Can you serve Jesus and still enjoy your life? That’s the question author and professor Michael Wittmer asks in his new book Becoming Worldly Saints. It’s also a question that gets at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, as much as what it means to be human. Because, as Wittmer argues, “Good Christians make good humans.”
Or at least they should. And yet many wonder if you can do both — be a Christian, with all that it entails, and still live a normal human life. I know I have.
Wittmer maintains you can, because the Christian life and the human life are actually one in the same flourishing life.
An intriguing proposition, to be sure. One I explored in an interview during Holy Week. You can watch the full 30-minute interview below, or follow the highlights in this excerpt.
Whether you’re a Christian or non-Christian wondering if being a Christian and being human are mutually exclusive, what you’ll discover in this interview and Wittmer’s book is far more hopeful than you may think!
We began by discussing the subtitle of his book, Can you serve Jesus and still enjoy your life? It hints at a problem Christians have, believing they can’t serve Jesus and still enjoy their life. I wondered why he thought there was such a disconnect between our earthly life and heavenly pursuits.
“I think too many Christians feel this is a zero-sum game. That God, because he’s God, is more important than anything else. And redemption and not going to hell — what’s more important than that? So Jesus is number one, which means everything else must be of no importance . . . and any pleasure I enjoy in creation is glory and honor stolen from God.” Wittmer believes this far off the mark biblically.
One leader asked him, “Don’t you believe most pastors believe their people are too consumed with worldly pleasure?”
“I said if we ask it like that I think we’ve already lost. If you think about it, every good, wholesome pleasure you and I enjoy, it was God’s idea first. God came up with sex and chocolate and strawberries and strawberries dipped in chocolate — it was his idea first. And when we tell people, ‘You may be too consumed with world pleasure’ . . . we’re telling people, ‘Really God’s not on your side, you really can’t trust him. He’s not for your enjoyment.’”
Wittmer argues Christians cannot separate creation from redemption — and we get into trouble when we do. I asked him to explain this, and wondered whether the reason people feel a disconnect between their spiritual life and earthly life is because they separate the two.
“Redemption is more than creation, but it’s not less than. Without a good creation, redemption doesn’t even get off the ground. Without a good creation you can’t have an incarnation — the Son of God becoming a full human being. Think about Jesus: he’s fully God and fully human. Jesus is zero percent angel and zero percent martian. He didn’t come to this world to make us extraterrestrial, extracelestial beings, but to enable us to thrive in every aspect of our human life. Without a good creation, without a good physical world you can’t have a resurrection.
“One of the points I make is that from start to finish the Bible assumes a good physical, materialistic world. It starts in this central garden of delight. The biggest redemptive event of the Old Testament is the physical deliverance of a physical people from a physical boundary of Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey. And the whole story turns on the embodiment of God who became physical and physically died and physically rose again. And we believe in his physical return . . . and the physical new earth. The whole thing from the start to finish is about the earth and the physical.
“In our sloppy piety, our attempt to be spiritual, when we neglect the physical, goodness of creation we actually undercut redemption. There’s no gospel left.”
We all struggle with the question, What is the meaning of life? I asked Wittmer how Christians get it wrong when we try and fit our normal human activities into the meaning of life.
“When we ask ‘Why are we here?’ instead of starting with the end of the story, with redemption — ‘I’m saved what’s the meaning of my Christian life?’ — we should start at the beginning with creation — ‘I’m image of God, what’s the meaning of my human life?’ Then we discover that we’re here for big reasons: to love God, serve each other, responsibly develop culture, and rest every seven days. This gets into vocation and calling . . .
“We need to stop judging each other, and give each other space to serve God the way he’s made us to serve him. We’re allowed to be who we are — we should feel liberated. But it’s also about lordship — because if you get this, that the human life and the Christian life are the same thing, there are no more time-outs. You can’t say any longer that God only cares about my Christian, churchly, spiritual activities and not about the rest of my life.
“Just think if all the Christian mortgage brokers in America would have realized that God cares just as much about the loans they’re making to people who maybe can’t pay them back and the toxic mortgages they’re dicing up and then selling to other unsuspecting suckers. What if they knew that God cared just as much about that, as he does about them going to church on Sunday? If just the Christians realized that all of life counted, I think we could have avoided this huge meltdown.”
Appropriately, we recorded this interview during Holy Week, when Jesus paid the ultimate price to rescue us from sin and death and put this broken, busted world back together again. Christians call this the gospel, but we often struggle to reconcile the urgency of the gospel with the demands of being human.
“I don’t want balance [between personal salvation or cosmic restoration]. I want to grab both extremes by both hands. I want to have as much worldly, earthly pleasure as I humanly can and live as much gospel, heavenly purpose as I possibly can. I want to be a flourishing human, because if you think about it a flourishing human is the best advertisement for the gospel . . . The gospel is what Jesus has done for us. It’s something we receive: the forgiveness of sins, which is wonderful, but also it’s for the whole creation . . . So the gospel is for individuals and for the whole world.”
Wittmer says John 21 (the episode after the resurrection when Jesus finds his disciples fishing) clearly illustrates that “redemption matters more than creation, but also drives us to creation . . . Just because redemption matters more, doesn’t mean creation is worthless . . . Even after the resurrection, Redemption Jesus still cared about creation.”
When I preached I often made the point that in eternity we won’t be floating on clouds, playing harps, singing old hymns, and drinking really bad church coffee (can I get an “Amen!”?) Wittmer makes the same point — calling this version a terrible lie that tragically undersells the destiny of people.
“Most people, including myself when I was a kid, we prayed to believe in Jesus because we didn’t want to go to hell. But the thought of going to heaven — that’s just boring. What are you going to do there? What’s a disembodied soul do there up on clouds? So we were saved from something but not for something. And Christians need to know that the gospel is much more interesting and exciting and exhilarating and big — bigger than they can imagine. It’s not about denying your humanity and denying this world. It’s about restoring your humanity. Jesus came to this world to cross out our sin and restore us and this whole planet. It’s a more hopeful vision . . .
“[The gospel] fills every cranny of life with significance. There’s nothing in your life you can look at and say this doesn’t count. There’s nothing so small you can’t do for Jesus and receive his reward.”
Wittmer ends the book where he started: Can you serve Jesus and still enjoy your life? He writes, “not only is it possible to enjoy your life while serving Jesus, but it’s the only way you can.” I invited him to talk about this idea, that the only way you can enjoy your life is if you’re serving Jesus.
“As humans we are part of the natural world, our body and soul are part of creation. But unlike everything else that’s part of this world we have a supernatural end. We are made to only be satisfied by knowing and loving God . . . We must know and love Jesus or we’ll never be satisfied. But it doesn’t mean you turn your back on creation. Jesus is the creator of all things and the redeemer of all things, he loves all things. We can trust him that he’s on our side, that he really wants us to enjoy our lives. That enjoying earthly pleasure is not a sin. Sin is a sin. Stuff is not sin. Stuff is God’s gift to us.
“We love Jesus most, but if we love Jesus most we get everything thrown in. Without knowing Jesus we’ll always be searching for that next thing. But if we do know Jesus we get to enjoy life now. We realize this is our Father’s world, and this is his gift to us. He put us here to flourish and thrive. We should never apologize for being here or be afraid that God doesn’t want us to have fun. Pleasure was his idea. Having a body was his idea. And we can trust he is really for us.”
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This overview just scratches the surface of our intriguing conversation and Wittmer’s even more intriguing book, Becoming Worldly Saints.
Watch or listen to our interview during your workout or commute, then engage his book yourself to learn how you can serve Jesus and still enjoy your life.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.