Are You Chasing Happiness or Holiness?

Are You Chasing Happiness or Holiness?

Such a question actually reveals a common mistake of pitting holiness and happiness against each other. “God is more interested in you being holy than happy,” so the line goes.

Some of my favorite theologians fall prey to this subtle dichotomy. And this includes one of the best thinkers I love (David Wells). In charity, and in much gratitude for everything I have learned from his writings, I’ll post a few paragraphs from his 2014 book where this tension arises, and I’ll make a friendly amendment later.

In attempting to criticize the therapeutic definition of the faith in so many pulpits, he writes:

In this psychological world, the God of love is a God of love precisely and only because he offers us inward balm. Empty, distracted, meandering, and dissatisfied, we come to him for help. Fill us, we ask, with a sense of completeness! Fill our emptiness! Give us a sense of direction amid the mass of competing ways and voices in the modern world! Fill the aching emptiness within!

This is how many in the church today, especially in the evangelical church, are thinking. It is how they are praying. They are yearning for something more real within themselves than what they currently have. This is true of adults and of teenagers as well. Yes, we say earnestly, hopefully, maybe even a little wistfully, be to us the God of love!

Those who live in this psychological world think differently from those who inhabit a moral world. In a psychological world, we want therapy; in a moral world, a world of right and wrong and good and evil, we want redemption. In a psychological world, we want to be happy. In a moral world, we want to be holy. In the one, we want to feel good but in the other we want to be good. . . .

God stands before us not as our Therapist or our Concierge. He stands before us as the God of utter purity to whom we are morally accountable. He is objective to us and not lost within the misty senses of our internal world. His Word comes to us from outside of our self because it is the Word of his truth. It summons us to stand before the God of the universe, to hear his command that we must love him and love our neighbors as ourselves. He is not before us to be used by us. He is not there begging to enter our internal world and satisfy our therapeutic needs. We are before him to hear his commandment. And his commandment is that we should be holy, which is a much greater thing than being happy. . . .

It is true that there are psychological benefits to following Christ, and happiness may be its by-product. These, though, are not fundamentally what Christian faith is about. It is about the God who is other than ourselves, who is the infinite and gracious God.

Now it’s certainly appropriate to push back on culturally defined “happiness” (like consumer-centered materialism, sexual liberation, and self-centeredness in all its many forms). And it’s certainly right to push back on the idea that holiness is non-essential in the Christian life. And it’s certainly right to attack the idea of God as nothing more than a Santa Claus for our felt needs. God self-exists outside of us. He is the wholly pure Creator to whom all creatures will give an account.

But by distancing holiness from happiness we create a false dichotomy.

Happy or Holy?

When in doubt, glance at the Redwoods of the church: the Puritans. Two in particular can help us respond to the modern attempt to separate happiness from holiness so cleanly. For example, Thomas Brooks (1608–1680) authored a 450-page book under the apt title: The Crown and Glory of Christianity: Or, Holiness, The Only Way To Happiness (1662). It’s a massive defense of the interconnectedness of human happiness and holiness that runs on and on, point after subpoint, to make the case irrefutably clear from Scripture.

“Holiness differs nothing from happiness but in name,” Brooks boldly writes near the opening of the book. “Holiness is happiness in the bud, and happiness is holiness at the full. Happiness is nothing but the quintessence of holiness.”

Near the end of the book, he reiterates the point, “An absolute fullness of holiness will make an absolute fullness of happiness. When our holiness is perfect, our happiness shall be perfect; and if this were attainable on earth, there would be but little reason for men to long to be in heaven.”

Or we can cite the formidable Matthew Henry (1662–1714), a celebrated Bible scholar who saw the same thing. “Those only are happy, truly happy, that are holy, truly holy,” he wrote on Psalm 1:1–3, going so far as to write “goodness and holiness are not only the way to happiness but happiness itself.”

These Puritans knew it well. The soul’s true happiness is no incidental byproduct of holiness. True happiness is true holiness.

More recently, John Piper dialed in the point with an even finer adjustment in an Ask Pastor John episode: “Happiness is part of holiness,” he said. “If you tried to describe for me what it means to be a holy person, leaving out happiness in God, you can’t do it. There is no such thing as holiness minus happiness in God. Happiness in God is — I will risk it — the essence of holiness.”

But do the Scriptures support such claims about how inextricably intertwined holiness is with happiness?

True Happy-Holiness

The Psalms are incredibly helpful here. The Psalmists often address those who are “blessed” — and by “blessed,” they mean those who are “truly happy.”

So who are the blessed, the truly happy?

The truly happy are those who are, in some measure, truly holy, and it’s a theme that carries right through the Psalms in places like Psalms 1:1–2, 19:8, 32:8–11, 34:8–14, 40:4, 106:3, 112:1, 119:1–2, 22–4, 69–70, 143–4, 128:1–6.

But not only are holiness and happiness (or blessedness) joined in the Psalms; they get linked together in the Proverbs, and very tightly by Jesus in his Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2–12).

And preceding any possibility of finding true happy-holiness is the profound reality that our sins must be permanently and forever removed before a holy God. The beautiful reality of justification in Christ bridges the happy-holiness of the Psalmist and our forgiveness in Christ, by faith alone (Psalm 32:1–2, Romans 4:7–8).

However incompletely, Christians taste this true happy-holiness as we live out our union in Christ. In him, we find the inseparable organic connection between our obedience and our joy, between our pursuit of true holiness and our experience of true happiness (John 15:1–17).

The Happy-Holy God

So, at the core of our being, we don’t want to be happy or holy. We want to be happy-holy, like God. God is the fountain of joy and delight; he is a happy God, satisfied in his eternal self-delight, and this happiness is part of his glory (1 Timothy 1:11). And our glorious God is, at the same time, an awesome blaze of unpolluted holiness, revolted by all of man’s depravities (1 Timothy 1:8–10).

What, therefore, God has joined together, let no theologian separate.

The Choice We Face Today

In reality, our quest for happiness is driven by a primal urge, an urge as ancient as the first man and woman, an urge that predates postmodernism, modernism, the enlightenment, and Freud.

Like every generation before, we face the same ancient choice, and it’s not a choice between happiness and holiness, but between two different quests for happiness (one evil, one holy).

Quest #1 is a pursuit of the happiness promised by the false securities and comforts and idols of our world, but turns out to be false lies that grieve.

Quest #2 is a true happiness found in God, a genuine delight in him, an eternal and unending treasuring of his glory and holiness above all else.

