How should a Christian enjoy good things without falling into idolatry? This question is a bit more complex than it appears.
In A Little Book about the Christian Life, Calvin says: “We should not avoid those things that seem to serve our pleasure more than our necessity. Instead, we should hold to some rule so that we can use the things of this world—whether they serve necessity or delight—with a pure conscience.”
This means that there are many things that are for our pleasure and delight that are not immediately idols. Just because you enjoy something, or something gives you certain delight or pleasure, does not mean it is an idol in your life.
Among these good things, we could talk about material things like work, money, cars, houses, and technology. These things are not bad in themselves. Also, we could include immaterial things like love, success, and our achievements. Again, these things are not bad in themselves. We run into problems when we elevate these things to an ultimate plane of which they are undeserving.
Here are a few practical tips that can serve as your “rule” to keep good things in the right place.
1. Rest in God’s design.
God has designed all things “for our good, and not our ruin,” says Calvin. Our desire should be to use things according to their design. Things become idols, and they ruin us, when we demand that they do something beyond their design. Nothing on this earth was designed to satisfy our hearts. Only God can do so.
What is the ultimate use of good things in this world beyond our enjoyment? Very simply to stimulate our appetite. Matthew McCollough, in his book Remember Death, explains that the joys of this life are like appetizers at a banquet. Appetizers do not exist to satisfy our hunger, but to stimulate it, knowing something better is yet to come.
2. Meditate on the Creator
Since God is the One who determines the design of all good things, using the pleasurable things God has designed should lead us to meditate on Him. The very best of things in this world are but a mere shadow of how good God is, since these things proceed from Him and none surpasses Him.
C. S. Lewis says it best:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.”
3. Remember Death.
At the same time, strange as it may sound, one of the ways we protect ourselves from good things becoming idols is by remembering death. This is a historic practice of Christians. Death levels the earth and our lives and puts everything in the right perspective.
This is what the author of Ecclesiastes emphasizes: when we remember how fragile and temporary our life is, we recognize as vanity those things which we so quickly idolize. We measure and judge them for what they really are: good things, but earthly, unable to supply our deepest needs and desires.
Calvin says that, as a way to justly enjoy things, “there is no more certain or reliable path for us than contempt of this present life and meditation on heavenly immortality.”
4. Practice contentment.
Perhaps the most difficult, and yet most secure step to implement is simply practicing contentment. Calvin suggests as a rule the idea of ”having little” or, in other words, practicing contentment. He says: “even if the freedom that believers have with respect to external things cannot be subjected to a fixed formula, it should nevertheless be subject to this rule: Let them indulge themselves very little.”
You can and should enjoy your work, exercise, a good meal, and good TV shows or movies. Just because you enjoy something, or it pleases you, doesn’t make it bad in itself. However, our hearts are prone to promote those things to a higher plane. We protect ourselves from idolatry when we practice these steps. With that said, I’m going to go eat a delicious meal, without idolizing it of course.