November 24, 2017

Wretched Urgency II: My not-so-guilty pleasures

Wretched Urgency II: My Not-So-Guilty Pleasures
In which I disagree with John Piper and defend goofing off.
by Michael Spencer

Note: The original “Wretched Urgency” was an essay dealing with how a fundamentalistic concern for evangelism created a spirituality of misery. This essay looks at the inability of some Christians to enjoy life’s ordinary gifts because of their guilt over what they think they should be doing. Hence, part II.

• • •

Confession time. Put on those helmets and buckle your seat belts.

When I am in the bathroom in the morning, I listen to “John Boy and Billy” on the radio. I could listen to D. James Kennedy or Christian music on K-Loathe, uh Love, but I choose to listen to the Southern Rock, raucous humor and distinctly unspiritual lunacy of America’s foremost morning radio program aimed at the culture of Southerners wherever they may be. At night, when I could listen to more sermons and more Christian music, I listen to sports talk or country music.

My evening schedule frequently pauses for my wife and I to enjoy our fix of worthless television shows. While we could be reading Pilgrim’s Progress or memorizing scripture, we take in “Two and a Half Men,” both CSI’s, “Cold Case” and “L.A. Dragnet.” Al Bundy as Joe Friday is just irresistible.

I was brought up going to church on Sunday nights. I’ve given it up for the simple pleasure of a long Sunday afternoon nap. In fact, I consider the fact that Islam has just one service a week–and that in the middle of the day on Friday–to be an excellent reason for considering conversion. Buddhism is even better. Evangelical Christianity, with its battery of weeknight services, revivals, meetings, classes, etc., is clearly masochistic.

I’ve considered asking our church to change our sign to permanently read: “Manchester Presbyterian Church. Same God. Fewer Services.”

I spent a large amount of time this year reading about, listening to and watching baseball. The best ten bucks I spent this year was on getting MLB Audio: the radio feeds of all Major League games sent right into my computer for my enjoyment. When I could have been listening to R.C. Sproul or Christian Muzak, I listened to the Cubs and the Reds. If the Reds were on television, I watched, including the last month, when the team was made up of volunteers out of the stands.

I could spend this time more seriously, more “Christianly” in some people’s way of thinking. Evangelical Christianity has generated enough pages, media, programs, meetings, causes and crusades to cause the angels to fall on their faces–from exhaustion. I could fill my time with Christian activities and never see the end of them. I should– according to some of my peers–better spend any day without television, movies, “secular” music, worldly books and hobbies, radio, news programs or any other diversions from the things of the Lord.

At one time in my life, as an associate minister in a First Baptist Church, I was fully committed to eradicating the free time of everyone in my congregation in the name of “commitment.” If you are really committed you’ll come early on Sunday and stay late after the evening service, taking in everything from breakfast prayer meeting to after church fellowship. If God is really getting first place in your life, you’ll be in choir and prayer meeting on Wednesday, evangelistic visitation on Monday, Bible Study on Tuesday, nursing home ministry on Thursday, youth groups on the weekends and, if you have any free time, you should be waking the neighborhood praying for your neighbors.

For vacations, you should go to denominational camps and conferences. For fun, be in church league basketball (which is sort of like finding your happiness in being mugged and cursed at by large men in gym shorts.) Don’t forget your duty on various committees. And we will schedule a few revivals to keep you high on Jesus while spending every evening at church wondering if that woman sitting with you is really your wife.

I wish I were kidding. Those of you who have been there know this is no parody. I lived it; I was the creature. It’s the mindset of people who believe that the Kingdom of God is identical to the weekly calendar on the back of the church newsletter. The duties of the committed Christian never end, and heaven will be more of the same, just with no funerals and better singing.

I wish I were kidding that evangelicalism is full of people who hate the idea of simple pleasures, but I’m not joking. Verses like, “Do everything to the glory of God” have been translated into, “Do everything, and be deadly serious about it.” There are a lot of fine, dedicated Christians who feel it’s a sin to go to a restaurant for any reason other than evangelizing the waitress.

These fun-killing Christians believe that anything that isn’t “spiritual” is “of the devil.” Need examples? How long have you got?