So there’s the key. The battle for this true holy-happiness is a daily spiritual battle for the faith to choose the right happiness.

To return to that same podcast episode, Piper well summarized the daily faith-battle of the happy-holiness: “When we say God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him, we are saying the essential warfare of holiness, or sanctification, is the warfare to be satisfied in God.”

There’s a weight of truth in that statement worth deep and long reflection.

Where Will You Be One Year from Today?

Where Will You Be One Year from Today?

One year ago today, on July 31, 2016, a precious family in Minneapolis, preparing to become missionaries in Japan, met with tragedy.

They were driving from Minneapolis to Colorado for the final stage of their training when a distracted truck driver crashed into the back of the family vehicle, killing the entire family — Jamison and Kathryne Pals (both 29), along with their three young children: Ezra (3), Violet (23 months), and Calvin (2 months). All taken.

Where Will You Be One Year from Today? 0jkmzwjy

No one could have predicted this deep loss.

Japan is one of the most gospel-barren countries on the planet. So why God would take this family home, before sending them into the mission field, is beyond anything we can grasp. It made little sense in the moment, and it still makes little sense to me on this side of eternity.

One of the many questions that such tragedies raise for us is, What role, if any, prediction plays in the Christian life? Jamison Pal’s own words help raise the question.

Predictions All Around Us

Our culture loves the prediction-makers. Sports talk radio is 10% news, 20% gossip, and 70% forecasting. Who will win, lose, get cut, or traded — on and on go the predictions. In this world, the Las Vegas odds makers have job security.

Politics, too, is run by polls and predictions: possible candidates, bills, elections, and voter forecasts. Few things can stoke fear-mongering like forecasts of looming economic disaster unless the right bill gets passed (or repealed).

Political forecasts cause stock markets around the world to drop and rise. Prediction-making is the key to making a fortune in commodities trading and real estate. Collective prediction-making is so fast in places like Wall Street and Silicon Valley, the predictions themselves make financial realities and swell valuation bubbles.

Speculating on our future is the petri dish of anxiety and fear, and it’s probably one reason why God has not called us to walk by prediction. He has called us to walk by faith.

Spheres of Time

Four spheres of time can drive our daily lives:

  1. A redemptive past
  2. The now of the present opportunity
  3. Speculation of the future (near and far) to justify present action
  4. Hope in Christ’s return and the re-creation of all things

The Christian embraces 1, 2, and 4. The world swims in 3.

But when fortune-telling worms its way into the Christian life, weird theological distortions follow. We begin to obey God’s revealed will only as far as we have surveyed all the predictable outcomes and taken a guess at the most probable.

This distortion can arise in our marriages. The wife is not called to submit to her husband when she thinks his trajectory is aimed at the most plausible outcome. Nor is it on the shoulders of the husband to predict the most possible result. God’s will is not like three doors: the husband predicts one door that will open, the wife predicts another one, and then they wait to discover God’s will by which door eventually opens. No. God’s will is found in daily obedience and walking by faith and trusting in him, not by forecasting the most favorable outcomes.

Ethicist Oliver O’Donovan explains why God intentionally hides from us his plans for our future. “If we knew the story of the future hidden in God’s foreknowledge, we should be beyond deliberation, beyond action, even beyond caring. ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with observation’ (see Luke 17:20). Even of the Son, through whom God acts in history, it is said that the day and the hour are not revealed to him. The price of agency is to know the future only indirectly, that we may venture on it as an open possibility. The future of prediction, dreary with anxiety or buoyant with hope, has to be held at bay, so that we may use this moment of time to do something, however modest, that is worthwhile and responsible, something to endure before the throne of judgment” (Self, World, and Time, 17).

Planners and Prophets

Two objections are raised at this point.

First, doesn’t God call us to plan for the future?

Yes, certainly we should strategize for the future. But we can wisely plan for the future without feeling compelled to predict the future. Every confident expectation about tomorrow is vain before the eyes of our sovereign God (Proverbs 27:1; James 4:13–15).

Second, doesn’t God use prophets and apostles to make predictions?

Yes, sometimes prophets and apostles make predictions in Scripture (Jeremiah 28:9; John 18:32; Acts 11:27–30; 2 Peter 3:1–7; Jude 17–23).

So then predictive prophecy must be a part of the Christian life, right? Yes, and no. “Predictive prophecy does exist, and sometimes God will use it for the benefit of his people,” writes Sam Storms. For example, Agabus foresaw a famine in Acts 11:27–30. “So how should we respond when someone prophesies some public, political, or natural disaster? Simply wait and see if it happens!” (Practicing the Power, 140–141).

Even predictive prophecy does not imprison us to life under unconfirmed forecasts (see Jeremiah 28:9).

Planning, Not Presuming

No one could have predicted the tragic news about the Pals family we received a year ago on July 31. Three months earlier, Jamison had debriefed his plans for missions in a personal blog entry, an open letter to his bride.

I do not know how things will turn out for us. As a husband, I feel obligated to lead our family toward obedience, whatever the end may be — whether it is life or death or discomfort or disappointment. It is clear that the Lord Jesus calls us not to an easy life, however he calls us. He bids us to take up our cross — just as he did — to suffer and die. Perhaps we will toil for years to raise support and never make it overseas. Perhaps we will go and utterly ‘fail’ as missionaries from all worldly perspectives. Perhaps we will labor for decades without any visible fruit. Or perhaps through willing obedience, many will pass from death to eternal life. . . . The Lord may see fit to keep us here, but if he does not, let’s go. It may cost us much, but would you have it any other way? Whatever we lose will be worth it if we gain more of Christ.

Whatever the future held, and he could not see it, the priority for Jamison was profoundly settled: “I feel obligated to lead our family toward obedience, whatever the end may be” — discomfort, disappointment, life, or death.

All the possible predicted outcomes did not deter the daily obedience to becoming missionaries in Japan. Jamison and Kathryne did not walk by predictions of the future, but by daily obedience. The future was left in God’s hands. And that obedience is only more precious now, because we see that they would never begin their labors overseas. All the training was not done in vanity, but in precious obedience.

One year ago now, the Pals family finished their race. They gained more of Christ in a way no one would have imagined, and no one could have known by prediction. Jamison was not responsible to predict his family’s future. No father is. He was called to lead his family in daily obedience to God’s leading. He leaves for us all a lesson to study very carefully, for I suspect this walk of obedience has endured before the throne of judgment and will be celebrated and retold for all eternity.

Can Technology Delete Death?

Can Technology Delete Death?

