Ask Pastor Dave: Is It A Sin To Do Things For Myself?

q-aThe short answer to this question is “no.” The longer answer is “it’s complicated.” Our relationship to ourselves as Christians is complicated both by sin and by the gospel call to “die to self,” so we need to navigate our way through this question with care and attention to detail. I will, once again, do the best I can to answer this question.

The short answer is that doing things for ourselves is not necessarily sinful. There are obvious things that we have to do for ourselves to provide care for our bodies and minds. So we eat, rest, work out, read good books, engage in good conversation because it is for the benefit of ourselves. This question probably goes deeper than that, but we can at least acknowledge at the outset that we are to be responsible for our well-being to a certain degree and in that regard we must do things for ourselves. Paul urges Timothy to drink some wine for his stomach problems, why? Because it’s right for Timothy to take care of himself in this way (1 Tim. 5:23). But we can say more than this. We can speak more directly to the Christians enjoyment of life and things. That is we can say that it is perfectly consistent with the testimony of Scripture for the Christian to seek pleasure.

It will strike some as odd to say it is consistent with Scripture to seek pleasure. There are far too many dour Christians with no delight in their lives, but such is not the call of the Spirit of God on the life of the follower of Christ. God is not against the material enjoyments of our world. Not only is God the Creator of the world, calling its original birth “very good,” but God continues to utilize the created world and the elements of culture in the shaping of His people. So, think for a moment about the earthiness of worship. We express worship to God through sounds and instruments cultivated and crafted by the hands and ears of our specific culture. We raise hands in worship. We use vocal chords and lungs and stomach muscles to pronounce praise to Him. The Lord’s Supper is even more earthy in its worship. James K.A. Smith observes:

We should appreciate that the stuff of the Lord’s Supper – the “elements” as they’re sometimes called – are rather ho-hum stuff: bread and wine, staples of any daily diet in many parts of the world and across history. In instituting the feast, Jesus took what was in hand, what would have been on any table at that time. And while these are rich with symbolism from Israel’s history, they are also everyday items. So once again, in the very practices of Christian worship, we see a hallowing of the everyday, a sanctification of the domestic. (Desiring the Kingdom, 199)

Furthermore, Smith points out, this is not merely a hallowing of “nature’s biological processes that bring forth grain and grapes.” Rather, it is a blessing of the fruits of culture. He continues:

The Lord’s Supper does not only hallow and sanctify nature’s biological processes that bring forth grain and grapes and compel us to eat and drink. After all, it is wheat and grapes that are on the table; it’s bread and wine. These are not naturally occurring phenomena; they are the fruit of culture, the products of human making. In blessing the bread and giving thanks for it, Jesus not only hallows the stuff of the earth, but he also hallows the stuff of our hands. (199-200)

That is to say, by Jesus’ own example there is much to love and treasure in culture and life. Yes, we readily admit the reality of the Fall and the consequences of sin in our world, and yet Christ delights to take the earthly and bless them. The Christian ought to follow in the footsteps of His master.

What might this mean then for our own practices? It means at least that Christians can take delight and enjoyment in the created world and the cultured world. We can love the sights of good art, laugh at a good joke, taste a sweet treat. Indeed, because God has created man in His image to reflect Him, man’s creative talents have the capacity in them to reflect the Creator. So, it is right to indulge in such things. To enjoy the beauty of music, to bask in the warmth of the son, to value a well-designed pair of shoes. Sin has marred the image of God in the world, but it has not totally destroyed it. It is Christian, then, to seek it out and to enjoy it! So, in that regard it is not wrong to do things for yourself. You are perfectly free to buy nice clothes, enjoy a steak dinner, and attend a jazz festival. All these things and many more are perfectly consistent with the character of a Christian (for more see N.D. Wilson’s beautiful piece Lighten Up, Christians: God Loves A Good Time).

Having said all that, however, we should note that the emphasis is slightly different from that question itself. The question wonders aloud about doing things for “oneself” but the answer shifts the focus slightly to enjoying the gifts of God. The two are not entirely exclusive. That is to say to enjoy the gifts of God is to do something for oneself. I don’t enjoy God’s gifts merely out of duty, I enjoy them because they bring me delight. The taste of a delicious cup of coffee in the morning is a wonderful gift of God, but it also makes me happy. I drink because I love coffee, but I should also drink because I love God. We should not think of obeying God merely in terms of duty, but rather in terms of joy. We should see our own delight in the enjoyment of God’s gifts. It is not wrong to love the things God gives, in fact it would be wrong to use them all the while denying the enjoyment that God has built into them. C.S Lewis has brilliantly written:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 1-2).

So, we may say, it is perfectly right to enjoy the gifts of God. If I have not pointed to specific passages of Scripture, let it be noted that I have attempted to demonstrate that there is a more comprehensive theology of pleasure which under girds this point. A theology which sees God’s hand in the created world, and Christ’s blessing of the cultured world, and God’s gifts as best used when they are enjoyed.

The longer answer to this question is, however, that it’s complicated. That is to say sin can easily contaminate our best intentions. So, to do things for ourselves can quickly lead to self-indulgence, selfishness, and disregard for our other responsibilities as followers of Christ. So, if “doing things for myself” means ignoring the needs of others, disobey God, being irresponsible in my finances, or forgetting to thank God for His many good gifts then I have entered the realm of sin. This means that “doing things for myself” sometimes (often?) requires critical evaluation and thinking. So a series of good questions to ask ourselves might be:

1. Why do I delight in this? We ought to stop and consider the joy we find in the things we indulge in. This allows us opportunity to express thankfulness to God, to think more specifically about our joy, and to express it with greater delight. It also allows us to evaluate our motivations. Is there any sinful motivation in my delight? Do I like this outfit because I feel superior to others in it, do I like this movie because it presents me as smart and cultured? Do I like this book because of its explicit descriptions of sensuality? What are the reasons for my joy?

2. Am I being irresponsible with my time or money? Is buying this or indulging in this going to require me to spend more than I should, more than I budgeted? Is buying this going to hamper my ability to tithe, give to others, or pay my bills? Is indulging in this going to require me to neglect in important duties for extended periods of time? Am I going to fall behind in my other duties?

3. Do I spend more time focused on myself than on the Lord and others? This question invites us to step back from the immediate pleasure to consider more carefully the general pattern and trajectory of our life. If I am continually “doing things for myself” such that I rarely spend time thinking about others or thanking the Lord then I should reconsider my indulgence.

It’s not that we need to ask ourselves these question every single time we do something. Rather, we need to take time regularly to just evaluate our habits and indulgences. In this way we can better answer the question for ourselves in the moment: is it a sin to do things for myself.

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