This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Is It Sinful to Enjoy the World?
In this episode, Joe Rigney, author of Strangely Bright: Can You Love God and Enjoy This World?, discusses why it's okay to celebrate God's good gifts. He explains the impact that John Piper and Christian Hedonism have had on his life and theology, the proper place of self-denial in the Christian life, and how to navigate the tension of loving God and enjoying his good gifts.
Topics Addressed in This Interview
- Embracing God’s God-Centeredness
- What Is Christian Hedonism?
- Navigating between Two Extremes
- The Danger of Asceticism
- How Things of Earth Can Grow Strangely Bright
- Avoiding Stoicism
Embracing God's God-Centeredness
Joe, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.
Happy to be back.
Early on in your book you write something that I thought was pretty interesting, and I'd love to hear you comment on it. You write, “God . . . is radically God-centered. He does everything that he does for the sake of his name, for his glory.” I think for some Christians listening right now, that kind of language and that kind of talking about God probably feels pretty familiar and feels pretty normal, but my guess is that there are other Christians listening right now for whom that language is a little bit uncomfortable and maybe even a little bit distasteful to them. What would you say to the Christian listening who would consider starting off a book with that view of God as a little bit unsettling?
I think, at one level, this is a Bible question, so before we can really address that you have to decide Am I a Bible person or not? And if you are a Bible person, then you're going to have to wrestle with all of the passages that say that the Lord does everything he does for the sake of his name and for the sake of his glory so that the people will know that I am the Lord. God seems very concerned that people recognize him as the Creator and sustainer of all things and as the greatest treasure in the universe. So obviously, I'm kind of coming in the wake of, in recent years, John Piper. I teach at Bethlehem College and Seminary where he's the Chancellor. Christian Hedonism and the notion that God is most glorified in us when I'm most satisfied in him is central to how I am approaching all of these things. And so the first thing is going to be Are you a Bible person? If the answer is yes, then you've got these verses. And then the second things is if you've gotten to the point where you can say, Okay, I see it; it's there and we can walk through all of those texts; now what do I do with the emotional side of that, because it still strikes me as a little bit odd. This is a place where I think Pastor John has been incredibly helpful in trying to bring together that it's not an oppositional thing. It's as if when God pursues his glory he's not pursuing your good or your joy or your ultimate happiness, but that it's in precisely pursuing his own glory that you're most satisfied. For most of us—and this is true probably in many cases in our own experience—if I'm wanting myself to look good it means I'm wanting somebody else to be dismissed or rejected. But God is the sort of Being who says, I'm going to pursue my own glory by satisfying my people with my presence. And so it's good news that God is radically God-centered precisely because the way that he glorifies himself is by supremely satisfying his people. That's where I would go to try to help someone who sees it in the Bible but is uncomfortable with it.
So why do you think it is that for so many Christians—so many evangelical Christians—this can be such an uncomfortable realization, or uncomfortable truth, that we do see in Scripture in a number of places pretty clearly. Why do we struggle emotionally to embrace this truth, and is there something unique about modern-day American evangelicalism that might predispose us against this kind of thing?
One answer would have to do with human sinfulness. We resist the idea that there is something above us, and this is just one expression of that something above us. Wanting to be the center, wanting to be supreme, wanting to pursue our own good above all, that's kind of a natural human bent; and therefore, here's God coming in his word saying, That's not the way it's supposed to be. That's what sin is—valuing other things more than God. In fact, one of the passages that really captures this well is in Jeremiah 2 where he says
Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water. —Jeremiah 2:12–13
So their ultimate evil is forsaking God, who's the all-satisfying fountain, and trying to dig around in the mud for some satisfaction. One of the interesting things is that initial part where he says “Be appalled, O heavens . . . be shocked.” It seems as though the prophet is addressing the angels, and there's this sense that the angels are going to have their mouths just drop open when they see human beings valuing other things higher than God, and they just can't believe it. It's gaping and open-mouthed horror like, How can they do that? And the prophet is sort of giving voice to that sentiment, which just tells us that our resistance to the idea—I'm not the fountain; other things aren't the fountain; God is the fountain—our resistance to the notion that God is the supreme fountain—and he knows it and loves it—is something that is peculiar to a fallen race. The holy angels sit there and go, Well of course it is this way. And so there's something out of order. That's one one piece of it—I think there's a sinfulness dimension. The other piece of it is, I think, a confusion about the notion that in order for God to pursue his own glory, it means that he doesn't really care about us. I think that there's a real and legitimate—this isn't the sinful desire—legitimate desire we have to be valued, to be treasured, and to be loved. The Bible does speak to that—Israel was called God's treasured possession among all the nations, and then that same language has been applied to the church: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). He's a good father, and he does value us. We're the lost sheep that he goes after—he leaves the ninety-nine and goes after the one. The lost coin that the widow searches for, the father who waits for the prodigal son—all those parables that Jesus tells are designed to communicate to us that God really does love and treasure and value you, but he doesn't love and treasure and value you supremely because that would be to lie and to commit idolatry. Instead, it's because of his own valuing of himself that he's inclined to share all of his fullness with you and to invite you into it. To the degree that we put him in opposition—like, If God loves himself, he's not really interested in me. He's got other irons in the fire, he's got better things to do, he's sort of indifferent—then we're going to emotionally recoil from that truth. But to the degree that we see his love and grace and mercy for us flowing out of his commitment to magnify himself, then we're going to feel loved by his God-centeredness, and we're going to feel that sense of he treasures me because in making me his treasured possession and in satisfying my soul and in my glorifying of him through my worship and through my life, he's supremely honored and all of these things come together. So it's good news, not bad news.
