy 4:4 he says: "since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks."
When I first approached this book, with its rather bland and innocent-looking cover, I expected it to be a long elaboration on the idea that of course it's okay to enjoy children, human relationships, ice cream, music, warm sunshine, lakes, trees, and the Pittsburgh Steelers as long as we don't enjoy any or any combination of them more than we enjoy God. How wrong I was. The book is so much more than that.
Joe Ridney, the author, studied in seminary under John Piper, the well-known pastor, author, theologian and coiner of the term "Christian Hedonism." Rigney is now an assistant professor of theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis. Piper has written the forward to this book, and I can't imagine a higher endorsement of Rigney than what he says in the first sentence of the forward:
"If there is an evangelical Christian alive today who has thought and written more biblically, more deeply, more creatively, or more practically about the proper enjoyment of creation and culture, I don't know who it is."
Christian Hedonism is best summed up in the statement, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." And this book can best be summed up as an elaboration on the basics of Christian Hedonism laid down by John Piper.
The first five chapter are the foundation for the more practical concluding seven chapters. They get into some rather serious theology including topics such as the mystery of the Trinity, attempts to reconcile God's sovereignty with human responsibility, and even the problem of evil. And that's all I'll say about those five except to note that they may just be the clearest exposition of basic theology that I have ever read.
So how do we reconcile the above pair of verses, and dozens of similar pairs that could be set in seeming opposition to each other? Rigney suggests there are two ways of relating God to His gifts - the comparative and the integrated approaches.
In the comparative approach we separate them and evaluate them against each other. Since God is infinite and even His best gifts are finite, the gifts will always be as nothing compared to God. In the integrated approach, however, when we love God supremely, we are able to unite our joy in Him and our joy in His gifts, receiving the gifts as tiny flashes of His glory. Since God's excellence is present in the gifts, we are free to enjoy them for His sake, and they become a way of our enjoying Him.
In the following chapters, Rigney introduces the concept he calls "godwardness," which he simply defines as our attempt to live out the apostle Paul's exhortation in 1 Corinthians 10:31: "So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."
He differentiates between direct and indirect godwardness. Direct godwardness is experienced when God Himself is the center of our attention, in activities such as prayer, corporate worship, or Scripture reading. Indirect godwardness is everything else - all our mundane or occasionally not-so-mundane daily activities.
Since we are creatures limited by time and space, we can only orient ourselves in one of these directions at a time. So we need to find what the author calls "rhythms of godwardness" - appropriate times for each of them.
He uses what I think is a great analogy. Our eyes can only directly focus on one thing at a time, although at the same time there are many things in our peripheral field of vision. We never see what is behind our heads at any given time, however. Likewise, we can legitimately directly concentrate on any of the things or activities of earth, as long as we keep God in our "field of vision" and don't put Him out of sight behind our heads.
What about the many places in Scripture where we are called to self-denial - the voluntary giving up of some gifts? Rigney insists that biblical calls to self-denial are always accompanied by the promise of obtaining some-thing better, although the better may not always be immediately apparent to us.
As an example of this, he mentions specifically missionaries, especially those serving in radically different cultures from their own, who have voluntarily given up many of God's good gifts for the sake of bringing the light of the Gospel to persons lost in sin and darkness. He cites the great apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, as the supreme example of this. Paul gladly gave up many of God's good gifts to establish churches that would, among many other things, recognize that things created by God are gifts to be thankfully enjoyed.
Self-denial is voluntary, but how about the involuntary giving up of good gifts that we all will inevitably face?
An extreme example: A young Christian couple who have been struggling with infertility for several years finally manage to conceive and bear a child. Two years later the child develops an incurable illness and dies. What do we say to the heartbroken, devastated parents who have lost their most precious earthly gift? Probably nothing. Just cry with them and love them. Why does God allow things like this to happen? We don't know in any specific instance, but we know we live in a fallen world under a curse, and Christians are not immune from tragedies. Bad things do happen to good people. God is till good, and there are still good gifts in the world, although it may be quite some time before the couple in this example will be able to see any of them.
But what about our ultimate loss of all earthly gifts? I'm going to die, you're going to die, and Vladamir Putin and Miley Cyrus are both going to die. For those of us who have put our faith and trust in Christ for salvation, after death there are even greater gifts to come. In addition to the unimaginable gift of our Savior's presence and the almost unimaginable gift of being re-united with family and friends, there will be "pleasures forevermore."
In conclusion, a quote from Michael Reeves, professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford, England:
"Reading this [book] will be a sweet moment of profound liberation for many. With wisdom and verve, Rigney shows how we can worship our Creator through the enjoyment of His creation. This is going to make a lot of Christians happier in Christ - and more attractively Christlike."
Read this book, fellow believer. You will not regret having done so.