Many pleasures are sinful, for example those that compete with our love for God:
“For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient, without natural affection, unyielding, slanderers, without self-control, savage, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-4).
But in some sense God gives us all things for our enjoyment:
“Command those who are rich in this present age not to be high-minded, nor to trust in the uncertainty of riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).
It is sinful to call evil that which God declared good, showing a lack of gratitude for what He has given us. But it is also sinful (and very common) to love the gifts without also loving the Giver.
In order to please God we need to discern when pleasure is sinful.
Sin: a broken relationship with God
The concept of sin has many dimensions—an inherited inclination toward corruption, harm we cause our neighbors, the way of rebellion against God, guilt before God for disobeying His law—but perhaps the most fundamental is simply a broken relationship with God. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God they hid themselves, not only because they were aware of being naked but because they now doubted His goodness, perhaps with thoughts such as,”Why would God hide knowledge from us? If we are now like God, then God must be like us, seeking power over us. Will He punish us severely?” When God saw that Adam and Eve disobeyed, He relented from physically killing them that day but there was still a mutual withdrawal of fellowship, and man apart from God is in spiritual death just as a branch cut off from a vine withers and dies (John 15:6).
God wanted to restore His relationship with Adam and Eve but could not forgive them outright because they still doubted God, not having seen for themselves the full consequences of sin. In order to restore them righteously, without in any way condoning their sin and giving Satan grounds to accuse God of injustice, God purposed to direct against His own self in the person of His Son the full weight of the righteous wrath which they deserved*. When God said to the serpent (Satan) that the woman’s seed “shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15), He gave Adam and Eve hope of this eventual messianic victory over Satan, even as life in the meantime would become full of toil and pain.
If God were to use power over others in relationships, they would end up in either slavery or rebellion. But God is love (1 John 4:8) and continually demonstrates His desire for us to freely choose Him (Jeremiah 3:14, Luke 13:34, Hebrews 11:6). When we seek power over others, we cause distrust and strife and act as enemies to God and His character. When we choose to harm our neighbor, we show contempt for God and His work of restoring relationship and blessings to the neighbor. This is why God is so angry when we sin against our neighbors, for example by breaking one of the last six of the ten commandments: honor your father and mother, do not murder, commit adultery, steal, falsely testify, or covet. When we do these things, though we harm our neighbor, we also sin against God, as David cried out to God after his adultery with Bathsheba: “Against You, You only, have I sinned” (Psalms 51:4).
If we are to avoid sin, it is not sufficient that we simply avoid forbidden behavior, for example the “Thou shalt not…” statements of the ten commandments. Nor is it sufficient to follow a longer list that includes positive activities such as giving to charity, since even the scribes and Pharisees did that (or thought they did) but will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20). Obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22), which is a giving up of something rightfully ours in order to please God. When we follow any list of dos or don’ts out of obligation, or to placate God’s anger against our wrongdoing, we show that what we really desire is to be excused to go our own way apart from God, and our obedience becomes a sacrifice that God has not required. If we think our good behavior allows God to excuse our bad behavior, then we presume to stand before God on our own merits and hope they are good enough, even while “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6) and “God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). Even the temple sacrifices required by God served only to teach the people that their sins were forgiven with the death of a perfect, innocent animal, provided by God and eventually revealed to be a symbol of His son Jesus Christ. If God was appeased by our sacrifices, He might have been satisfied with the temple sacrifices during the time of Isaiah, but instead He said, “What good to me are your many sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings…Bring no more vain sacrifices” (Isaiah 1:11-14). What God wants of us is a willing, obedient heart: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land” (Isaiah 1:19). And this obedience is not burdensome: “Stop doing evil, learn to do good, seek justice, set straight the oppressor, judge for the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). The obedience God desires is for us to love Him and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
In the tenth commandment, “Do not covet,” we are given another hint that God desires more than correct behavior, since how can anyone but God know whether we covet? Likewise Jesus told us whoever is angry with his brother is in danger of judgment (Matthew 5:22), and whoever lusts after a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28). To love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30) is to recognize all that He does is worthy of praise, and the very thought of, for example, coveting your neighbor’s blessings becomes an abhorrent admission that God does not love you as much as your neighbor. You probably will not understand why you do not have your neighbor’s blessings, and perhaps it is because of the sins of others resulting in legalized theft, the chaotic circumstances that cause misfortune, or they are withheld by God’s wisdom or chastisement, but regardless the reason you can still know that God is working for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). This is faith, and “whatever is not out of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
None of us have perfect faith in God, and so even those of us who honestly desire to know and serve Him still sin. We lack faith because we have seen how the world works, a world in which gain comes by hard work, chance, or theft, where the fittest survive, where innocent and guilty alike suffer and die. How can we really trust that God is working for our good when His promises run counter to our experience? And yet this is exactly what Abraham did, believing God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations though his wife was now too old to have children. Likewise Joshua and the Israelites trusted God to deliver them the city of Jericho by His power and not their own. Others through faith “subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire…out of weakness became strong…received their dead to life again” (Hebrews 11:33-35). Those who believe that Jesus Christ is who he claimed to be, the only begotten Son of God and Lord of all creation, and who sacrifice to advance His kingdom can claim both blessings in this age and eternal life in the age to come (Luke 18:30). When we doubt the help we’ve been promised because our circumstances appear impossible, we sin just as surely as the children of Israel, though delivered from Egypt by the power of God, would not enter Canaan because it was a land of giants (Numbers 13:33).
