Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Dark Side of Christmas

This is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” We’ve heard Luke’s story so often, we don’t see how sad it is. In fact, it’s the sad parts of the Christmas story that we try to hide, shielding our eyes from the unpleasant realities of Jesus’ birth. Instead, Christmas cards render idyllic portraits that are far removed from the biblical story: landscape scenes of cabins covered with snow, horse-drawn sleighs, animals frolicking in the snow—not only reindeer, but also chipmunks, raccoons, cardinals, and cute gray mice. Even when we consider the biblical narrative, we prefer to see the birth of Jesus as a quaint, country story about sheep and shepherds, peace and goodwill, angelic hosts and a guiding star. Actually, Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is a very dark story. A Palestinian census meant Roman taxes. Caesar’s pax Romana cost money, and poor imperial subjects were going to foot the bill whether they liked it or not. The fact that Joseph couldn’t find shelter for Mary in his hometown reveals that no family would take him in due to the shameful circumstances of their predicament. What Luke doesn’t tell us is what he assumed we would already know: Joseph was shunned by his family when he came home with a pregnant fiancé. Neither a guestroom nor a public house was made available to the dishonorable couple. Probably born in a cave, Jesus would be cradled by a feeding trough. In Luke’s version there are no magi, no gifts of gold, frankencise, or myrrh. No midwife. No family celebration. All alone, in the middle of the night, Joseph and Mary welcomed a baby boy into the world. This is a dark story, indeed.

Piercing the darkness of Bethlehem was the angelic announcement of Messiah’s birth. Humble circumstances give way to dramatic events that break through the narrative with divine force. Luke employs powerful poetry to deliver a theme that will dominate his gospel: heaven crashes into earth and only the lowly see. The angel seemed to bring good news tailored for dirty shepherd boys. “For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this is your sign: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough.” All newborns were wrapped in strips of cloth, mummified to keep them warm. There was nothing significant about that. The special sign for shepherds was that they would find their Messiah in a feeding trough. There is something very appealing about shepherds gathered around a manger to see the Messiah that was born for them, as if they were tending the Lamb of God.

“Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Jesus probably grew up hearing stories about his birthday. Traveling for a census, angels visiting shepherds, and good news found in a manger—bending toward nostalgia, the blending of common details and extraordinary events made the story of Jesus’ birth evermore endearing to poor people who counted on the mercy of God. Listening to his family relive the circumstances of his birth, Jesus knew what he was born for. Redeemed by poor parents with a turtledove instead of a lamb, Jesus was destined to be good news for those who have nothing. He knew he was heaven’s gift of the poor to the poor. The lowly are exalted, the humble honored because the Messiah was born in David’s hometown to poor pilgrims from Nazareth. It makes perfect sense: as David’s heir, Israel’s king should be visited by shepherd boys. “He was one of us,” the shepherds could say. He was born for them. That’s why their story wouldn’t be told with descriptions of royal palaces and rich furnishings. Instead, Jesus came into the world under conditions that only a shepherd could appreciate. Indeed, we all know that good tidings of great joy comes to all people because the gospel came first to boys who tended sheep and found their Messiah in a feeding trough.

He became one of us.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Idolatry (more from my work on Paul's Spirituality)

The gifts of God are like prickly pears: if you don’t handle them with care, you’ll get hurt. That’s the way it is with all things sacred. In fact, the Scriptures are constantly filled with warnings about taking the sacred for granted, purposing the divine for common utility. Abuse godly power and you do little more than set yourself up for abuse. The people of Paul’s day knew this better than we do. They set up “taboos” to make sure divine gifts were employed with humility rather than arrogance. Sharing power with the Almighty was an ominous thing. With the greatest good comes the greatest risk. And, of all the gifts God shared with humanity, “creator” was one of the riskiest. The power and the glory of sex are rife with godly potential and devastating effect. God seemed to pour much glory into humans acting like creators. Psychologists know this; they try to help patients with the emotional baggage carried due to bad relationships. Preachers know this; they sound the sirens of moral decay in our society as evidenced by domestic abuse in their congregations. Poets know this; they persist in writing about unrequited love between men and women—a seemingly vain pursuit that nearly always ends badly. Even people who don’t believe in God know this. We all know this. Much seems to be at stake when man and woman copulate. From the time we were old enough to laugh at dirty ditties scribbled on bathroom walls, we’ve known that sex carries a powerful punch. It’s no wonder the west is obsessed with sex; even our best minds can’t sort out what it means. To me, this makes Paul’s warnings even more poignant. “For even though they knew God, they did not give glory to Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (1:21). It’s that one line that keeps turning over in my head as I think about how we abuse the gift of our made-in-the-image-of-God sexuality: “their foolish heart was darkened.”

