I know that’s an old-fashioned word, licentiousness. It just means indulging your sin nature, allowing yourself “license” (the root word) to do whatever you want. It’s liberty taken to the extreme. It’s stretching through purpose for self-indulgence. I just couldn’t think of a more exact word, so I took a risk and used this one.
As I spent my quiet time in Galatians over the last weeks, this verse stood out:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. -Galatians 5:13
So many of God’s good
gifts turn to sin when
we take them to excess.
So many of God’s good gifts turn to sin when we take them to excess. It’s like dark chocolate. One piece of really good dark chocolate tastes wonderful and actually has some health benefits. A whole bar of dark chocolate leaves a funny taste in your mouth and actually damages your overall health. That’s what we tend to do with God’s blessings.
Think about it:
- Love gets twisted into lust.
- Food overfed becomes gluttony.
- The conveniences of life such as curb-side service and internet, when overindulged, generate sloth.
- The tangible blessings of home, cars, clothes, etc. find us prideful or envious, depending on who has them.
- Sleep, when overused, contributes to escapism and/or laziness.
- Even Bible study (How could there be anything wrong with Bible study?!?) can become the end goal, the feel-good thing, a source of pride as we acquire knowledge.
To put it bluntly, we tend to pervert for our personal pleasure that which God has given us for His glory and our good.
God wants us to enjoy His
creation and the blessings
of living in it.
The backlash to a self-indulgent lifestyle is one of asceticism, a rejection of comforts and pleasures altogether in favor of extreme abstinence. But God gave us love, food, sleep, and all these other things. He wants us to enjoy His creation and the blessings of living in it.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights… -James 1:17
In I Want to Live These Days with You (8/11), Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the functional purposes of our homes, eating & drinking, clothing, and relaxation but demonstrates how they are also meant to elicit enjoyment. Of the ascetic life, he writes, “Where people are robbed of the possibility of bodily joys, when their bodies are used exclusively as a means to an end, there we find an assault on the original right of bodily life.”
So how and where do we find the necessary balance? Let’s consider these four ways to check your licentiousness without losing your liberty.
A greater delight in the Giver than the gift
As you sit down to that sumptuous meal, where does your mind go? To your palate and your stomach or to the one who caused these foods to grow and provided them to you?
A steady diet of God’s Word, and not just the parts we like
Keep yourself grounded by digging into difficult Scripture as well as reviewing the comfortable chapters. For example, test yourself for sinfulness in passages like 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, which covers sexual immorality, but also relish your protected citizen status in sections like Romans 8:31-39. Sit under Christ-centered teaching that doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable commands and standards of the Bible even while it celebrates the love and blessings found in following God.
An intimate dedication to the work of the Spirit in our lives
Learn how to hear the Holy Spirit and practice responding promptly. (There are books for this, or talk to a trusted adviser.) He will prompt you to step away from certain worldly pleasures when you need it. Your willingness or unwillingness to obey demonstrates your attachment to that pleasure. For example, Paul told the Corinthians that married couples might sometimes abstain from sex in order to focus on prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5) even when God normally smiles on sex within a marriage. For me, an unwillingness to fast when prompted by the Holy Spirit shows me that food has taken too high of a priority in my life.
An ongoing identification with the person of Jesus
Jesus could enjoy a good meal with the best of them…and the worst (e.g. Zacchaeus). He supplied wine for a wedding (John 2:1-11) and a picnic for a crowd (John 6:1-14). He probably enjoyed the foot rub that came with having oil poured on His feet (John 12:1-11), and He could let down His guard to play with children (Luke 18:15-17). This was a man who enjoyed His earthly life. But He also knew when it was time to get serious, to say the hard things, and finally, to release it all.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! -Philippians 2:8
What is the purpose
Imagine you just bought a new set of sheets. They’re 600-thread-count Egyptian cotton, and they feel good. You crawl under the covers and snuggle down. But your purpose in the bed is not to enjoy the sheets. It’s to sleep. What if you were so busy enjoying the sheets that you didn’t sleep? Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? The purpose of the sheets is to help you sleep better, and they will, if you keep everything in the proper perspective.
In the same way, God gives us so many good things to help us live this life on earth not only with purpose but also with pleasure. He told the Israelites, “Open your mouth and I will fill it” (Psalm 81:10). If we’ll stay grounded in the four things above, we’ll learn how to enjoy the pleasures without obscuring our purpose.
What do you think? How do we balance the pleasures and the calling to purity in the Christ-life? Honestly, I’m just trying to work through all this, and I’d love some input. Leave a comment. I’ll try to give a thoughtful reply.