God showed special favor to the children of Israel because of the promise He made to Abraham, but His favor was not without conditions. He desired that “in you all families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3) and that Israel be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) to proclaim a testimony of Him to the nations, but when the Israelites came out of Egypt they were far from being acceptable instruments of His blessings. Instead they disbelieved God, grumbled at Moses, challenged his authority, and worshiped a golden calf. God gave them the approximately 613 commandments of the law to establish justice and remind them of His holiness, but He warned them that His blessings would turn into curses if they did not faithfully keep their side of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28). As God foresaw (Deuteronomy 30:1), they neglected the law and were cursed into captivity, and only a remnant was later restored to the promised land. And when Jesus of Nazareth came, only a remnant of the Jews recognized him as the Messiah who was to restore blessings to Israel because now God desired that all nations be blessed. The new covenant in Jesus Christ’s blood fulfills God’s covenants with Abraham and the nation of Israel (Galatians 3), and those who accept Christ’s death as their own inherit the blessings promised to Israel, since “there is neither Jew nor Greek,” but “all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
The new covenant brings a few new considerations in identifying sin. First, the law given through Moses reflects God’s eternal character, leads us into an awareness of sin, and shows us our need for the Savior, but it is no longer God’s highest revealed will for us and must be interpreted very carefully if it is to show us what is sin under the new covenant. For example, almost every aspect of the temple ceremony prefigured Christ, who entered the Holy of Holies as our high priest once for all (Hebrews 9:12), so the ceremonial laws should no longer be observed. Many of the civil provisions of the law were administered through the priests, but under the new covenant all believers are priests (1 Peter 2:5) and we have been told instead to obey the civil laws of the nations we find ourselves in (1 Peter 2:13). The moral declarations of the law, for example those things described as abominations unto the Lord, should be taken seriously as God’s will for us, though we need to discern them carefully with New Testament support when possible. Of the ten commandments, nine are repeated in the New Testament, but we are not told to keep the Sabbath except in the spiritual sense of resting in Christ (Hebrews 4:11). This is because the Sabbath was a sign (or a seal) of the covenant with the children of Israel (Exodus 31:13), just as circumcision was a sign of the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:11). Since we are not under either covenant, we do not circumcise (Galatians 5:3) and we need not keep the Sabbath (Galatians 4:10).
A second major change under the new covenant is that we are now sealed with the very Spirit of God (Ephesians 4:30), given to guide us in all truth (John 16:13) and convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). All those who are of God are led by His Spirit (Romans 8:14), who lives inside us (Romans 8:9) and gives us a more intimate knowledge of His will (Romans 7:6). When the world rejects us because of the Holy Spirit living inside us, it is judged just as when it rejected Jesus and the prophets.
Under the new covenant sin is described as a sharp contrast between the flesh and the spirit (John 3:6). We are told, “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). This does not necessarily mean that our bodily appetites are evil, but instead that we need to live as though the sinful nature inherited from Adam was put to death when we accepted (by God’s enabling grace) Christ’s death on our behalf (Romans 6:11). The “deeds of the body” and the “lusts of the flesh” are the same as “that which your own heart and eyes go whoring” (Numbers 15:39) spoken through Moses. The problem has always been that instead of praising God for what He has given us, we impatiently desire more for ourselves and think ill of God for keeping it from us. Then we turn to idols, gods such as money and power that tolerate our misbehavior and give us what we want (Romans 1:21-23). This leads to covetousness, maliciousness, sexual perversion, murder, deceit, pride, hatred of God, lack of understanding, lack of affection, and lack of mercy (Romans 1:29-31). We praise God that He has given us a new nature that instead desires love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23).
Our fleshly appetites
If our bodily appetites were evil, we might be surprised to find that Jesus did not follow John the Baptist’s ascetic example but instead ate tasty food and drank wine with sinners (Matthew 11:19). Some of the Colossians thought it was holy to not touch, taste, or handle that which other believers touched, tasted, and handled, but Paul said “these things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-devised worship, false humility, and severity in abuse of the body, but are of no value against gratification of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23). Jesus anticipated that his followers would abstain from food after he was taken away (Luke 5:35), but never once did God command it either in the old covenant or the new; rather He proclaimed feasts. God gives us our daily bread because He knows that the desire for food can overwhelm us, and when our food tastes good we should praise God all the more. God “gives us rain from the heavens and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).