Ever consider reading something like The Hobbit to your kids? Bad idea, since there is a dragon in the book. We don’t want kids thinking about dragons. That might be fun. Classic children’s literature in general? Who knows what they are laughing at back there in their room? Crime novels? Fantasy? Couldn’t you better spend your time reading Left Behind and using the books to evangelize your friends? How about reading them “Christian” children’s literature written by people who know how to fill those little minds with Godly thoughts that will turn them into good little Christians?

Is there something wrong with just enjoying a story?

Why just enjoy sports? I mean it can be an OUTREACH. It can have a purpose. If you are involved in sports because you enjoy it, there’s probably idolatry involved. (Evangelicals can take any sport from soccer to skeet shooting and turn it into a ministry.)

How about motorcycling? Biking? Civil War reenacting? Video games? Pro-wrestling? These hobbies need not be simple pleasures. They can be ways to fellowship, evangelize, grow as Christians, and most importantly, sell stuff. If you are a serious disciple, you know what I mean.

We recently had a nature photographer visit our school. His work was superb. And, of course, was presented complete with hymns in the soundtrack and various spiritual lessons. NOW LISTEN- there was nothing wrong with this, especially in our setting as a Christian school, but you have to realize that if the photographer had said he did this for fun, and had never talked about God or the various lessons in nature he observed, a lot of the Christian adults present would have felt like something was WRONG. People who just do things because they enjoy them have a problem. They should be doing them for God.

American evangelicals stand at the end of a long line of Christian attempts to make fun into a sin. Simple pleasures and sinful pleasures have always seemed synonymous to a remarkable number of serious Christians. Heirs of a theological mistake that said we are saved by seriousness, American evangelicals feel guilty about more things than a monastery full of Luthers.

Not only should we turn normal activities into “ministries,” we shouldn’t “waste” our time with frivolous activities when we could be involved in “serious” discipleship. Which leads me to a quarrel I must pick with one of my heroes and influences, the seldom wrong Dr. John Piper.

Dr. Piper has just published an excellent book for college students called Don’t Waste Your Life. In the book, there is a captivating illustration of a young (very young) “retired couple” who spend their time playing softball and hunting for sea shells. In a great homiletical moment, Piper says (paraphrased), “Can you imagine them on the day of judgment, standing before Christ, saying, “Look Lord; here are our shells.”?

Now I won’t argue with this excellent illustration. I will unpack some of its assumptions a bit. Piper teaches that the Christian must live what he calls a “wartime” lifestyle in the cause of bringing every nation to Christ. In actual fact, Piper’s Christian Hedonism is living life as war. And we all know about simple pleasures in wartime. They are a luxury, often a waste, and generally suspicious. Soldiers may stop every so often for a baseball game, but their weapons–and their wartime mindsets–are never far away.

So, in the case of Piper’s couple, early retirement to the beach is framed as a waste of years that could be spent on the mission field. And there are abundant examples–including some at my own school–of those who turned retirement into productive years of service. I honor those who followed the call of God to do exactly that with their remaining years. But I know- and so do most reflective people- that Piper’s example is making many assumptions about this couple and their shells.

Now, call me whatever you want, but I’m bothered by something. What’s wrong with collecting shells and playing softball? Not what is wrong compared with these things in excess or when compared to something else, but as they are- simple pleasures in God’s world? The “serious Christian” says it is time wasted; time that could have been spent on real “treasure.” Missions, prayer and evangelism. The “fun” of the real disciple is the wartime life. But is this right?

If shells are all I have to show for the life that God has given me, Piper is right to sound the warning. And if I choose shells over Christ, I’ve wasted my life. If the secondary joy of shells replaced the joy of Christ, I’ve erred terribly. But are we right to contrast life lived for Christ with simple pleasures, in and of themselves?

There is a real warning against making creature comforts and, yes, simple pleasures, into idols, and God-substitutes. But when the argument extends all the way from how specific pleasures take inappropriate root in my life to the place of all simple pleasures in general, the landslide is on and the result is needless guilt and contaminated grace.

[BTW- I’ll admit to using Piper’s illustration and recommending his book. My reflection on this illustration is not a rejection of Piper’s message of Christian Hedonism or even the “wartime lifestyle,” a message that is needed in America. I am concerned that Piper has not been theologically consistent with all the aspects of his distinctive emphasis, and particularly how a theology of creation and grace exists in a theology so driven by the “crisis” of missions and evangelism. I hope someone is writing that book.]