Few prophets of the technological revolution are more respected than Ray Kurzweil, and his answer is Yes. One day, soon enough, science will deliver us from physical death, from the awful reality of mortality, and from the snubbing out of our conscious existence on earth.

Human evolution now demands such steps, Kurzweil says. “Our bodies are governed by obsolete genetic programs that evolved in a bygone era, so we need to overcome our genetic heritage” (The Singularity, 371). The idea of transhumanism is that we can evade our biological bodies — like a man fleeing out the top hatch of a damaged submarine, or maybe more like a thumb-drive escaping the top hatch of a damaged submarine.

Kurzweil is talking about a form of mind uploading — the ability to extract the cognitive dimension of the human experience, digitize it, separate it from biological mass, discard the biological body, and end up with some sort of consciousness contained inside a computer who is you, eternal you, deathless you.

Standing in his way are supernaturalists, like us, because for Kurzweil, “a primary role of traditional religion is deathist rationalization — that is, rationalizing the tragedy of death as a good thing” (372).

The Immortality Trap

But even pragmatists are slow to embrace Kurzweil’s promise.

In an attempt to escape this fallen world, what if we instead find ourselves eternally stuck inside it? Since the time of Prometheus, the Greek demigod, or more recent stories of people stuck in a conscious coma, aware of everything around them but unable to move their mouths or bodies, the inability to die can become the ultimate trap, the most haunting horror.

Recently, when asked if he would embrace the immortality of a demigod, podcaster and life-hacker Tim Ferriss said no, he wouldn’t. Easy answer. But if he was given an exit option, to end that eternal existence when he wanted it to end, “assuming that option is on the table, yeah, I would take that option.” In other words, immortality at the hands of technicians raises haunting insecurities about whether or not such an exemption from death would be worth “living.” Hence the need for an “escape” button option, to terminate what is left of us.

The connection got even more interesting when Ferriss was next asked if humanity would be better off if immortality was an option. “I’m all for extending my functional life span, but I am not pining after immortality,” he said. Why? “I worry about having all the time in the world, or the perception of having all the time in the world.”

“If I were immortal,” he concluded, “I would feel no rush and no compulsion to do many, many things.”

The Inhumanity of Deathlessness

Ferriss’s responses bring us to the more immediate concern. For us the question is not whether or not by 2045 we can mind-upload and shun our biological baggage. A lot of those predictions are too far off for anything beyond sci-fi plots.

But the fact that this discussion exists reveals a more proximate question: Do you think in your lifetime, deathless consciousness will become technologically possible? And would you take it?

What we think of Kurzweil’s prophecies — and the prophecies of all transhumanists — codify how we view the body today. As Ferriss already hints, if I am to live forever in a disembodied state, all urgency disappears. What need would I have for resolve today?

In the transhumanist view, all of the things we now take for granted: our biology, our sexuality, our reproduction, our biological gender, our work, our food, and the fabric of our family heritage, all of it get quickly emptied of its embodied value. The ideal becomes the liberated self-consciousness, now free to evolve in perpetuity, unburdened from biological baggage.

In opposition to this vision, theologian Ephraim Radner maybe said it best: “Death marks the place where the complexities of our ongoing mechanisms of life generation are shown in their miraculous purity and vulnerable givenness. If we look carefully at the way we live our lives — sexuality, work, food, relations — we necessarily come face to face with our deaths. This is not simply because death is the flip side of life but because death is the fleeting vantage from which to see life as it is” (A Time to Keep, 48).

Ferriss intuits what the theologians have already codified on paper. As Radner warns, “Life without death, death apprehended and death experienced as the pressing boundary of our subjective beings, is inhumane and leads to inhumanity” (A Time To Keep, 42). Life without death leads to violence against the body today: gender transitioning, plunging birth rates, male body hatred, digital media isolationism, etc.

The Path to Joy

C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi work That Hideous Strength predates Kurzweil’s post-genetic fantasy by about sixty years. In it, Lewis forecasted a technological hope that we could do away with the body as unnecessary and leave the brain as our fundamental self. In his view, the only biological functions are the tubes feeding the brain. “The individual is to become all head.” Indeed there is a drooling head. But even the drooling head Lewis envisioned could be mind-uploaded into the cloud of Kurzweil. Personhood is reduced all the way down to a brain-powered digital processor — food, sex, love, adventure, relationships, all rendered down into fabricated electrical impulses for our simulated eternity.

But Christianity is no “deathist rationalization.” We hate death. Death is also our enemy. Death is the most formidable enemy in the cosmos. Death is the last enemy that will stand (1 Corinthians 15:26).

We don’t rationalize death, we tell death to “Go to hell!” for that is where it must go (Revelation 20:14).

Faced with death, my body is not a cocoon of evolutionary baggage to be evaded. Our bodies make it possible to procreate, and eat, and work, and form familial bonds — all the beautiful things that make us human and not robots, all the gifts that make this life worth living, and all the things which grow in their beauty under the shadow and reality of death.

The new Gnostics want us to believe that we are merely minds trapped inside bodies. We are not. We are souls animated by will and affection and loves and longings, blended with physical bodies — with needs and tastes and feelings. We are embodied beings, not perfect and not evolved, created from the dust we cannot evade on our own or through technology. In Christ, we have already passed from death to life (1 John 3:14–15). Therefore, it’s not by evading the pains and limitations of physical life, but by embracing them, that we find our purest rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:2–10).

Our death is, whether we like it or not, the dark and pressing reality which makes our living possible.

Can Technology Delete Death?

Can Technology Delete Death?

Few prophets of the technological revolution are more respected than Ray Kurzweil, and his answer is Yes. One day, soon enough, science will deliver us from physical death, from the awful reality of mortality, and from the snubbing out of our conscious existence on earth.

Human evolution now demands such steps, Kurzweil says. “Our bodies are governed by obsolete genetic programs that evolved in a bygone era, so we need to overcome our genetic heritage” (The Singularity, 371). The idea of transhumanism is that we can evade our biological bodies — like a man fleeing out the top hatch of a damaged submarine, or maybe more like a thumb-drive escaping the top hatch of a damaged submarine.

Kurzweil is talking about a form of mind uploading — the ability to extract the cognitive dimension of the human experience, digitize it, separate it from biological mass, discard the biological body, and end up with some sort of consciousness contained inside a computer who is you, eternal you, deathless you.

Standing in his way are supernaturalists, like us, because for Kurzweil, “a primary role of traditional religion is deathist rationalization — that is, rationalizing the tragedy of death as a good thing” (372).

