Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
In last week's sermon, Pastor John asked the question, “Why did God make this world?” by which he meant a world with a glorious beginning, a horrific fall, a history of Israel, the incarnation of the Son of God, a substitutionary death, a triumphant resurrection, the founding and history of the global church and its mission. His answer was that the world exists for the glory of God’s grace revealed in the saving work of Jesus.
This sermon might be thought of as an extension and filling-out of last week’s sermon. I want to ask the same question, “Why did God create this world?” But I want to ask why God made this world filled as it is with good friends, chicken manicotti, the laughter of children, West Texas sunsets, Dr. Pepper, marital love, and the warmth of wool socks? In other words, why did God make this world for the glory of his grace displayed in the cross, and then fill it to the brim with all of these other pleasures—sensible pleasures, physical pleasures, emotional pleasures, relational pleasures? If God made the world for his infinite glory, then what’s with all of the stuff? A related question is the practical one: How do we live in this world, created for the glory of God, and filled with wonderful and fantastic realities that have the potential to be competitors with him?
This problem is particularly acute for those of us who have embraced a passion for God’s supremacy in all things. We feel the tension between “the supremacy of God” and the “all things,” resulting in a web of practical and pastoral challenges in how we live and function in this world. Let me describe this web of struggles and challenges:
- I mean the low-grade guilt that we feel because we aren’t loving and enjoying God “enough,” or because we are loving and enjoying the gifts “too much.”
- I mean the attempt detach from God’s gifts out of fear of idolatry, lest our love for them surpass our affection for God. Or perhaps instead of detachment, we are simply suspicious of created things, warily looking at our delight and pleasure in hot dish and ice cream and softball and hugs from our loved ones, lest they become too precious to us.
- I mean the sense that we have that as we progress in holiness, our enjoyment of fresh raspberries and driving along the St. Croix River and an evening of games and laughter with old friends ought to diminish, because we are becoming increasingly satisfied in God alone.
We feel the tension between our love for God and our love for his gifts experientially. We want to be faithful Christians: God-centered, Christ-exalting, cross-focused, gospel-driven, and yet we live in a world that is inundated with potent gifts that can distract us from these glorious realities. We know that God is infinitely valuable, that our family and friends and food are finite, and therefore, we feel that there ought to be a larger gap between our love for them and our love for him. So we can attempt to suppress our joy in created things so that they don’t compete and get in the way of our love for God.
This experiential tension is heightened by the presence of totalizing texts in the Bible like Psalm 73:25: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And on earth there is nothing I desire besides you.” We read this and it jars with what we read in 1 Timothy 6:17: “[Set your hope] on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” Should we enjoy everything that God richly provides? Or should we only desire God? Or to make it more specific: On the one hand, I’m called to love my wife and my children, and to honor my parents. On the other hand, Jesus tells me that unless I hate my wife and children and father and mother, I cannot be his disciple.
So that’s the experiential and biblical and practical tension that we face because we live in this world. Let me just say that I fully anticipate that there will be more questions after this sermon than there are right now. So set your expectations accordingly, and let’s try to take one or two steps forward together.
Before turning to Genesis 2, I want to set up the problem with some reflections on the Greatest Commandment in Mark 12:30. “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
Here we are commanded to love God fully. All of our heart. All of our soul. All of our mind. All of our strength. Couple this with the first commandment (“You shall have no other gods before me”), and we are commanded to love God supremely and fully. Full love. Supreme love. And I would add, expanding love. “May your love abound more and more,” Paul prays in Philippians 1:9.
Given the call to a full and supreme and expanding love for God, what then is left over for creation? If we leave it all on the field, if we love God with all we’ve got, how should we relate to everything that is not God? Won’t any enjoyment of God’s gifts compete with and decrease our full and supreme love for God? Is love for God and love for his gifts a zero-sum game?
Now let’s turn to Genesis 2 and see what we can see. The first thing to notice is that the beauty and goodness and lavishness of creation is God's idea. The trees are described as pleasant to the sight and good for food. Then God says, “You may eat from every tree, except that one.” One “No” in a world full of yes. Beautiful trees, tasty fruit, a party in your mouth—and it’s all for you, with divine endorsement.
The second thing to see is in Genesis 2:18: "It's not good that man should live alone." Five and a half days of “And God saw that it was good,” and now “not good.” God sees something missing, a gap in his creation that must be filled. But let’s just start with the obvious. When God says that it’s not good for man to be alone, it would have been entirely inappropriate for Adam to say, “What do you mean ‘alone?’ I have you, God.” That’s absolutely true, and completely beside the point.
Adam’s solitude (even with God as his companion) is a defect, and God in his goodness acts to remedy this lack. Note this: God acts. God meets the need. God gives life and breath and all things (including companionship). But God has designed us so that he would meet some of our needs through other people. We ought not dispute with God on this point. There’s no virtue in being more spiritual than he is here. Infinite wisdom directed him to mediate his all-satisfying presence to us through suitable created companions. (And though the focus of the passage is marriage, don’t limit the application to marital love. God meets our need for companionship in a myriad of ways, including family and friends and roommates and co-workers).
