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Thinking this through …

Eugene Peterson gave a wonderful explanation of Baalism:

Do we realize how almost exactly the Baal culture of Canaan is reproduced in American church culture? Baal religion is about what makes you feel good. Baal worship is a total immersion in what I can get out of it. And of course, it was incredibly successful. The Baal priests could gather crowds that outnumbered followers of Yahweh 20 to 1. There was sex, there was excitement, there was music, there was ecstasy, there was dance. “We got girls over here, friends. We got statues, girls, and festivals.” This was great stuff. And what did the Hebrews have to offer in response? The Word. What’s the Word? Well, Hebrews had festivals, at least!

He is quite right. But as I have been thinking of this, I see that I can easily fall into an equal and opposite trap.

In Book IX of Augustine’s On the Trinity, he makes this observation, “For no one willingly does anything which he has not first said in his heart.” (Nemo enim aliquid volens facit, quod non in corde suo prius dixerit.)

What then makes such a thing “willing”? He next says that the word which conceived “by love (amore), either of the creature or of the Creator.”

[Conceived] therefore, either by desire or by love: not that the creature ought not to be loved; but if that love [of the creature] is referred to the Creator, then it will not be desire (cupiditas), but love (caritas). For it is desire when the creature is loved for itself. And then it does not help a man through making use of it, but corrupts him in the enjoying it.

Augustine of Hippo, “On the Trinity,” in St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Arthur West Haddan, vol. 3, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 131. We either have a desire or longing for the creature as an end in itself; or we have love toward God. (The word here for love “caritas” is used to translate agape in 1 Corinthians 13.)

There is a laying hold of the creature as an end in itself; or there is a seeing through the creature to the Creator:

Romans 1:19–25 (ESV)

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

One thing which struck me here was the implicit Gnosticism which so easily infects my understanding of the creation. John writes:

1 John 2:15–17 (ESV)

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

I find myself – and find in the ‘spiritual’ talk of others this tendency to think that fo the physical as the equivalent of “the world”. But Jesus himself expressly confirms that we “need” such things:

Matthew 6:31–32 (ESV)

31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.

The trouble does not lie in the physical things per se. The trouble lies in the relationship to such things. It lies in the creature as an end-in-itself.

But to get this wrong leads to a painful and inhuman problem: on one hand there physical things in this world for which I have inclination, they are embodied, tangible, they appeal to my senses. On the other hand, there is God who is then reduced to a bare concept. And thus, God becomes less real than a sight or a sound.

But Augustine, informed by the Scripture, notes that this thing is only rightly known and used if it is known and used in the context of God. As Paul writes:

1 Timothy 4:1–5 (ESV)

4 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

The creature is received with thankfulness – which is precisely what Paul condemns in the unbeliever of Romans 1. And thus, my implicit Gnosticism in thinking in reducing my relationship to God to an idea, makes me co-belligerent with the condemned man in Romans 1!

It also reduces relationship to the creation as one of sin in all cases, which then makes actual sinful relationship not that much different.

Jesus however looks at birds and flowers and sees teachers. He receives a meal and gives thanks.

This orientation of thankfulness actually permits easy interaction with the creation without sin: If I can receive this thing in holy thankfulness, then I will not sin in the use of it. But since that could easily be misunderstood as license, I will use this illustration from Bishop Ryle’s chapter on William Romaine:

He was one evening invited to a friend’s house, and, after tea, the lady of the house asked him to play cards, to which he made no objection. The cards were brought out, and when all were ready to begin playing, Romaine said, “Let us ask the blessing of God.” “Ask the blessing of God!” said the lady in great surprise; “I never heard of such a thing before a game of cards.” Romaine then inquired, “Ought we to engage in anything on which we cannot ask God’s blessing?” This reproof put an end to the card-playing.

On another occasion he was addressed by a lady, who expressed the great pleasure she had enjoyed under his preaching, and added that she could comply with his requirements, with the exception of one thing. “And what is that?” asked Romaine. “Cards, sir,” was the reply. “You think you could not be happy without them?” “No, sir, I know I could not.” “Then, madam,” said he, “cards are your God, and they must save you.” It is recorded that this pointed remark led to serious reflections, and finally to the abandonment of card playing.

Now what precisely about cards is the problem, I am not quite certain. But what I do know is that the orientation and test is correct. If I cannot ask God’s blessing upon the thing, then I cannot do the thing. God has specified what he will bless and what he will curse.

When I give heed to that instruction in thankfulness for the wisdom of God, I am freed from the sin of action and the sin of legalism (As Sinclair Ferguson helpfully explains, legalism is to take up God’s law in the absence of God’s person. It is the conduct without the relationship.)

And so, I see that I have this bent to cheat God of his glory (they did not honor him as God, nor were they thankful) – disguised as obedience! This is certainly not my only fault ….