Without God, sex becomes a cipher—an empty and selfish pursuit. Degrading passions harden depraved minds. Rather than generate life that glorifies God, self-fulfillment inexorably leads to degenerate (as in, “the opposite of generating life”) behavior. When sex is an idol, all we want to do is please ourselves. Indeed, the way Paul sees it, this unquenchable thirst for sexual fulfillment without God is a result of God “handing them over to the desires of their darkened heart.” The imagery is graphic. “Handing them over” was a term often used to describe imprisonment. In fact, Paul talks about sexual vices as if these fleshly impulses were a prison, with God “handing them” over to the jailer. Imprisoned by their own cravings, they are chained to their baser appetites—a foolish, wasteful life. Finding sexual pleasure is their supreme quest. Sex becomes their raison d’etre, their only purpose, the only thing they think about. Sex becomes their god.

Is there any doubt that sex is an American idol? Sexual attraction and sexual fulfillment are the twin themes of our culture, embedded in nearly everything we see and hear. It seems we bow in submission to Aphrodite every time we turn on the television or read an advertisement or listen to music. Shielding our eyes and plugging our ears doesn’t seem to be a reasonable option (the Amish might say different; withdrawing from society has some advantages—but even Amish communities have to deal with fleshly desires). So, what’s a Christian to do? How do we deny ourselves in the land of plenty? It’s no wonder a few years ago, during an open forum on our campus (we were discussing the impact of American culture on Christian spirituality), a student said bluntly: “Pornography is main stream. Saying, ‘I won’t look at it’ is naïve. Today, it’s not a matter of ‘if.’ It’s a matter of ‘how often.’” The silence in the room spoke volumes. None of the three-hundred plus students in attendance felt obliged to offer a rebuttal. Consuming pornography was taken as a fait accompli. Sex is everywhere.

The Corinthians could have said the same thing, “it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘how often.’” Roman bath houses were filled with murals of hetero- and homo-erotic scenes. One couldn’t take a bath without taking in all the pornographic imagery. Sex trafficking was heavy in this Roman town, too. Depending upon a man’s income or status, sex was readily available—and socially acceptable—via brothels, sex slaves, courtiers at public banquets, or priests and priestess serving in the temples of fertility gods and goddesses. Sex was everywhere. So, what was a Corinthian Christ-follower to do? Paul’s response was simply, “Flee fornication!” Advice that must have sounded a bit naïve to the Corinthians.

Friday, October 02, 2009

No Applause, please! (or why I don't clap my hands anymore)

I rarely watch television anymore (except baseball!). In other words, I only keep up with pop culture crises via my wife's reports (she only has a little time in the morning to watch news shows). Evidently, in the long line of public figures confessing their indiscretions, David Lettermen used his show to admit his sins and call out his extortioner. Now, there's so much to talk about here (public confession, the problem of greed in all of its forms [sexual, monetary, power, et al.], American contrition, etc.), but I want to center on the crowds reaction to Letterman's mea culpa. They laughed. They cheered him on. They applauded. As a matter of fact, when I saw part of the replay (my wife fetched me from another part of the house with the words, "you've got to see this"), I found the dissonance overwhelming: here's a man confessing he had sex with his co-workers and the audience applauded!

I hate confirming Pavlov's experiment--when humanity acts nothing more than like dogs who salivate given a certain cue. We clap our hands for anything these days. It's mindless. It's knee-jerk (pardon the mixed metaphor). It's foolish. It's the herd instinct in full force.

