This morning I spent some time gazing out over our refurbished backyard while sitting on a comfy lounge chaise under a large cantilevered umbrella. In doing so, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the colours, the sounds, and the smells of spring. I found myself in awe of God’s creative power and grace as it was made known to me in this small place and experience. At the same time, I found myself meditating on the idea of worshipping God through the senses that He has given to us.
For some time, I’ve know that God made us sentient creatures so that we might know of HIs greatness in part through what we see, hear, feel, smell, and touch. But I also know that these powerful senses can get in the way of true worship. All of this comes to the fore in a mildly concentrated read of what we know as Scripture in Paul’s letter to the Romans. As I’ve been studying the first half of this book, I’ve been impressed with the potential effect of the Gospel — not only to save us from the cursed judgement of sin, but also from the accursed power of sin.
The first five chapters deal exclusively with the necessity of the Gospel (in the atonement of Jesus Christ for our sin, i.e. Romans 3:21-24) to free us from the certain judgment that hangs over everyone’s head because of the common human experience of being transgressors of God’s moral law. All of us stand condemned by virtue of our connection to Adam, our original ancestor. However this happened, we share the same disposition of disobedience to God that he and Eve expressed in the Garden of Eden. Thankfully, another man named Jesus Christ, was able to conquer sin’s condemnation by the sacrifice of His sinless life, thus propitiating forever God’s wrath upon those who would believe. By faith in Christ, we are relieved of all condemnation and are eternally welcomed into the fellowship of God Himself. This in itself is an astounding revelation and reality.
However, the question remains as to how redeemed sinners are able to live as saints — as holy sanctified individuals — while still affected by sin on every hand. God’s answer through Paul in the Book of Romans is likewise through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is what he is trying to explain in chapters 6 through 8 of Romans. Having been rescued from the condemnation of sin through faith in Christ, it is quite another thing to live successfully as redeemed people. Paul insists that we are able to do this through identifying ourselves continually with Jesus in His death and resurrection. It is God’s Law, he writes, that causes sin to be alive in our lives. BUT, in Christ’s death, we have died to the Law and now are free to be remarried to the new Law of life in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 7:4). However, if we’re not careful, we can easily slip into the old ways of allowing sin to thrive by enabling “the flesh” to control us, instead of God’s Spirit.
This is where what I wrote about at the beginning becomes so interesting! What is the difference between allowing “the flesh” (i.e. our sinful desires that are resident in our earthly minds) to dominate us, and truly enjoying our God-given senses? Obviously, God gave us our physical senses in order to enjoy what He has so beautifully created. But how does, what God intended for joy, not become a means of sin and death? Paul’s answer, in 1 Timothy 4:3, 4, is that these gifts are to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth, and that they are sanctified by the Word of God and by prayer. In his book, When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (Crossway Books, 2004), John Piper points out, in pages 187-189, that physical pleasures are made holy in our lives when we listen to what God has said about these things in His Word, and when we give him thanks through prayer. Romans 8, likewise, tells us that the difference has to do with whether our minds are controlled by our sinful natures or by the Spirit.
How we relate to physical appetites, I think, is a very critical issue — especially for those of us who are serious followers of Jesus. We need to recognize that it is not wrong to appreciate good food, sexual desire, pleasant sensation, beautiful music, eye-catching scenery, or appealing fragrances. These are to be enjoyed as gifts from God when they are received within the confines of HIs worthy intentions. But the beauty of these sensations must always be regarded as a gift from God and appreciated with a consciously (i.e. prayerful) thankful sense of His grace. The problem for all of us is that these sensations easily become ends in themselves without ANY regard for the One who gave them. Furthermore, without proper boundaries, they can become gods in themselves and thus idolatrous and death-producing. In fact, there are many times when we may actually have to deny these legitimate desires in deference to God’s higher callings.
So, we see that living the Christian life is not merely a matter of denying these beautiful desires of the soul — something so often taught or implied in a lot of Christian teaching. Rather, it is a matter of understanding the place of legitimate physical desires in relation to the larger question of who is receiving the glory and truly commanding the reins of our lives. There is every reason to enjoy beautiful sensations as long as they are practiced within God’s ordained confines (i.e. sex within marriage, food in moderation), when they do not become objects of worship, and when they are subject to the greater specific dictates of God’s Holy Spirit in our daily lives.