Growing up in South Alabama, I was pretty sure I had life figured out by the time I was sixteen. I had a plan. You see, in my cultural context, the truth of Christianity was assumed by just about everyone. Southern author Flannery O’Connor got it right when she wrote that while the South is not “Christ-centered,” it’s certainly “Christ-haunted.” I never really questioned the basic truths of the gospel. Intellectually, I believed that Christ died for my sins and that he was raised from the dead. I had also read the Left Behind series, so I knew he was coming back.
However, I also had sixteen-year-old desires. I wanted to have fun, to experience the pleasures of life. I longed for freedom, defined as the ability to do what I wanted to do. I knew people that tried to live both visions, but I knew they were incompatible. I understood I couldn’t pursue Christ and my desires at the same time. So, I came up with a great plan—one that’s probably not unique to me. I decided that I would devote my youth to fun and pleasure, and then, at some point in the future, I would settle down and submit to God. My plan was to devote part of my life to myself before giving the rest to God.
There are many problems with any plan that tells God to wait until we’re ready. First, we have no guarantee of another day. James attacks this presumption when he writes, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Any attempt to put God off for later is akin to playing a game of Russian roulette. We often live under the illusion that we are in control of our lives, but it’s easy to see that we’re not. No one plans their cancer diagnosis or the head-on interstate collision. We can’t guarantee another minute.
Second, attempting to put God off ignores the enslaving nature of sin. When we save God for later in favor of immediate rebellion, we miscalculate rebellion’s long-term impact on our souls. Jesus tells us, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Sin never remains static. It progressively works within our souls to the point that the more we give in to it, the more control it takes. As the English Puritan John Owen warned, “Do not say, ‘Thus far it shall go and no farther.’ If it have allowance for one step it will take another. It is like water in a channel—if it once break out, it will have its course.”
No addict ever planned his or her addiction. In fact, every addict believed that he or she would be the exception. Just this once, we reason. If we discern a taste for God and an interest in grace in our souls, it is best to act immediately. The tempter wishes to quench any thirst for God with cheap imitations. The more we give in to the imitation, the more our taste buds begin to change. Before long, we prefer the fake over the real, the plastic promises of immediate gratification over the substantive reward of knowing Christ.
Finally, my plan proved that I didn’t really understand the gospel. In my mind holiness and pleasure were in conflict. I had convinced myself that it was impossible to have both. I had failed to realize that God invites us to have our cake and eat it, too. In C.S. Lewis’s brilliant Screwtape Letters, the senior demon Screwtape reminds his understudy Wormwood, “Remember that God is really a hedonist at heart.”
What does Lewis intend with this observation? We may not prefer the demonic word choice of “hedonist,” but Lewis is skillfully suggesting from the perspective of his fictional demons something that the Bible affirms on virtually every page: “Pleasure is God’s idea.” Satan can’t create pleasure; he can only pervert and corrupt God’s original and superior intention. God wants his creatures to be happy. God knows that true joy is found only in Christ.
Holiness and happiness are not in conflict. In fact, they depend on one another. True holiness is joyful holiness. True happiness is holy happiness. A recently-converted married couple in our church sent me this note the other day: “We have lived on both sides of it and we are happier now than we have ever been and more content in life.” You don’t have to choose between God and pleasure, holiness and happiness. Don’t put God off another day.