The Call for Self-Denial
The call for self-denial is a legitimate concern. Jesus warns us that it is possible for “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things [to] enter in and choke the word,” so that in the end the word “proves unfruitful” in the heart and life of the professing believer (Mark 4:18-19). In other words, there is a way of enjoying earthly life that actually imperils your soul. Additionally, Jesus calls His disciples to deny themselves and even hate their own lives in order to save their souls into eternity:
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”Luke 9:23-27
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.Luke 14:26
The requirement is that Christ’s disciples give up everything for the sake of following Him. “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). What do these texts mean, and how do they square with Solomon’s exhortations to enjoy earthly life?
We must give full voice to Jesus’ words in the Gospels. These are calls to basic discipleship, not to next-level discipleship. That is, Jesus’ radical statements about what it takes to follow Him are given to all who would make a profession to know Him. If we want to be saved, we must come to Christ and be willing to lose our earthly life and all that it provides in order to attain the life to come. If we are not willing to bear suffering and loss in this life for the glory of Christ and the sake of our eternal souls, then we are not yet ready to be Christ’s disciples; we are not yet Christians.
This is what it means to deny oneself. Jesus isn’t talking primarily about denying ourselves legitimate pleasures—like a cookie after dinner—but about a wholesale approach to earthly life where we value Him over everything else earthly life offers. In the context of Luke 9:23-27, Jesus is speaking about denying our natural tendency to protect ourselves and to guard what brings us pleasure and comfort when these things are in danger. That is why Jesus connects self-denial with the warning of what will happen if we are characterized by being ashamed of Christ in this life. We naturally desire to be well-liked and safe, so when our earthly life and possessions and reputation are threatened by our profession of faith, our natural tendency is to retreat from our position and to be ashamed of Christ. When someone is characterized by this reluctance to confess Christ publicly on earth, Jesus says they can have no assurance that He will confess them publicly at the final judgment. In other words, those who are constantly ashamed of Christ can have no assurance that they are going to heaven.
But when someone does give up everything and comes to Christ, they shed their former commitment to this world as the source of ultimate satisfaction, meaning, and pleasure; earthly enjoyments and high regard from the world are no longer our primary aims in life. Solomon teaches us that when this conversion occurs, the believer is finally able to enjoy earthly life in the way it was intended and according to right proportions. When Christ is the supreme joy of our lives (Ps 43:4), that which He has created becomes one of the means by which we taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8), not the idol with which we replace Him. That which we are no longer clutching for ultimate safety and fulfillment becomes a source of sweet—albeit temporary—satisfaction.
Jesus’ warning in the parable of the soils helps believers maintain a Christ-ward focus during our life on this earth so that no earthly enjoyment outstrips our love for and obedience to our Savior. The warning in Mark 4:18-19 acts as a guardrail on the path of our obedience to Ecclesiastes 9:7-10. We endanger our souls and dilute the taste of earthly pleasure when we make earthly pleasure the chief pursuit of our lives. But when Christ satisfies our spiritual palate, that which He provides us in this life satisfies our physical palate. “The righteous has enough to satisfy his appetite, but the belly of the wicked suffers want” (Prov 14:25).
The Danger of Self-Denial
But some of us will guard against this tendency to drift from Christ by attempting to avoid earthly pleasures through self-denial. Instead of letting earthly pleasures skew you off course, you simply reject them altogether, or at least you try to. It is true that although some things are lawful, as the apostle Paul observes, not all things are helpful (1 Cor 10:23). Therefore, a Christian who has an alcoholic past may wisely set aside alcohol while recognizing it is fine for others to drink. Someone who is prone to watch too much television may need to put the T.V. away for a while. Things that are not necessarily wrong in and of themselves may be a stumbling block for some people.
On the whole, however, the Bible doesn’t have us approach the good things of life this way. In fact, the New Testament warns us about false spirituality that says, “do not handle, do not taste, and do not touch” (Col 2:21). Rather, Scripture would have us receive these good gifts with thankfulness and joy. Ecclesiastes and this discussion about earthly pleasure is not merely about enjoying God’s good gifts; it’s about what constitutes genuine spirituality.
The Doctrine of Demons?
