Is God a Killjoy?
Some people imagine the Christian faith as a series of dos and don’ts, with an extra helping of the don’ts. Christians, constrained by the heavy burden of their faith, come off as pail, thin, joyless people, limited by their faith to experience life like a bowl of lukewarm soup.
Perhaps for some this is true. But is this really biblical? Is God really the ruin of all things pleasurable?
The Pleasure Imperative
I like to tell the confirmation kids I teach that Christians should enjoy ice cream more than non-Christians. Perhaps should is a weak word – Christians must enjoy ice cream more than their unbelieving peers. Why? Because we know the God who created the cow, the sugar, and the taste buds. Behind the glory that is Ben and Jerry’s is the even greater glory of a God who “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).
The same goes for marriage, wine, pipe tobacco, fall hikes in New England, running, playing the guitar, reading a good novel, and anything else you could possibly imagine. Christians are free to enjoy these things better and more fully, since they are not enjoyed as a hedonistic end in themselves, but rather as a sign of God’s rich generosity. And to whatever extent we abstain, we do so only to focus on the even greater pleasure of knowing Jesus Christ. In short, whether we enjoy or abstain, it's all for the glory of God and the benefit of others (Romans 14:5-8).
The Real Killjoy
In fact, I would argue that secularism (and any other form of unbelief in currency today), while on the surface may seem enthralling, eventually ends up being the killjoy rather than Christianity properly understood. I believe that's the point of a recent book about the seven deadly sins titled "Killjoys" (this is still on my shelf in the list of books to read soon - but I think I'll save it for Lent).
The primary evidence leveled against Christianity for being a wet blanket would no doubt be the Ten Commandments. Human nature recoils at the authoritative “You shall/you shall not.” We’d much rather sing “It’s my life” instead of the tune of the Torah. But upon closer examination, it turns out that our aversion to the commandment reveals more about us than God. And what we do learn about God in the commandments upon closer examination is that God is the joyful and generous one –and we, in our rebellion, turn out being the party poopers.
Each of the commandments, properly received in faith, intend to create and protect freedom and human flourishing. And likewise, any abandonment of the commandment leads to an existence that is small, constrained, and lifeless.
The Law is Good
Take, for instance, number one – “You shall have no other gods.” That’s a pretty wide prohibition. God says, “Me first. Not money, not sex, not success, not your iPhone. Me.” But while the commandment prohibits us against “fearing, loving, or trusting” anything or anyone else as ultimate, that wide-reaching prohibition creates a wider field of freedom. Why? Because when God is first we have the freedom of his limitless reality. In being possessed by and in some sense possessing the one true God we possess everything else – the money, the sex, the success, the iPhone – not in the smallness of idolatry but the wideness of worship. When God is first and God alone, we live and move and have our being in fully human ways rather than the dehumanizing effects that come with idolatry.
The same goes for all the other commandments. Each commandment's purpose is to protect the dignity of the image of God, as well as create freedom and human flourishing. In other words, God gives boundaries to create wider possibilities. Or as Chesterton put it, "Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame that has preserved the pleasure of Paganism." We've already considered number one - let's briefly look at the rest:
#2- "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God." God prohibits using his name for our own ends so that we might know the joy of calling upon him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, and all the possibilities found therein.
#3 - "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy." We would work ourselves to death in the pursuit of more. We cram our schedules full and suffer under the slavery of the busy trap. But God calls his people to a rhythm of rest and renewal. The freedom of such rest overflows positively into our relationships with our family members, neighbors, and the rest of creation.
#4 - "Honor your father and your mother." Respect for legitimate authority allows for greater freedom. Chaos and anarchy are a curse.
#5 - "You shall not murder." God loves life. Human dignity is preserved at every angle. We avoid the suffocating pragmatism of the death culture, and follow the freedom that comes with choosing life.
#6 - "You shall not commit adultery." Compare marital fidelity with the Tinder culture, and I'm sure that two people loving one another exclusively through thick and thin will be generally more satisfied. God's design for sexuality equals freedom - the freedom that comes with sustained trust and the joy of new life coming into the world. Married couples are working on something together for the long haul rather than the listless stop and start of the hook up scene, or the lack of commitment that comes with cohabitation. As C.S. Lewis once said, chastity is probably the least popular of the Christian virtues (and how could it be popular in a culture where the holy grail of fulfillment is found in self-defined sexual expression?), but in the end monogamy is liberating.
#7 - "You shall not steal" - No one feels accomplished by taking what doesn't belong to them. Hard work and diligence are compensated in ways far beyond a paycheck. We receive a sense of dignity as we contribute to the greater good.
#8 - "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor." Luther once commented that human nature loves to hear the worst about others but can't stand to hear the best. Being in relationship with others requires disciplined and careful speech. A single word can cripple a relationship or give it life.
#9/10 - "You shall not covet..." When we want what doesn't belong to us, we live in slavery, unable to pause and give thanks for what God has freely given. When our hearts are no longer restless, but rather at rest in God alone, we live in the freedom of gratitude. In fact, coveting is often the root of our rebellion against all the other commandments, and as a result our lives become more and more limited.
So, it turns out that Christianity is not a killjoy, but rather a fountain of joy for those redeemed by Christ. To quote Chesterton again, "The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild." We have an obligation, then, to receive God's gifts with joy, and within those boundaries he has set for our good and the good of others, to let those "good things runs wild."
Rev. John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church