It may surprise many religious folks that drinking alcohol is generally not a sin, unlike drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18). Deacons were not to be heavy drinkers (1 Timothy 3:8) and even Paul advised Timothy to “use a little wine on account of your stomach” (1 Timothy 5:23). Though wine was common at that time and probably of lower alcohol content, it was avoidable if it should have been avoided, for example by priests before entering the tabernacle (Leviticus 10:9) or Nazirites during their vow (Numbers 6:3). If God did not approve of us enjoying alcoholic drinks, then why did God command the Israelites to celebrate with fermented drink (Deuteronomy 14:26), Jesus supply more good (alcoholic) wine at a wedding (John 2:10), and promise to taste wine again at the marriage celebration of his second coming (Matthew 26:29)? Perhaps we should, like David, thank God for “wine that gladdens the heart of man” (Psalm 104:15).
Likewise God has given us a desire for intimacy with others, even while we often go without because it depends upon others’ free choices. Sexual desire is not in itself sinful because sex was designed for more than procreation, but also to give and receive pleasure in a marriage relationship. This is a picture of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32), and teaches us what intimacy God desires with us and what pain we cause Him when we turn away. Because the marriage covenant is so close to the heart of God, and sex is arguably the seal of that covenant, God is angry when we break that covenant by lusting after others. Those who are not married before God should exercise self-control in their fantasies but still regard their desires as good. Since we are broken in sin and our relationships never exactly follow God’s original design, we need to be careful when we judge others by the perfect design that we do not hinder the work of God by requiring more of them than they are able, for example in judging a divorce or remarriage as necessarily a more sinful choice than staying married or single. Even God did not stay married to the wayward Jews forever.
Our worldly appetites
God knows we need food, drink, shelter, clothing, and others to love, and He desires to give these things in abundance to those who seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). What then would God say of less needful pleasures such as art, sports, and entertainment? These, too, can glorify God, but there are also good reasons to be wary. It’s not simply that we should enjoy them in moderation, since moderation, like compromise, should never be our guiding principle if we wish to serve a holy God. We should instead try to understand how each of these can be used for good and evil, so that we can be in the world without becoming like it (John 17:15).
God is a mighty warrior, and athletes are privileged with an intimate understanding of God’s agility, power, endurance, and victory. Dance can express ineffable joy over God’s goodness and providence (Jeremiah 31:13). Even more can be said of God as an artist and craftsman, since He finely tuned the laws of nature and designed the incredibly complex systems that allow life to thrive amid chaos. Craftsmen were employed by the thousands for building Solomon’s Temple according to God’s detailed design. Artists are moved by the beauty still visible in fallen creation, and musicians like David can almost hear the heavenly harmonies crying “Holy! Holy! Holy!” In the age to come we will all be musicians and artists, joining the choir and expressing the beauty of God’s restored creation.
In the present age art, sports, and especially entertainment more often celebrate evil. The most highly regarded literature plumbs the depths of the human condition as if God has not provided us a way out. Blockbuster movies tempt our lusts and invite us to sympathize with god-like men and women (Genesis 3:5) who fight misleading caricatures of evil. Broadcast media are more likely to tell us that sin is only a matter of health, and health only a matter of being in balance with nature and each other. In competitive sports we reward and act out aggression, and in non-competitive sports we flirt with death for fleeting glory. Before the Renaissance in the West and still today in many cultures, almost all paintings, sculptures, music, and dance were created for the service of deities, even while God forbade the use of images in worship (Exodus 20:4) and does not require music or dance. Since the Renaissance the arts more often exalt man, making him like a god. Music even without lyrics can direct minds toward things above or below, for example a denouement of symphonic harmony, the messy independence of bebop and funk, and the destructive rage of death metal. Few other arts have such a profound, even hypnotic influence on our psyches as music, and combined with lyrics and artists’ personalities we can be almost overwhelmed by its messages, either to exalt God or ourselves and Satan.
