The Life of the Party
By John Crowder
(adapted from John Crowder's book Money.Sex.Beer.God., available HERE)
God is pro pleasure. Mankind was created to dwell in the bliss of God’s presence in Eden. Eden literally means pleasure or voluptuous living.[i] God walked with Adam in the garden in the cool of the day, which in Hebrew is ruach (walking in the delight of His Spirit).[ii] Humanity was not created for depression, toil and the curse of a fallen world. Deep within, humanity longs for the ultimate satisfaction for which we were created – to drink of those rivers of pleasure that flow from His side forevermore (Psalm 36:8, Gen. 2:10). Religionists have wrongly attributed the desire for pleasure to the sinful nature. But the sinful nature was that fallen Adamic delusion that we could find ultimate satisfaction outside of God. Christians have often viewed the heathen world chasing after gratification and thus concluded that the pursuit of happiness is inherently wrong.
Furthermore it is often stated that the believer should attempt to crucify and kill off his appetite for pleasure. But the heathen also have noses on their faces. Does that mean we should cut off our noses? No there is a God-shaped hole in the heart of every man that cannot be quenched. Any number of legalisms and attempts to suppress it only cause a perversion of those appetites and cause sin to increase (Rom. 5:20).
“But be sure that human feelings can never be completely stifled. If they are forbidden their normal course, like a river they will cut another channel through the life and flow out to curse and ruin and destroy,” writes A.W. Tozer. [iii]
People unknowingly pursue drugs, materialism, substance abuse and promiscuity in a misguided chase to recapture this lost sense of satisfaction that only the presence of God can provide – something man inherently remembers from the garden. Sin offers any number of momentary indulgences that are followed by devastation to health and homes, ending in broken families, poverty, suicide and destruction for future generations. There are countless billboards offering the promise of satisfaction in this world, but if you are going to be a real hedonist – a true pleasure seeker – you must inevitably embrace Jesus. He is the fountainhead of all delight. “Christ arrived as the high priest of the bliss that was to be…” (Heb. 9:11, James Moffatt Translation)
But here is where Pandora’s box of confusion lays waste to our fragmented minds in the attempt to partition off our natural world existence apart from our spirituality. While mouthing the words “God is good” we foster a lingering suspicion that He is not authentically good by our own definition of the word (perhaps “good for us” like cough medicine, but not in the sense of ecstatic everlasting delight). Our contorted view that God is intrinsically against us is bolstered by innumerable religious fears that He is the supreme Ego who cannot be supplicated, demands retribution and sits far away aloof and non-sympathetic to our day-to-day existence. We project our own fears, condemnation and human hatred onto our image of Him, essentially inventing a caricatured entity of G.O.D. Inc. which is a distant spectre of a deity who cannot possibly relate to our real-time joys of living. Don’t make me come down there!
Our fallen minds have contrived a division between God and ourselves. Invented a concept of an ethereal, unrelatable deity who cannot possibly empathize with our temporal needs and wants because He is essentially unnatural … a disembodied, incorporeal spook. When we fell away from God, we wrongly assumed that He fell away from us.
Over several millennia, the fallen Adamic mind perfected its own detailed theology that God is over there, and I am over here. The foundational doctrine of the fall of Adam is the concept of separation from God. This idea was profoundly developed and flourished in early Greek philosophy, which has influenced and permeated Christian theology in the Western world for nearly 2,000 years.
Incarnation vs. Greek Dualism
The incarnation is a monumental shift in how we must view reality. God has come close. Heaven and earth are reconciled in the incarnation. God and man find their union in the flesh and blood person of Jesus Christ. Heaven and earth have been permanently rewired in the person of Christ. And this union somehow cosmically stands outside the limitations of time and space. Long before little baby Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem, His death mystically pre-dated the foundation of the world! (Rev. 13:8, 1 Peter 1:20) God was never separate from us. Separation was the very delusion of Adam’s fall.
