Up The Sunbeam

There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. –C.S. Lewis 

He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or like foam on the seashore. Out at sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are “pleasures for evermore.” He’s vulgar, Wormwood…He’s filled His world with pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least- sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.  –Screwtape

This time it wasn’t tainted. Sunrise jogs and sunset walks sandwiched shuffleboard and sandcastles and shelling. Past trips were twinged, this seaside holiday was sheer delight without a splash of guilt.
And author Joe Rigney gets some credit for that.
Rigney’s The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts was my pick for this trip. And on breezy beach and beside jasmine blooms and in bed to the waves’ lull, I read.
I read that the world was made to be a theatre of the divine glory, that every enjoyment can be a “tiny theophany,” a touch from God’s finger, and that divine glory is so woven into created enjoyment that to separate them is to do violence to both” (p. 70).

Not A Zero-Sum Gain

I don’t know how it got there. But somehow it snuck in, that when I basked with a book in the sun and licked a coconut-crunch cone in the breeze I wasn’t quite firing on all spiritual cylinders.
My faulty view of the relationship between enjoyment of God and enjoyment of God’s gifts always stained vacations. It twisted them into slightly guilty pleasures. Because deep down, I think I thought it was a zero-sum gain. An either-or.
I thought that any delight I found in the gift took away from delight in the Giver. That inasmuch as I reveled in the kiss of misty-warm ocean breeze or the sight of my mid-western boys catching waves, or the icy-sweet bliss Chocolate Coconut Crunch- inasmuch as I enjoyed the things of earth-I slighted the God who gave them.
Some of you are shocked that anyone could possibly think this way. But some of us relate to God and his gifts in what Rigney calls a comparative way. 

Rather than the integrated way where we enjoy everything in God and God in everything and receive his gifts as avenues to enjoy him, and beams of glory we chase back to the source, some of us refuse to receive what God richly provides for fear we’ll commit idolatry.

We know it’s wrong to worship created things. We know Romans one. We know our hearts are idol factories and that its making a good thing into an ultimate thing is the way we form our idols.

Didn’t John say, Don’t love the world or anything in the world. For if you love the world the love of the Father is not in him?And didn’t Paul say, Set your mind on things that are above not on earthly things?They did. Looking only at creation can be bad. In fact, Rigney writes, If “looking at” creation means seeing creation without being amazed at the God who reveals himself through it, then such, “looking at” is worse than worthless; it’s idolatrous and damnable (p. 67). 

But what sets that love of the world and those earthly things apart from my enjoyment of blazing sunsets and coconut crunch and wave-skipping kids is in what I make ultimate. Ultimate, means best and final. Is the resplendent sunset the end, are frolicking kids my final joy or do I chase them up the glory beams?

Do I prefer them to God or see God and give thanks to God in them?

Ponies and Horses and Pumpkin Crunch Cake

Joe Rigney raves about his wife Jenny, and-well-her pumpkin crunch cake. He uses the cake to show that enjoying gift and enjoying giver are not either-or.

It’s possible I could love the dessert more than my wife. The cake and my bride could be rivals, competing for my affection. However, sweets versus spouse is not the only option. If my enjoyment of the cake is real and deep and satisfying, and if it issues forth in praise of my wife, appreciation for her efforts, and acts of love (like doing some dishes), then my love for the cake is no threat to my love for her. She wants me to enjoy the pumpkin goodness; that’s why she made it! In fact, my enjoyment of the dessert serves and increases my love for her. The enjoyment of the one doesn’t cancel out the other; instead, they overlap and mutually indwell one another, and my wife is honored as a fantastic cook and a wonderful spouse in my enjoyment of her culinary creation (p. 100).

When we know that the Giver is supreme- that knowing Him is life’s ultimate, we are not only free to enjoy his gifts, but even propelled to enjoyed them.
To borrow from Lewis again, 

[T]o shrink back [from enjoying God’s gifts] is as if we ran away from horses instead of learning to ride. There is in our present pilgrim condition plenty of room (more room than most of us like) for abstinence and renunciation and mortifying our natural desires. But behind all asceticism the thought should be, “Who will trust us with the true wealth if we cannot be trusted even with wealth that perishes?” These small and perishable bodies we now have were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. We must learn to manage: not that we may someday be free of horses altogether but that someday we may ride bareback, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts…Not that the gallop would be of any value unless it were a gallop with the King; but how else-since He has retained His own charger-should we accompany Him? (Miracles, p. 266)

Enjoyment of God and enjoyment of His gifts is definitely not zero-sum. Instead, how we enjoy God’s gifts-these earthly things- paves the way for eternal joy. Provided we look up the sunbeam to the sun, from the gift to the Giver, the sky is the limit on delight. But does the sky have limits?

Looking Through The Window

Yes. This is an unabashed defense of our holiday at sea. But more. It’s a challenge to us all to look up the sunbeam to the sun from whence it streams.

That kind of seeing is setting our mind on things above. Because things above are the uncorrupted best things from below. But to look at dolphins and sunsets or even friends and kids but to stop there and not look up the sunbeam is like looking at a window instead of looking through it.
Thus, writes Rigney, we must labor to see beyond our families and food and nature and instead recognize the revelation of God in him. We’ve got to look at the gift, the sunbeam, and trace it up to him
Anchored always in gratitude we look and thank and enjoy. And that’s how we set our mind on heaven and grow to know and love the King of heaven. Because how can we set our minds and sights on things above unless we know something of what we set them on?
God knew that. That’s why he gave us senses. Randy Alcorn, too, has helped me to see that the best gifts in this life are glimpses of heaven. In fact, writes Alcorn, Heaven isn’t an extrapolation of earthly thinking; earth is an extension of Heaven, made by the Creator King. 
Which means the best, uncorrupted things of earth, like sunsets and ice cream and families, are somehow a taste of heaven. Not in a saving way, like the Word is-but in a revealing God way.
Creation is God’s language.