The world’s appetites are insatiable. When our basic needs are met and we have extra money, we reward ourselves with better food, bigger houses, nicer things, and exotic vacations. Perhaps we would prefer instead to go hiking, watch football, play in a band, carve a sculpture, or play a video game; it doesn’t really matter. But when we encounter others who can’t provide basic necessities for their families, should we not feel compassion for them and do what we can, perhaps by volunteering at the food bank instead of playing a video game? Can we really mentor them in financial restraint when we do far more discretionary spending? If we haven’t tried to show compassion toward them, should we expect God to have compassion on us if we were to fall on hard times? There might be legitimate reasons to watch football or play a video game, for example to make new friends, reconnect with family, or to rebuild testosterone after a long day at work; and there are better ways to help the poor than just giving them money. But God knows whether you are pushing Him away, will not look kindly upon a pattern of excuses for inaction (Matthew 25:41). “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
Within reasonable limits it is healthy for children to play games and explore music, dance, literature, crafts, and sports. They should be exposed to a large range of activities in order to discover their God-given interests and abilities, which happens when their efforts are rewarded either by others—their parents, teachers, and peers—or by their own satisfaction in their activities. This system of rewards encourages the development of skills that help us cope in society, but as we grow up many of us still try to please the wrong people. Our parents and teachers are supposed to represent and direct us to our Heavenly Father, and when they don’t (and sometimes even when they do) many of us rebel and turn instead toward pleasing ourselves or seeking approval from our peers. If we try to please God and give up our “rights” to our pet interests, and God’s approval and rewards become more important than our own, He may still find a way to let us pursue what we have grown to love.
God orchestrates events so we can be witnesses for Him in almost every place in society. He has placed some of us as artists, athletes, entertainers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, and even politicians in order to influence others in these professions. Likewise God also uses amateur enthusiasts of almost every sort, since sharing a common interest provides excellent opportunities for camaraderie and an audience for the Gospel. As we grow in understanding, many of us wonder if we should stay in our jobs, especially when our pay comes ultimately from unfair practices or “friendship with the world” (James 4:4). This is a matter each Christian must consider with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Many who have repudiated their interests are no longer able to reach as many for Christ, and this is a tragedy if less spiritual believers rather than the Holy Spirit led them to withdrawal. All of us should “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and renew our minds with God’s word (Romans 12:2) to discern how God would use us in our present situation. It should be a comfort to those in less-than-clean professions that God did not require tax collectors and soldiers to withdrawal from the world like John the Baptist (Luke 3:12-14), and that God placed Joseph and Daniel in the corrupt governments of Egypt and Babylon.
One way to consider the choice to withdrawal from “worldly” interests is in analogy to food offered to idols, which are actually demons (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8; 10:20-33). The weak in faith are concerned that they would displease God by eating meat offered to idols (or enjoying music, movies, literature), so they err on the side of caution and eat only vegetables. The strong in faith are confident that God doesn’t care whether they eat meat. The weak in faith sin when they act against their consciences, whereas the strong sin when they cause their brothers to go against their consciences. It is also sin for the weak in faith to say unequivocally “this is sin” when it is not, which is the attitude of many conservative Christians toward the “appearance of evil” in drinking, dancing, and music. Paul was convinced that “nothing is unclean of itself” (Romans 14:14), and Jesus himself demonstrated that it was not sinful to eat and drink with sinners.
“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful” (1 Corinthians 10:23). We have been given freedom, not to please ourselves, but to mingle with unbelievers in the midst of a depraved, demonic culture in order to bring them to God (1 Corinthians 10:27). Let us show them that the kingdom of Heaven is more than a list of rules, and a relationship with the Creator more than self-denial, since these things of themselves do not make us worthy before God.
Because God sees the intention of our hearts instead of just what we do, our sacrifices can actually please God. God does not require that we worship him with music or dance, but God was well pleased with David (Acts 13:22) when he offered God dance (2 Samuel 6:21) and praised Him with music (the Psalms). God did not even require that a temple be built for Him (Isaiah 66:1), but God accepted the honor David chose to give Him (1 Kings 8:20). Though God does not require that we fast, Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20:3), Ezra (Ezra 8:23), and Esther (Esther 4:16) all entreated God with fasting and were rewarded. God honored the Rechabites for obeying their ancestor’s command to not live in houses, plant seed, or drink wine (Jeremiah 35:19), even though God desired all these things for His people (Isaiah 65:21). Under the new covenant we are not instructed to keep the Sabbath, but those who are convicted to keep it and do so even in the face of great opposition are often miraculously made able to still keep it, vindicated by God to those who opposed them. God honors those who honor Him.
Therefore God has given us freedom not only to love Him, but freedom also in the way we express our love, letting us choose among many paths that are all within His will. When Paul was warned by the Holy Spirit through the prophet Agabus not to go to Jerusalem because he would be imprisoned, and Paul went anyway, he was not in sin to choose the path of greater suffering. Likewise it is not a sin to marry (1 Corinthians 7:36) even though Paul thought it was better that single people instead use their time and money to serve God. Let us then enjoy freedom in Christ, knowing that all sins will be forgiven us except the rejection of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31), but free also to vigorously pursue Him and let Him tell us, “you are greatly beloved” (Daniel 9:23).
* partial quote from A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Edinburgh: T & T Clark; vol. 1, 1975, p. 217
All Bible quotations from the VW-edition, based upon the Masoretic and Textus Receptus texts