And note that word “suitable.” God is not content with any old companion. He will provide a helper “fit” for man. Elephants are impressive, but they aren’t a good fit. Bunnies are cute, but not as companions. A dog may be man’s best friend, but God will not rest until he’s exceeded loyalty and slobber. And if a suitable helper cannot be found among the living creatures, then God will build a new one.
Genesis 2:23 are the first recorded human words in the Scriptures. Adam had spoken previously (naming the animals and presumably, conversing with God). But we have not heard his voice until now: “Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man’” (Genesis 2:23).
Adam is a poet, and his first recorded words are a poem, an encomium, a hymn of praise … whose object is another creature. Let the significance of this land on you. This is before the Fall. There is no sin here. Only full and supreme and expanding love for God. Adam wakes up and gazes up his new companion, and out of the overflow of the heart, his mouth speaks. He gazes on his bride in all her glory and without a shred of idolatry composes an ode to her.
“You come from me, but you are not me. Your bones were built from my bones. Your flesh was cut from my flesh. We are alike, but different. We are the same, but sundered. God has torn me in two, only to put me together again. He removed from me a rib so that he might return it with interest. He put me in a death-like sleep so that he could raise me up from one degree of glory to another. This is isshah (Woman) because you were taken out of ish (Man).”
So here’s the point. What does full and supreme and expanding love for God look like when it meets one of his gifts? Glad reception and enjoyment of his gifts. Delight in Eve is what full and supreme love for God looks like when it meets Eve. Grateful enjoyment of fish tacos is what supreme love for God looks like when it eats fish tacos. Robust pleasure in church softball is what supreme love for God looks like when it plays church softball. Delight in people and love for people is what supreme and full and expanding love for God looks like when it meets people. How can you love God whom you’ve not seen, if you don’t love people whom you have seen (1 John 4:20)?
1) What about sin and the danger of idolatry? Doesn’t that wreck this type of enjoyment of God’s gifts for God’s sake? Don’t we have to be more careful?
Yes, we do. Sin is real and deadly. Romans 1 tells us that there are two fundamental sins committed by human beings in our rebellion: idolatry and ingratitude. We do not honor God as God and we do not give thanks. Idolatry and ingratitude, and these two go together. We refuse to say thank you for the gifts, and then we elevate the gifts above the Giver and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator.
So the danger of idolatry is real and pervasive in a fallen world, but when we’re born again, God flips both of those on their heads. God is placed at the center of our affections, and so we honor God as God. And because we honor God as God, we are free to gratefully receive God’s gifts as gifts, and not as gods. In other words, a supreme and full and expanding love for God orients our affections and orders our desires and integrates our loves. My experience is that glad reception and enjoyment of God’s gifts and gratitude to him for those gifts actually serves to increase my love for God and adoration of God. I plunge headlong into the ocean of his gifts and when I come up for air, I’m singing like never before. My heart is soaring in gratitude and worship and adoration to the God who gives such good gifts to his children.
So the answer to the first question is “Yes, idolatry is a real and present danger, even for Christians, but that detachment from gifts is not the best way to guard our hearts against it.” The better way is to receive gladly and enjoy all that God richly provides to us and then to give thanks and worship and adore the Father of Lights, who gives us 10,000 good and perfect gifts.
2) What about the totalizing texts? What about “There is nothing on earth I desire—not wife, not children, not friends, not cheesecake, not ultimate frisbee—nothing I desire besides you?”
My suggestion is that the Bible provides us with two complementary ways of viewing God’s relationship to his gifts. The first is a comparative approach, in which God and his gifts are separated and set next to each other to determine which is more valuable. And if they’re separated in that way, then the only right answer is that God has all value and creation is dust on the scales. “There is nothing I desire beside you.”
The second might be termed the integrated approach, in which God and his gifts are enjoyed together, so that we don’t separate them or set them over against each other. When we love God supremely, we are free to love creation as creation (as gift, and not as God). Because the God’s goodness is really present in his gifts, we are free to enjoy them deeply for his sake. God’s gifts become avenues for enjoying him, beams of glory that we chase back to the source. We don’t set God and his gifts in opposition to each other, as though they are rivals. Instead, in the words of Charles Simeon, we “enjoy God in everything and everything in God.” Enjoyment of God’s gifts serves and enhances our love for God by creating mental categories and emotional frameworks for engaging and delighting in God himself.
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.—Proverbs 24:13–14
Why did God make honey so tasty and sweet? So that we would have some idea what wisdom was like. 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. We savor the sweetness of honey or sweet tea or cheesecake as a means of creating new categories for our enjoyment of God and his wisdom.
But this means that 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 are to obey the biblical exhortation to “Know that wisdom is such to your soul,” we must first “eat honey, for it is good.”
The result is that we love God with all of our expanded mind and all of our enlarged heart and all of our fattened soul and all of our increased strength.
