We just got home from a lovely trip to Florence, Italy where we experienced some wonderful art, architecture, and most of all food. Florence is a beautiful city in the heart of Tuscany which epitomizes the warm Italian culture and the example of savoring the basic pleasures of life.
On the plane ride over, I started reading a book I highly recommend called "Follow Me" by David Platt. It's a hard hitting commentary on how we within our western culture have watered down what it means to be a follower of Christ.
To give you a little taste, Platt says at one point, "Superficial religion involves a counterfeit "Christian" life that consists of nothing more than truths to believe and things to do, and it misses the essence of what it means to follow Jesus. Supernatural regeneration, on the other hand, involves an authentic Christian life that has been awakened by the Spirit, truth, love passion, power, and purpose of Jesus."
Wow. So needless to say, by the time I got off the plane in Italy, I was exhausted, but ready to both enjoy my vacation and focus on serving Christ in the midst of it all. I was super ready and open to be used by God, or so I thought.
Then I got tripped up by something I've struggled with before: the tricky nature of balancing the often difficult sides of real life with the temptation to numb this reality with worldly pleasures. Let me explain.
The first morning we were there, we made the mistake of turning on the morning news. The international version of CNN was one of only two channels actually in English, with the other one being a strange mix of reality tv shows. It may have been the better choice since I find the news in Europe quite depressing.
I realized how different the news broadcasts are over in that part of the world as story after story was told of terror attacks, sex slavery, stories of incomprehensible abuse, fear, famine, financial collapse, refugee horrors, etc. Since all of the countries involved are essentially neighbors, their world view is vastly different than our own. They are geographically in the heart of these issues and there is no escape.
Except for the occasional traumatic situation we encounter, those of us in this country can stay somewhat removed and in our own comfort zone. I found myself longing for the "fluff" pieces that our own morning news programs distract us with. The stories of celebrities and their latest senseless escapades or tips on planning our next "holiday" party.
While hearing about these real, inescapable struggles, I no longer focused on how to follow Christ in the midst of it all, or even about how to possibly share that idea with others. I just wanted to escape from the harsh realities of the life I was seeing. All I wanted to do was to see some pretty buildings,eat some yummy food and of course have a cappuccino or two. That's the world I wanted to experience.
Each day that became the cycle. See the news-deny the reality-have a cappuccino and pastry and try to think of happy things. It became a constant struggle within my own heart.
As I started to think it all through, I realized how natural it is for us to run; run to things to numb us or at least distract us from the hard things in life. That's why vacations are so powerful because it gives us a chance to get away and turn to food, alcohol, shopping, and a list of worldly pleasures.
We do the same thing in our daily lives as well. Some things are obviously destructive but some are much more subtle. In my pursuit to distract myself in Italy, I walked into many elaborate, beautiful churches and was hit with the realization that even religion can become a distraction that we can use to shift our focus off of the true needs of others in order to soothe the aching in our own soul.
As we headed back home and I once again picked up the book, I determined there has to be a better way. There has to be a way to merge the two forces at work; the reality of evil and hardship in the world and the hope and joy that comes from knowing and following Christ in the midst. There has to be a way to enjoy the pleasures of this world without using them as a "substance" to make us forget about what we don't want to face.
So, within my own theory of eliminating the things that blindside us from seeing the truth of how God wants us to live and operate in the world, I have been thinking through which thoughts and behaviors I need to get rid of and which ones I need to enhance.
I need to get rid of:
- the desire to run away from the idea that life is hard, there are evil people doing horrible things, and the world does not operate the way God had created it to
- the desire to turn to pleasures that seem to work for a moment, but will not truly give me the long-term relief that I am after
- the idea that my focus needs to be exclusive: focus on the seriousness of life's struggles and deny pleasures (mostly out of guilt that I have the opportunity-unlike so many others), or focus on pleasures and deny reality
I need to enhance:
- the need to lean into the reality that life is hard and we will experience trials (James 1:2-3) but that God will see us through. Those of us who have accepted Christ and follow after Him have the hope of being with Him for all eternity when the struggles of this world won't even be a thought. There is no need to pretend or to turn away from it but to accept it for it's temporary nature. In the mean time, if we can resist the urge to close our eyes and engage with those who are suffering, we will be able to work alongside God Himself in ministering to those in need.
- my understanding of the purpose of pleasure in this world. God has created so many things for us to enjoy. The beauty of His creation, the variety of food, art, music, dance, physical pleasures, relationships, and technology are all things God has created or at least made possible. He wants us to enjoy life but we need to keep it all in perspective. I have started looking at all these things as just reminders of who He is and a foretaste of what is to come. If we understand this purpose, we will be less tempted to turn to these things to help us forget what don't want to deal with.
- the need to merge these two forces into a life of balance. I can see the hurts and pain of the world and figure out how I can help while also enjoying life and the gifts God blesses me with along the way without guilt. If I focus on one at the exclusion of another I am in trouble. Jesus seemed to model this by taking time to enjoy little pleasures of feasts and company of others while also caring for their greatest needs.
Here are some verses to consider:
John 16:33 I have said these things to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have over come the world.
1 Peter 5 :10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.
Ecclesiastes 5:18-19 It is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun...Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work- this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.
Psalm 73:25-26 Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon the earth that I desire besides You. And my flesh and my heart may fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
2 Corinthian 4:8-18 We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed— always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed and therefore I spoke,”we also believe and therefore speak, knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.