What if I told you that a few days ago I overheard a professing Christian propounding some Satanic teaching? To what kind of doctrine do you think I was referring? Might you think I was referring to someone teaching that God doesn’t know the future, or that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, or that Scripture contains formal errors and contradictions? All of these are false doctrines that have their origin in the father of lies (John 8:44), but there is a kind of teaching that the apostle Paul calls demonic that may actually surprise us.
How about this statement: “God would be more pleased with you if you remained single,” or “It’s more spiritual to eat only vegetables and not meat.” Paul actually calls this kind of teaching, not foolish or mistaken or misguided, but demonic. Although they may seem innocent enough, these prohibitions are actually from the pit of hell.
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.1 Tim 4:1-5
Why does Paul have such strong words for these seemingly innocuous statements? Because they reject the goodness of God and deny God His rightful glory for providing such gifts to His creatures. God created food and marriage for our joy so that we would, in the enjoyment itself, turn to God and say, “Thank you, Father, for such wonderful, kind, and gracious gifts. You are good and your steadfast love endures forever” (1 Tim 4:4-5; see Ps 100:5)!
These teachings are also Satanic because they implicitly deny the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ came to be our all-sufficient Savior and to provide us with everything we need for salvation: Perfect righteousness and right standing with God, full payment for our sins, resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit to help us kill remaining sin in our lives. Whenever someone rejects, for religious reasons, earthly pleasures that God has ordained by His Word for His creatures’ happiness, they do so due to a deficient understanding of the gospel. They are attempting to supplement Christ’s work with their asceticism and thus rob the Savior of His glory, veil the gospel with human works, and confuse both believers and unbelievers. Demonic.
Enjoying Life and Keeping a Good Conscience
Paul concludes his discussion of demonic doctrines by affirming that “everything God has created is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” This statement is not only a helpful affirmation of legitimate earthly pleasure, it also provides us with a test of how we are presently receiving earthly enjoyments. Ask yourself: can you receive such and such earthly gift—whatever it might be—from God with thanksgiving? Are you regularly thanking God for the pleasures in which you partake in this life? One commentator puts it like this:
[Paul’s comments in 1 Tim 4:1-5] giv[e] us a good test to use for all our earthly pleasures. When I pray, is this something that I would feel good about including in my thanksgiving? Or would I be embarrassed to mention it to God? Am I thanking God for this pleasure or have I been enjoying it without ever giving Him a second thought? When we are enjoying legitimate pleasures in a God-honoring way, it seems natural to include them in our prayers. But when we pursue them for their own sake, usually we do not pray about them much at all (or about anything else, for that matter).1
These are important questions, for they evaluate whether or not our enjoyments of this life have a Godward orientation. When our orientation is Godward, it “seems natural” to include the pleasures we enjoy in our prayers. “God, thank you for this meal or this walk in the park. Father, thank you that we can open our windows every morning and let the breeze come through our house. Thank you for this good music or for that recent movie—they were edifying and uplifting and helped me think about good things or helped me understand important realities.”
The question of whether or not you can receive an earthly enjoyment with thankfulness is also a question of whether or not you can receive that gift with a good conscience. Throughout the New Testament, Paul regularly exhorts Christians to maintain a good conscience (Rom 13:15; 1 Tim 3:9). Indeed, the goal of Paul’s entire ministry was to promote a good conscience among professing believers: “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). A trustworthy test for whether or not we can receive or partake in an earthly enjoyment is whether or not we can thank God for it.
Due to our various backgrounds, we may not be able to receive some legitimate gifts with thanksgiving and a good conscience. For example, before I came to Christ at age nineteen, I immersed myself in all kinds of music. Some of it was innocent, but much of it was immoral and even blasphemous. Almost immediately after I was saved, I became convinced that the only music I should listen to is music that is explicitly Christian. It took me a long time before I could listen to any other kind of music with a good conscience.
Today I am now able to listen to music that is not overtly Christian but that is otherwise excellent, wholesome and well-crafted. There were times soon after my conversion, however, that I did listen to music that wasn’t explicitly Christian. Looking back, I can see that most of the time, these songs weren’t inherently evil. For me, however, I still wasn’t able to enjoy this music with thanksgiving. I couldn’t bless God for the gift of this or that song, yet I partook anyway. This practice defiled my conscience, not because the music was in itself bad, but because I couldn’t listen to it with thanksgiving and a good conscience. In other words, I couldn’t listen to such songs in faith, and that which is not of faith, as Paul reminds us, is sin (Rom 14:23).
