Tuesday, February 28, 2006

For me to live is Christ

In his sermon series on Philippians, Martyn Lloyd-Jones has an exposition of Phil 1:21, entitled “He and He Alone.”

In this chapter, Lloyd-Jones has an interesting and useful breakdown of the various approaches to life. Among other things, he says the following:

“What, then, is life? What is living?

Now there are, of course, large numbers of people who never think at all about the meaning of life. Life to them just means existence, a kind of animal condition, or a state almost like that of a plant or flower. There are many people who have no philosophy whatever. Here they are in this amazing thing called life; they have this astounding gift of being, and yet they go through without contemplating it. They never stop to ask what it means, they just go on from day to day, eating and drinking, without any such thoughts at all.

Then there is what we might well call the Epicurean view of life…it is amazing to notice the numbers of people who, in they answered honestly, would have to say that to them that is life—that round of one pleasure after another. It is tragic, but it is true. How often have we heard of people leaving the provinces and going to live in the big cities because they want to see ‘life.’ They pity the people whom they have left behind because life to them means an opportunity for pleasure.

But there is another view which we may describe as the Stoic’s view of life. It is more intelligent than the Epicurean’s and it expresses itself like this: life is something which has to be endured. The Stoic does not keep a perpetual grin on his face and say: “Isn’t everything wonderful?’…And, alas, there are large numbers, who, if you were to ask them what living is all about, would have to say that it is a battle with circumstance and chance.

And then today, and always in times like this, when life is particularly difficult, there is the cynic’s view of life…It is perhaps a peculiar temptation in a time like this, when so much idealism has been falsified and so many bright hopes have been dashed to the ground.

Then, to advance up the scale, there is the view that may be described as the mystic’s view of life. It is important that we should understand this, because oftentimes the Christian view has been mistaken for what I am describing as that of the mystic…The typical mystic’s view is that life and all its ills are ultimately due to the flesh, and that salvation is to be found by going out of the flesh and not being identified with it. Consequently, the mystic spends his time in trying to mortify the flesh; he tries to live in a passive manner, not allowing the world to influence or affect him. That is his outlook, a kind of dying to the world and adopting a purely passive attitude.

But let me now go on to what I would describe as the average man’s view of life and this is where the word of the Apostle tests us so profoundly. Christian people, members of Christian churches, if we were asked, ‘What is living to you?…is it not true that many of us would have to admit and confess that it means our families, our homes, our work, our occupations, our activities in this life? Does not living often mean to many of us the companionship and love of our loved ones, the home life and circle?…and when they are taken from us, our life, our world, collapses and we have nothing left.

But let me go on. There is the humanist’s view. To the humanist living means an opportunity of doing good, of improving the world and uplifting the state of society.

Then let us go on to what we may call the religious view of life, and I am putting it like this to differentiate it from the Christian view. There are some people, who, if you ask them, ‘What is life?” are bound to say that it means being religious and performing religious duties…sometimes, I have to talk to men and women who have led very active lives in church circles and who, when they have been taken ill, seem to have nothing left to them.

Shall I go further and put it like this: living, to the Christian does not even mean God…A Jew or a Muslim can say quite honestly that life to him means God, and there are many in the world who can say that God is the center of their lives.

What, then, does [Paul] mean by life?…Perhaps the best way of putting it is like this: the thing that Paul is really saying about himself is that he is in love with Christ. He loves him and, as is always true of love, that love dominates his life and controls it. That is what I live for, he says, that is the nature and object of it all,” The Life of Joy: An Exposition of Philippians 1 & 2 (Baker (1993), 88-92.

This breakdown is full of wisdom and insight. Lloyd-Jones had an interesting mind.

But he’s not the first person you should turn to for exegesis. He’s a big picture kind of guy. Strong on doctrine and experimental religion. But for detailed exegesis you need to look elsewhere.

And while there’s a lot of truth in what he says here, there is also a leavening of error, and a very harmful error at that.

For while he rejects the mystical view of life, his own view of the Christian life does, in some measure, partake of that otherworldly piety. And there are two or three problems with this.

i) It’s quite true that fallen men can enjoy the natural goods of God’s creation as a substitute for God himself.

This is how the unbeliever can find as much satisfaction in life as he does. For the handiwork of God is, indeed, something good and something to be enjoyed. Herein lies the half-truth of hedonism.

But hedonism and mysticism are two sides of the same coin. They both separate living for God from mundane existence.

And yet, for a Christian, you can live for God by, in some large measuring, living through the things that God has given us. You can find God in the people he sends us. You can find God in the good things of life as they fall from his hand. God comes to us in what he gives us. In his mercy and loving-kindness.

That’s not how you find the gospel. That’s not the way to heaven.

But just as you can learn a lot about a painter from a painting, you can experience God through his handiwork.

ii) It’s true that the creature is not a substitute for the Creator.