In a very real sense, there has never been a separation between Heaven and earth – except in the enmity of our own minds caused by sin (Col. 1:21-22). We have been obsessed with a separation that doesn’t exist from His perspective. A separation He has dealt with once and for all – even before it happened. Yes, separation was very “real” from our point of view. Isaiah 59 tells us that our sins “separated us” from God. It blinded us to the actuality of His love and nearness. As the chapter continues, “Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes” (Isa. 59:2). It blinded us to His glory, but sin never veritably “removed” God from us. Isaiah says this glory completely fills heaven and earth (Isa. 6:3). Indeed sin caused us to pull away and hide in the bushes like Adam. Fleeing from intimacy, relationship and vulnerability. But there is no rock we could hide under, no bush that is not aflame with His presence. David said, “If I make my bed in hell, there you are!” (Psalm 139:8). Sin had two radically different effects upon man and God. For man, sin caused us to run away from God. For God, it caused Him to run toward man. And this God-to-human movement was consummated in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus (something He had always fore-ordained from the dawn of time, before we ever fell in Adam). The New Testament never tells us that Jesus died to “reconcile God back to us” as if God had ever pulled back from us, disgusted by our failings. No, the scriptures clearly state that Christ died to “reconcile us back to God” (2 Cor. 5:18-19, Col. 1:20, Rom. 5:10, Eph. 2:16). The Gospel is concerned with pulling us back – waking us up to the reality that we were never abandoned. The cross was not about God being paid off so the Father could love us. It was about repairing our corrupted state! We were the ones that needed the fix. God was always present and for us, even when we fell into the delusion that we could run and exist apart from Mr. Existence Himself. He has always unconditionally loved us.
Bad theology produces bad worldviews. And such worldviews have caused all sorts of destruction throughout the centuries. The incarnation flies in the face of the Greek dualism that has shaped many of our ideas about theology, science, politics and life itself. Dualism essentially defines a separation between “natural world” and “spiritual world.” Visible and invisible. Mind versus matter. Spirit substance versus material container … and most prominently, the idea that God is separate from man. This stuff infected the ideas of the early Church from the beginning.
The dualistic concept that God is distant from us is the source of our problems. But there is a far greater level of trouble when this dualism blossoms into what is called gnosticism.
Gnosticism takes this numbskull idea to an extreme that the material world is divorced from the spiritual world. Gnostics go so far as to say the material world is evil! This is the core concept of religion. Gnostics didn’t even believe Jesus came in the flesh, because His natural body would have been evil. They thought He was just a “spirit being.” No way could God have stepped into our stinky, sullied human flesh! So the apostle John had to warn us that anyone claiming Christ didn’t come in the flesh is of the antichrist (1 John 4:3, 2 John 1:7). Jesus ate, drank, sweat, farted and laughed with His buddies. He fully incorporated the human life into the Godhead. But gnosticism holds to the premise that we must reject everything that is natural and earthy. We must beat up our bodies to gain spiritual benefit. This is why religion loves practices like fasting and asceticism. Anything physically pleasurable is considered wrong.
This vilification of the natural word manifests in a thousand ways in religion today. Money, wine and music are considered evil. Procreate with your wife, but don’t enjoy it, because physical pleasure is wrong! Wear uncomfortable starchy clothes to church – you can’t possibly be comfortable and spiritual at the same time. Rejecting the world and rejecting selfish worldliness are radically different things.
We have conceived that God is the brutal taskmaster – the grumpy school marm who doesn’t want us to enjoy life. But this religious rejection of natural goodness and pleasure of earthly living is actually the spirit of the antichrist. It masquerades as “holiness.” The Bible never once tells us the antichrist is one specific person we need to one day look out for like the fiction of Tim LaHaye. Religion is the antichrist spirit. But we don’t think religion is that bad. “It’s not like murder or pornography or rape … It’s just religion! Shows up to church every Sunday.” We think of religion as the white witch of the east … not as wicked as outright carnality. But religion is the very anti-incarnation that seeks to impose a division between God and humanity and get you climbing an endless hill of redundant works to bridge a non-existent gap that can never be breached with God. It throws salvation back upon your lap to kill of your natural self and appetites and climb some unseen spiritual ladder. But in actuality, those God-given appetites are not wrong. They are in need of proper direction.
