Posted by: 15shekels | April 18, 2010

Back up the sunbeam

“In many areas of life, freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions. Those that fit with the reality of our nature and the world produce greater power and scope for our abilities and a deeper joy and fulfillment.” -Tim Keller, The Reason for God, page 46.

“I said [to the Christian man with whom I was speaking], ‘I don’t know about all of this. I want to be free to get drunk and party and live the way I want.’ He just smiled and said, ‘But are you free not to do those things?'” -S., recalling a conversation from high school.

When I was in college, I thought Christians were boring. I should be more specific—I thought that Christians who let their faith affect their lifestyles were boring. I heard that they were “waiting for marriage.” I heard that they not only went to church, but also met during the week to pray and read the Bible. I even heard that some of them didn’t drink until they turned 21. I didn’t understand them, I felt judged by them, and I generally chose to steer a wide radius around them. Who lives like that in college?

By the end of my sophomore year, I was spiritually curious, but I filtered through potential faith options in a 100% utilitarian fashion. The Catholicism I remembered from my childhood was boring, so that was out. The strain of conservative Protestantism paraded around by the above-mentioned goody-goodys was obviously out. I took classes on Eastern religions, but I was unsatisfied by philosophies that strove to achieve nothingness, or claimed that every single piece of the world, including mass atrocities, was part of God.

And so I improvised. I made my  religion a la carte binder, and I tried to custom-design a belief-system that contained the most comfortable, unthreatening, and inspiring elements of each religion. Anything that contained restrictions on my freedom was clearly not to be included.

I loved that binder—until I started to notice the many, many contradictions within it. At that point, I was becoming a philosophy major, and the cognitive dissonance of believing something that was logically incoherent became too much for me. I decided that my search was earnestly naive, and that I should probably just join most of my peers in their agnostic intellectualist hedonism. It was a philosophy in which words like truth and transcendence were thrown around to make people sound smart, but social freedom was never, ever encroached upon. Rules were heresy.

Thankfully, God is more stubborn than I am. And thankfully He chose to lead me to (or knock me over the head with) a few realizations:

  1. In the off-chance that any religion was true, perhaps I needed to explore all of the information. Ignoring the uncomfortable parts of belief-systems not only narrowed my pool of evidence, but it also led me to omit the most compelling pieces. It’s easy to be deceived into believing that the secret to life is seeking pleasure. But why would anyone let himself be deceived into believing in a God who calls for sacrifices?
  2. The story of Christianity, also known as the gospel, made more logical sense than anything else I learned in college.
  3. The freedoms and pleasures I had defended so fiercely were disappointing me. As I chased after the god of Fun, I found that he was always running away or hiding from me. When I cornered him every once in a while, I was always underwhelmed: Fun was kind of short, ugly and mean.

Pure hedonism is tragic, because it latches onto the gifts of the creator and worships them, rather than worshiping the source from which all good things flow. There is a reason we enjoy alcohol and parties and sex. Believe it or not, God created these things as gifts for us to enjoy. But as Tim Keller explains above, they are given to us with “liberating restrictions.” Too much alcohol makes us do things we regret, and leaves us feeling terrible the next day. Sex with many different people leaves us feeling cheapened and used, and diminishes the thrill as it becomes routine. We aren’t cheating God when we take his gifts and worship them or gorge on them. We are cheating ourselves. Chasing pleasure is the surest way to kill it.

We can, however, follow the pleasure rainbow to the pot of gold:

“Pleasures are shafts of glory as it strikes our sensibility…But aren’t there bad, unlawful pleasures? Certainly there are. But in calling them ‘bad pleasures’ I take it we are using a kind of shorthand. We mean ‘pleasures snatched by unlawful acts.’ It is the stealing of the apples that is bad, not the sweetness…I have tried since…to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration…Adoration says, ‘What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!’ One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.” -C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, pages 89-90. Quoted in John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God. Page 18.

As we approach the source, pleasure is increased, not decreased. Of course, before signing onto any faith, a person must explore for herself whether the religion is logical and supported by evidence. Whether or not Christianity is true is a different conversation entirely. But don’t avoid asking those questions because you are too busy chasing that ugly munchkin.

One last caveat: The Christian life leads to the source of joy, but that doesn’t mean it is an easy path. Following Christ involves great sacrifices, and real suffering. Furthermore, even when we know that God is the source of all goodness, we will at times veer off the path to run after Fun, or after his equally underwhelming friends Excitement, Achievement, Wealth and Passion. But on the path we have a leader, the Son who has both cut the path through the wilderness, and promised to lead us home. He gently calls us into direct sunlight, no matter how many times we try to run backwards along those sunbeams into the darkness.

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