But there’s a flip side to that negation: the Creator is no substitute for the creature.

For example, loving God is no substitute for having a wife or children. And it was never meant to be. That’s why God makes provision for marriage.

We are emotionally dependent on many things. And the Bible actually has a rather lusty outlook on life. Read the Psalms. Read Proverbs. Read the Song of Solomon!

It is not “he and he alone.”

iii) And this brings us to the next point. As a matter of fact, our experience of God is, in this life, bound to be mediate rather than immediate.

In this life, Christ is an object of faith and hope rather than sight and touch. He’s not like a friend or father or brother whom you can see and hear and touch. You can’t have a real conversation with him. You can’t do things with him. Go places together. Have lunch. Walk on the beach. Take a stroll in the park.

It’s not that kind of relationship. In this life, it’s more like how we relate to a character in a book.

There’s a little more to it than that. There’s the inner experience of God’s grace in our lives through the Holy Spirit. There’s the outward experience of God’s providential care. There’s the life of prayer.

iv) But having said all that, it’s unrealistic to suppose that a Christian either can or should feel the same way about Jesus that he feels about a father or mother or son or daughter, his wife or his best friend.

There’s not that immediacy. Not that physical proximity. Not that give-and-take.

As a rule, the way we become emotionally close to someone is to be physically close to a person. That’s true, both in terms of sexual and asexual affection.

v) The danger of attempting to cultivate an otherworldly piety is that it’s artificial and inauthentic. We don’t really feel that way. And try as we might, we’re unable to feel that way.

And this can easily turn into a hypocritical piety. We feign a level of attachment or intimacy which we really don’t feel.

Or else it can foster a gnawing dissatisfaction. An expectation we can never live up to.

In this life, our attitude towards Christ is going to be, in no small part, a dutiful attitude rather than a spontaneous outpouring. More mental than emotional—an act of faith.

This is not to eliminate the emotional dimension entirely, but merely to make allowance for the distance of the object.

vi) A Christian is free to live his life anyway he pleases as long as he doesn’t commit sin. For, if it isn’t sin, it’s good.

The Bible is quite specific and detailed about what’s a sin and what is not.

As long as we’re not sinning, we doing good. We’re sharing in the good of God’s good handiwork. Celebrating his handiwork.

This is not in competition with the love of God. Rather, it’s an occasion to give thanks for his many blessings.


  1. Hm, thanks, that was thought-provoking. So, then, and for the Christian, could we likewise say it is sin to not enjoy that which is good?

    (Not sure if I'm just restating what you said in a different way, but anyway, thought I'd ask. Thanks.)

  2. You seem to be uncharacteristically meandering in this post.

    For instance, you correctly identify that it is via the Holy Spirit that we are connected to Christ, rather than having some kind of strange, unworkable physical connection to the man Christ Himself), yet after acknowledging this you go back to talking about all the problems one encounters when one tries to connect with Christ Himself, and that the solution is to accept what the world offers in terms of emotional connection with physical beings (etc.) as if you've forgotten what you just stated regarding the Holy Spirit.

    Calvin was strong on the theme that we aren't to pretend that this world holds anything for us. We're not only strangers here (in the world, not of the world), but we don't desire the things of the world. Our hope is in the higher world. Calvin made this a theme because the natural pull for a Christian is in the other direction, to justify indulging in and attachment to worldly things because it just sounds weak (some would also inevitably say 'gnostic') to disdain this world and have our eye and hope on the higher world. In other words Calvin said: "Yeah, yeah, I know the arguments and the sentiments about not disdaining the flesh and the good things of this world, blah, blah, but you're a Christian, are you not? You disdain this world and you have your hope in the higher world. As wimpy as that sounds, and as much as the world can and will accuse you of being weak, you have to get over the hump of conforming to what the world wants you to be attached to and you have to get over justifying your attachmenet to worldly things, and fully have your mind and heart and will set on the higher world."

    It's also no coincidence that Calvin is known as the theologian of the Holy Spirit. He is very clear about how we connect with Christ.

    The fact is: there is necessity for Christian families and family men. Obviously. Yet that's not an end in itself. When 'family' is made an end you see what you see in churches today. The feminization of churches and the worldliness of churches, because there is nothing more worldly than the values and concerns surrounding 'family.'

    Family time at the church. That is not the faith. A Christian is not defined as somebody who is married with kids.

  3. Patrick,

    I also like your way of inverting my equation. Both angles are worth exploring.

  4. "This is not to eliminate the emotional dimension entirely, but merely to make allowance for the distance of the object."

    This as well as other comments here seem on the mark. Would I be wrong to say that you do not see emotions/affections are the primary part of religion a la J. Edwards? I don't see these comments to reflect Christian hedonism. Am I wrong?