The goal of this gnostic-antichrist spirit is kill off your humanity in the name of “death to self” and somehow arrive at becoming a disembodied spirit. For the gnostic, the “spirit realm” is good, but the physical world is wicked. Life in this world is a fallen danger zone. Or is it?
Life is in Christ and He lights up the light of mankind (John 1:4).
In my book Money.Sex.Beer.God. I aim to give a thorough explanation of how dualism and gnosticism have influenced the thought of Western culture and in the church with a broader historical snapshot. Besides tackling specifics on the church’s confusion around these “natural world pleasures,” we also take a glance at some early heresies that confused or ignored the incarnation, attempting to diminish God’s humanity in Jesus. And we will look at numerous philosophies that were influenced by this numbskull worldview that bolstered the idea of separation from God in our society to this day. What is often taught as “the gospel” is really just a rehashed version of the ancient pagan Greek religion of Neoplatonism. We will unweave some bad thinking and hopefully cheer you up a bit.
Together with legalism (trying to please God by rule-keeping), gnosticism was the biggest heresy in the early church. All of Paul’s churches fell into one of those two problems. And although it has come in many packages, it remains the largest problem today. Causing untold harm to how we relate to the natural world around us.
We need to deal with the fundamental way that we think (Repent! The Greek word metanoia means change your mind) about the relation between our spiritual and natural lives. And booze, cash and copulation tend to clash with spirituality in the minds of most churchgoers. We need to reformat our understanding to know that – thanks to Jesus – there is no split between our spirituality and the daily pleasures of living. This opens up to us such a place of wholeness and harmony … it settles the unrequited tempests of addiction and idolatry as well as misplaced self-denial.
I began by saying that God is pro pleasure. His presence is pure ecstasy and the thing we crave at our deepest level. This in no way ever precludes the rock solid fact that God also gives us natural pleasures! He never expected that the only time you’re ever allowed to experience happiness is when you get a goose bump and a shiver during a foot-stomping Holy Ghost meeting. God made boobs and gold and single malt scotch. He made tropical beaches, coffee, pheromones, fatty foods and carbohydrates.
The truth lies not in the eradication of appetites and desires, but directing them toward their biblical outlets. We are to consider ourselves dead to sin (Col. 3:5), and realize that our truest longings are satisfied in God alone. But we do not call his gifts sinful. Only their perverted uses. Therefore we can appreciate those good things of life with which He graces us in a wholesome balance.
The Bible as Pleasure Manual
Somehow the sacred texts of scripture have been so abused by our dualistic minds, we have failed to see their whole purpose. The Bible is not an arbitrary rulebook designed to quench our pleasure. In fact, the scriptures are all about enhancing our pleasure. The point was never to enforce haphazard regulations against anything that is fun. In fact, just the opposite is true.
When Christ is given His place, then the scriptures find their place. Otherwise you are looking at an impossible, conflicted list of hair cutting patterns and genital mutilations. Scripture is the means of grace by which we see Him. Yet when improperly handled, it becomes the very object of biblio-idolatry that blinds us to the Author Himself. In other words, when I read Leviticus, I don’t see a big legalistic finger pointing at me, condemning me for my failure at upholding the law. Instead, I see every scripture pointing its finger at Jesus Christ and His finished work. He is the Ultimate Word of God and the lens through which I read every other text. Now even Leviticus cheers me up!
In the New Testament we find freedom from the law of sin and death – freedom from ceremonial and legal regulations of the Mosaic codes that were never intended to fix up our problems anyway. The law highlighted our need for grace. But the apostles did not leave it there. “Okay kids, now that you’re free from the requirements of the law, just go poke around in the dark and try your damnedest to figure out a way to live that works best for you.” No. Surely whom the Son sets free is free indeed. We are children of liberty. But only a deadbeat father would let his kids run loose without providing direction on how their lives are to be most successfully spent and satisfactorily lived. The Abba of Jesus is our Abba, and He wants the best for us.