Solomon’s command to enjoy life, therefore, is not a wholesale endorsement to indulge our every whim and slake our desires at every turn. We must, as in all of life, maintain a good conscience as we partake in the pleasures God has ordained for our joy. But it is just as important to note that Solomon’s exhortations are intended to free us from the oppression of an ill-informed or weak conscience.
Some of us may not be able to see how the vigorous enjoyment of earthly pleasures corresponds with a passionate pursuit of holiness. Yet it is precisely this confusion that Solomon seeks to illuminate. The Christian life is simultaneously a heavenly life and an earthly life. Yet, even the future life for which we long consists in an eternity of physical existence. Sin will be eradicated, but due to the resurrection, physical realities will not.
What Solomon is pressing upon us is that the physical world matters. Earthly life matters. The body is good. And if you think this is an interpretation merely rooted in the Old Testament, I ask you to consider the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The fact that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead demonstrates conclusively that God values the physical world. Jesus has risen from the dead, not merely spiritually, but bodily. The Son of God—get this—will be incarnate for all eternity.
Have you ever pondered this reality? God has bound Himself to His creation forever. And not only this, but we as believers will someday be raised from the dead with new bodies that will live forever, not in an ethereal heaven somewhere out there, but upon a new earth in a sinless, uncorrupted, material universe. Although many people misuse God’s earthly gifts and worship the creation rather than the Creator, it does not follow that these earthly gifts cannot be rightly used and enjoyed in worshipping the Creator. This earthly life, though tainted by sin and by suffering, enigmas and difficulties, is still a gift. This creation, though fallen, is still good (1 Tim 4:4). If you remove God from life under the sun, nothing matters. That’s why Solomon opened his book by saying “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” But if you view life in reference to God, everything matters, including what you eat and drink and enjoy in this life.
Enjoying Life and Loving Our Neighbor
Our neighbor’s conscience is also a vital factor to consider as we seek to obey Solomon’s Great Commission. It is possible that your fellow brother or sister in Christ is unable to presently partake in particular enjoyments due to their background prior to coming to Christ. So important was this issue to the life of the church and the spiritual health of believers that Paul addressed it in detail in two separate places in the New Testament (Rom 14; 1 Cor 8-10). In both cases, there were Christians due to their prior religious experience, who couldn’t partake in certain foods.
Depending on a person’s religious upbringing, it was possible that prior to Christ they had partaken in overt idol worship. During such worship, meat would be sacrificed to these idols and then later sold in the market. After their conversion, these former idolaters were unable, in good conscience, to eat the meat that had been previously used in idol worship because they believed such an act would dishonor Christ. Paul corrects this wrong thinking by informing his readers that an idol has no actual existence and, therefore, cannot affect the meat one way or another (1 Cor 8:6; 10:26). The meat had come from an animal that God created to be eaten and enjoyed (Gen 9:1-6; Acts 10; 1 Tim 4:4-5); whether it had been used in idol worship had no spiritual significance whatsoever.
The person struggling with whether or not they could eat meat sacrificed to idols had a weak conscience that needed to be informed by these important truths about idols and creation. In its present condition, the weak conscience of this believer was a spiritual liability, and it needed correction. Nevertheless, when it came to whether Paul, the one with a strong conscience on the issue of meat sacrificed to idols, would partake of this God-given enjoyment of a steak dinner in the presence of his brother, Paul always defaulted on the side of love. That is, he would give up his right to enjoy the meat in order to not defile his brother’s conscience (1 Cor 10:13).
Our enjoyment of life’s good pleasures, therefore, cannot be pursued with a cavalier attitude toward other people. Love for our spiritual siblings prevails over our enjoyment of earthly pleasures. More enjoyable than a filet minion is tasting the love of Christ as we forego legitimate pleasure for the sake our dear brothers and sisters.
