A week or so ago, I wrote about Piperian Hedonism 3.0. Following that, a friend helpfully pointed me to Chapter 11 of John Piper’s book, When I Don’t Desire God. That chapter is entitled “How to Wield the World in the Fight for Joy.” And that chapter is filled, of course, with Piper’s usual exegetical good sense, along with his careful framing of the question before the house. Having read it, and having agreed with a bunch of it, I still want to urge us to go further up and further in. Here are a few thoughts on that.
Piper leans on C.S. Lewis’ argument in an essay called “Meditation in a Toolshed,” which is found in God in the Dock. Piper does well in acknowledging that opting out of a bodily recognition of God and His gifts is not actually possible, and the only question is how we do it, not whether. He draws on the distinction that Lewis makes between looking at something (in this case, a sunbeam), and looking along the same beam, back to the sun.
In this chapter, Piper says:
“So the question must be faced: How do we use the created world around us, including our own bodies, to help us fight for joy in God? In God, I say! Not in nature. Not in music. Not in health. Not in food or drink. Not in natural beauty. How can all these good gifts serve joy in God, and not usurp the supreme affections of our hearts” (p. 178).
“Gratitude is occasioned by a gift, but is directed to the giver” (p. 186).
And this brings us to the heart of the problem — the relationship between Giver and gift. But before addressing this, I want to appear to change the subject for a minute.
I said in my previous post on this that we needed to work through this in an explicitly Trinitarian way. But this means more than just counting everything we see in groups of three. One of the essential Trinitarian doctrines that we need to apply to this is the doctrine of perichoresis, the truth that each member of the Trinity fully indwells each of the others. For example, Jesus talks about this in the gospel of John: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:20-21). Note that the Father indwells the Son completely, and the Son indwells the Father completely. Notice also that Jesus wants the same kind of thing for us, and so perichoretic indwelling must not be a prerogative of divinity. And so I want to argue that an understanding of perichoretic indwelling helps us to address the vexed question of relating the Giver and His gifts.
Given my finite limitations, I have to think about the gifts God gives to me a lot. I have to think about the fact that my feet are not cold anymore, that it is time for dinner, that one of my shoulder blades itches, and so on. To use Lewis’ conceit from the toolshed, I have to spend a lot of time looking at the sunbeams, and a fraction of my time is set aside for direct worship of God, looking along the sunbeam. The temptation we have is that of treating all this as a zero-sum game, assuming that any time spent on the gifts is necessarily time away from the Giver. But though this sometimes happens, it does not need to happen. Rightly handled, a gift is never detached from the one who gave it. Wrongly handled, a gift can be the occasion of selfishness, which is a common problem. But it can also be the occasion of a higher form of selfishness, one which pretends to be above the whole tawdry field of “gifts in themselves.”
Picture a particularly “pious” little child who was impossible to give gifts to, because he would always unwrap it, abandon it immediately, and run up to his parent and say, “But what really counts is my relationship with you!” A selfish child playing with a toy ungratefully is forgetting the giver. This pious form of selfishness is refusing to let the giver even be a giver.
We should not assume that in the resurrection, when we have finally learned how to look along that beam, in pure worship, that our bodies will then be superfluous. God will not have given us eternal and everlasting bodies because we finally got to such a point of spiritual maturity that we are able to ignore them. In the resurrection, we will have learned something we currently struggle with, which is how to live integrated lives. If God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being, it should not be necessary, in order to glorify God, to drop everything. We shouldn’t have to keep these things in separate compartments.
Incidentally, this kind of integration will prevent dislocations from arising in families that are sold out to the glory of God. Integration will keep our neighbor (or wife, or husband, or kids) from feeling like a means to an end. There is a delicate balance here, but God is most glorified in me when I love what He has given to me, for its own sake. This is teleologically related to the macro-point of God’s glory being over all, of course, but we still have to enjoy what He gives, flat out, period, stop. Otherwise, in the resurrection, God will be looking at all the billions of His resurrected saints, standing there contentedly, looking at Him, and He will say, “You know, you people are impossible to shop for.” Which is, of course, absurd and impossible. In the resurrection, it will be possible for us to be absorbed by God’s gifts in ways that are impossible to conceive of now.
How might perichoresis help us with this? In a perichoretic world, the gift need not displace the Giver, as though they were two billiards balls. In the material world, the space that one object occupies is space that another object cannot occupy. We carry our assumptions about this over into the spiritual world, and we consequently assume that if we are thinking about meat on the grill, bees in the honeysuckle, a sweet wife in bed, beer in a frosted glass, or a full tank of gas and lots of Wyoming ahead, then we cannot be thinking about God also, or be living in gratitude before Him. But I don’t think this is the case at all.
When we think about the gifts in exclusion of the Giver, it is because we are being prideful, or selfish in some way. If we think about the Giver only, we are trying hard to be disembodied spirits — which is not how the Giver made us, and if we were paying all that much attention to the Giver, we ought to have noticed that He didn’t want to make us that way.
If I turn every gift that God gives over in my hands suspiciously, looking for the idol trap, then I am not rejoicing before Him the way I ought to be. There will likely be more on this.