Need and Desire
There was nothing indicating that the gift of Joe Rigney’s The Things of Earth was a direct response to my post, but the timing provides strong circumstantial evidence. And I’m glad to report that Rigney largely avoids the pitfalls of which I complained – which is just as well, as a book that is about enjoying the gifts of God and was unpleasant to read would come squarely under the ‘epic fail’ category. If there is one stylistic area where perhaps I would have wanted to wield a more merciless editorial pen it would be the length – not that the book is huge, but I think many people I would like to read it will probably be put off by its length. To be fair, Rigney warns about this in the introduction, “I won’t lie to you. There will be some heavy theology in this book. And I can be a bit wordy at times (I’m a college professor, after all).” That is fair enough, but to stand much chance of being widely read other than by pastors who like words and heavy theology, it could have been snappier.
As to the thesis of the book, well I was already pretty much on the same page, so my head was nodding as I read, rather than shaking.
Before Christmas I preached on the subject of greed, and chose as the (obvious) text 1 Timothy 6:8, If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. This is a favourite ‘wartime’ (to quote Rigney, who is quoting Piper) verse: so long as I have the minimum needed for survival, that is fine – that is all I need, and it is all a wartime mentality allows.
As I’ve thought on this verse, I have been aware of just how thin is the line between need and desire. In this instance, the reality is I need food, but I also desire food. This gets more complex because it is undoubtedly the case that not all my desires are wrong – sometimes need and desire overlap. It is surely not wrong for a hungry man to desire food in his belly. The question that then has to be wrestled with is, when does my desire for food, which is born of a need for food, cross a line into becoming greed?
This gets more complex still when we appreciate that our desires can themselves constitute a legitimate need. Take the items Paul tells us we are to be content with: food and clothing. Functionally, all I need is sufficient nutrition to keep me alive and reasonably healthy, and sufficient clothing to keep me warm, dry and decent. Theoretically, the provision of such needs could be devolved entirely to governments, who could supply all that their citizens functionally need, in the form of a nutrition shake, and a Chairman Mao suit. Functionally, this is all that I need; but as a human I desire and need something more: something more emotionally and aesthetically satisfying. Beauty matters, appearance matters and taste matters: to ignore this dehumanises us. The uniform supply of nutrition shakes and Chairman Mao suits to a population would be enslaving, not freeing. It would be a denial of our made-in-the-image-of-God-ness.
We also know (because sin is so sly) that attempts to appear non-greedy can actually be manifestations of the deadly sin of pride. Certainly, I have known individual Christians, and whole congregations, in which there has been a manifest pride in being shabby. The line seems to be that the less the pastor is paid, the uglier the building looks, and the more amateurishly things are organised, the more spiritual the church really is, because all we need is food and clothing. Of course, there is nothing genuinely spiritual about this shabbiness – it is no more commendable than the shabbiness of Scrooge. Actually, it can itself be a kind of greed, just as Scrooge was a greedy man, while living like a pauper.
Rigney handles these type of issues well. Even if there are sections you choose to skim, there are places where it is worth pausing and pondering. For me, the price of the book would be worth it if only for Rigney’s reworking of Romans 1, as seen “on the other side of the new birth” (p169).
I didn’t pay for it, but it would still be worth it. I don’t want to be greedy.