This is why I don't clap my hands during worship. I remember a time, growing up in a very strict SBC church, where clapping hands seemed rebellious, pentecostal, downright disruptive. Now, it's so common, we'll clap for anything. Someone sang a song (clap). Someone told a joke (clap). Someone did something nice (clap, clap).

Maybe I'm turning into the grumpy old man I remember seeing in church who snarled when his neighbors clapped their hands during church 40 years ago. No, wait. I don't snarl. I just don't see the point. I don't clap during baseball games, either.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

American Calvinism

I've recently discovered a blog that I find myself wanting to read everyday. Some blogs I check every now and then. Only a few have become daily habits. This one,, is led by the NT scholar Scot McKnight, a man I haven't met but whose work I have admired for some time. What makes the Jesus Creed blog so attractive to me isn't just the posts that McKnight makes now and then on a variety of subjects (he obviously is a very well-read man), but he has guest posters just about every day who offer their struggles with our Christian faith within the context of their expertise. One such poster goes by the initials RJS. And, I have found his/her insights (a scientific mind and a strong heart for our faith) to be very helpful and provocative.

A recent post discussing the biological determinism often associated with human behavior and the question of our culpability with regard to sin broke some new ground for me, especially in reference to our proclivity within American culture to assign all things to an inevitable future (even though we supposedly prize human free will). In the post, RJS asks something to the effect: to what extent are our brains wired for certain sins and what does that say about God's judgment? And, to what extent can science help us take more responsibility for overcoming our sins?

The comments by readers (many of them it seems from the scientific community) seemed to engage the debate regarding the common tautology: which came first, genetic wiring or imprinting by experience? Then, different answers were given for how to overcome this or that behavior. As I read their comments, all I could think about was: what about the Holy Spirit? For most of the posters, sin is nothing more than deviant human behavior. I kept hearing Paul shouting: sin is also a power outside of human will.

I think that is a scary idea to most Americans, for how do we oppose a power greater than human will power?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cross Reflections

For Paul, the cross summed up everything that is wrong and right with the world--all at the same time. Injustice and justification, abuse and healing, brokenness and restoration, curse and blessing.

This has led me to think through the cross as a paradigm for dealing with abuse, especially keying on Jesus' words. I haven't experienced horrible abuse; I've known several wounded souls who have. And, even though I can't say, "I know how you feel" maybe Jesus does. Could his experience become the crucible of healing--a paradigm of restoration--for those who suffer such atrocities?

First, one cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Abuse feels like abandonment. Then, one decides that he/she will no longer be defined by the abuse, "Father, forgive them; they don't know what they are doing." Absolution is a divine work. Ultimately, the suffering commits themselves afresh to God's care, "Into Thy hands, I commit my spirit." For destiny belongs to the One who creates something out of nothing and turns evil on its ugly head.

Could this be the way of solace for those who need peace? The cross of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Pity for Michael Jackson

For quite some time I have felt sorry for the pop idol. No human could be worshiped as a god and have a healthy view of things. He seems to have been a troubled man. It is rather obvious he was not comfortable in his own skin, literally. Controversy was his constant companion--some of it orchestrated ("I am Peter Pan"), most of it I'm sure he didn't want (accusations of misconduct, financial problems). It must have bothered him: how can I be worshiped around the world and yet despised by so many?

We were in Germany with our daughter when the news of Jackson's death dominated the airwaves. After hearing countless testimonials from the typical "man on the street" interviews from around the world, I commented to my wife: "Substitute the name 'Jesus' for Jackson's name and see how familiar it sounds."

"Michael Jackson is my life." "He brought meaning and purpose to my life." "He has given me courage to face the day." "I don't know what I would do without him."

And, these people don't even know the man.

We humans have an amazing capacity to worship someone. Sadly, when we worship someone rather than the One who deserves our worship--the One who can handle it--we destroy ourselves as well as the idol of our affection. I hear echoes of Paul: God gives them over to the foolishness of their own destruction.

I'll say it again: how can anyone have a healthy view of themselves or the world when they are worshiped as a god?

