Creator and Culture, and Anticipating a Redeemed Earth
I recently received this good letter, and I'm going to respond to it in this blog.
I am a missionary in Africa, and I wanted to thank Randy for his book on Heaven. It was a blessing to read and provided much food for thought. I found it freeing as well. I felt the freedom to go out and plant some flowers in our hard-packed dirt yard to add some beauty. In my mind it was no longer a waste of time.
As I thought about the importance of keeping an "eternal perspective," remembering where we are headed, I longed for music that would specifically focus my thoughts in that direction. For me, music is a wonderful way to help me meditate on God's truths.
For those with time on your hands, or interest in what she's talking about, here are some things that she may have been thinking of, or at least a tweaked version of them, mostly from my book Heaven:
A Christian I met in passing once told me it troubled him that he really didn’t long for Heaven. Instead, he yearned for an Earth that was like God meant it to be. He didn’t desire a Heaven out there somewhere, but an Earth under his feet, where God was glorified. He felt guilty and unspiritual for this desire.
At the time, my eyes hadn’t been opened to Scripture’s promise of the New Earth. If I could talk with that man again (I hope he reads this), I’d tell him what I should have told him the first time—that his longing was biblical and right. In fact, the very place he’s always longed for, an Earth where God was fully glorified, is the place where he will live forever.
To say “This world is not your home” to a person who’s fully alive and alert to the wonders of the world is like throwing a bucket of water on kindling’s blaze. We should fan the flames of that blaze to help it spread, not seek to put it out.
Otherwise, we malign our God-given instinct to love the earthly home God made for us. And we reduce “spirituality” into a denial of art, culture, science, sports, education, and all else human. When we do this, we set ourselves up for hypocrisy—for we may pretend to disdain the world while sitting in church, but when we get in the car we turn on our favorite music and head home to barbecue with friends, watch a ball game, play golf, ride bikes, work in the garden, or curl up savoring a cup of coffee and a good book.
We do these things not because we are sinners but because we are people. We will still be people when we die and go to Heaven. This isn’t a disappointing reality—it’s God’s plan. He made us as we are—except the sin part, which has nothing to do with friends, eating, sports, gardening, or reading.
We get tired of ourselves, of others, of sin and suffering and crime and death. Yet we love the earth, don’t we? I love the spaciousness of the night sky over the desert. I love the coziness of sitting next to Nanci on the couch in front of the fireplace, blanket over us and dog snuggled next to us. (Okay, it's too warm for that in July, but seven months of the year, or maybe nine, that applies in Oregon.)
These experiences are not Heaven—but they are foretastes of Heaven. What we love about this life are the things that resonate with the life we were made for. The things we love are not merely the best this life has to offer—they are previews of the greater life to come.
Do you think God is pleased when we enjoy a good meal, a football game, laughter with friends, a cozy fire, or a good book? Your answer to that question not only demonstrates your view of God but also indicates the degree to which you are able to enjoy life. And it will determine how much you will look forward to the resurrection and what the Bible calls the New Earth.
I mean, did you see Wimbledon on Sunday? In the greatest tennis match in history (and I've seen some of the greatest classics), Nadal beats Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7. It was unbelievable. Wonderful. Do you think God didn't make us to play, and to love to play? And to celebrate and find pleasure in athletic excellence?
Scripture says, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). God, not wealth, should be the object of our hope. But God is also the one who richly grants us his provisions, which are intended for our enjoyment.
Failure to understand the goodness of God’s creation has blinded countless people from seeing Heaven as a place of great pleasure and enjoyment. Instead, they think that for Heaven to be “spiritual,” it must somehow be drab, unappealing, and bereft of “earthly” things, which they consider unspiritual.
God’s first commandment is that we should put no created thing before him. We should never make what he has created into a God substitute. But sometimes we wrongly conclude that people and things and pleasures are therefore bad, forgetting that it was God himself who made them.
God is not up in Heaven frowning at us and saying, “Stop it—you should find joy only in me.” This would be as foreign to our heavenly Father’s nature as it would be to mine as an earthly father if I gave my daughters a Christmas gift and then pouted because they enjoyed it too much. No, I gave the gift to bring joy to them and to me. I am delighted when they enjoy the gifts I’ve given them. If they didn’t, I’d be disappointed. Their pleasure in my gift to them draws them closer to me.
Though preoccupation with a God-given gift can turn into idolatry, enjoying that same gift with a grateful heart can draw us closer to God. In Heaven, we’ll have no capacity to turn people or things into idols. When we find joy in God’s gifts, we’ll find our joy in him. Enjoying God’s gifts to us should never move us away from him; it should always draw us closer.
All secondary joys are derivative in nature. They cannot be separated from our primary joy, which is God. Flowers are beautiful because God is beautiful. Rainbows are stunning because God is stunning. Puppies are delightful because God is delightful. Sports are fun because God is fun. Study is rewarding because God is rewarding. Work is fulfilling because God is fulfilling.
Ironically, sometimes people who are the most determined to avoid the sacrilege of putting things before God miss a thousand daily opportunities to thank him, praise him, and draw near to him because they imagine they shouldn’t enjoy the very things that God has made to help us know him and love him.
God is a lavish giver. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). The God who gave us his Son delights to graciously give us “all things.” These “things” are in addition to Christ, but they are never instead of him—they come “along with him.”
If we didn’t have Christ, we would have nothing. But because we have Christ, we have everything. Hence, we can enjoy the people and things that God has made, and in the process we enjoy the God who designed and provided them for his own pleasure and ours.
God welcomes prayers of thanksgiving for meals, warm fires, games, books, hobbies, sex, and every other good thing. When we fail to acknowledge God as the source of all good things, we fail to give him the recognition and glory he deserves. We separate God from joy, which is like trying to separate heat from fire or wetness from rain.
Have you seen the movie Babette’s Feast? When I was writing my book Heaven, my Tyndale House editor (and friend) Dave Lindstedt recommended it. Nanci and I just loved it (okay, I loved it a little more than she did; she's more of a Hunt for Red October type of gal). Babette's Feast depicts a conservative Christian sect that renounces “worldly” distractions—until Babette prepares an unforgettable dinner that opens their eyes to the richness of God’s provision. When we partake in heartfelt gratitude to God, these things draw us closer to God, not away from him. That’s precisely what all things and all beings in Heaven will do—draw us to God.
In our lives on Earth, we should see God everywhere in his creation: in the food we eat, the friendships we enjoy, and the pleasures of family, work, and hobbies. But we should never let these secondary pleasures eclipse our love for God (and thus we, in fact, must sometimes forgo them). We should thank him for all of life’s joys, large and small, and allow them to draw us closer to Him.
If you're still reading, does that make sense to you? (If you're not, it probably doesn't.)
Photo credit: Aleksandra P. via Freeimages