A Theology of Earthly Life2
When it comes to the matters related to physical life and how Christians should think about earthly enjoyment, the church has rarely found herself securely balanced between the extremes of severe asceticism and unrestrained indulgence. Even the New Testament gives the indication that there has always been pressure to move toward one of these two poles. In Ephesus, there were lovers of pleasure (2 Tim 3:4); in Colossae, there were rigorous ascetics (Col 2:23). In the early church there were those who rejected marriage and some who sought the pseudo-spiritual environment of a monastery. There were the hedonists and the Epicureans. Today we have the legalists and the health, wealth, and prosperity teachers. What we need is a theology of earthly life.
When Paul addresses Timothy on the issue of wealth, he offers counsel that confronts the severe ascetic and the unrestrained materialist. Because of the temptations that attended it, great wealth, though not evil in and of itself, is never to be sought or desired (1 Tim 6:9). True godliness will be ever accompanied by contentment (1 Tim 6:6), and those who have significant wealth are to remain humble (1 Tim 6:17a), give generously (1 Tim 6:18), and recognize that God is the ultimate source of all they have (1 Tim 6:17b).
Yet, in case someone might conclude that such warnings against the danger of pursuing wealth imply that God Himself is some sort of Scrooge, unwilling to give His servants even the slightest bit of coal with which to warm themselves, Paul reminds Timothy that it is God who “richly provides us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). The Creator does not dole out meager portions of pleasure to His creatures as though He were afraid they might get too carried away or deplete the supply; no, He provides all things richly.
Solomon’s Great Commission and Paul’s statement here is a much-needed corrective to those of us who are unable to watch a college football game, eat a juicy steak, or enjoy a good trail run without wondering, at least a little bit, if whether or not we should spend our time on such indulgences. But saying that God provides us richly with all things to enjoy means far more than God providing us with many objects (or experiences) to enjoy.
Real enjoyment of this good creation cannot, as Solomon learned, become detached from a theological context (see Eccl 12:13-14). The attempt to enjoy this world apart from faith and obedience to God will never, by design, lead to abiding satisfaction. We will either gorge ourselves out of fear of future loss, or hesitantly partake of innocent pleasures because we are constantly hounded by a vague sense of guilt. In both cases we have denied the goodness of our Creator.
Order and Proportion
When Jesus told His disciples to shun anxiety by putting their trust in their heavenly Father’s promise to provide for all their needs, He summarized His teaching with the memorable statement we read in chapter one: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matt 6:33). The “all things” refers to the food and clothing He mentioned in the previous verses. Instead of wringing our hands over our daily needs, we can make God and His kingdom the priority of our life because God will see to it that we have everything we need.
But again, this is more than a matter of getting stuff. Jesus is commanding us to set our highest affections upon God so that we might receive the gifts of earthly life in their proper order and proportion. We were made for pleasure—this truth is undeniable. There is futility, as one author has taught us, in “trying to be more spiritual than God.”3 Indeed, as we’ve learned, the one who denies God’s good gifts for the sake of religion may indicate that he is ensnared by the doctrines of demons (see 1 Tim 4:1-5). But Solomon’s observations and our own experience tell us that the good things of life taste their best when and only when we receive them the way God intended. And we were designed to receive them, not as the main pursuit of life, but as a gracious gift from the One who is the main pursuit of life. “When he loads your table with good things and your cup is overflowing with blessings,” Spurgeon reminds us, “rejoice in him more than in them.” 4
Elsewhere, Solomon says it like this: “The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow to it” (Prov 10:22). That is, when, in the course of our diligent pursuit of God, He provides us with things richly to enjoy, these gifts can be received with unhindered delight. On the other hand, unfettered indulgence and reluctant partaking are both the result of pursuing something primarily other than God. In the first case, it is the pursuit of pleasure that has become the first priority; in the second, the pursuit of justification by works has taken root.
Because of God’s good gift of creation and His glorious gift of justification by faith alone, Christians are free to enjoy the good things of life and free to control ourselves from over-indulging in the good things of life. This will be the mark of spiritual maturity: appreciation for God’s goodness and glory in earthly enjoyments, and the ability to receive such pleasures in their right order and proportion. When we “seek first the kingdom of heaven,” we will truly “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).
- R. Kent Hughes, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 218.
- This last section was adapted from Derek Brown, “All Things Richly: God and the Good Things of Life” at FromTheStudy.com, February 17, 2017, https://fromthestudy.com/2017/02/17/all-things-richly-god-and-the-good-things-of-life/.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1980), 64.
- Michael Reeves, Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 140.