12th May 2003
Jesus was never reluctant to draw his disciples' attention to himself. He himself is the heart of our faith - not morals or ethics, not laws and regulations, not philosophies and theology, but Jesus himself. Here is a selection of the ``I am''s from the John's gospel:
And let's remember again one of the shortest of all Jesus' parables - the Pearl of Great Price is just thirty words long:
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.— Matthew 13:46-47
So we see that Jesus quite unashamedly paints himself not only as the answer to all our problems, but also the source of our satisfaction and joy.
Now we come to problem, which is this: we know that the bible is reliable, that we can believe what it tells us, and therefore that there is more joy, peace and fulfillment to be found in God than anywhere else. But our experience often tells us the opposite: our day-to-day experience of God is often (not always) rather a shadowy, insubstantial thing compared with the immediate, solid reality of the rest of our lives.
So our everyday experience teaches us that pleasures like, for example, wine, football and boeuf en croute (your mileage may vary) are real and solid, while the comfort and joy we get from our relationship with God is often a feeble, watery, second-rate kind of thing. What's going on here?
A cursory reading of the New Testament doesn't help much. On one hand, it is full of warnings and cautionary tales about the pleasures of this life:
And C. S. Lewis makes the point that even in the case of sinful pleasures, the pleasure itself is from God: the sin is in taking something that God intends us to have but in a way other that how he intends us to have it. If I steal chocolate, my stealing it is wrong; but that doesn't change the fact that chocolate itself is good.
So what we seem to have is a situation where God has filled the world with good things for us, and Jesus and the bible authors all encourage us to dive in wholeheartedly; but at the same time we are told not to prize them highly, and particularly to hold God himself above them all - even though our experience of him is often rather anaemic. It's a paradox.
Here is what I understand to be the resolution of the paradox. First of all, we know that the good in every good thing is ultimately from God himself. James tells us that ``every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father'' (James 1:17). So whenever we are moved by a sunset, excited by a rugby match, in awe of a thunderstorm, exhilarated by strenuous physical activity or delighted by a piece of music, what's really moving us, leaving us in awe and delighting us is the tiny but real glimpse of God himself that's in the sunset, the thunderstorm and the music. J. S. Bach understood this perfectly, which is why he wrote ``To the glory of God'' on each of his manuscripts.
And C. S. Lewis - of course! - recognises this and uses it as the central theme of his manifesto for Christians in the arts:
A Christian and an unbelieving poet may both be equally original and draw on resources peculiar to themselves, but with this difference. The unbeliever may take his own temperament and experience, just as they happen to stand, and consider them worth communicating simply because they are his. To the Christian his own temperament and experience, as mere fact, and as merely his, are of no value or importance whatsoever: he will deal with them, if at all, only because they are the medium through which, or the position from which, something universally profitable appeared to him.— C. S. Lewis, Christianity and Literature
(While Lewis encourages artists to work on art that explicitly conveys something of God, the fact is that all art, whether intentionally or not, has something of him in it.)
So one of the reasons that Jesus and Paul both encourage us to enjoy what good things the world has to offer is that they are our window on God's own character. (And we might add that by one definition, a great work of art is one that gives us a clear glimpse of God.)
We need to take this sort of indirect approach to God because, for the most part, we are not made of strong enough stuff to see him as he really is. Instead, for now, we need earthly pleasures to function as a kind of distorting lens through which his glory is refracted. Or, to use Paul's image, ``we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror'' (1 Corinthians 13:12). That's not just because our perception is imperfect, but also because we couldn't bear the full weight of his glory if we saw it.
There's an interesting little story in Exodus 33 about Moses' desire to see God face to face, and how God didn't let him:
Then Moses said, ``Now show me your glory.'' And the LORD said, ``I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you [...] but [...] you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.''
Then the LORD said, ``There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.''— Exodus 33:18-23
So the full glory of God is too much - even Moses could only bear to look on God's back. We are only capable, for now, of looking at him ``through a glass darkly'' (1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV, which is a much more poetic translation than the NIV's!) - although Paul goes on to promise that one day, ``we shall see face to face''.
We are like children who don't like the taste of smoked salmon - not because salmon is an unpleasant taste, but because their palates are not developed enough for it, so that they prefer fish fingers.
Or maybe a better analogy would be that we are like our son Danny, who says he never wants to get married, but always wants to live with Fiona and me - not because marriage isn't a wonderful state, but because he lacks the maturity, the mental and emotional equipment to understand what it's about.
Now it's important to realise that there is nothing wrong in children preferring fish fingers to smoked salmon, and preferring living with their parents to the idea of marriage. That is absolutely right and natural for children. But it's unhealthy for children to refuse to grow up, which is why most people think there's something odd about a forty-year-old man who still lives with his parents. In the same way, it's natural that we who are immature Christians find the World Cup more exciting than God's presence; but it would not be right or natural for that to remain the case. We need to grow into God.
Paul talks about the day when we will ``become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ'' (Ephesians 4:13). I believe that one of the things he means by this maturity is developing the ``taste'' for God, as a child develops a taste for smoked salmon as he grows up.
So I hope we can clearly see that earthly pleasures - the fierce joy of running up mountains, the rich, complex flavour of chicken dhansak, the sound of the waves breaking on a shore - are absolutely good and right, not only in themselves, but also as a way of seeing something of God's goodness that acts as a sort of ``training ground'' for our ability to see God himself.
What we want is to get to the stage of maturity where we can go straight to the source - God himself - and not have to bother with these indirect ways of seeing God's goodness. What will happen as we grow in maturity is not that we will love the taste of lobster any less; but that we will love God himself more, and so care less about the lobsters comparatively speaking. And here we are back to my observation last week that the Puritans' lack of interest in music and theatre was not due to legalistic prohibitions, but because they'd found a deep intimacy with God, and that was what they wanted to give their best time and efforts to.
When I started to think about this concept, I quickly found that there are masses of illustrations that can help us to understand the relationship between earthly pleasures and the pure pleasure of knowing God. So here are a few of them, offered in the hope that everyone will find one or two that resonate.
Other sources of joy are like:
No-one who has learned to appreciate real beer ever chooses to drink shandy (unless they're driving). In the same way, once we've learned to find God himself, and grown strong enough to appreciate him, we will not prefer lesser pleasures.
With all this in mind, it's easy to understand why Paul writes:
We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.— 2 Corinthians 4:18
He's seen what's real, what will last, what really matters. So it's no sacrifice for him to ``count it all loss'' (Philippians 3:7). Our desire is that we, like Paul, will grow in maturity; that we will become better able to discern God in everything that brings us joy in this life, more able to find him in those things, better able to go straight to the source of joy and so, in the end, ready to cast off the earthly pleasures that have served us well as a butterfly discards the cocoon that has kept it safe as it grows; or as a bird emerges from its egg.
This sermon does not come with a handy ``application'' section for two reasons. First, because this is about internal, not external change; a change of heart rather than of behaviour. And second, because the appropriate response will be different for different people, depending on their personality, history and circumstances.
All we can say in summary is that we aim to:
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/pleasure.html.