Freedom from the law does not mean the scriptures are no longer applicable to us today in terms of guiding how we should live! In the New Testament, the apostles have extracted for us the very spirit of right living that was shadowed in the law. Peter, Paul and John dismiss the redundant Old Testament regulations on what to eat and what to wear and hundreds of eccentric commands that were only shadows pointing to Christ. They had no real moral value. External rules that would be meaningless once the True Substance – which is Jesus – has appeared.
But there are many moral guidelines that are timeless, and the apostles (men directly commissioned by Christ Himself to teach us), by divine inspiration tell us what guidelines carry over into this new era of grace. Circumcision is irrelevant they say. Paul tells us clipping the end of your tallywhacker is pointless, but he also tells us not to stick it into someone you aren’t married to, because that goes against the spirit of the law, which is love. True love – on that level – is not to be confused with mere lust. So tallywhacker usage is confined to a committed monogamous relationship, where sex is designed to give us the deepest, lasting fulfillment the way God intended. And all that for our ultimate pleasure.
In other words, New Testament moral guidelines are veritably recipes for satisfaction. Not prohibitions to quench your party. They are parameters to aim you toward the fullness of life in this world according to God’s design. Although in the name of “freedom” we often feel we can make better decisions for ourselves than what the New Testament scriptures prescribe. The end game is always going to be a lesser enjoyment and diminished glory than if we listened to the One who sees the end from the beginning. God will still love us if we forge an unbiblical path. Love is not performance based. But why settle for less than his perfect blissful prescription for our lives?
Part of the problem is that most people see the scriptures as a homogenous book of restrictions. They don’t know the difference between old and new covenants. Between law and grace. Between a life of regulation and a life of relational communion in the Spirit. They don’t know that Jesus perfected us. The average Christian grasps the basic concept that Old Covenant rules don’t make you holy (forfeiting shellfish or baby back pork ribs doesn’t fix your heart – Jesus does). However, the problem is that these same Christians often think that the New Covenant moral guidelines – such as those in Paul’s letters – constitute a sort of New Testament law.
Paul did not offer moral guidelines as a way to purify you or make you holy. “Husbands honor your wives. Parents don’t exasperate your children … Do these things and you will become holy.” No! That is the exact opposite of what Paul said. He always starts with the indicative (“You are already holy thanks to Jesus”), and then moves to the imperative action (“Now since you are holy, start acting like it!”). He always starts with identity, and out of that flows our action. Change of lifestyle is presented as a fruit of recognizing our gift of holiness, not a surcharge by which we somehow purchase it.
When we understand that the moral guidelines in the epistles are not a formula for “getting right” with God, it changes everything. It takes performance out of the equation. I can now see that God already loves and accepts me regardless. So why does He tell me to live a certain way? Because only in walking in this God-given design am I going to experience all of the deep joys and divine happiness He has intended in this world. I can live a life of true charity and be a blessing to others as well in my family, community and society.
If we feel that biblical morality is an impersonal, one-size-fits-all blanket formula that feels restrictive, we have missed the point. God speaks to us about living life in ways that apply to everyone – because they are principles that apply to all that is intrinsically human. If we feel differently than what we find in scripture, it does not mean our emotional longings are wrong – but they are sometimes misplaced due to our lack of understanding.
Old Covenant Hebrew thought (even with its legal restrictions) was not infected with the Greek dualisms we now have in modern Christianity. In many ways, they understood that God was pro-party much more than we do today! So much of what the church calls evil was considered a gift by our Jewish forefathers who did not dissect a difference between their physical and spiritual lives. You didn’t see the patriarchs taking vows of celibacy because they thought sex was evil. They had a culture of feasting and wine drinking. And when have you ever known a Jewish brother to take a vow of poverty?
In some ways, even the Old Covenant Jewish law was less restrictive than what many fundamentalist Christian preachers impose upon their flocks today. But the truth of the biblical model is far different.
