Why I Won’t Be Doing Dry January
“He loves you less who together with you loves something which he does not love for your sake.”
This sentence comes in the middle of St Augustine’s famous paragraph in the Confessions which begins and ends with the more famous statement, “Grant what you command, and command what you will.” This is a crucial paragraph, which has shaped theological discussion for most of the history of the church. It was in reaction to it that the Pelagian controversy unfolded and thus marks the dividing line between those who understand salvation and ethical action to be entirely a work of grace, and those who understand man to have the intrinsic power to live ethically.
It was Augustine, rather than Pelagius, who truly understood the gospel, but it is Pelagius who has so often carried the day in the preaching of the church, and in the wider culture. A Pelagian, “Let’s try a little bit harder” seems so much more accomplishable than Augustine’s “My God, set me on fire.”
So I have been thinking, what does it mean to say with Augustine that, “He loves you less who together with you loves something which he does not love for your sake”? What does it mean to love something for the sake of God? On the one hand, there is a fairly easy, preachers’ illustration, answer to this – basically, don’t make anything (even a good thing) into an idol. Don’t put anything before God. That is all very well, and is a message I have preached myself more than once, but it is essentially a negative argument. What it doesn’t really help me with is how I am to actively – positively – love something, for the sake of God.
Let’s take a for instance – say I am given a good bottle of wine. Now I won’t make that bottle my idol – it won’t take control of my life. I will recognise it for what is – a consumable object, not a god. Yet at the same time there will be a number of ways in which I may feel a form of love for that bottle of wine. There is the aesthetic pleasure of a heavy wine bottle itself, an object that feels satisfying in the hand. There might also be an appreciation of the label – again, aesthetically, if it is well designed, but also for what it reveals about the contents of the bottle, and the anticipation that creates. Then there are further aesthetic pleasures of cutting through the lead foil and pulling the cork. And all that is before even getting to drink the stuff!
What then does it mean to experience these pleasures – this love – for God’s sake? And what about those things that are more significant and more worthy of my love than a bottle of wine – my wife, for instance, or my children, or friends?
Does it mean that I should be permanently, consciously, aware of God as I am feeling love for these other things? Perhaps, but that in itself would seem to devalue those other things when they demand my full focus and attention. A really absorbing book renders awareness of other things difficult, as does absorbed attention in an engaging task at work. And there are times when my mind and body are meant to be focussed fully on my wife, and not diverted elsewhere. So if I give this kind of focussed attention to something does that mean I am guilty of loving God less?
The route that Augustine navigated through these problems would seem to many of us somewhat ascetic. As he himself admits, “Sometimes…by taking excessive safeguards against being led astray, I err on the side of too much severity.” But before being too quick to condemn Augustine for this we need to see his underlying motive, which is to keep God at the centre of his experience. This means that Augustine does not regard physical pleasures (food, drink, sex) as inherently sinful, but recognises their capacity to lead to sin. As he expresses it, “It is not the impurity of food I fear but that of uncontrolled desire.”
Even this, though, seems to fall short of the enjoyment in pleasures that the Bible expects the people of God to know. The advice of Martin Luther to a depressed friend feels easier to swallow,
Be merry, both inwardly in Christ himself and outwardly in his gifts and the good things of life. He will have it so. It is for this that he is with us. It is for this that he provides his gifts – that we may use them and be glad, and that we may praise, love and thank him forever and ever.
You are reluctant to be merry, as if this were sinful. This has often been my case, and sometimes still is. To be sure, to have pleasure in sins is of the devil, but participation in proper and honorable pleasures with good and God-fearing people is pleasing to God, even if one may at times carry playfulness too far.
Perhaps this merely reflects my cultural captivity to pleasure and entertainment, but I think it also reflects what we might call a biblical theology of merriness. This is seen in those passages that promise us aged wine and full fat meat (Is 25:6-8); that command the spending of money on party food and drink (Deut 14:26); that indicate Jesus must have actually enjoyed food and drink if he were slandered as a glutton and drunkard (Matt 11:19); and which look forward to the great eternal feast in glory (Rev 19:9).
On my desk is a smooth stone, taken from Chesil Beach. (That’s probably a criminal act, so don’t tell anybody!) Holding that stone is a pleasurable, sensual experience. It feels good in the hand, and reminds me of happy beachside moments. When I hold that stone I feel pleasure, without necessarily consciously thinking of God. Yet, as someone who has responded to the grace of God and isn’t trying to earn merit with God, there is a real sense in which God is at the heart of the pleasure I feel when I hold that stone. In a sense, I love that stone for God’s sake.
I don’t think I’ve got this totally worked out yet (and I know that idolatry is a subtle and constant foe) but it seems to me there can be a love for things that bring us pleasure without diminishing our love for God – because in the end both the thing and the pleasure it brings depends on God’s grace: Grant what you command, and command what you will.