Creation Talks And We Hear God

Psalm 19 is an exposé of how God talks. The heavens pour forth, the skies gush glory. God is present in his created world. In sunsets and waves and forests and leaves. And in wave-skipping kids and conch shells and birdsongs and clean sheets and coffee.

Didn’t Isaiah say, the whole earth is full of his gloryDon’t the Psalmists who praise God loudest seem to love his created world the most? And if God speaks his goodness and greatness in his created world, won’t we do well to spend time savoring this speech?
We know a person through his speech. And communication increases intimacy. So it follows that,

[T]he more those divine communications increase in the creature, the more it becomes one with God; for so much the more it is united to God in love, the heart is drawn nearer and nearer to God, and the union with him becomes more firm and close, and at the same time, the creature becomes more and more conformed to God. (Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative)

It’s what Rigney calls godwardness. That’s his term for doing 1 Corinthians 10:31-for doing all to the glory of God. And all that God created, bread and bridegroomshoney and sunall of it is show us himself.
Let that sink in. That nothing exists for itself. All things were created through him and for him (Colossians 1:16).
In a sermon on John 6, John Piper explains,

Every honorable pleasure we have in the created world is designed by God to give us a faint taste of heaven and make us hunger for Christ. Every partial satisfaction in this life points to the perfect satisfaction in Jesus who made the world.

The pleasures of warm bread should send our senses and our spirits to Christ as the bread of life. The pleasures of cold water when we’re hot and thirsty should send our senses and our spirits to Christ as the living water. The pleasures of light making all other natural beauties visible and should send our senses and our spirits to Christ as the true light of the world. 

God speaks in every sunrise and sea breeze and in every blossom and bird, in bread and wine and water. With eyes to see we learn his language- and see and see through-his creation.
Which means, writes Rigney, that we don’t need to fear the intensity of joy we feel in created things. There’s no guilty pleasure. Provided we are anchored in a supreme love for God, then, when our love for one of the gifts shoots through the roof like a rocket, it carries our love for God along with it, lifting it to new unforeseen heights

But he goes further. He adds, in a sense, we rob ourselves of potent worship if we detach from the gifts or rush through our enjoyment of creation. The times of what Rigney calls indirect godwardness- when we’re not explicitly praying or in the Word or singing praise- then become haunted by the Holy Spirit. In all things we start to see God.

Paul prayed that the Ephesians would have power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth and know God’s love that surpasses knowledge.

One of the big ways God gives our hearts and minds a spiritual workout is communicating his goodness to us through created gifts (p. 221). And so our delighting, guilt-free, in God’s gifts is benefits us both. Or as Piper says, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

Which means, by extension, that the more we gratefully enjoy God gifts, the more we know Him and our love for Him grows. Every time a pleasures in a gift shoots through the roof, it takes God with it, swelling our capacity to know him

And knowing him and his love, to be glad and grateful and give.

Embrace “Creatureliness”

To be a creature is to need and receive. For what do you have that we did not receiveRigney again, The great privilege of man is to receive everything that God gives in all the ways that he gives it, and then to know it and enjoy it and delight in it and sing about it, and to know him in it and to enjoy him in it and to sing about him in it. 

He concludes his book that helped me so much,

[E]mbrace your creatureliness…Embrace the fact that creation is a magic glass, the kind that allows you to see God more clearly the thicker it becomes. Embrace your body and your five senses and the wonders that they can perceive and receive in the world… Anchor yourself in a supreme, full, and expanding love for God and then let your enjoyment of his gifts run wild. 

And live grateful. For really, how can we not? Since,

Gratitude is the posture of the soul that most readily increases receptivity. Gratitude demands humility, since only those who acknowledge their dependence, their need, and their delight in the goodness and kindness of another can be grateful. Give thanks always and for everything.  

Gazing at Sanibel sunsets and tasting creamy-sweetness and feeling ocean breezes, these-far from taking glory from God-actually help me know and love God more. These things of earth make me grateful-and I pray-make me a more lavish giver, like Him.
So why should we delight in kids and dolphins and doughnuts and ice cream and breezes and sky? Why, again, should we revel in sunsets and sea?

Because, Rigney reminds us,

Creation is communication from the triune God. God loved his Trinitarian fullness so much that he created a world to communicate that fullness ad extra, outside himself. And not just any world- a world full of fish tacos, tickle fights, afternoon naps, Cajun seafood, back rubs, wool house shoes, and church softball. The infinite, eternal God created something that is not God but nevertheless really and truly reflects and reveals God…

As a result, creation is glorious, created shafts of divine glory. As the light of the sun is refracted by water droplets into a rainbow, so creation refracts the glory of God, allowing the full spectrum of his beauty to be displayed for the knowledge and enjoyment of his people. Created glory mediates divine glory so that when we chase the pleasures up the beam to the source, we arrive at the joy of joys, the river of delights, the person of persons, the living God and Father of all, at Christ (p. 74).

And what on earth-or in heaven-could possibly be better?

The sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blew. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures forevermore. There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate event, something to be done afterwards. To experience the tiny theophany is itself to adore…

One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun. 

-Lewis, Letters to Malcolm

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. In them he has set a tent for the su, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and like a strong man, runs its course with joy.

Psalm 19:1, 2, 5