The Immortality Trap

But even pragmatists are slow to embrace Kurzweil’s promise.

In an attempt to escape this fallen world, what if we instead find ourselves eternally stuck inside it? Since the time of Prometheus, the Greek demigod, or more recent stories of people stuck in a conscious coma, aware of everything around them but unable to move their mouths or bodies, the inability to die can become the ultimate trap, the most haunting horror.

Recently, when asked if he would embrace the immortality of a demigod, podcaster and life-hacker Tim Ferriss said no, he wouldn’t. Easy answer. But if he was given an exit option, to end that eternal existence when he wanted it to end, “assuming that option is on the table, yeah, I would take that option.” In other words, immortality at the hands of technicians raises haunting insecurities about whether or not such an exemption from death would be worth “living.” Hence the need for an “escape” button option, to terminate what is left of us.

The connection got even more interesting when Ferriss was next asked if humanity would be better off if immortality was an option. “I’m all for extending my functional life span, but I am not pining after immortality,” he said. Why? “I worry about having all the time in the world, or the perception of having all the time in the world.”

“If I were immortal,” he concluded, “I would feel no rush and no compulsion to do many, many things.”

The Inhumanity of Deathlessness

Ferriss’s responses bring us to the more immediate concern. For us the question is not whether or not by 2045 we can mind-upload and shun our biological baggage. A lot of those predictions are too far off for anything beyond sci-fi plots.

But the fact that this discussion exists reveals a more proximate question: Do you think in your lifetime, deathless consciousness will become technologically possible? And would you take it?

What we think of Kurzweil’s prophecies — and the prophecies of all transhumanists — codify how we view the body today. As Ferriss already hints, if I am to live forever in a disembodied state, all urgency disappears. What need would I have for resolve today?

In the transhumanist view, all of the things we now take for granted: our biology, our sexuality, our reproduction, our biological gender, our work, our food, and the fabric of our family heritage, all of it get quickly emptied of its embodied value. The ideal becomes the liberated self-consciousness, now free to evolve in perpetuity, unburdened from biological baggage.

In opposition to this vision, theologian Ephraim Radner maybe said it best: “Death marks the place where the complexities of our ongoing mechanisms of life generation are shown in their miraculous purity and vulnerable givenness. If we look carefully at the way we live our lives — sexuality, work, food, relations — we necessarily come face to face with our deaths. This is not simply because death is the flip side of life but because death is the fleeting vantage from which to see life as it is” (A Time to Keep, 48).

Ferriss intuits what the theologians have already codified on paper. As Radner warns, “Life without death, death apprehended and death experienced as the pressing boundary of our subjective beings, is inhumane and leads to inhumanity” (A Time To Keep, 42). Life without death leads to violence against the body today: gender transitioning, plunging birth rates, male body hatred, digital media isolationism, etc.

The Path to Joy

C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi work That Hideous Strength predates Kurzweil’s post-genetic fantasy by about sixty years. In it, Lewis forecasted a technological hope that we could do away with the body as unnecessary and leave the brain as our fundamental self. In his view, the only biological functions are the tubes feeding the brain. “The individual is to become all head.” Indeed there is a drooling head. But even the drooling head Lewis envisioned could be mind-uploaded into the cloud of Kurzweil. Personhood is reduced all the way down to a brain-powered digital processor — food, sex, love, adventure, relationships, all rendered down into fabricated electrical impulses for our simulated eternity.

But Christianity is no “deathist rationalization.” We hate death. Death is also our enemy. Death is the most formidable enemy in the cosmos. Death is the last enemy that will stand (1 Corinthians 15:26).

We don’t rationalize death, we tell death to “Go to hell!” for that is where it must go (Revelation 20:14).

Faced with death, my body is not a cocoon of evolutionary baggage to be evaded. Our bodies make it possible to procreate, and eat, and work, and form familial bonds — all the beautiful things that make us human and not robots, all the gifts that make this life worth living, and all the things which grow in their beauty under the shadow and reality of death.

The new Gnostics want us to believe that we are merely minds trapped inside bodies. We are not. We are souls animated by will and affection and loves and longings, blended with physical bodies — with needs and tastes and feelings. We are embodied beings, not perfect and not evolved, created from the dust we cannot evade on our own or through technology. In Christ, we have already passed from death to life (1 John 3:14–15). Therefore, it’s not by evading the pains and limitations of physical life, but by embracing them, that we find our purest rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:2–10).

Our death is, whether we like it or not, the dark and pressing reality which makes our living possible.

Twelve Questions to Ask Before You Watch ‘Game of Thrones’

Twelve Questions to Ask Before You Watch ‘Game of Thrones’

“Pastor John, do you believe there is a difference between film nudity versus pornography? I know many Christians who are against porn, but they have no issue watching movies or TV shows that show graphic nudity.” A young woman named Emily emailed this question to the Ask Pastor John inbox.

A day later, Adam emailed to ask, “Pastor John, what would you say to a Christian who watches the cable TV show Game of Thrones?” This is a television series rated TV-MA, and has become rather infamous for its explicit nudity and sex scenes, and for graphic scenes of rape and sexual violence against women. Game of Thrones is now the most popular series in HBO history, with an average audience of more than 23 million viewers.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of John Piper’s response.


The closer I get to death and meeting Jesus personally face-to-face and giving an account for my life and for the careless words that I have spoken (Matthew 12:36), the more sure I am of my resolve never intentionally to look at a television show or a movie or a website or a magazine where I know I will see photos or films of nudity. Never. That is my resolve. And the closer I get to death, the better I feel about that, and the more committed I become.

Frankly, I want to invite all Christians to join me in this pursuit of greater purity of heart and mind. In our day, when entertainment media is virtually the lingua franca [common language] of the world, this is an invitation to be an alien. And I believe with all my heart that what the world needs is radically bold, sacrificially loving, God-besotted “freaks” and aliens. In other words, I am inviting you to say no to the world for the sake of the world.

The world does not need more cool, hip, culturally savvy, irrelevant copies of itself. That is a hoax that has duped thousands of young Christians. They think they have to be hip, cool, savvy, culturally aware, watching everything in order not to be freakish. And that is undoing them morally and undoing their witness.

So, here are 12 questions to think about, or 12 reasons why I am committed to a radical abstention from anything I know is going to present me with nudity.

1. Am I Recrucifying Christ?

Christ died to purify his people. It is an absolute travesty of the cross to treat it as though Jesus died only to forgive us for the sin of watching nudity, and not to purify us for the power not to watch it.