What Is Christian Hedonism?
Maybe going back to this term Christian Hedonism—which you threw out there—as probably many listeners know, that's a term that John Piper coined and is pretty famous for. You studied under Piper at Bethlehem College and Seminary. I wonder, do you remember the first time you heard him use that term, and what was your initial reaction to that? I know it can be somewhat controversial among certain circles.
I actually heard it in college before I ever moved to Minneapolis. I was at Texas A&M—this is probably back in 2000 or 2001. Someone said, Hey, you gotta listen to this Piper guy. So I think I probably listened to a sermon first. This was before Desiring God was a real, robust website, so I was downloading Piper sermons on Napster—that will date me! I remember hearing him, and what I felt was that he was giving vocabulary to inclinations, hints in my own prayer life. In some ways, I was already a Christian Hedonist because the Psalms made me one: “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Ps. 37:4); “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1). All of that language of desiring God and pursuing satisfaction in God was just a part of my prayer life because I prayed Psalms as a high school student and as a freshman in college. Then here comes Piper, and basically what he did was give it really deep theological and biblical roots—here's why it's that way—and really, I think, brought in this is how you glorify God. This isn't just you pursuing your satisfaction. This is how you glorify God. And so that happened in 2001 as I was listening to sermons, and it was kind of a world-shaking, almost a second conversion, because the Bible broke open and all of a sudden there were layers and depths that I had never seen or considered. That kind of set me on a path, and that's why I ended up in Minneapolis to come to seminary and why I've stayed now for fifteen years and why I am now a professor here as well. It's not a Piper thing; it's a Bible thing. I think Piper gives voice to it as a very once-in-a-generation kind of articulator and herald of the truth, but he's going to be the first to say this is as old as the Bible and that there have been numerous Christian theologians who have given voice to it in one degree or another, but maybe not with the same emphasis that he does. I've viewed my own project, in some ways, as an extension of it, as trying to fill out in particular areas where John has focused and has had that one Christian Hedonist theme—God is most glorified in me when I'm most satisfied in him—he's used that as the core. I'm saying Yes, and amen! And then, What does that look like in these other particular areas?
Navigating between Two Extremes
What are some of those areas that you feel need fleshing out, or need clarification for the generation of Christians who have been so influenced by Piper? It's often said that a great visionary leader will have a clear conception that they're trying to focus on, and then that next generation can sometimes lose some of the nuance and fullness of the originator. So what would you say are some of those things that you're hoping you can flesh out for people?
The mission statement of Bethlehem Baptist Church and the College and Seminary begins with “We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.” I would say that John has accented the supremacy of God, and he'll say in all things. Then my interest—I think it's a personality thing as much as anything else—I get real interested in “all things.” How is God supreme in my eating and my drinking, in my raising of my children, in my coaching little league baseball? If he's supreme in all things, I want to know how and I want to push it into the corners. Things of Earth, which came out about five years ago now, and now this new project Strangely Bright, are both attempts to kind of press Christian Hedonism into the corners of the "all things" in a way that says, Okay, this is not a simple question. How do you enjoy the gifts of God without turning them into idols? How do you resist the temptation to be so nervous about the things of earth that you don't enjoy them at all because you're worried that they're going to be idols? There's ditches on both sides of that road—you can either be idolatrous, or you could be ungrateful. And this is, again, a place where the Bible seems to speak directly to it. In Romans 1 Paul identifies the two fundamental sins of human beings as they didn't honor God as God—that's idolatry—nor give thanks—there's ingratitude. In one case you're elevating the gifts above the giver; in the other case you're not even receiving the gifts. And so I think both of those are ditches, and I'm trying to steer a course to try to figure out how to help people. Once you've settled—biblically and experientially—that God is supreme and you can authentically pray things like, “Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you,” then now you have to ask, Well, I still have all these things. I still have my house; I still have my family; I still have my friends; I still have my hobbies; I still have my work. I'm saying I don't desire any of those compared to my desiring of God. Great. Now what do I do with them? My books are an attempt to answer that question faithfully and in a way that tries to steer a course between those two ditches.
