Thursday, January 8, 2015

If I Enjoy It, It Must Be Bad . . .

I recently told someone that photos of big city skylines are “like porn” to me. I immediately recognized that it was a pretty crude thing to say (which isn’t surprising; the taming of my tongue is my greatest struggle, and the old gab-box has to be slapped back down from time to time as part of my sanctification), but it also planted a weird seed of thought in my mind that germinated over the next few days.

Here’s what I started to ask myself: was there maybe something to that analogy? Was there something sinful about my love for leafing (or clicking) through pictures of Chicago, Detroit, LA, Beijing? After all, these are images of places that, according to the Scriptures, are passing away. Why do they do it for me? Was this an indicator that I was setting my eyes on “earthly things,” and not on “things above” (even though skyscrapers are both earthly and, ya know, above)? 
The Scripture passage in question is, of course, Colossians 3:1-3, “Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”  And, given that context, it becomes quickly clear that setting our minds on “things above” does not mean having our head in the clouds, avoiding anything physical, or making sure we don’t enjoy the wonderful creation God has given us. In fact, the more we set our minds on things above, the more we’ll find them right here at ground level.

So how can I tell if my ground-level interests are harshing my piety? Well, first off, let the Scriptures themselves tell us what they mean by “earthly,” “worldly,” and “fleshly.”

Here’s a montage (provide your own power ballad):
  • “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Col 3:5)
  • “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?” (1 Cor 3:3)
  • “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,  envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” (Gal 5:19-21)

So I check my tendency to thoroughly enjoy cityscapes against these works of the flesh and worldly things. Is it leading me to anger, division, and fighting? Nope; that would be weird. Into idolatry? i.e., if I’m honest with myself, am I looking to these images for comfort that I should be receiving from God? (This isn’t as crazy a question as it may initially sound). I determine: no, I’m not.

Nor is it giving birth to lust (as would be the case with actual porn) or lust’s cousins, jealousy, greed, and covetousness. Again, this is not so far fetched; I’ve heard from several people in the last year or so, who tell me that thumbing through pictures of houses, cars, cottages, etc. online or in magazines (a seemingly innocuous practice) has led to incredible covetousness and a sense of deep discontentment. That practice, then, is sinful, insofar as it reinforces a focus on earthly things, as defined by Scripture. However, I have no real aspirations to owning a skyscraper or having a penthouse view and I don’t find myself coveting these things. Ironically, flipping through catalogs of theology books has often led me into covetousness, but looking at an impressive crop of steel, glass, and concrete buildings does not.

And I think it’s fitting that this little case study involves cities—particularly when we consider that the first city was built in direct opposition to God’s command (Gen 4:12, 16) and the next major city planning/building project was an example of full-on insubordination against the Most High (Gen 9:1; 11:4). There’s something dodgy about cities from the very beginning. Perhaps that’s why many people think of them as being full of crime and corruption, when, in reality, you find sin and corruption everywhere you find people.

But there’s good news (as always) and it’s rooted (as always) in Redemption. Sure, cities as a phenomenon got a sketchy, sinful start in the first book of the Bible . . . but check out the last book: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’” (Rev 21:2-3)

You see that? God redeems the very concept of cities! As Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not one thumb-breadth of the universe about which Jesus Christ does not say, It is mine.” Remember that when you’re worried that your pastime, hobby, interest, or mode of blowing off steam might not be quite “heavenly enough” for a Christian. If it’s not causing you to sin (including coveting what others have or consuming your life and time to the point of becoming idolatrous), you are free to love things on this earth. To steal a line from my friend Dr. Michael Wittmer’s, we were created for this place; we’re earthlings, for heaven’s sake!

It's incredibly telling that Christians often have a subtle sense that “if I really enjoy it, it must be bad.” That kind of quote/unquote “puritanical thinking” comes not from the Puritans, but from the Gnostics. And the Bible straight-up condemns that kind of thinking. “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col 2:20-23) Trying to avoid everything in the world doesnot make us immune to the pull of the world and the works of the flesh.

So enjoy the city skyline. Enjoy hiking and picking wild berries. Enjoy punk rock, hip hop, folk, or reggae. Enjoy studying history and mythology. Enjoy reading fiction and watching films. Remember: your maturity as a Christian is not measured by how miserable you are or your lack of enjoying life. People today might call that view “puritanical,” but our Puritan forebears didn’t believe that for one minute! They enjoyed good food and drink (yes, drink!, although in keeping with Col 3, they were careful to never drink to drunkenness), music, and relaxing with family and friends.

This year, may we too work hard, serve God with all our might, and acknowledge him as the giver of all good gifts, letting all good gifts cause us to return thanks and give praise.

(If you're interested in reading more on this topic, you should check out Dr. Wittmer's book Heaven Is a Place on Earth and his newest work Becoming Worldly Saints, which comes out in less than a month.)


  1. Even in the Old Testament sense, cities helped mankind fulfill the command to fill the Earth.

  2. Also, God was redeeming them early in the form of "Cities of Refuge."