I stumbled across a beautiful passage in my scripture reading today: 1 Timothy 4:4-5. Paul says to Timothy: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.” In this context, Paul is polemicizing against the false asceticism of a gnostic group that was promoting a false gospel, basically telling people that creation was evil which caused them to “forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods” (v. 3). Throughout Paul’s letters, he battles with a number of false prophets. By and large, they are not libertines who are promoting hedonism, but curmudgeons who want to make the gospel “hard” and austere as a way of building their own power.
Everything created by God is good. Yes, humanity has sinned, and a kind of spiritual death has come into the world as a result of it. Yes, Paul says in Romans 8 that creation is groaning for the revealing of the children of God who will somehow be eternal beings and no longer subject to decay. But no, this does not mean that God’s creation is “fallen” and corrupted. One of the most abominable theological moves that Christians make today is to use a doctrine of “fallen creation” as a blanket dismissal of the existence of biological diversity and a cheap and lazy way to get God off the hook whenever tragedy strikes. God creates people who are male, female, intersex, transgender, gay, straight, bisexual, each in an irreducibly unique way that can’t be summarized in a single category. God also creates people with genes that lead to serious illnesses. I’m not going to try to explain God’s purpose for spina bifida or cerebral palsy, but I’m also not going to say that people who have to carry the cross of genetic disorders like these have been cursed by the sin of humanity in order to reassure myself that my hypothetical God figure is completely in control and completely good. Everything created by God is good. People with spina bifida are good. People who are born with six fingers are good. People who are wired to seek intimacy with their same gender are God’s good creation. Period.
Nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving. This is a very important paradigmatic summary of Paul’s ethics. It echoes Romans 14:14 where Paul says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” And 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Paul does not deal in the absolutes demanded by the Enlightenment mind of Kant’s categorical imperative (the same rule has to apply to everybody universally or else it’s unjust). Many Christians today are a lot more Kantian than they are Pauline. Some people can smoke cigars or drink wine without them becoming a problem. When do they become a problem? When they turn into idols.
The second clause of this sentence is critically important to understand. The Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharisto, the root word for the sacred sacramental meal of bread and wine we share as Christians. Charis in Greek is the word for gift, while eu is the prefix for good, so eucharisto means to recognize something as a “good gift.” When we live eucharistically, we are enjoying all of God’s creation as his good gift to us. In other words, we aren’t scarfing down our bread or chugging down our wine or shopping compulsively or throwing our sexuality recklessly at other people. All of these compulsive behaviors are what people do when they’re giving ultimate significance to a created thing that doesn’t deserve it. It’s very different to enjoy created things as expressions of God’s generous love for you. Certainly there are some things that you simply can’t enjoy eucharistically. You can chew on coca leaves and poppy seeds eucharistically, but you can’t snort cocaine or heroin eucharistically because in the snorting, you are already creating an idol. At the same time, I do believe that there is a eucharistic way to live as a gay person that isn’t necessarily celibacy, which Paul identifies as a “particular gift” and calling not for everyone (1 Cor 7:7). While Paul says in Romans 1 that already heterosexually married people are going “against nature” when they engage in adulterous same-sex intimacy, nowhere does he prescribe celibacy as a solution for people who “struggle” with same-sex attraction. To bastardize celibacy in this way is disrespectful to those unique individuals who do have the particular gift of celibacy.
For it is sanctified by God’s word and prayer. Obviously we have a lot of discernment to do in understanding which parts of creation are going to make us more eucharistic and which ones are going to harm us. I don’t think we should take for granted that “God’s word” has the same colloquial meaning for Paul that it does for us as a synonym for the Bible. When Paul wants to say the Bible, he says graphe, or scripture. In this case, I think that God’s word refers to God’s continual creative process of speaking new things into being. We can and do appropriate the beautiful things God breathed into existence for ugly, sinful purposes all the time. But when we receive God’s creation eucharistically, it becomes part of our life of prayer instead of being an obstacle to our prayer life. Really there is nothing more important to our lives than prayer, which I would define as our deliberate engagement with the presence of God. The things of the world have value according to whether they detract from or benefit our prayer life.
Paul has very harsh words for people who want to teach that creation isn’t good and add a bunch of extra requirements to the gospel to give themselves power. “Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:3-5). In Paul’s day and in ours, there will always be people who use their professed concern with other peoples’ “holiness” as a means of gain and self-aggrandizement. They will never stop craving controversy and disputes about words. I’m sure you’ve had them all over your Facebook wall before. I’ve certainly been known to love controversy and disputes about words a little too much myself.
Just ignore such people. Don’t feed their desperate trollish need for attention. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.