Only God can, which confirms to me what I have known for quite some time: it is good for me to worship the One who is worthy of praise.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Loss by Cross

The cross made Paul reconsider his Jewish identity—everything that used to define who he was became “garbage.”

Circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ . . . , and count them but rubbish [skubala] in order that I may gain Christ (Phil. 3:5-8).

Actually, the word Paul used was more indelicate than “rubbish” or “garbage.” After Damascus, Paul considered his old identity, his old ways as “dung.” (By the way, college students revel in the idea that St. Paul used crass words like “crap.” Inspired by the apostle, the biblical term has worked its way into their vocabulary—talking about someone’s silly claim, they’ll say, “that’s skubala.” Ah, the benefits of education.) To be sure, these losses were painful. They were damaging. Paul was no polyanna. Nevertheless he was convinced it was worth throwing them away like trash. Why? Losing his identity in the old age was part and parcel of gaining Christ in the new. A Jewish kind of righteousness had been replaced by a righteousness that “comes from God,” i.e., a righteousness found in Christ. So, Paul traded his reputable life in Judaism in order to be “found in Him” (Phil. 3:9)—not only in his resurrection glory but especially in the loss wrought by his cross. For him, sharing in the sufferings of Christ’s cross revealed his true identity. Indeed, those opposed to this way of life were actually enemies of the cross (v. 18). They missed the point of what it means to imitate Christ: loss by cross is gain.

This is where we need to be very clear on what Paul was not saying. Paul didn’t see “losing to gain” as an investment strategy. “I’ll sacrifice this so I can get more of the same” (the mantra of the prosperity gospel). He did not give in order to get. He did not set aside Jewish privileges in order to win Christian privileges. Nor did Paul reckon the benefits of the crucified life as divine payback for giving up what mattered most to him. His experience of Christ didn’t work that way: “I’ll give this up for Christ so that I can gain more of what I desire.” No. As a matter of fact, for Paul just the opposite happened: from the Christophany to his imprisonment, Paul found that gaining Christ led to losing his life. The more he was conformed to the image of Christ, the more he recognized his loss as gain. Paul wasn’t losing to gain more. He saw his loss as gain. And, the only way he could see it that way was because of the cross of Christ. The cross turned losing into gain, shame into honor, death into life. The crucified life turned the world upside down, which made perfect sense to Paul. If death is the worst thing that can happen, and yet it’s the best thing that can happen for a Christ-believer, then no tragedy can overwhelm the good, no death can spoil life, no loss can erase what is gained—especially since loss is gain. The more he lost his life, the more Paul found it. Sacrifice does that to a man or woman. The more we sacrifice the more we realize what is important. Indeed, sacrifices reveal what matters most.

During our winter mini-term, I teach a course called, “The Bible and American Culture.” The class is designed to get students to see how the Bible functions as a protagonist and antagonist to American ideals revealed in cultural “texts,” e.g., films, plays, and music. It takes a while for my students to see how Bible stories have informed movie scripts, e.g., how “The Truman Show” is an American version of the Adam story in Genesis. The main character is the “true” man who discovers the truth of who he is when he rebels against the designs of his creator and leaves paradise (“Sea Haven,” Truman’s world, is a movie set, an anagram for “As Heaven”). What is even more difficult for them to see is their reflection in the Hollywood version of the biblical narrative, when the film functions like a mirror, revealing how American cultural texts have twisted gospel truth. The looks on their faces when they realized they’ve been duped by their culture—to prefer American convictions over biblical faith—is a pitiful site. Sometimes it’s hard to think like an American and still follow Jesus.

A student presented in class an analysis of his favorite film, “Braveheart.” He even came dressed for the part, looking just like William Wallace—painted face, wild hair, Scottish kilt, sword in hand. Wallace was his hero, a messianic figure bringing hope to the poor and oppressed of his homeland, just like Jesus. Illustrating his point, he played a clip from the film showing how Wallace sacrificed himself for the good of the people, inspiring followers to carry on with the mission of bringing freedom to the Scottish people. Then, the student ended with a passionate plea, raising his sword for dramatic effect: “So, like William Wallace, we Christians must raise the sword of the Spirit and carry on the battle of bringing freedom in Christ to all.” The air reeked of testosterone. The male students roared with delight; the ladies rolled their eyes.

