Having Fun at the Expense of Legalism

14 - Merit Badges (iStock_000001625841Small)I used to attend a church known for its legalism. One Sunday after our adult class had enjoyed a Saturday evening cookout, I greeted a long-time member, Jim. He epitomized the kind of attitude this church unintentionally encouraged.

“Jim,” I said, “we missed you last night.”

He replied, “Oh, I only attend spiritual activities.”

I glanced around to see several other men blinking in stunned silence, studying Jim’s face, perhaps wondering if he meant that as a joke. The sincerity of his expression answered our question and brought the conversation to an abrupt end. I thought to respond, but I found his remark absurd on so many levels I didn’t know to begin. Now, after several years of reflection and growth in grace, I feel confident enough to try.

First, the remark was brazenly insulting, the kind of boorish comment you wouldn’t hear in the company of nonbelievers. I think we would have been less offended if he had simply thumped us each on the nose.

Second, the remark was “holier-than-thou.” Literally. His snobbery suggested that his elevated spiritual worth prevented his frittering time away on any non-value-added activities.

Third, the remark was narcissistic. He viewed all activities in terms of how they enhanced his own spiritual well-being, not by the potential benefit he might bring to others.

Fourth, the remark was prideful. Pride compares oneself to others. Humility doesn’t bother to consider the relative worth of others.

Fifth, and most significant of all, the remark was theologically insipid. Utterly stupid. In other words, perfectly suited for religion.

By “spiritual,” Jim betrayed an unconscious (or perhaps deliberate) belief that some activities add to our personal holiness, others detract from it, while a great many remain spiritually neutral—neither helping nor hindering our sanctification. He did not see how a backyard barbeque could pin another medal to his spiritual lapel and, therefore, deemed it useless.

Now wait . . . Hold on . . . If your first instinct prompted you to prove that our class cookout was indeed spiritually edifying, you’re in grave danger! You might be missing the point. In fact, you’re falling into the same trap as my ol’ buddy, Jim. Here’s the truth of the gospel: If a person is “in Christ,” he or she is, by definition, a spiritual being. Nothing—no activity, no deed, no attitude, no perspective—can make him or her more or less “spiritual.” Spiritual life is a gift, and we receive it complete when the Holy Spirit takes up residence in a believing heart. Therefore, everything a spiritual being does is a “spiritual” activity. (This is not to take away from the destructive power of sin; that’s another discussion.)

If you are a believer, then brushing your teeth is a spiritual activity. That’s because you are a spiritual son of God. Moreover, when you decide to have fun—yep, even if you never crack a Bible, sing a hymn, or even have a conscious thought about God at the time—you have engaged in a spiritual activity. So, sons and daughters of God, let us not neglect fun. And when we do decide to cut loose, let us free ourselves from any obligation to sprinkle every activity with prayer or Bible verses. Instead, we should simply enjoy our time.

Even better, let’s bring a little of that fun to church. Our churches should be known as fun places. “Fun” exclusively? No. “Fun” primarily? No. But “fun” should be a natural word among communities of spiritually alive people. If the Word is faithfully preached, if the members genuinely love the Lord and one another, if the body continues to grow strong in obedience, then roast some hotdogs, crank up the music, invite the neighbors, and have a blast! Throw down and live it up. After all, brother Irenaeus got it right when he wrote, “The glory of God is a living man.”[1] Not merely an “existing man,” but a living man.

If we do this, then perhaps our churches will, at last, exude the same kind of winsome, graceful, charm that made kids want to crawl into Jesus’ lap.


[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book IV, Ch. 20, 7

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