A Theology of Satisfaction

Three things are never satisfied; four never say, “Enough”: Sheol, the barren womb, the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, “Enough.” (Proverbs 30:15-16 ESV)

Human beings are insatiable creatures. We were created this way. We were created with the infinite capacity to experience pleasure. The more pleasure we experience, the greater our capacity for pleasure grows. Our souls burn like a fire that never says, “Enough!” This is clearly evident in our physical appetites. Today, I will grow hungry and thirsty. I will eat and drink water. Yet, my hunger and thirst will return. There is not one food or drink that will forever satisfy my hunger or thirst. The same can be seen in other physical desires. A man will desire the body of his wife. They make love, but the desire will return. No newly married man looks at his wife on the second night and says, “I’m still good from the previous night.” Instead, his desire for her has only grown. The body grows tired each evening, inducing sleep. Yet, the next day’s activities again end in sleep. There is no amount of sleep that can satisfy our need. Desires always return. And we were curiously created this way.

Too often, desire is shunned within the Church. We can accurately pinpoint the source of our cultural rot. Pornography. Murder. Rape. Abuse. Theft. Corruption. The Church has rightly observed that these all stem from desire. As each of these vices is preached against from the pulpits across America, what is subtly (and most likely unintentionally) communicated is that ALL desire is bad and should be avoided. A passionless moralism, a Christianized version of Stoicism, is often what flows from our pulpits. We fight against and attempt to kill what God intended for our good, for our pleasure. Yet, if desire is good, if desire was given to us by Creator God, why does pursuing these desires led to such destruction? Our problem is not our pursuit of desire, but rather in the means we seek to lay hold of it.

When cancer grows in the body, the tumor that masses is due to an over-production of cells. Normally, as cells are unneeded, they simply die. When cancer forms, those cells have forgotten how to die. They have become inordinate. They feed on the body’s resources, growing and growing until death results. The moment a man seeks to fulfill his infinite capacity for pleasure with finite things, those desires become inordinate. The moment that gifts of finite pleasure replace the God, who is infinite pleasure, those desires become malignant.

What we need is a theology of satisfaction. We need to understand our desires in light of the Story that God is telling and not the small stories that we are trying to tell. We need God to define the good. For if we try to define what is good, what is true, we will fall into putting on our old self, along with it’s deceitful desires (Ephesians 4:17-24). I love how Paul calls our desires deceitful. Because without God defining our desires, they are deceitful. If there is no God, then the logical thing to do is live for my desires. Without God, reality is only as big my own longings. But God has not left us to grope in the darkness. He has defined our desires. He has defined where we are to seek satisfaction for that infinite capacity for pleasure. It is the cross that defines our desires. It is Christ alone that has the infinite resources to satisfy our infinite capacity.

Towards the end of his letter to the Philippians, Paul helps us see exactly this. In probably the most famous and most misunderstood verse in all of Philippians, Paul states emphatically, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). I am quite sure that at this moment, you can find this verse stamped on coffee mugs and plaques that line the shelves of Christian bookstores across the country. Yet, this is no cute, throw-away verse that brings morning motivation. What Paul is communicating here is that he has found the secret to living a content life. The secret is that in Christ Jesus, Paul has limitless resources and pleasure. Since Paul views his finite desires through the lens of Christ’s resources, they do not become inordinate. The desires remain in check, under control. Paul knows how to face being in need. He knows how to face having plenty. Paul is not controlled by his finite desires. He is controlled by his one infinite desire and that is to know Christ (Phil. 3:8-11).

You see, this is the end of our infinite capacity for pleasure. It is to be met by one who has infinite resources with which to satisfy the ever growing joy. Heaven will be one day after another of increasing joy in the presence God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why were created to experience infinite joy. We were created for Heaven. We were created for God.

~sdg

We Risk So Little

I risk almost nothing for my faith. And if you live in the West, you probably don’t either. I have been thinking a lot about risk and my faith as of late. I have been praying for an imprisoned brother in Afghanistan. He was being threatened with death if he did not recant his Christian faith. He was able to smuggle a letter out of his dingy prison cell. He told of beatings, sexual abuse and threats of death.