As you think about the generation of Christians who have learned from Piper and who have imbibed this Christian Hedonism language and ethos, do you think that they are, in your experience, more prone to fall into one of those two ditches? Is there a particular ditch that you think seems to be more dangerous for people who have already embraced these ideas?
I'm not sure that there is a greater ditch. I think it is going to be very context-specific. Maybe one way to put it is I know that for Piper, his target is modern evangelical Christians who are very comfortable in living the American dream. His goal is to kind of drop this Christian Hedonist bomb into their nice, orderly world and say, Do you love God more than money? Do you really? Does your life reflect the kind of sacrifice and sacrificial love and generosity and self-denial that Jesus demands, or are you just kind of going with the worldly flow? He comes in and drops that and therefore, there's an ascetic tendency in that—deny yourself, deny yourself, deny yourself. That is biblical and faithful, but then I think the danger is that then people are going to hear that and see it in the Bible, and then they're going to feel stuck. All of a sudden all of their earthly goods and their earthly relationships are going to feel like a hot potato, and there's going to be a kind of hesitance. And so I would say I'm targeting that person—the person who really has embraced the supremacy of God in all things, but is really laboring under this often vague sense of false guilt. I think this was my story and was part of what I felt and it's what I've encountered in other people. There's a sense of It's bad because it's not God, which isn't true. It's good because it's not God. It's just not God. Something can be good and not God because he's the good from whence all other goods come. He's the good that makes all other goods good. They are really good; but they're dangerous, and we want to be wise and faithful in how we enjoy them. I am targeting that person. I'm coming in behind in the wake of Piper and saying, Hey, I know some of you are feeling a constant low-grade guilt that is distorting your relationships with those that you love in odd ways that you can't quite put your finger on. I want to try to help that. But I suspect that it also means that anybody coming in my wake is going to have maybe that other problem to deal with. Luther has that great quote where he says, Humanity is like a drunken peasant. As soon as you push him up, he's going to fall off the other side of the horse. And then you push him back up, and he's going to fall off the other side of the horse. So the task of pastors and theologians through the ages is to be aware of the ditches and to try to do as best we can to keep the peasant on the horse.
The Danger of Asceticism
That's such a powerful—as most of Luther's pictures are—such a powerful picture of what it's like. I think one of the tricky things that I know I have felt about this is that it seems like we are so easily deceiving of ourselves. We so easily get off track even when we have the best intentions and we think we're doing okay. So I guess I wonder if others would resonate with this question: When you look at the whole scope of Scripture and the constant warnings against idolatry, and then we look at our own lives and we realize that there's probably very few real Christians out there who have thought to themselves, Rather than worship Jesus above all else, I really want to idolize money or sex or food. And yet, we all fall into that so quickly and so easily. So the question is, Is it really wise to emphasize the idea of enjoying God's good gifts when we're all so prone to that self-deception and idolatry? Wouldn't it be better to lean towards the idea of, as you mentioned, a kind of an asceticism—a putting away of these earthly pleasures so that we can focus better on Christ?
