March 3, 2002

ENJOYING LIFE

They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights. Psalm 36:8

Are you ever accused of being too happy, of having too much fun, of enjoying life more than you should? Are you ever charged with laughing too much, whistling too often, singing too loudly, eating too many calories, playing too many games, or dancing too vigorously? I hope so! If not, if you’ve never been accused of splurging and celebrating, there may be something wrong with you. You ought to enjoy life so much that sober sourpusses wonder what gives you the right to be so happy.

Outrageous joy is a major mark of a flourishing personality and a healthy relationship with God. In the Bible, King David, a man after God’s own heart, was criticized for dancing with delight rather than guarding his royal dignity (2 Samuel 6:20). Jesus, the Son of God, was slandered as “a glutton and a drunkard” because he attended too many parties and had too much fun to suit his critics (Matthew 11:19).

If you are never charged with going overboard and enjoying life too much, maybe it’s because you don’t know the God of David and Jesus. Then again, you might know God but somehow miss the fact that God is an overflowing fountain of happiness. Either way–whether you don’t know the God of the Bible at all, or know him but are missing his joy for some reason–you have a lot to learn about enjoying life.

The best way to enjoy life is to enjoy God, because God is source of all joy. King David, speaking to God about people who trust the Lord, exclaimed, “They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights” (Psalm 36:8). Would you describe your life that way? Do you feast abundantly? Do you drink and drink and drink again from a river of delights? If not, maybe the jolly Puritans could teach you a thing or two about enjoying life.

Jolly Puritans

Does it sound strange to hear of jolly Puritans? The word puritanical usually refers to stern, strict religious fanatics who want to force others to be as grumpy as they are. Puritans are equated with the Taliban: enemies of happiness who think God is pleased when people are miserable. As one old rhyme puts it,

The Puritan through life’s sweet garden goes

To pluck the thorn and cast away the rose;

And hopes to please, by this peculiar whim,

The God who fashioned it and gave it him.

That’s how Puritans have commonly been portrayed, but it’s very misleading. There may have been some grumpy, nasty Puritans, but most Puritans were not the sort of people who liked thorns more than roses. Most knew how to enjoy life.

In fact, people who actually knew the Puritans found them too happy. C.S. Lewis said of the early Puritans, “Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; Nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them.” On the contrary, they were criticized for “lewd lightness of mind and vain gladness of heart.” The Puritans took God seriously and knew they were sinners, but they believed God forgave all their sins for the sake of Jesus Christ. They believed God accepted them, loved them, and gave them eternal life as a free gift, not as something they had to earn. They were so sure of this, and so thrilled about it, that their enemies were upset and envious. Because Puritans and other Protestants rejoiced in salvation by grace through faith, the complaint against them, said C. S. Lewis, was that “Protestantism was not too grim but too glad to be true.”

Does anyone consider your faith “too glad to be true”? Such gladness is one mark of real Christianity, and the Puritans were real Christians. In England the Puritans loved Christ and worked to improve their church and country. In America, starting with the pilgrims on the Mayflower, the Puritans sought to live in freedom under God and to be a shining light for the gospel. They weren’t perfect, of course, and we shouldn’t deny their flaws. But for the most part, the Puritans were godly, happy people. They were sturdy in tough times, and in good times they reveled in the pleasures God provided. Thanksgiving celebrations in America go back to Puritan pilgrims who feasted and played games with their Indian friends.

The jolly Puritans enjoyed life. The idea that Christianity drains away all fun and happiness is, they said, “an illusion of Satan.” Preaching at a wedding celebration in 1620, a Puritan pastor said that Satan tries to persuade non-Christians “that if they should once devote themselves to the service of Jesus Christ, that then they must bid an everlasting farewell to all mirth and delight; that then all their merry days are gone; that in the kingdom of Christ, there is nothing, but sighing and groaning, and fasting and prayer. But see here the contrary: even in the kingdom of Christ, and in his House, there is marrying and giving in marriage, drinking of wine, feasting, and rejoicing even in the very face of Christ.” If Jesus’ face lights up at parties, then Jesus’ followers should also enjoy life.

“The Puritans were not opposed to parties,” says Yale Professor Harry Stout. “They certainly did not have sexual hangups.” The Puritans opposed perversion, adultery, and sex between unmarried people, knowing that violating God’s law produces more misery than happiness. But they were emphatic that physical attraction and pleasure are good gifts from God. A favorite Puritan text was Genesis 26:8, which tells of Isaac “sporting” with his wife Rebekah. Another Bible passage Puritans often quoted and gladly carried out was 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, which states the duty of husband and wife to give their bodies to each other on a regular basis. They also liked the sensuous love poetry in Song of Songs and the advice of Proverbs 5:18-19, “May you rejoice in the wife of your youth… may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love.”