Once the clamor died down, I asked the presenter, “What made you think Wallace’s death was a sacrifice?” The answer seemed obvious to him; the sequence of events leading to Wallace’s execution proved the point: he was betrayed by a close friend, beaten by the arresting officers, imprisoned by a wicked ruler; a woman offered Wallace a drink to ease the pain of his approaching death; strapped to a cross, the crowd mocked him as he was brought before his executioners; he was lifted up, suspended between heaven and earth with arms stretched out, screaming in great pain; his followers hid in the crowd, watching the spectacle in anonymity; a sword was thrust in his side; his last breath was a victorious cry. “Yes, his death portrayed in this film looks like a sacrifice,” I said. “But we all know it wasn’t. All who live by the sword, die by the sword, right? Wallace got what was coming to him. He was a murderer, and the law finally caught up with him. History does not give us the details of Wallace’s execution. So, why do you suppose Mel Gibson wanted Wallace’s death to look like the death of Christ?”

At this point, some of the presenter’s male compatriots rushed to his defense. Talk of “making the ultimate sacrifice,” and “dying for freedom while fighting your enemies,” and a “soldier’s noble sacrifice” filled the room. Then I said bluntly, “Wallace didn’t follow Jesus, did he? He didn’t respond to injustice like Jesus did.” Silence. “What if he did? How would the film be different if Wallace had followed the ways of Christ?” What happened next took everyone by surprise. A student said sarcastically, “Well, I suppose he would have visited all the villages, preaching peace and telling them to love their enemies. But we all know that doesn’t work.” An audible gasp could be heard from several students, followed by a pensive silence. The presenter’s face fell, his eyes looking down, as if he were inspecting the floor. He sheathed his sword, looked up at the class and said, “Why didn’t I see that before? I claim to be a disciple of Christ, and yet I would rather have a Messiah who kills his enemies than one who loves them.” The irony was delicious: there stood a young man dressed like William Wallace talking about loving his enemies.

Thinking like an American comes naturally to those of us who live in these United States. Thinking like a follower of Christ is far more challenging. In fact, American ideals often trump our Christian convictions, especially when it comes to living the crucified life. How are we supposed to love our enemies when we’ve been taught to kill them? How can I follow Christ, giving up my rights like he did, when I’ve been trained to protect my rights no matter what? Why does loyalty to America take precedent over loyalty to Christ, that pledging allegiance to a flag is nobler than swearing allegiance to a cross? To what extent is our American citizenship more important than our Christian identity? How many Christians act as if patriotism is just as important as the gospel—or even worse, an expression of the gospel? In several ways, the American way of life is at cross purposes with the crucified life; American politics cannot contain Christian faith. For example, politics makes enemies; Christians love enemies. Americans are taught to preserve national and personal interests at all costs. Paul taught his converts to prefer the interests of others. American consumerism is built on the idea that we should always want more. Paul was content with more or less. In light of these stark contrasts, one cannot help but wonder: if we were to live the crucified life like Paul—losing our identity in Christ—would our neighbors be compelled to accuse us of foolishness for forsaking the American way of life?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Glory-maker (overcoming the flesh, part deux)

Paul was convinced that God put His glory in everything He made, which was a very Jewish way of looking at creation. A good God created everything and declared it was good—everything in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. Evil does not exist by its own will. Evil cannot create anything. The only way evil can exist is to pervert what God has made. Paul’s pagan neighbors, on the other hand, didn’t see it that way. Some things exist because evil powers have created them. Good gods and evil gods were locked in eternal battle over dominion of the whole world. Evil gods created sinister beings for their purposes; good gods created flawed humans for their purposes. Therefore, Greeks and Romans believed this cosmic battle between the forces of evil and good would never end. So, what are we to do? What is our human fate? Some sought the virtuous life to overcome the destructive vices of the flesh. Others gave into the human condition: eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.