I think that's definitely been a tendency in the history of the church. I think that many of the great theologians prior to the Reformation were all monks. That monastic, ascetic tendency is certainly there in Augustine and others. I think one danger of it—very clearly and biblically—is that to treat God's good creation as though it was a bad thing is, according to Paul, the teaching of demons. In Colossians 2 he talks about the kind of asceticism that was packaged with a bunch of other stuff—angel worship and things—but it was a do not handle, do not taste, do not touch kind of approach to the Christian life. And he says, “but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23). He says that kind of full-on asceticism is a dead end. That doesn't mean that certain kinds of asceticism, or a certain bent, is demonic or ineffective; but it does mean that there is a way—and it's a way that's in the Bible and that shows up frequently in the church—that that's a dead end. Then the flip side is you're never going to thin creation out enough. If your goal is I need to thin out my enjoyment of earthly goods, somebody can always go thinner. Then you end as one of the monks living on a pillar in the middle of the Egyptian desert, and people are running up moldy bread to you and some water. Even that guy is still going to feel like, But could I do a little bit more? I think the danger there is that it is really a rejection of creation as creation, and not simply a rejection of idolatry or false enjoyment. We're commanded everywhere in the Scriptures to be grateful. Be grateful for what? Is it merely the spiritual blessings? No, it's grateful always, and for everything. All of the things you need to say thank you for. One of the chapters in Strangely Bright is basically a look at the early chapters of Genesis where we see God sort of lavishing his creatures with relational pleasures—Adam and Eve and through the pleasures that we have in relationship with each other; physical pleasures—all the pleasure we take in with our senses; and then vocational pleasures—he gives them a job, he gives him a mission: Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, guard the garden. So those three—physical pleasures, relational pleasures, and the vocational pleasures—that's God's intent. That's how humanity was meant to live—in the body and with bodies engaging in the world that God made. Then we distorted it, but we need to get back to the goodness underneath it, not simply pretend like we can escape the bodily dimension here. That's a big part of it. Yes, idolatry danger certainly is real; but the Biblical answer is never a pure and simple rejection of creation. That's the Gnostic answer, and it doesn't work because no matter what you do, you're still going to be a human being in a body until you die. And then when you're raised from the dead, you're going to have a body again. And so our goal ought to be to try to live faithfully as embodied creatures in time and space surrounded by all kinds of pleasures that are meant to be signposts or sunbeams that lead us back to the sun. To the degree that they do that, we ought to receive them and welcome them. To the self-deception question, this is where God has given us a number of tools and means to keep us on the path. That's everything from Scripture itself—which warns us and speaks to us clearly in our fallen state and identifies, Watch out for this; watch out for that; don't believe this lie—to our use of Scripture—meditating on the law of the Lord day and night—prayer, personal devotions. Corporate worship is kind of an anchor point for our week in the same way that personal devotions is an anchor point for our day that are designed to kind of root us in God is more important than everything. And then having anchored ourselves, it's now go live—tethered to the truth, but go live. This is where our lives of self-denial are good. For example, there are times when you should deny yourself good things for the sake of ultimate things. And then generosity—are you a hoarder? Do you just take and take and take and then sit on it and enjoy it for yourself, or do you receive what you receive and then seek to do good and to love others? And then suffering. If all else fails, God will do Job on you. The sufferings that we experience in this life are designed to really put our confession to the test. Do you really mean it when you say, The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life? Let me take all the things away, and do you still say, He's enough? So God mercifully gives us voluntary tests like self-denial and generosity, and then involuntary tests like suffering, affliction, persecution even and says, These are what's going to help keep Christ at the center of your enjoyment of all the other stuff.
How Things of Earth Can Grow Strangely Bright
The title of your new book is Strangely Bright, and I believe that's a riff on some words from the classic hymn “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.” I just want to read a couple of the lines:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace
The hymn says “strangely dim,” the title of your book is Strangely Bright. Why are you picking a fight with a beloved hymn that many people resonate with? What are you getting at with that little tweak?
Yep, I am picking a fight. The reason is because there's an ambiguity, and the ambiguity actually, I think, lies in the phrase “things of earth.” That was the name of my original book. The relation between these books is that Things of Earth is a much larger book, and Strangely Bright is a smaller, more accessible book. It's the kind of book that I hope someone who doesn't read a lot could read and get through. But the message of them is very similar, and that's why the titles coordinate that way. But the ambiguity of the phrase “the things of earth” is if we mean worldly things, if we mean sinful things—things that are enjoyed wrongly—then yes, they go dim. Sin loses its luster when Jesus shows up. But there's another way in which that can sound like when Jesus shows up, my joy in my wife diminishes. Like, I don't enjoy my kids as much because Jesus is here. I just don't think that's true. I doubt that Helen Lemmel—the hymn writer—I doubt that she intended—maybe she did—to say that legitimate delights in things of earth, like my kids, lose their luster when Jesus shows up. I suspect she meant sinful things, and I want to say Amen to that. But I think when we hear the hymn, it's easy to then absorb this mentality that if all of the good things in my life—and I accent families and friends because I think it brings in sharp relief—if those aren't constantly diminishing in their importance to me, then I must not be growing and godliness. I must not be living in the light of his glorious face. So I wanted to say no, what actually happens is that when you look at Jesus, the things of earth—family, friends, good things—they grow brighter because they become for you what they were intended to be, which is reflections of God's character and goodness and love and kindness to you. They shine brighter because you're now seeing God in them in a way that you weren't before Jesus showed up. And so that's the riff. It is clever, and it is intended to be provocative. It's a good way to try to surprisingly hit that note in the soul that asks Do I have a low-grade guilt that I live with because I really love my family? In Psalm 36 David prays, “in your light do we see light” (Ps. 36:9). So there's this notion that in the light of God, other things are brightened; other things are illuminated; other things take on a new light. Jonathan Edwards said that when he became converted, everything else changed. There was a sweetness in everything else—in the sunrise, in a walk through the woods, in his family—that everything had a different tinge because he had a new heart and he was tasting something in all of the things that he hadn't been tasting before. And that's what I'm trying to get at is that they grow strangely sweet, strangely bright. There's a quality about them that's different because the new heart sees more in the things of earth than it did before.