He has blood-bought power in his cross. He died to make us pure. He “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14). If we choose to endorse or embrace or enjoy or pursue impurity, we take a spear and ram it into Jesus’s side every time we do. He suffered to set us free from impurity.

2. Does It Express or Advance My Holiness?

In the Bible, from beginning to end, there is a radical call for holiness — holiness of mind and heart and life. “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). Or 2 Corinthians 7:1, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” Nudity in movies and photos is not holy and does not advance our holiness. It is unholy and impure.

3. When Will I Tear Out My Eye, If Not Now?

Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matthew 5:28–29). Seeing naked women — or seeing naked men — causes a man or woman to sin with their minds and their desires, and often with their bodies. If Jesus told us to guard our hearts by gouging out our eyes to prevent lust, how much more would he say, “Don’t watch it!”

4. Is It Not Satisfying to Think on What Is Honorable?

Life in Christ is not mainly the avoidance of evil, but mainly the passionate pursuit of good. Remember Philippians 4:8, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

My life is not a constrained life. It is a free life. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

5. Am I Longing to See God?

I want to see and know God as fully as possible in this life and the next. Watching nudity is a huge hindrance to that pursuit. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). The defilement of the mind and heart by watching nudity dulls the heart’s ability to see and enjoy God. I dare anyone to watch nudity and turn straight to God and give him thanks and enjoy him more because of what you just experienced.

6. Do I Care About the Souls of the Nudes?

God calls women to “adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control” (1 Timothy 2:9). When we pursue or receive or embrace nudity in our entertainment, we are implicitly endorsing the sin of the women who sell themselves to this way and are, therefore, uncaring about their souls. They disobey 1 Timothy 2:9, and we say that’s okay.

7. Would I Be Glad If My Daughter Played This Role?

Most Christians are hypocrites in watching nudity because, on the one hand, they say by their watching that this is okay, and, on the other hand, they know deep down they would not want their daughter or their wife or their girlfriend to be playing this role. That is hypocrisy.

8. Am I Assuming Nudity Can Be Faked?

Nudity is not like murder and violence on the screen. Violence on a screen is make-believe; nobody really gets killed. But nudity is not make-believe. These actresses are really naked in front of the camera, doing exactly what the director says to do with their legs and their hands and their breasts. And they are naked in front of millions of people to see.

9. Am I Compromising the Beauty of Sex?

Sexual relations is a beautiful thing. God created it and pronounced it good (1 Timothy 4:3). But it is not a spectator sport. It is a holy joy that is sacred in its secure place of tender love. Men and women who want to be watched in their nudity are in the category with exhibitionists who pull down their pants at the top of escalators.

10. Am I Assuming Nudity Is Necessary for Good Art?

There is no great film or television series that needs nudity to add to its greatness. No. There isn’t. There are creative ways to be true to reality without turning sex into a spectator’s sport and without putting actors and actresses in morally compromised situations on the set.

It is not artistic integrity that is driving nudity on the screen. Underneath all of this is male sexual appetite driving this business, and following from that is peer pressure in the industry and the desire for ratings that sell. It is not art that puts nudity in film; it’s the appeal of prurience. It sells.

11. Am I Craving Acceptance?

Christians do not watch nudity with a view to maximizing holiness. That is not what keeps them coming back to the shows. They know deep down that these television shows or these movies are shot through with the commendation and exaltation of attitudes and actions that are utterly out of step with death to self and out of step with the exaltation of Christ.

No, what keeps those Christians coming back is the fear that if they take Christ at his word and make holiness as serious as I am saying it is, they would have to stop seeing so many television shows and so many movies, and they would be viewed as freakish. And that today is the worst evil of all. To be seen as freakish is a much greater evil than to be unholy.

12. Am I Free from Doubt?

There is one biblical guideline that makes life very simple: “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:32). My paraphrase: If you doubt, don’t. That would alter the viewing habits of millions and, oh, how sweetly they would sleep with their conscience.

So, I say it again. Join me in the pursuit of the kind of purity that sees God, and knows the fullness of joy in his presence and the everlasting pleasure at his right hand.

The Joy of the Lord Is Your Strength

The Joy of the Lord Is Your Strength

“I think it’s fair to say that many Christians don’t believe God is happy.” It’s an insight from Randy Alcorn, in his book Happiness. “If we did believe it, wouldn’t we be happier?”

It’s not that Christians don’t want God to be happy, it’s just that we are slow to understand the theology that God is always, essentially, and completely happy. We may believe that he is sometimes happy — that makes sense to us. But is God always, essentially, and completely happy at the core of his being?

That is a question that we have a hard time understanding, and one of the most common questions we get in the Ask Pastor John inbox: If God is so happy, why does he seem so angry in the Bible?

It’s a legitimate question for us to deal with, but under the surface it reveals our weird theological agnosticism about God’s happiness. How we answer the question will determine everything about how we view the Christian life — and how we search for holiness.

If we do not embrace the happiness of God, we jeopardize three precious realities in our own lives.

1. Your joy rests on God’s joy.

In a fallen world, cursed and made vain at so many points, we are fundamentally unhappy and prone to long bouts with unhappiness. We are made “happy” by having stuff, getting gifts, or feeling like we belong in a group.

In stark contrast, God is happy within himself. As Aquinas said so clearly, “God is happiness by his essence: for he is happy not by acquisition or participation of something else, but by his essence. On the other hand, men are happy by participation.”

We read our acquired happiness onto God (“God will finally be happy when X, Y, and Z all go his way”). We think God is merely happy by participation — just like us.

But God is happiness. Joy is fundamental to his triune nature. To find God is to find the fountain of all joy, so beautifully and simply put by Augustine: “Following after God is the desire of happiness; to reach God is happiness itself.” We participate in joy when we reach the essence of all joy: God himself.

Or take it from one of the most careful theologians of our age: “God is essentially blessed and happy” (Richard Muller, 3:382).

Yes, thank you for all these quotes, but please show me texts, you ask.

The foundation for this point is laid in 1 Timothy 1:11, where Paul extols “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” God is essentially blessed. His blessedness — his happiness — is central to his glory. This text shows us that God’s expressive glory is essentially linked to his inner joy (The Joy Project, 116–119). God’s majesty is his radiating joy, and that joy is what he promises to us. His holiness and beauty attract the elect to him. God communicates his majesty as beams that burn out from the solid, rocket-fuel radiance of his inter-Trinitarian joy.

See this truth, and embrace it, and your life will find an eternity of joy-fuel for this life — and the next one.