Supreme love for God serves and enhances our enjoyment of his gifts. They are mutually beneficial. “Turn your eyes upon Jesus / Look full in his wonderful face / And the things of earth will grow strangely dim…” No! They grow bright. The song makes it sound like in the light of his face my wife and my kids and my burrito get dim and dull and dusty. No, they get better! They get more glorious in the light of his face. A full look at Jesus makes all of his gifts come alive. Now I know what the gifts are for.
God knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. He made us that way. Our finitude and limitations and bodies are not barriers to him. They were his idea. He designed this world full of glory and pleasures to communicate his fullness, and then he designed us as creatures in time, in space, in bodies, with limits, and perfectly suited to receive his goodness and glory as he mediates it to us in 10,000 ways.
So then how do we relate these two approaches to each other? My suggestion is that we should seek to live integrated lives (enjoying God in everything and enjoying everything in God) and we use the comparative separation as a test to ensure that our integration hasn’t become idolatry.
I love my father and my mother and delight in them for God’s sake. But what if they forsake me? Then the Lord will take me in, and he’ll be enough (Psalm 27:10). What if my friends fail me and abandon me? Then the Lord will stand by me and strengthen me, just like he did Paul in 2 Timothy 4:17. What if my children are struck down in the prime of life? Then I will say with Job, the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
3) What about the loss of good gifts? Doesn’t that undermine the integration that you’re talking about?
We could talk about the voluntary loss of good gifts (generosity in the cause of love), but I’ll focus on the involuntary loss, when God takes away something very precious to us. My dad is 67 years old and in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. He no longer recognizes me nor makes coherent sense when he speaks. For the past seven years, I’ve watched him die slowly, from a distance. I’ve gone home a few times each year and there’s less and less of my father there. It’s horrific to watch someone you love go like that. And I’ve no doubt that it’s far worse on my mom, who has been there every step of the way as her husband and best friend has died.
It’s silly to compare degrees of suffering. But I have a sense that as horrible as it is to lose a parent, or sibling, or spouse, or a close friend, the worst would be the loss of a child. Some of you are in that situation right now. I have a good enough imagination to know the sorts of things that I would be feeling if I something were to happen to one of my boys. So here’s what I would say to a father who was watching his son die.
I take it as a given that Christ is supreme for you and your wife. I know that he’s your treasure and your life. I know that faith in him runs deep in your bones, that your love for him is at the core of who you are. And I can imagine that your love for God and trust in his sovereignty produces questions like, “If God is taking our son to himself, is it okay for me to want to keep our little one in my arms for as long as possible? Am I resisting God in some way if my desire for my son is real and so intense and so undeniable, and yet it is so clear that God is taking my baby from me?”
So I just wanted to affirm that, given the deep reality of your supreme and full love for God, your love for your dying son cannot be too intense. It is impossible for you to feel too deeply for him, for you to want to hold him too much, for you to long for his health and happiness with too much fervor.
Let me say it again: You cannot love your son too much. This is because, as you’ve said to me over and over again, he is a gift to you. God has given him to you, as a gift, and you are receiving him as a gift. Your son is a work of God, an expression of God’s glory and grace and love, and one that is customized for you and your family. You can only love him wrongly if you love him in place of God. But if you receive him as a gift from God, in all of his wonder and beauty and sweetness and fragility, then you cannot love him too much or prize him too highly, and you should feel no shred of guilt because you love him as you do and long for his health and desperately want to cling to him and know him and spend time with him.
So I just want to encourage you and your wife to plunge headlong into the gift. Savor every moment with that baby. Touch him, hold him, caress him, let the love that you feel for him surge through you. Let it provoke you to tears and sadness and the intensity of that gut-wrenching feeling that you would do absolutely anything to make your son healthy and happy and whole. Let your love for your little boy take you beyond the pain and sorrow to the indestructible joy of the God who gives good gifts and is not threatened by them.
It’s as if God is saying to you, “You don’t know how intense my love is for you, how deep my affections are for you. So I’m going to show you. I’m going to stretch your heart to the breaking point. It will feel like you are dying. But if you go with me, into the love, into the pain, into the sorrow and longing and desire, then when all is said and done, you will know that ‘as a father has compassion on his children, so does the Lord have compassion on you.’”
So if you are awash in a sea of God’s gifts, dive in and savor all that there is to savor in the gifts as a means of expanding your mind and heart to know God more deeply. Receive God’s gifts gladly, give thanks for them, and then be as generous with others as God has been with you, sharing the abundance that God has supplied. And if you are in the midst of losing something or someone precious to you, don’t detach. Press in. God is your only comfort and he is present in your loss in ways that you cannot fathom if you run from the desire and the longing and the pain.
All you have is Christ ...
- whether you have him in all the good gifts that he lavishes on you
- or whether you have him in all the gifts that you gladly receive and then freely give away in the cause of love
- or whether you only have him the loss of everything that is precious to you.
May the Father of Lights, who knows how to give good gifts to his children, teach you the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need, being brought low or being raised up. May he grant you the grace to do all good things, receive all good things, lose all good things, and endure all hard things through Christ who gives you strength.