I think we all can resonate with both sides of that. On the one hand, feeling such joy and enjoyment in so many of the things that God has given us—the good, tangible things in our lives; but then we also maybe personally have struggled with this, or have seen others struggle. There's this idea that the more mature a Christian is, the more focused on Christ and on the spiritual realities and the spiritual gifts that we have from God, and then stoicism with regard to the things of earth—the things that we're dealing with on a regular basis. I wonder if that comes into particular relief when it comes to the way that we grieve loss. That seems like the flip side of this: we enjoy God's good gifts, but then we also can lose those good gifts for various reasons, whether that's the loss of a spouse or a child to death or sickness, or we lose abilities that we once had. Can you speak to the Christian who maybe is tempted to think that the mature Christian way to respond to loss is some kind of stoicism—the quick response of, Well, but I still have Jesus, and I have a hope in the future, so this is okay.
That's one of the main animating things in the book, actually. My dad died back in 2013 after a long fight with Dementia and Parkinson's. I miss my dad. How you think about the things of earth will affect how you grieve. Whether or not you think, like you said, I need to sort of take it like a “Christian Hedonist”—which means I don't feel it. Because I'm so satisfied in God, the loss of this earthly relationship is no big deal. If that's what our spirituality produces, I think it's deeply inhuman. It's not acknowledging the kind of being that God made us to be, and it's not faithful to the Bible. When you look at the way that biblical characters grieve, you never see stoicism in the Bible. When Job loses his kids, he tears his clothes and falls on the ground and just weeps and just sits there in agony. And we know he's not sinning and charging God with wrong, he's not blaming God; but he's feeling it deeply. Why? This is a quotation I picked up somewhere: It hurts as much as it's worth. If your car breaks down, that hurts. It's a nuisance. It's going to be trouble. But if you lose a child, if you lose your dad, it hurts as much as it's worth. So, how much is it worth? If you've conditioned yourself over time to think, Well, the only thing that's valuable is God, and creation has zero value whatsoever, then you can't grieve because you wouldn't be valuing things according to their value. But if these things are meant to lead us to God, then they're incredibly valuable. Therefore, the loss of them is meant to be felt deeply as the flip side of joy. Joy is what we feel when the good thing is here, and then sorrow is what we feel when the good thing is lost. And so whether it's Job, whether it's David crying out again and again over all of the loss that he faces . . . I think my favorite, and the most encouraging on this, is Jesus with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He takes Lazarus, and he deliberately refuses to go because he loved them. He gets there, and Martha comes out to meet him and says, If you had been here, he would be alive. And Mary can't even come out to see Jesus. I wonder if she was angry at Jesus because she knows if Jesus would have been there, he would not have died. Then finally Mary comes out and she says the same thing: If you had been here, he would not have died. And then they weep, and then Jesus goes to the tomb, and then Jesus weeps. It's five minutes before he's about to bring Lazarus back from the grave; why is he weeping? Why isn't he just kind of going, Wait and see. Because it's deeply human to feel the loss, and he's identifying with the loss that Mary and Martha have experienced, and then he's about to show them that nothing good is ever finally lost—we get it back. And so I think it is important to understand that the low-grade guilt that we feel when we enjoy things can carry over into a more insidious kind of guilt that we might feel when we grieve deeply the loss of something. We feel like, I must not be loving God enough. I must not be satisfied in God enough if I'm crying and if I can't get out of bed because I just lost my baby. I just think that's unbiblical and that's not godly and we shouldn't want that. There is a way to have a deep confidence that God is enough, even in the sorrow, and to not curse God, but to bless God and to worship through your tears; and yet, to wail and to weep and to be absolutely devastated by loss. That's, again, the flip side—that's all bound up with how you regard the “all things.” The supremacy of God in all things means when all things—especially the precious ones—are lost, you cry your eyes out.
Joe, thank you so much for helping us to hopefully see a little bit more clearly what that faithfulness looks like and, as you said, helping to press into the corners of our lives this idea of Christian Hedonism that is so foundational to how we understand and read the Bible and understand our lives as believers. We appreciate you taking the time.
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