Monday, November 23, 2009

When I Don't Desire God - chapter 11 - weapon 4: the world

I love this chapter! Every time I read it, it expands my thinking and encourages me in wise, godly living. It's packed with interesting ideas about the relationship between the body and soul, and with sensible advice about how to use the world and our bodies in the fight for joy.

We're bodily creatures. When we don't get enough sleep, we feel irritable. When we hear music, we're moved to tears or joy. CS Lewis says that all our spiritual emotions are played on the instrument of our physical bodies (p.179-180). Even if we don't admit it, we all use physical means to affect how we feel. So how do we avoid emotional manipulation and idolising created things, while using the world and our bodies in the fight for joy?

How do we use the created world around us, including our own bodies, to help us fight for joy in God? ... How can all these good gifts serve joy in God, and not usurp the supreme affections of our hearts? ... [H]ow can the physical world of sensation properly assist our joy in Christ? ... Our physical lives will affect our spiritual lives whether we plan it or not. Better to think it through and be intentional. (pp.178, 182-3)

Sleep, music, or a sunset can't make us godly. We don't sin because we haven't had enough sleep (I doubt Piper means to imply that we do - p.176) but because suffering reveals our hearts. But we can remove obstacles to joy, reduce temptations to despair, and enjoy God's glory revealed in creation, by being wise in our use of the world and our bodies.

There are two ways Piper encourages us to use the physical world in the fight for joy: the direct use of the world as a revelation of the glory of God, and the indirect use of the world as we keep our bodies and minds suited to joy. Here's some ideas, taken from Piper and my own experience, about how to do these two things.

The direct use of the world: seeing God's glory in creation

"Creaturely meditation" is the lovely Puritan term for using the things God has made to lead our thoughts to him: the beauty of a garden makes us think of God's beauty, the grandeur of a mountain reminds us of God's majesty, the terror of a storm recalls God's power (see Psalms 19, 104, Romans 1:18-20). CS Lewis says,

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences. (quoted on p. 184)

This way of seeing the world is something I wouldn't be without. If you'd like some examples of "creaturely meditation", see meditation on a morning walk, refuge, believing the deceiver, meditation on a lettuce leaf, wild beauty. galaxies without number, and trees. These are mostly reflections on very ordinary things: a local park, a lettuce leaf, a lovely morning. Piper says, "There are more ooooh's and ahhh's over the visual effects on a thirty-foot theater screen than over the night sky and the setting sun." (p.195) God help us recover the wonder of seeing his glory in simple things.

Music, books, art, poetry, theatre. "God has ordained for language to pierce and portray what colorless language cannot do ... Therefore, in our fight for joy it may often be helpful to read penetrating literature and see powerful drama." (p.192). Hmmm, there's the excuse I've been looking for to take out that expensive theatre subscription! Seriously, there are ways of engaging with poetry or music without using money wastefully (although there's nothing wrong with paying to go to plays or films, as long as we're not self-indulgent and can thank God for what we see - 1 Tim 4:1-5). The idea of seeing God's glory in human-made things is fairly new to me. I'd like to be more conscious of this when I take the kids to the art gallery or read a beautifully written book like Ian McEwen's Atonement. If you want to learn to appreciate poetry (something I don't find easy!) have a look at Nicole's poetry Mondays.

The indirect use of the world: the body's partnership in joy

Exercise, eating and rest. It's wise to keep our bodies healthy and strong, when possible, so we can serve God more energetically, love those around us more easily, and rejoice in God more naturally. I find it easier not to be irritable with my family when I haven't overeaten! Exercise helps my mood and affects my self-control. It's harder to rejoice in God when I'm not getting enough sleep (not that I always have a choice!). Like Piper, I find that these things become more important as I get older:

I cannot eat as much as I used to without gaining unhelpful weight. ... Another change is that I am emotionally less resilient when I lose sleep ... In more recent years my threshold for despondency is lower on less sleep. For me, adequate sleep is not just a matter of staying healthy. It's a matter of staying in the ministry - I'm tempted to say it's a matter of persevering as a Christian. (205)

Don't over-emphasise physical health. Caring for our bodies shouldn't be central to our Christian lives. Paul says physical training is "of some value" (1 Tim 4:8), but he's far more concerned that we lay down our lives in God's service. So Piper says,

[P]lease don't interpret this ... as a kind of chipper health and happiness regimen. ... [T]he aim of this chapter ... is not maximal physical health. Nor is it to help you find ways to get the best buzz for your brain. None of that is of any interest to me. My aim is that you will find a way of life that enables you to use your mind and your five senses as effective partners in seeing the glory of God, and that you be so satisfied in him that you are willing to risk your health and your life to make him known. It may seem paradoxical, but that's the way it is: The right use of your body and your mind may enable you to see so much of God that you would sacrifice your life for Christ. (pp.200-201, 203 my emphases)

If our concern with physical health becomes obsessive, self-centred or idolatrous, and if it leads us to neglect the needs of those who have far bigger concerns than finding time to go to the gym, then it becomes greedy selfishness, not wise Christian living. There's a tendency for American Christian writers to over-emphasise the importance of physical health, often because they misunderstand the Bible's reference to our bodies as the "temple of the Spirit" (1 Cor 6:19-20) as encouraging care for our bodies rather than holiness. This feeds right into our society's obsession with health, fitness and dieting. Piper's theology of exercise is unusually astute and balanced (p.202). He's right to recall us to sensible self-discipline and care for our bodies. He's also right to encourage us to be willing to give up our health and even our lives in God's service.

Bringing it together

It's a little ironic, but as I sit hunched over the computer, neglecting a certain amount of exercise and rest to write these posts, it's these words which come to mind:

To sit long in one posture, poring over a book ... is itself a taxing of nature; but add to this a badly ventilated room, a body which has long been without muscular exercise, and a heart burdened with many cares, and we have all the elements for preparing a seething cauldron of despair . . . He who forgets the humming of the bees among the heather, the cooing of the wood-pigeons in the forest, the song of birds in the woods, the rippling of rills among the rushes, and the sighing of the wind among the pines, needs not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows heavy. A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours’ ramble in the beech woods’ umbrageous calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive. (quote from C Spurgeon on p.204 extended)

How important this has been in my own fight for joy! As I walk through God's world and think and pray, I practise both of Piper's means for using the world in the fight for joy: I see God's glory revealed in the things around me, and I help my body to become a partner in the fight for joy through rest, exercise and the refreshing beauty of God's good world.

Questions for discussion and reflection:
Are the ideas of "creaturely meditation", and caring for our bodies to make them partners in the fight for joy, new to you? How can you do these things without obsessively and greedily pursuing new experiences or physical health? What changes would you like to make in your life as a result of what you've read (pick one or two things!)?

images are from Janielle Beh,, mrhayata, and saturn at flickr, except for image of women in gym, which is from stock.xchng

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