Here’s a question we all face each day: How much self-indulgence is acceptable? And what kinds of self-indulgence are allowed to Christians? The question may sound like a setup for a dose of moralistic chastening—and there will be a moral bite involved—but I ask it as an honest reflection.
Self-indulgence offers a wide range of possibilities. It may be a passing moment of pleasure-seeking—a decision to watch a nice sunset even if it means we’ll be a few minutes late for the next event of the evening. Or it might be a life-changing impulse—quitting a job that pays the bills in order to chase a heartfelt ambition. And the particulars will differ for each of us.
Self-indulgence may also be as simple as ordering whipped cream with a coffee mocha. Or sleeping until noontime on a day off. Or buying a new car that trumps anything the neighbors are driving. Or flying to Kauai as an impulsive and budget-breaking vacation.
Does it feel like there’s a moral tension forming here? We really need to press the question.
For one, do we even know what defines self-indulgence? Descriptively, it seems to be the act of dismissing our sense of duty that normally guides us in favor of something we desire. It’s our giving in to what we really want to do.
The desire may be easy and innocent. As in hitting the snooze button once before getting up. Or pausing on a busy day to text a friend. It can also be unhealthy or even self-destructive. Such as indulging in a big piece of chocolate cake with ice cream even when we’re dealing with serious weight issues or a pre-diabetic condition. Or in allowing a bit of eye-to-eye time with a coworker who doesn’t keep boundaries. Or in finding some time for pornography.
Does the Bible help us? Did Jesus, for instance, ever speak to the question?
Yes. Jesus took his apostles on at least one retreat, to Caesarea Philippi. The region was, and still is, a pleasant vacation spot in Israel. But he was also ready to challenge improper self-indulgence, as seen in a rebuke: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of a cup and a plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25).
Peter also used the imagery of spiritual weight-lifting—of tightening the lifting-belt of our minds—along with being “sober-minded” (1 Peter 1:13). In the next verse he linked our personal conduct as believers to family imagery: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
One of Martin Luther’s key insights in the sixteenth century was aligned with this. He followed Augustine of Hippo, among others, in treating our collective responsiveness—our heart—as the sole motive center of the soul.
Spiritual struggles, in that view, are always battles between affections—as we respond to competing passions. So at any given moment we have multiple desires in play—some stirred by our newfound love for Christ and others still recalling past pleasures, from before we were members of God’s family.
Our behaviors, then, display the “winning” affection at a given moment. Some affections will be unholy while others will be holy. And, as Peter reminded us, God calls us to be holy as he is.
But what does it mean to be holy? We use the word in Christian circles but it’s not well defined. What may come to mind are sanctimonious naysayers—those who feel superior to others because they stay inside the behavioral boundaries of their community.
But the real measure of holiness is God himself—to be holy “for I am holy”—in a way that shapes “all your conduct.”
Here’s where the reality of God as the Triune Father-Son-and-Spirit God will help us. If we use the singular term “God” without always keeping his Triune and relational reality in view, we may slip into unconscious but reasonable distortions. We can misread statements such as “God is love” and “for I am holy” as if the descriptive words “love” and “holy” are commodities God has and uses.
Instead we need to treat these words as descriptions of God’s inherent relational being: God the Father-Son-and-Spirit God is bonded in his unity by the mutual devotion labeled “love.” In other words he doesn’t use love or send love as a capacity or a force external to himself. Instead he draws us into his communion of love: into his spreading goodness.
Holiness, then, is the moral quality of that love. Nothing the Father thinks or does will ever violate his love for his Son. And vice versa. So, too, the Spirit who communicates this mutual bond of love within the Godhead can be rightly seen as the one who is the love of God—as in Romans 5:5 and Galatians 5:22. Augustine, Luther, Richard Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards, and others in history saw this relational grace as the sole basis for effective—life-changing—spirituality.
So in authentic faith an effective spirituality always begins with an affective devotion to the Father through Christ as stirred by his Spirit. And as our conduct is stirred by this Triune affection of God—with his holy desires shaping our desires—we’re more than free to indulge ourselves!