2. God really does delight in you.

When we assume that God is fundamentally angry, and simultaneously know that we are nothing special — not unique or extraordinary in our service — we cannot believe how on earth (or in heaven) the God of the universe would sing over us his song of delight (Zephaniah 3:17).

How can a holy God delight in me?

It was a preacher named Henry Donald Maurice Spence (1836–1917) who made a point I cannot forget: “God is so joyous that he finds joy even in us.”

Let that land for a moment. God’s song of joy over his justified children is not merely the sum of the joy we attract from him; it’s also the multiplication of his abundant joy exponentially expressing itself out over us. Joyful people more easily express joy, just as God delights to rejoice over his children, because he is essentially joyful.

3. The happiness of God is the strength you need.

The text on this point is a familiar one, but one we don’t stop to think about more carefully. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Whether the “joy of the Lord” here refers mainly to the joy he has in himself, or to the joy he gives us, we have no real hope of joy or strength unless God is happy (John 15:11).

God does not give us any joy outside of the joy he has in himself already. Which means, God’s happiness is our strength.

It’s a remarkable point delivered to Nehemiah and a people who were ravaged by war, weakened by insecurities, and constantly reminded of their own fragility.

And this is where we find our strength: for life, for pain, for trials, for marriage, for child-raising, for missions, for everything. The strength we need for this life is found in the essential joy of God.

You will never be spiritually stronger than your God is happy. God’s joy is our strength. Settle it biblically. God is essentially happy within himself.

Simply Human

Simply Human

We are not gods.

We are not angels.

We are not beasts.

We are human beings.

But what does this exactly mean?

For centuries, the church has been forced to cut through a lot of weird assumptions about what it means to be human. Some of the church fathers implied humans are creatures caught in the middle of a tightrope — suspended somewhere between angels on one side and wild beasts on the other.

Sometimes we lean precariously towards the beasts; sometimes we walk forward towards the angels — all the while never quite sure who we are. We seem destined to live every day with twitching knees and slippery feet, trying to keep our balance along this tense rope of existential uncertainty.

Thus, for many, we can only exist in tension between two things: what we are not and cannot become (the angels), and creatures we dare not try to imitate (the beasts).

Yes, to be human is to have similarities with the angels (we worship God). Yes, to be human is to be in some type of correlation with the animal kingdom (God cares for us in analogous ways as he cares for sparrows and other animals).

But while there are links, we are not angels, and we are not wild animals. We are human beings.

Our Framework

God “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). We are not dust because we are sinners; we are dust because we are human. We are dust because we were originally formed from the dirt of the ground. And that means for all of us, dust is our base composition (Genesis 2:7; 3:19, 23; 18:27).

God’s pity toward us is not that we have become dust through fault of our own, but that he intentionally designed us as dust from the very beginning.

And God remembers that we are dust — he never forgets it. To be made of dust is to be weak and transient and needy and fragile. To be made of dust is to be easily crushed (Job 4:19). And God never un-remembers this fact.

God is our Potter. He never overlooks how he made us, and from what he made us. We get harsh with one another, and we get harsh with our kids, when we forget this fundamental truth about our shared human nature. But God never makes this mistake because he never forgets how he made us. We were mud in the Potter’s hands. So, he never disregards that we are dust. He knows our strengths and abilities. He knows all of our inherent dis-abilities. “He knows us even better than we know ourselves” (Kidner, 399).

Dust is the great leveler of all human achievement (Ecclesiastes 3:20). God is the One who returns us back to dust (Psalm 90:3; 104:29).

To be dust is to be a finite creature.

Resurrection Hope

God breathed his life into Adam’s dusty form. And in that moment, what God made on that day was not a super animal, neither a half-beast nor a half-angel. God made Adam and Eve fully human.

But he also made us from dust so that we would all anticipate a new body in the future, a glorious body more suited to live in the eternal joy of God’s presence.

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Isaiah 26:19)

To be human, to be dust, is to be situated for the future resurrection. God made us dust, not as an end, but as a means to resurrect us into the glory of a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:47–49).

Our greatest hope is that “this perishable body must put on the imperishable” and “this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:50–58).

But for now, we are dust, placed a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5–8). Even Jesus, for a time, took his place alongside us, a little lower than angels (Hebrews 2:5–9).

This is because, for now, all of us pre-resurrected humans are dust. And while we often forget this fact — to our own burnout and despair — God never forgets.

Held Together by Miracle

It’s true, man is a complexity of paradoxes. “Man is neither angel nor brute,” said Pascal. “The unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute.”

Yes, we often fail to live up to the dignity God has given us. But foundationally, we don’t find our calling somewhere in striving toward the angelic life, or in avoiding the beastly life. No, we find our calling as God’s specially designed image-bearers. Made of dust, made male and female by the Potter’s intentional design (Genesis 1:27; 5:2; Matthew 19:4).

Only humans are made according to the image of God. No other creature enjoys this designation — not angels, not any beast. God looked through the corridor of time by his sovereign vision and planned a being who could be united to the Godhead via incarnation for the purpose of redemption. Jesus is that being — fully God and somehow also fully creature — a special creature, a special body, soul, and mind, that could be united to God for the purpose of living on earth and then to be crucified and raised from the dead. A human.

The perfect image of God (Christ) becomes the glorious pattern which gave shape to a being that no angel nor wild beast could match. God created Adam and Eve (and you and me) to reflect his Son, and to make a path of redemption in the story of his creation. This is the unmatched glory of being a human creature. We are dust made according to the image of Christ.

We are not angels. We are not gods. We are not wild animals. We are human beings, specially designed for a glorious redemptive purpose.

We are human.

Dust Before a Father

And yet, “we are not iron, and not even clay,” said Spurgeon. “We are dust held together by daily miracle.” Amen. And this is fundamentally what it means to be human. Dust, held together every single moment by miracle, needy of God’s sustaining mercy every nanosecond of our lives on earth. We are upheld every moment of the day only by the grace of a loving heavenly Father who never forgets what we so often forget ourselves: We are creatures of dust (Psalm 103:13–14).

God is our Father, and this is the seminal cause behind what it means to be human. We are not caught somewhere between the angels and the worms. Fundamentally, to be fully human means that we are called to embrace our place as God’s children, and embrace God as our Father.

We are called to fear God, as an obedient son rightly respects his own father. “It is almost as if this God is looking for reasons to be as forbearing as possible,” writes Don Carson. “But it is also true that a human father is likely to be far more compassionate and forbearing with a son or daughter who ‘fears’ him and basically respects him” (FLG, 2:25).