Nowadays the word puritanical has come to mean strict, sour, fanatical–but how many of us enjoy life as much as the jolly Puritans did? The Puritans people knew how to enjoy making love as married couples without tips from therapists or titillation from pornography. They knew how to have a happy home without a television. They knew how to laugh without paid comedians or a laugh track. They knew how to sing and celebrate without a canned band on the sound system. They knew how to enjoy work without escaping for faraway vacation spots. They knew how to cook and savor good food without exotic meals at expensive restaurants. They knew how to enjoy all these things because none of these things was their ultimate source of joy. They found their supreme delight in God, and every other good thing in life was relished as a gift of his grace.

I don’t mention the Puritans just to correct some false impressions of what they were like. I mention them because many of them knew the secret for enjoying life, and a lot of us today still need to learn that secret. The secret for enjoying life is knowing God as an overflowing river of delights. God is delighted in all he does, and he calls you and me to enjoy life as his gift.

Celebrating Salvation

God is an overflowing fountain of delight, and the Son of God, Jesus Christ, came to bring life and joy to sinful, sad humanity. Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). The goal of the gospel, says Jesus, it “that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be complete” (John 15:11). The key to really enjoying life is to know God as he reveals himself in Jesus Christ.

Christians are people who know sin is serious and know they would have only death and hell apart from God’s grace. Does this make them sadder and grumpier than people who don’t take sin and hell seriously? No, it makes Christians all the happier to know the full seriousness of the problem from which Jesus saves them. It might seem like a downer to hear what the Bible says about sin and hell, but in fact these truths help Christians to rejoice all the more in salvation. Who values forgiveness more, someone guilty of dreadful sins or someone who thinks he’s done nothing wrong? Who treasures life more, someone who takes good health for granted or someone who has survived a brush with death? The worse we know our sin to be, the greater the joy of forgiveness. The more terrible we know death and hell to be, the greater the joy of being rescued.

Of course, if preachers dwell only on sin and hell without proclaiming the joy of salvation, then hearing about sin and hell is depressing. But if the good news of salvation in Christ is proclaimed and believed, then the terrible truth about sin and hell increases joy all the more. As Douglas Wilson points out,

A man who has been saved from death will not be made gloomy by realizing how great the danger was. If a man is saved from falling over a cliff, we will not make him cantankerous by informing him that the cliff was a thousand feet high. His relief and joy and gladness would be all the greater.

In the book of Esther, the Bible tells how a politician named Haman plotted to wipe out every Jew in the world. But God arranged events so that, after many twists and turns, the Jews were saved by the courage and cleverness of Mordecai and his cousin Esther. When the Bible tells of Haman’s hatred, cruelty, and power, when it speaks of the terrible possibility of the Jews being massacred, do such grim facts ruin the joy of the story? No, the dreadfulness of the danger makes the rescue that much more amazing and joyful. When Haman’s plot backfired and he ended up hanging from his own gallows, when God’s people gained new power and privilege instead of perishing, “it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor … feasting and celebrating.” In fact, it became a yearly celebration called Purim, “with feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 8:16-17; 9:22).

Jesus Christ saves his people from even worse danger than God’s people faced in Esther’s time. Jesus saves us from hell. And he doesn’t just rescue us and enable us to survive a few more years. Through his resurrection, Jesus gives everlasting life, joyful life that never ends, eternal pleasures. When Jesus’ rose from the dead and came to his friends, they were overcome with gladness. When he showed them the marks on his hands and told them to touch him, the Bible says, “they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement” (Luke 24:41). The joy was too great for their minds to handle at first. But as reality sank in, their joy took deep root. And after Jesus filled them with his Holy Spirit, they enjoyed daily feasting and “ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). Even when they were persecuted and beaten, Jesus’ followers were “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” of Jesus (Acts 5:41).

Feasting in good times and rejoicing even in bad times–that’s evidence of healthy faith in Jesus. That’s the joy of people who know that Jesus has saved them from the guilt of sin, the tyranny of Satan, and the horror of hell. That’s the joy of people who have drunk deeply from God’s river of delight and who know that they will be feasting forever in God’s kingdom.

A Continual Feast

Scripture says, “The cheerful heart has a continual feast” (Proverbs 15:15). Is your heart cheerful? Is your life a continual feast? Have you received forgiveness and eternal life in Christ? If so, do you celebrate in a way that shows you really believe death is defeated? Do people around you wonder what gives you the right to be so happy? Are you drinking from God’s river of delights and enjoying life to the full?