This put Paul in a difficult spot with his pagan converts. Who could be opposed to the virtuous life? Wisdom, honor, self-control, and fortitude were desirable qualities, especially when overcoming human depravity. But Paul believed there was a higher power. Who could deny the simplest of human pleasures? Eating and drinking were as much a part of the good life as any other noble pursuit. But Paul believed in a higher purpose. In fact, whenever Paul tried to expose the impotence of virtue (man can’t save himself!), he appeared to support the revelers. And, every time he tried to rein in the epicureans (all things are not profitable!), the moralists were vindicated. The problem, of course, was that Paul didn’t share the dualistic “worldview” of his converts. He believed that God made everything good, and that baser appetites can fulfill evil purposes. Of course, he got both ideas from the foundational story of Israel’s faith—creation and the fall of man (Gen. 1:1-3:24).

Creation reflects God’s glory. The art reveals the artist. Since humans are made in His image, they are able to reflect His glory in what is seen and heard. In other words, the way Paul and his Jewish kinsmen saw it, human capacity to see the glory of creation is a divine attribute—we are able to see God in what He has made because we are made in His image. God creates because He is creator. Creation is beautiful because God is beauty. Therefore, whatever He creates is embedded with His glory. Why did He do it? Because He is good, He couldn’t help but create what is good. Even God reflected on the glory of creation with the affirmation, “this is good.” After six days, God marked the seventh day for reflection—a time when all creation would reflect the glory of God by glorifying God. That is to say, God put His glory in everything so that we would seek to know the Glory-maker, worship the Creator of all things, glorify the God in whose image we are made.

This is why we are inspired by magnificent sunsets. This is why we are enchanted by the animal kingdom. This is why an overwhelming joy comes to first-time parents when they hold their newborn baby in their arms. This is why weddings are happy occasions. This is why the simple act of sharing table with friends makes time stand still. This is why food tastes good. God put His glory in everything He created, invented, planned, and shared. He thought that we, after taking in such glorious sites and sounds—waterfalls crashing, mountains imposing, birds migrating, puppy dogs playing, children laughing, lovers cuddling, friendships lasting—that we would want to know the One who made life so glorious. We were supposed to “taste and see that the LORD is good.” He did this. He made this. He shared this. This breath-taking, inspiration-making, mouth gaping open-celebrating of life we’ve been freely given by a very generous God—because of this grace—it was all supposed to compel us to give Him glory, recognizing the source of every good gift. He knew we would need to give Him glory because He is a glorious God.

This may sound crass, but that’s why God made sex feel so good. The joy of sex between a husband and wife should compel them to say, “thank God.” Indeed, God created us to reflect Him when we create so that we would find our purpose in glorifying God. Even though we know “where babies come from,” all of us know God is the One who gives life. I didn’t become a father because of sex. God, my heavenly father, made me a father. I knew that better than anyone the day Andrew, Emma, and Grace were born. Giddy with the pure joy of God-given life (in all three cases, I did some pretty strange things, like ordering a whopper late at night in the drive through at McDonalds. My stupid grin convinced the attendant I was playing a joke. All I said was, “I’m sorry. My daughter was born a few hours ago.” Then I giggled and drove off. I kept laughing even as I scarfed down the burger at midnight). Indeed, God made food taste good so that we would use the same tongues to give glory to a God who shared his power with us—to get dominion over the whole earth, planting gardens, drinking wine, sharing the bounty of what God has made. In celebrating life we are giving glory to God.

But, here’s where we’ve missed the whole point. Made just enough in His image—we are powerful creatures—we tend to believe all of this comes from us. We create children. We make our own food. We dominate the world. We seek our own glory. We think we’re god. The Bible calls this “idolatry,” and we’re eaten up with it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Here's another tidbit from my work on Paul--denying the flesh

Why did God make food taste good?

