‘It is of the nobility of man’s soul that he is insatiable: for he hath a benefactor so prone to give, that he delighteth in us for asking. Do not your inclinations tell you that the World is yours?’ – Thomas Traherne
Communing with God, as we have seen, takes place not only over his Word, but among his works. Most of our Christian lives are not going to be lived in church, or in focused prayer, or by reading the Bible. Most of our lives are going to be lived in creation: working at our jobs, which is part of creation, eating and drinking some of God’s creation, playing, relaxing, or enjoying leisure within creation, exercising, walking, traveling, which is all part of creation. Either creation is a massive distraction from loving God, or a massive opportunity to love God. If we cannot love God in creation, then we cannot really love him in most of our lives. If we can love God in creation, we can love him in all of life.
Christianity has always had a stream of thought that regards creation with real suspicion. Many Christians have felt that creation, be it the body, or food, or wealth, is partly evil. Drawing from Greek Platonism, the body is seen to be inferior to the spirit, a kind of temporary vehicle that trips up our spirit, until we can finally shed it and be in the pure spirit world of Heaven. Bodily pleasures, and physical comforts are seen as distractions at best, and mortal threats to the Christian life at worst. Food and drink, clothing and comfort, sleep, exercise and play, wealth and possessions, and even marital sexuality are held in some suspicion. Even when they are not shunned altogether, like the ascetics did, many Christians feel you can’t really be spiritual and eat good food, you can’t worship and enjoy earthly goods, you can’t be Christ-focused and enjoy some pleasure through the five senses. You have to switch one off and do the other.
This concern is not without some basis. The Bible promotes self-denial, and warns of the evils of materialism. Wealth, while celebrated by books such as Ecclesiastes as a potential good, is also a danger to the soul. Worldliness, which is enmity with God (James 4:4), is a focus on sensual experiences, outward appearances, and status. We know we must shun such a merely temporal focus; we must set our affections in things above; we must lay up for ourselves treasures in Heaven. The tendency to some kind of asceticism is ever present.
Perhaps modern culture influences Christians towards the other extreme: Epicureanism, the group that said ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’. Indulging in any form of creation without discernment is too often touted as Christian liberty. Taking the biblical commands to rejoice and enjoy the fruits of one’s labour, they plunge headlong into what the Bible forbids or frowns upon.
These are the extreme approaches to reconciling communing with God and enjoying creation. A few people even give up one entirely, abandon Christianity to love the world (2 Tim 4:10), or renounce most of the created order to serve God in poverty or celibacy.
Besides the thoroughgoing ascetics and hedonists, we also have other approaches. Perhaps most believers compartmentalise – loving God in one box, loving creation in a different one. Such people reason that there is a time to be spiritual – the devotional time, read the Bible, pray, go to church – and then there are times to take a break from that, and enjoy creation – gardening, eating, playing, or reading. Sometimes this is done with kind of scale-balancing attitude: for every enjoyment of something in creation, there needs to be some extra Bible-reading, or prayer. By separating direct communion with God from creation, they hope to give both a place in their lives, but are sometimes stalked by a guilty feeling that when they enjoy creation, they are busy with something less worthwhile.
What structures should we practice, so that our new nature and new posture combine to give us exposure to God in creation? Three disciplines may enable us to experience the process of communion with the personal, triune, sovereign God in both direct and indirect ways.