So, to some, “simple pleasures” are a distraction. A waste. A meaningless time filler and squandering of precious moments. They are the devil’s tools, designed to turn soldiers into harmless hobbyists. Simple pleasures are the chaff that will be burned up, the wood, hay and stubble that won’t make it past the day of judgment. All those hours could have been spent serving the Lord, growing in faith and spreading the Gospel.

I’m not buying this, if you haven’t guessed by now. I smell self-righteousness in all this determination to be too pious for a night of television with the wife. There is something about the nice harangues encouraging me to be “committed” that smells considerably like Medieval Catholicism’s admiration for people living in caves and on poles.

For instance, I have to wonder if this kind of thinking honestly believes there is a substantial difference between the essence of our humanity in the garden of Eden and our humanity now. I figure most people would have no problem with Adam and Eve collecting shells, but for Christians today it may be wasting your life. Is the difference made by the fall really such that the glory of God once seen in sea shells no longer matters to God, but only overt acts of evangelism and devotion matter now?

There is another problem here. Without being mean, may I ask how anyone knows that someone retired to the beach with his wife is wasting his life? Maybe he is making up for decades of workaholism and time apart. Maybe he raised a great family, served in a local church and now he wants some years to enjoy his time with his wife. Perhaps there is mental or physical illness or the need to recover from loss. I realize these are my own “what ifs,” but it raises the issue that we might not be able to so quickly stand in judgment over another person. They stand before God, not before me.

Simple pleasures may become sins. I believe it. They may also be gifts of God. Listening to baseball games was a gift from God to me. I needed to rest my mind from hours of being “on” in teaching, preaching, counseling, and ministry. Being able to think of baseball for two hours made me a better preacher and a better Christian. If I had to spend that time in memorizing scripture or listening to sermons or door to door evangelism, I would be a WORSE person, and a worse Christian.

In other words, we might be trying too hard. Paul said the grace of God made him work harder. But do we really understand that idea? Grace frees us from the need to work to be accepted and saved. It frees us to work in the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit. It does not chain us to some gnostic idea that baseball and seashells and Southern rock and watching TV are evil wastes of life.

It’s this sort of thinking that is going to result in mega-churches that never let you out. You’ll arrive, park, go in, and never be heard from again.

C.S. Lewis, speaking as the senior devil in The Screwtape Letters, wrote about God:

He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are “pleasures for evermore”….He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world with pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least- sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any us to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.

Do we believe this? Or do we believe sleeping, washing eating, drinking, making love, playing, working and a hundred other human activities, are “wasting your life?” Do we really believe that the three years Jesus spent with his disciples was significantly different than the thirty years he spent at home? Does our understanding of human nature mean that the ministry was true humanity, but the years in the shop and being an ordinary person in Nazareth were somehow less of a God-filled-human experience?

The observant person will notice that it is not only Christians, but zealous believers of every kind, who teach that simple pleasures are somehow wrong. It is a common flaw of utopians who think that we must build heaven on earth through our own efforts or prove ourselves worthy of a heaven beyond.

Christians ought to know better, but even my hero Dr. Piper chafes at any mention of a Christian being a fan of sports, and frequently pits ordinary pleasures against the urgency of missions and evangelism. (Sincere followers of Dr. Piper often spend time debating just how much of a “wartime mindset” is necessary to be a “real” Christian. This is unfortunate, but is the inevitable result of developing a theology of urgency without a strong foundation of grace, grace and more grace.) With all due respect, I have to differ. God is glorified in savoring the life he has created, and not just in hastening the arrival of the end of the age.

Of course, the Old Covenant vision of the Kingdom of heaven on earth is full of simple pleasures, and not only the worship services of the book of Revelation. When we read the whole Bible, we discover that “heaven” on earth includes raising animals, tending vineyards, laughter, wine and family. I do not pretend to know how this works out in history. I only know that simple pleasures are holy. The are not the enemy. They are not a waste of life. They are the gifts–even the delight–of a God who filled all of creation with simple pleasures, many of them for Himself alone.

Why are some so certain we must be more religious than God himself?