Only in the biblical model do natural world pleasures serve us, rather than destroy us. We are made to enjoy life’s pleasures. The key is that we filter those pleasures through the word. The scriptures serve as a guide to prevent us from going into the ditch of abuse. For instance, alcohol is a gift. But we are warned away from excess and overindulgence and encouraged to use moderation. A few drams of 16-year Lagavulin never hurt anyone. But drink a whole bottle of Jack Daniels everyday and you are going to end up in a gutter, broke, losing your job and getting a divorce. That is not pleasurable. See, contrary to popular opinion, the scriptures are pro-pleasure at their core.
Greek and Roman Gnosticism
Before addressing specific details of scripture related to money, hooch and nookie … We must know that our big-picture worldview on these earthly delights have been influenced by two types of gnostic thinking. These are two forms are Greek and Roman gnosticism. Both consider the physical world evil, but they deal with it differently. Greek gnosticism is about beating up the body. It is heavy on asceticism, trying to kill off the natural. Fasting is big for the Greek gnostic, because it is all about starving off the physical man in order to attain the spiritual. Money is obviously considered evil by these guys (Jesus never knocked money by the way, only the idolatry of it). For centuries our Catholic brothers have seen poverty as a virtue! And who is the person that all Christians agree to hate? The prosperity preaching televangelist of course, because we still think of prosperity as being evil.
Then there’s sex. What an area of confusion for the church! Ever since the early church, it’s been taught that sex is sinful and that our bodies are dirty. Hence the age-old vow of celibacy and a two-millennia-old misconstruction of Paul’s teachings on singleness being better than marriage. Gnosticism rejects sex as inherently dirty even within the bonds of holy matrimony.
And obviously alcohol gets demonized by many Christians. The list goes on: music, dancing, etc. Physical world gifts that the Greek gnostic rejects as sinful.
On the other hand, the Roman version of gnosticism also views the material world as intrinsically evil – but the Roman gnostic deals with it differently. Rather than taking the ascetic route of fasting and self-denial, the Roman gnostic figures “We’re all trapped in this evil, fallen world. There’s nothing we can do about it anyway … so let’s have an orgy!” The Roman gnostic turns to licentiousness and overindulgence as he figures his escape from the “evil world” is impossible. He can do anything he wants, and in a sense, nothing is truly considered “sinful” to these cats.
Paul, in his preaching of the scandalous grace of the cross was often accused of teaching “license to sin” and thus his adversaries leveled a charge that he was teaching Roman gnosticism. But grace is not freedom to sin; it is freedom from sin!
In Christianity today, you see both of these manifestations. Either strict denial of all “wine, women and song” or else a loose, careless, antinomian living. Interestingly, Jesus warned us of two types of bad yeast – the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod (Mark 8:15). One represents religious abstinence and the other represents worldly overindulgence. But Christ Himself is the true leaven of Heaven (Matt. 13:33) which is worked throughout the whole dough of our humanity so that we experience unity and wholeness in our earthly and spiritual lives.
The fact is that God gives us natural world pleasures as a gift to be received with thanksgiving! Again, the ancient Hebraic mind always understood this. We may enjoy the world without being worldly when we take in life through the word! God gives us guidelines on earthly delights not because He is anti-fun, but because He is actually the life of the party. Gnosticism has duped us into thinking the scriptures are anti-fun. Anti-earth. Anti-life. But in reality, the New Testament moral guidelines have always been about enhancing and sustaining our holistic joy! A joy that is intrinsically from God, sourced in God and organically connected to our life in the Spirit – the source of all satisfaction. A refreshing, right understanding of scripture directs us into the full, satisfying abundant life God has always intended for us in this world and the next.
[i][i] From Strong’s Concordance: Ednah H5727 pleasure
[ii] Gen. 3:8 “and they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the cool of the day (Strong’s Concordance Ruach H7307 a term for breath or wind, but often used for Holy Spirit)
[iii] A.W. Tozer, That Incredible Christian (Harrisburg, Pa.: Christian Publications, 1964), 50-52.
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