Thankfully, we learned this past week that he was freed after international pressure. His name is Said (or Sayed) Musa. This is a man who risked everything for his faith. And he is a hero of mine. Because Said knows something that we here in the West struggle to believe. Said knows (and knows it to the depths of his soul) that Christ is a greater treasure. Life, family, possessions, land are all negotiable. Christ is not.

As my BFG has been studying through Philippians, one of the more heavy and convicting portions of Paul’s letter is his personal testimony that comes in chapter 3. After strongly mocking and condemning the Judaizers, Paul begins to tear down the very thing that they trusted in; the very thing they found their identity in. Paul destroys confidence in the flesh. If anyone could boast in his accomplishments and his bloodline, it was Paul. Yet, we find him disdaining his accomplishments, his bloodline. We find him joyously throwing it all away, that he might gain Christ, that in the last day, Paul might present before the Father a righteousness that was not his own, but that was given to him in Christ. Paul knew the same thing Said knows. Christ is worth everything. In fact, if family, possessions, country or anything stand in the way of gaining Christ, they must be rejected. They are refuse. Dung. Waste.

When we refuse to risk it all, what we do is clutch onto a bag of crap when we’re being offered the world. We smear it all over our faces, wear it with pride. We yell the loudest that our crap smells the worst. What we need to do is take a shower and take out the trash. Why do we wallow in such filth? How is that we have convinced ourselves that this is good? Well, when all you see is people holding onto their bags of crap, comparing and contrasting the color, smell and texture, it’s easy to think this is normal. This is not normal. Boasting in our self is not the way it is supposed to be. The Church is supposed to be the place where this new reality, the true reality,  is displayed. And in the hard and dark places of the word, the Church is displaying it by standing firm with full courage.

After learning of Said’s release, we learned that there is another brother, Shoaib Assadullah, who faces the same fate from which Said was rescued. His crime is giving a Bible to another man. The man who received the Bible turned in Shoaib. He has refused to recant. He is holding out for something better than the bag of crap that’s been taken from him.

I wonder…would we, westerners, do the same?

~sdg

Stoics in the Pews

Bust of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was an adherent to Stoicism

Right now my Bible Fellowship Group is going through the book of Philippians. I love this book. The way the Gospel permeates each theme and how Paul masterfully weaves it into every day life is brilliantly life-changing. We are at the point in our study where all the different themes Paul has mentioned are being brought together. Philippians 4:8-9 will be our text this Sunday.

In order to prepare properly for this week’s lesson, I quickly discovered that I was going to have to do some extra reading. Paul was not just listing random virtuous characteristics to which he wanted the Philippians to conform. No, Paul is engaging in a little contextualization by borrowing terms and ideas from the popular moral philosophy of the day: Stoicism.

I had a general idea about what Stoics believed (something about controlling emotions…hence our English word “stoic”), but in my reading, what I discovered was that despite this moral philosophy being over two millennia old, it’s over-arching view of reality (dare I say it’s metanarrative) still holds much weight in our world. What I discovered fascinated me, but also caused me to pause. I paused because I fear our church pews are filled with Stoics.

A quick and dirty summary of what the Stoics believed was that there is an absolute reality, a divine reason (the logos) that governs the world. Stoics were deterministic, meaning that they believed life was pre-determined for them. The goal of man was to discover and live inline with the plan of the logos. This is the highest virtue and the path to happiness. Self-control was highly valued. For to be consumed by emotions (anger, lust, envy, etc.), was to cloud your understanding of the logos. And if you didn’t understand and live in line with the logos, you would suffer. Suffering was to be avoided at all cost, because suffering said something about you. Either you were ignorant of the logos, or rebelling against the logos. The Stoic believed that it was only the virtuous man who was free. The wicked man was a slave. He desired things contrary to the logos. One stoic described the wicked man as dog tied to a cart, forced to go where ever the cart went. But the virtuous man had bent his will inline with the logos. Thus his will was the same as the logos.

