Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.
– Psam 37:4
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
These are two verses that drive me CRAZY.
What does it mean to live the life God intended for me? Is it a life of self-denial? Or a life of enjoying the good things God provides? Pick one, please, Jesus. It would be so much easier if the truth could be black and white, but of course it has to be complex and nuanced. OF COURSE.
I grew up in an Christian environment that very much emphasized self-denial as a way of faithful living. Denial of pleasure. Don’t date. Don’t listen to secular music. Don’t eat sweets during Lent. Deny yourself sleep and pray late into the night or pray early in the morning. Are you having a lot of fun in church? Calm down… don’t get too excited. Don’t lose control.
Now nobody ever intended to be legalistic, but the heart behind this was a belief that our young hearts were sinful and desired things that were not “Godly.” Therefore, there needed to be a consistent and concerted effort to mitigate those desires. So self-denial was a way to reign in our hearts and thus draw closer to God. One of my mentors would consistently say, “Without suffering there can be no glory.”
One of the consequences of this way of thinking was a perpetual questioning of all things good and pleasurable in my life. If something was too good, I began to be suspicious… is this an idol? What are my motives? Should I have this thing? Should I sacrifice it?
Perhaps well intentioned, but there was this intense paranoia, especially of things spiritual, that looking back, was incredibly unhealthy. Everything that was good in my life was in constant threat of being sacrificed at the altar. Every good and perfect gift was close to being returned for no refund. Rather than simply enjoy something in the present my shifty eyes would constantly look inwards, outwards and upwards to see if it were the coast was clear (and it almost never was). In this process, I made plenty of mistakes and probably missed out on some good and potentially great things in life.
I remember reading John Piper’s “Desiring God” as a high school student and even though the premise of Christian hedonism seems straightforward and plain enough at the outset… but being ultimately confused and turned off by the chapters and chapters of inner heart gymnastics I felt like I had to do to get into that magic, Calvinistic place of enjoying God forever. (This isn’t a knock on Piper, per se, I have to revisit this, its been a while, but that’s just how I remember it for better or worse. It didn’t help that I came from a specific self-denial context)
Putting it plainly: In the church background of self-denial, the idea of delighting yourself in God was foreign as all heck. The idea of delighting yourself in ANYTHING was suspect. So don’t even try to go into the “He will give you the desires of your heart” hogwash.
These days, I’m challenging myself to delight in the Lord. I’m challenging myself to believe that God is actually a giver of good gifts (James 1) and He may actually want to give me the desires of my heart. Sure, the church of deny has taught me all the pitfalls of the church of delight… I’ve heard countless sermons that railed against the Sprite mantra, “Obey your thirst,” as exhibit #1 of why we must fix our eyes on self-denial and not let our desires overcome us.
So its probably not a wise idea to swing from one extreme of self-denial to totally self-delight, but I’m hoping that somewhere in hanging in the balance there’s life and life to the full.
This Lent, I don’t think I need to try harder to deny, but maybe try delighting myself in the Lord, and who knows, maybe I’ll start deny myself from other things too.