The wonders and delights of the things of earth pose a serious practical problem for Christians who want to glorify God and flee from idols. On the one hand, we know that God’s wrath is revealed against those who exchange his glory for created things. And we know that idolaters—those who love creation more than God—will not inherit the kingdom of God. Aware of this danger, some Christians have sought to wall themselves off from the world, escaping from the danger of idolatry with a well-timed stiff-arm to pleasures that we can see, smell, hear, taste, and touch.
But the Bible teaches us that we can’t solve the sin problem by rejecting creation outright. If we do, we simply move from being sensuous idolaters to foolish lackeys of the Devil (1 Tim. 4:1–5). But most of us aren’t about to become hermits living in the desert, far away from all possible temptations to indulge our appetites. We have no interest in becoming monks, so the warnings in passages like 1 Timothy 4 and Colossians 2:20–23 don’t hit home.
Failed Monks and False Guilt
However, while we may not be taking vows of celibacy or renouncing all food except moldy bread, I wonder if many of us don’t adopt a more insidious form of the same mentality. We still enjoy our hamburger and French fries, but we do so reluctantly, and perhaps with a tinge of guilt (especially if it really tastes good). We may not be actual monks, but have we adopted some sort of monastic standards, and then, because we fail to live up to them, suffer from low-grade guilt?
If rejecting God’s goodness in creation is demonic, then might there not be more subtle forms of this temptation, such “schemes of the Devil”? Ask yourself the following questions and probe the reasons for your answers:
- Do I feel a low-grade sense of guilt because I enjoy legitimate earthly pleasures?
- Is this guilt connected to any particular, concrete sinful attitude or action? Or is it rooted in a vague sense that I’m not enjoying God enough (whatever that means) or that I’m enjoying his gifts “too much”?
- Am I attempting to detach from creation and God’s gifts out of fear of idolatry, lest my love for them surpass my affections for him?
- Am I overly suspicious of created things, looking at my delight in ice cream and sunny spring days and hugs from my spouse with a wary and skeptical eye, perpetually unsure whether they’re too precious to me?
- Do I have the sense that as I progress in holiness, my enjoyment of fresh raspberries and hiking in the mountains and an evening of games and laughter with old friends ought to diminish, because I’m becoming increasingly satisfied with God alone?
- Do I regard certain activities like prayer, worship, and Bible reading as inherently more holy and virtuous than others like doing my job or listening to music or taking a nap?
My point is not that you shouldn’t worry about the danger of idolatry. Far from it. Good gifts really can become distractions that keep us from communing with God. Idolatry isn’t a game; it’s a suicidal reality that wrecks our souls and awakens the wrath of a jealous God. My concern is that, in general, thinning out the gifts and rejecting the stuff and suppressing our delight in created things actually hinders our growth in grace and our ability to resist the pull of the Devil’s lies. In fact, by stiff-arming created things, we miss the crucial role they play in the faithful Christian life.
Why We Should Eat Honey
Tucked away in the book of Proverbs, Solomon gives us a window into one of the main purposes for the things of earth:
My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it there will be a future, and your hope will not be cut off. (Prov. 24:13–14)
Why did God make honey so tasty and sweet? So that we would have some idea what wisdom is like (at least, that’s one reason). The sweetness of honey points beyond itself to the wisdom of God. Honey is “good,” and we are exhorted in Psalm 34 to “taste and see that the LORD is good!” Our souls have taste buds, just like our tongues, and we can train the soul-buds by exercising the tongue-buds. When we savor the sweetness of honey or sweet tea or pumpkin crunch cake, we engage in a fancy bit of “reading.” We transpose the physical enjoyment of taste onto our souls and offer thanks to God, not only for the simple pleasures of food but also for the spiritual pleasures to which the food is but a fitting echo.
But this means we can’t short-circuit the enjoyment of the honey. In order for us to gain the full spiritual benefit of honey, we must really enjoy its sweetness. There must be a savoring of honey as honey before there can ever be a savoring of honey as a pointer to divine wisdom. In short, if we’re to obey the biblical exhortation to “Know that wisdom is such to your soul,” we must first “Know . . . such”—that is, we must first eat honey.
Created Beams of Divine Glory
So as we confront a world full of potential idols, let us not overlook the true purpose of creation. Creation is communication from the triune God. God loved his trinitarian fullness so much that he created a world to communicate that fullness ad extra, outside himself. And not just any world. A world full of fish tacos, tickle fights, afternoon naps, Cajun seafood, back rubs, wool house shoes, and church softball.
The infinite and eternal God created something that is not God, but nevertheless really and truly reflects and reveals God. As a result, creation is glorious, created beams of divine glory. As the light of the sun is refracted by water droplets into a rainbow, so creation refracts the glory of God, allowing the full spectrum of his beauty to be displayed for the knowledge and enjoyment of his people. Created glory mediates divine glory, so that when we chase the pleasures up the beam to the source, we arrive at the Joy of Joys, the River of Delights, the Person of Persons, the living God and Father of Jesus Christ.
Editors’ note: This excerpt has been adapted from Joe Rigney’s new book, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts (Crossway, 2015). You can register to see Rigney lead a workshop titled “Strangely Dim? The Things of Earth in the Light of Christ’s Face” at our 2015 National Conference, April 13 to 15, in Orlando.