It was at this point that I was utterly fascinated and utterly concerned. I was fascinated, because the parallels to Christianity are so close. They got some things right. But as the old cliché goes, close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades. I became utterly concerned because, since the Stoic view is so very close to Christianity, many who fill the pews each Sunday morning have bought into this way of thinking and living without ever realizing it. They have been conformed to this world and think they’re conforming to Christ.

This stoicism manifests itself in two ways in the modern day church. The first is in the pursuit of the mysterious will of God. This past fall, I had the privilege of leading a small group discussion on the book Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung. The book was dealing with the modern fascination when it comes to God’s will. The fascination borders on obsession to the point of paralyzation. We desire so much to do God’s will that choices become almost an impossible burden. Who you marry, what college and major, where you live and attend church become unbearable weights that crush us into doing nothing or changing our mind every other day. Because if you pick the wrong thing, you have just missed God’s best. You will be less happy because you somehow missed the mysterious will of God. This mindset wreaks of Stoicism like two-week old guacamole in the trash can (someone remind me to take out my trash later). Our Stoicism goes even deeper. The Stoics preached self-discipline to avoid the hazy understanding of the logos that emotions brought and some Christians will preach the exact same thing. Moralism becomes a means by which we get from God that which we want. We believe that moral living is in line with God and to know his will more clearly, we must live morally. Yet, the Gospel paints a much different picture.  The will of God is not mysterious (at least his will of desire or will of command). How we are to live is quite clear. God did not leave us groping for what it means to live in harmony with Him. Instead, He acted. He intervened. Jesus came, lived a life we could not live, died a death we should have died and has brought us into harmony with the Father. Do you want to live in harmony with the over-arching reality of this world? Embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For there is no other way to achieve it. Moral effort will bring no greater clarity. Moral effort will not bring you happiness. Moral effort will only deepen the brokenness of your relationship with God of the universe. The great paradox of the Christian Gospel is that only in abandoning moral effort as a means to salvation will you become a moral person. The abandonment of self is the only way to save self. The Gospel undermines and overthrows Stoic notions of living in line with the logos.

The second way  Stoicism manifests itself in the church is in regards to suffering. Too many Christians have embraced the idea that if they live a moral life or go to church every Sunday or read their Bible on occasion, they have obliged God to bless them. They are living in harmony with the logos. Therefore they ought to be blessed, to be happy, to be wealthy. Yet, they find themselves suffering. They find that the more they try to perform, the harder that life gets. Before long, they can take it no more. They go before the throne of God and vomit up complaint after complaint. They grumble, they murmur, they question the value of their fidelity to Him. All the while, they prove themselves aligned not with the reality that governs this world, but with a counter-reality. They are aligned on the side of the serpent, just as their fore-fathers were in the wilderness. Again, the Gospel teaches us something completely different. Suffering is not a sign that we are somehow out of line with the Father. No, sometimes suffering is the very mark of being completely in line with the Father. The greatest example of this is the passion of Jesus. The passion here refers to his suffering and death. Passion is what the Stoics refused. It is what they ran from with all their might. Yet, Jesus, Son of God,  the very Logos Himself, embraces His passion. For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, despising it’s shame. Those who love the Gospel are those who embrace their suffering. Because to lose one’s life is the only way to gain it again. We fear not death, for we will be raised again, just as Jesus was resurrected on the third day. Self-sacrifice, not self-discipline becomes the priority.

What I find so brilliantly life-changing about Philippians 4:8, is that Paul clearly understood that there is only one thing that can kill the little Stoic that lives in all of us. That one thing is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dwelling on it’s depth, it’s width, it’s height is a task for which we will be engaged for all of eternity, for it will continue to surpass our understanding. We will never exhaust the Gospel. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has worked such a marvelous salvation on our behalf.

 

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
(Philippians 4:8 ESV)
~sdg