If you’ve been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ, you should not only have deep spiritual joy in God, you should also have a hearty enjoyment of family, friendship, feasting and fun. Don’t try to be more spiritual than God wants you to be. Salvation not only makes God more desirable to your spirit, it also makes the Creator’s world more appealing to your senses. God didn’t design you only as a spiritual being to pray and meditate. He also designed you as a bodily being to enjoy physical pleasures and as a social being to enjoy human relationships.

The Bible speaks of some people who claimed to be super-spiritual and said the body is bad. They ordered people not to marry and said certain foods were off limits, because married people might enjoy sex too much, and delicious food might give people too much pleasure. What did God say about these enemies of good food and making love? He called them “hypocritical liars” and said their ideas were “taught by demons.” The truth, says the Bible, is that feasting and marriage are things “which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

“Creation is not to be despised,” writes Douglas Jones. “It is a gift of divine art–wheated prairies, royal roses, steep giraffes, cool breezes, etched cliffs, loyal dogs, and tall corn; but also indoor plumbing, plastic toothbrushes, zippers, sourdough bread, Merlot wine, pesto sauces, tri-tip steak, and marinated mushrooms–‘nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving.” So feast your senses on the good things God has made, all the while giving thanks to him.

If you don’t know God, if you are not accepted by him in Christ, then even the most delicious pleasures leaves a bad taste. But if you trust Christ, you may be sure of God’s acceptance and approval, and the Bible tells you, “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do” (Ecclesiastes 9:9). “The cheerful heart has a continual feast”–and part of that feast in enjoying the simple pleasures of eating and drinking.

Another part of enjoying a continual feast, if you’re married, is feasting on the delightfulness of your spouse. The biblical Song of Songs portrays married love as a feast. A wife tells her husband, “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my lover among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste. He has taken me to his banquet hall, and his banner over me is love” (Song of Songs 2:3-4). The husband tells her, “Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride… You are a garden… Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits… May your breasts be like the clusters of the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine” (4:11-15;7:8-9). Does the Bible discourage this husband and wife from enjoying their mutual feast. No, they are told, “Eat, O friends, and drink; drink your fill, O lovers” (5:1).

When husband and wife delight in God and in each other, their joy overflows to children as well. Scripture says of people saved by God, “Their hearts will be glad as with wine. Their children will see it and be joyful; their hearts will rejoice in the Lord” (Zechariah 10:7).

As a father, I don’t just want my children to be talented and well-behaved. I want them to be gloriously glad to be God’s children and mine. And for them to be glad, they must see God’s joy in my wife and me. In our family, we enjoy reading the Bible every morning and evening, and we enjoy praying and singing hymns. But that’s not all we enjoy. We enjoy eating together. We enjoy reading lots of exciting books. We enjoy swimming and skating and going for walks in the woods. We enjoy playing all sorts of games in our own home. We enjoy partying with other families and friends. We enjoy jokes and belly laughs. We enjoy helping other people out and telling them about Jesus. Our home isn’t paradise, we sometimes have to deal with quarrels and disappointments and tears, but overall we have a ball!

When my fourteen-year-old daughter heard someone mention the idea that it would be no fun to be part of a pastor’s family, she blurted out, “Why would anybody think that?” I was thrilled by her reaction. I’m glad she enjoys life so much than she can’t figure out why anybody wouldn’t want what she has. There is no happier place on earth than a God-centered home that is full of the life and love and joy of Jesus.

Changing the Word

But isn’t there more to life than fun and games? With all this talk about enjoying life and making it a continual feast, what if we’re not serious enough about the sin and sadness in the world? Wouldn’t it be nobler to celebrate less and to focus more on changing the world by trying to improve government policies or meet social needs?

The world does need changing, I agree, but the only ones who can change it for the better are joy-filled people who know how to enjoy life. There are times to confront evil, correct error, and help the needy. But these solemn duties are best handled by joyful people who shine with joy wherever they go. If you’re grumpy and gloomy, if your marriage is unhappy and your family life is a wreck, if you have no flourishing friendships and no glad celebrations of life, why should anyone listen to you? Your grim efforts to improve the world may do more harm than good.

What would happen if Christ-loving, Bible-believing Christians were known, not just for political campaigns or a social agenda, but for feasting and celebrating and enjoying life more than anyone else? If Christians are to be criticized, let us be criticized as Christ was, for feasting too heartily and enjoying life too much. Let us be criticized for a faith that seems too glad to be true. If we’re joyful enough to prompt that kind of criticism, then we might also be joyful enough to attract people who want the same joy that we have.

God says that when he saves his people, “They will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord–the grain, the new wine and the oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more. Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:12). To change the world and bring it closer to salvation, those of us who are already saved must act like it, delighting in eternal life and enjoying life right now. In order for the world to see God’s goodness and be drawn to him, it needs Christian people of whom it can be said, “They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights” (Psalm 36:8).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.