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.