When we stand in our dusty frames with hearts that fear God, the Potter sees us and has compassion on our muddy forms. He remembers that we are dust. And we remember what it means to be human in the first place.

Prisoners of Self: Incessant Autobiography in the Smartphone Age

Prisoners of Self

The man doting over a smartphone screen, scrolling through media with his fingertips, is like a gorilla meticulously picking out little bugs from his own hair.

That was the subversive quip of anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita. For both the screen addict and the gorilla, neck-down focus is the attentive posture of self-image grooming.

The association here is funny (and not funny), and if C.S. Lewis were alive in the digital age, I think he’d be letting out a hearty laugh at the correlation. He would certainly offer up many warnings to us, and probably one of them would be the dangers of getting preoccupied with self-image care, or, what he called, “incessant autobiography.”

In his absence, I’ll do my best to explain his connections.

Satan as Globetrotter

Lewis’s warning against “incessant autobiography” originates from his reflections on John Milton’s Paradise Lost in a little book Lewis published as A Preface to Paradise Lost.

There Lewis is struck by Milton’s Satan, and his repressive self-focus.

Milton’s Satan, not unlike the Satan of Scripture, is a globetrotter, traveling from the heights of heaven all the way to the depths of hell. A freewheeling presence with limitless powers of travel and presence, teleporting around the cosmos with what seems to be a freedom of range unmatched by any other creature (Isaiah 14:12–13; Job 1:7; 2:2; Luke 10:18; 1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 12:9).

But by his cosmic travels, Satan is driven deeper into a corrupting narcissism. Unconcerned with any values or judgments outside of himself, he becomes his own god, or so he thinks. In reality he is a creature stuck inside the eternal prison of himself. He seems to have an unlimited supply of frequent flier miles to travel the cosmos, but in reality, he is bound inside the solitary confinement of himself, a prison he can never escape.

Milton’s Satan is stuck. Everything he says is propaganda about himself. He has no hope of escaping the acid of his narcissism. He cannot simply be a creature in the presence of his Maker. He speaks only about himself. He loves only himself. He is focused on only himself.

Thus, writes Lewis, “To admire Satan in Paradise Lost, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography” (102).

Adam in Quarantine

In stark contrast we find Milton’s pre-fall Adam, who thrives in the reverse condition, observes Lewis.

Adam talks about God, the Forbidden Tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve. . . .

Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace “all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.” Satan has been in the Heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan. (102)

Satan has been everywhere, and all he can think about is himself.

Adam has been just about nowhere, and all he can think about are the wonders around him.

Adam is confined, and yet his mind fixates on universal marvels. This profoundly insightful comment from Lewis opens up to us a whole world of thought in the age of smartphones and social media (not to mention global travel).

Sin’s Boredom

We cannot miss these two contrasts.

First, Satan is a picture of self-centered boredom; Adam is a picture of God-centered awe.

Satan has fallen in a trap Tim Keller calls “advanced sin.” Advanced sin makes you especially bored and especially boring. Why? “Because all you’re ever worried about is how you’re doing, how you look, how things are affecting you. There’s always a grievance. Incessant autobiography. You can never get out of yourself. You’re always feeling sorry for yourself.

“Sin makes you mediocre. There’s nothing more boring than somebody who’s always worried about how they look. Sin makes you these very uninteresting, unprincipled, shallow, boring people. Sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self. That’s the essence of sin. Sin does not make you bad before it makes you boring,” warns Keller. “That’s the primary thing about sin. Incessant autobiography.”

“There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves,” says Lewis. Such self-consummation, such narcissism, reflects the truest and deepest boredom of Satan himself.

Smartphones and Travel

Second, we see a profound contrast about the ways boundaries allow the mind and heart to feast on the wonders of God and creation.

Adam has embraced his embodied finitude, embraced his home, his local garden, and from this rootedness, his heart expands out into all the expanses of the cosmos around himself. Adam is alive to wonder and filled with heartfelt celebration as he focuses on what is outside of himself. This is because Adam is grounded.

Milton saw it. Lewis saw it in Milton. Keller sees it in Milton and Lewis. And Chesterton saw it, too.

There is a humility that allows us to be rooted people. “The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe,” G.K. Chesterton once wrote.

“The globetrotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing an air of locality. . . . The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men — diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons. The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men — hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky. . . . [The] globetrotter . . . has not the patience to become part of anything” (Works, 1:60).

Adam’s life is intentionally rooted in one place. He was created for one place. Called to serve one place. And once you find yourself rooted deep in such a place, then your interests naturally branch out into the cosmic and universal.

Wonder’s Boundary Line

Living within physical boundaries and limitations — like the boundary line around orthodox theology — awakens us to new glories. Boundaries evoke a new sense of worshipful wonder, said Chesterton, as “the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window.”

Physically, this is what rivets us to movies like The Swiss Family Robinson (1960). “Though at first the ocean surrounding the island on which the Robinsons shipwreck seems like a limiting edge, after a while they realize the wealth and beauty of the island and create their own society, a society that we (the audience) find rich and adventurous — thus the appeal” (Harden, 17).

But the limiting edge of our mortal lives gets lifted in the digital age. Smartphones are a portal into the heights and depths of the known universe. Our addiction to smartphones is the love of freedom from boundaries, the ability to escape all the limits of space and even of time. We become globetrotters. And all our freedom merely breeds inside of us more boredoms, making it harder to wonder in the presence of universals.

Are You Stuck in the Mirror?

The sum of all this? We are quick to use technology and travel as escapes from the boundaries of place-ed-ness. We hate being confined to our physical location. We are desperate for escape. We travel so that we can validate ourselves on social media. We take trips, not so that we can enjoy other places, but so that we can showcase ourselves.

For many, global mobility is driven by the desire to craft the next chapter in our “incessant autobiography.” And while at home, we travel the virtual world but find ourselves stuck inside of our own narcissism. What we project to the world becomes our driving motive, the aim of our travels, and the end of our digital lives. We become boring and blind to wonder.

Whether we find ourselves addicted to global travel or addicted to scouring the worldwide web, we need Christ to sever the narcissism of our hearts, to protect us from the poison of relentless self-focus, and to free us from the awe-killing prison of our own “incessant autobiography.” We were made to be rooted, and to be rooted, to find awe and wonder outside of ourselves.

Turn My Eyes from Worthless Things

Turn My Eyes from Worthless Things

Aldous Huxley called it “man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction” (Revisited, 35).