The theological significance of that question didn’t hit me until I was forty years old. Skinny all my life, I never thought I’d have to worry about what I ate. Thin mint chocolate shakes. Boston cream pie. Root beer floats. Double fudge chocolate cake. No food was verboten. Then, everything changed after four decades of decadence. It’s like someone flipped a switch in my metabolic rate and ruined everything. I used to think diet cokes were for losers—a waste of money (why pay for nothing? No sugar, no protein, nothing to savor). Now, it’s the only thing that comes close to satisfying my sweet tooth. But, I know better: sugar substitute brings only a vague recollection of what used to taste good. “Tastes like sugar,” blah, who are they kidding? The truth of the matter is, I can’t tell anymore. Sometimes I think the waitress has slipped me the “real thing.” “Would you taste this?” My son or daughter takes a sip, recoils in disgust, and says, “No, dad. It’s not regular coke. That’s diet for sure.” Then, they give me that “poor-old-man” look of sympathy and whisper to each other, “his tastes buds are shot.” “I can still hear, you know?” Then I grumble to myself about how good taste (among other things) is wasted on youthful indulgences.

The tongue is one of the few organs built for more than one purpose. Eyes see, ears hear. But a tongue does more than taste. It is used for communication, both verbal and nonverbal (what the Scriptures call “separating the lip,” Ps. 22:7). So, why would God design the tongue to serve more than one purpose? It almost looks like an afterthought. “Let’s see. Man will need to be able to communicate. A tongue! That should do it. Now, we know he’ll get hungry—his stomach should growl loud enough to take care of that. But, let’s make it more interesting. Why don’t we put some taste buds on his tongue? Then, he’ll get the message. His hunger can never be satisfied by food alone. He’ll want things to taste good, too.” Of course, I don’t pretend to know the mind of God when it comes to divine purposes (although, Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” has given me many possibilities to ponder). But, here’s the part I really don’t understand: it’s the bad stuff that especially tastes good. If God were going to make us desire food for more than survival, then why did He make fat and sugar and starches and chocolate taste so good? Or, turn the question the other way around. Since God wants what’s best for us, shouldn’t broccoli taste like ice cream and chicken taste like prime rib? I’ve never heard anyone munching on brussel sprouts try to talk and eat at the same time, “hmmmmmmm. ‘Dis goooood.” It sounds a little cruel, doesn’t it? “Okay. We’ve turned his tongue into a taste mongering machine. Now, for the icing on the cake: let’s make all the stuff that’s bad for him taste really good—undeniably, irresistibly good.”

A man I admired very much lived to be an octogenarian before he died. He loved to give his advice when someone asked him the secret to a long life. “A simple diet,” he would say. “If it tastes good, I spit it out.” And, he always said it with a smile. But, thinking about his advice doesn’t make me smile at all; such deprivation certainly doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? Besides, aren’t we supposed to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8)? For most believers, the problem of evil and suffering is a perplexing issue. To me, the problem of goodness is just as vexing. Why would God make the world so good, so desirable, and then expect us to deny ourselves of these things that bring such basic pleasure? Why would God engineer sex to feel so good and then tell us, “Ah, ah, ah. Don’t do it.” Why would He make us to feel so satisfied after we’ve stuffed ourselves with food? Why set us up as fleshly creatures, with all the urges and constant cravings, only to make us fall (come on, who obeys all the rules)? Denying fleshly appetites is hard. Constantly telling ourselves “no!” feels like abdication. Self-denial wears a downcast countenance. Giving in, on the other hand, feels so good. Enjoying baser appetites comes naturally. Looking forward to dessert seems eschatological. Smacking our lips always breeds a smile.

Trying to solve the problem of good has led many Christians to one extreme or the other. Some equate the flesh with evil. Fleshly desires seem good, but they’re not good for us. Therefore, denying the flesh is the way we overcome evil. Others draw lessons from the creation account in Genesis: all things were created by God, and He declared them “good.” Sex, food, and drink are natural desires created by God for our pleasure. Therefore, if it feels good, it must be divine. Interestingly enough, both camps call upon Paul in defense of their positions. Yielding to the desires of the flesh is in antithesis to walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-17). And yet, did not Paul say as long as we partake with thankfulness, all things are lawful (1 Cor. 10:30-31)? The truth of the matter is, for Paul, the truth is somewhere in the middle.