And sixty years later, our endless desire for “the totally irrelevant” has finally been matched by the endless offerings of irrelevance in our smartphones. We love to be fed worthless things.

This onslaught of produced media is a major problem for us all because we can focus our minds only on a limited number of stimuli that come at us. So, how do we discern and navigate the digital age with wise discretion?

Attentional Becoming

In the first volume of his landmark work, The Principles of Psychology, William James (1842–1910) takes a stab at explaining what it means to be an “attentive” being (1:402–458). James defines human attention, at its root, as implying “withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction” (404).

Attention is the skill of withdrawing from everything, to focus on some things, the opposite of the dizziness of the scatterbrained who cannot attend to anything.

Thus, attention determines how we perceive the world around us. “Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why?” James asks. “Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos” (402).

James argued that of the million possible things that could fixate our minds right now, we have chosen to attend to one thing (this sentence). Thus, this paragraph is shaping your cognitive experience of life right now, not the million other things around you at the moment.

That’s attention.

In other words, we’re not simply creatures of our environment; we are creatures shaped by the selective input we choose to focus on in our environment. Big difference. We really only see what interests us, and what interests us, we attend to. This is the fundamental nature of how each of us experiences our world.

Thus, there are few more important skills for our flourishing than learning the art of refocusing a wandering mind, because “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will” (424).

Welcome to the Digital Age

James could not have predicted the digital mass-media age, but he would not be surprised at our declining powers of attention. Even Scripture, written in a pre-mass-media age, offers relevant warnings for us today. And these are even more significant for us.

So, what does the Bible say about the media we ingest?

  • What movies should we watch?
  • What movies should we avoid?
  • Which television shows are appropriate?
  • Which television shows are inappropriate?
  • What does binge-watching do to our souls?
  • Which celebrities (if any) should we follow online?
  • What types of images should fill our Instagram feeds?

All of these questions are complicated by the fact that I know my own heart wants to attend to things that are vain and worthless. So, when these questions of the media age barrage me, and I am unsettled when I think of my own heart, I turn to the psalmist. He helps us to see one universal principle that provides immediate answers for our lives. The principle appears in the forms of both a God-centered resolution and a Godward plea.

The God-Centered Resolve

First, the psalmist proclaims his personal resolution in Psalm 101:3:

I will not set before my eyes
anything that is worthless.

The term here — worthless — is a compound. Literally: without + profit = worthless.

It is “the quality of being useless, good for nothing” (source). And for the psalmist, something that is “without profit” is not simply reduced to neutrality — it is evil in the sight of God. Why?

We are heirs of eternal, glorious wealth, so our lust for any worthless thing is an offense to God. Thus, the psalmist makes the resolution, “I will not set before my eyes anything that will not profit my soul.” God’s incomparable, eternal glory builds this unshakable, God-centered resolve.

The Godward Plea

Next, the psalmist entreats God in Psalm 119:37:

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.

Worthless things include “anything that is unsubstantial, unreal, worthless, either materially or morally” (source). As in the first passage, the word here translated “worthless things” fits into the Old Testament’s surprisingly vast and comprehensive vocabulary for moral evil (source).

But do “worthless things” fit into our vocabulary for moral evil today?

The warning here is against trusting in anything with an inherent promise that proves hollow in the end. A worthless thing is something false — not false as in a bold-faced lie, but false in its effectiveness, “the idea that hopes and expectations prove false when placed in persons or things that are ineffective and therefore untrustworthy” (source).

This prayer is a plea from a son to a father. God must literally take our head in his hands, and divert our eyes in another direction away from empty things.

And we have such a Father, whom we can ask to fill our hearts with what is eternally valuable (Psalm 119:33–40). Only in the pleasures of our heavenly Father do we have hope, as his children, to turn our eyes and our hearts from worthless things, and to refocus our attention on eternal things.

This is the psalmist’s urgent prayer and plea: “God, grab my head, and turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways as I behold the inestimable worth of your glory.”

Worthless

Worthlessness covers over a breadth of very serious sins: rebellion, idolatry, moral evil, falsehood, lies, and deception. All of these sins fit under the category.

But worthlessness extends far more broadly. It forces on us the question: What really brings value, meaning, and purpose to our lives? Biblical ethics is not about simply avoiding corrupting things. It is about learning to enjoy and embrace the things that truly bring meaning and purpose and eternal joy into our lives. The worthless things of this world form a steady stream of eye candy. I must firmly resolve not to set my eyes on worthless things, but I must also resolve to know that the worthless things will allure me in those moments when I need God to act on my behalf.

A Big Deal or Not?

As Charles Spurgeon said, “It is the tendency of things that are gazed at to get through the eyes into the mind and the heart.” Worthless things in the eye, gazed at, become worthless things lodged in the heart. Our precious attention gets used for futile ends.

We understand this. Today we talk about “ingesting media” as though we eat it. Media goes inside of us, enters our bloodstream, and becomes a part of us. The Puritans used to call the eyes the “eye-gate,” an entrance into the heart. If you let worthless things linger in your eyes, you will inherently muse on their promises, the drawbridge of discernment will lower, and those worthless things will enter into your heart’s affections.

“Let not my eye betray my heart unto vanity” was a common Puritan prayer, echoing the resolve and prayer of the psalmist.

Eye Candy in the Digital Age

Even if the Bible was written in a pre-mass-media age, it still delivers principles that are incredibly relevant and important in the digital world. Our smartphones constantly put before our eyes worthless things. Idols. Lust-driven images. Appeals to our materialistic desires. We endlessly scroll through things that are not, on the one hand, explicitly wrong and wicked, but, on the other hand, are things without any value-add to our joy or purpose on this planet.

Paul’s commendation applies fittingly to what we give our attention: “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise,” fill your attention with these things (Philippians 4:8).

Whatever things are without worth, don’t gaze at them.

The End of the Matter

One writer summarized William James’s contribution on human attention by offering this synopsis of the psychologist’s warning: “When we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default” (Wu, 7).

That is a warning for all of us in the digital age. And it echoes the urgent resolve and plea of the psalmist. Fundamentally, we can take God’s word for it. Every worthless thing that fills our attention has long-term consequences, killing our joy in attending to God in his word, distorting our lives, and simply adding more dead weight on our pilgrimage toward the eye-ravishing home that awaits us.

12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You

Never offline, always within reach, we now wield in our hands a magic wand of technological power we have only begun to grasp. But it raises new enigmas, too. Never more connected, we seem to be growing more distant. Never more efficient, we have never…