Eating, Drinking, and Being Merry
And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men,
Today we continue our study Question 136 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the Sixth Commandment?” The fourth part of the answer states, “The sins forbidden in the Sixth Commandment are… immoderate use of meat, drink, labour, and recreations...” Last time we examined our duty to discipline our hearts and minds to keep out those thoughts and desires which despise human life. Today we consider our freedom to enjoy the good things of life, so long as we do so with moderation.
Christians are sometimes saddled with the criticism of being kill-joys, as if we cannot sleep well if we know someone somewhere is having a good time! This criticism is not altogether without foundation. Throughout history many people have, in the name of Christ, promoted rigorous asceticism and even self-flagellation as an inherent element of faith or even the way of salvation. Legalistic movements like Monasticism, or the Fundamentalism of the last century, discouraged or condemned Christians from engaging in such potentially good activities as marriage, feasting, arts, entertainment, playing games, wearing makeup, going to movies, and etc. Lately, the legalistic false teaching that wives cannot choose to work outside the home is again making inroads into Reformed congregations. The Scriptures nowhere countenance such restrictions. We can have pleasure in this life, just so long as we do so in thanksgiving to and for the glory of God. Thus, Solomon tells us that even as there is a time to weep and mourn, there is also a time to laugh and dance (Ecc. 3:4). Scripture affirms the principle that feasting, celebrating, and having pleasure are good when the time is appropriate. In fact, Jesus defended His disciples by appealing to this principle when the Pharisees and scribes asked Him “Why do the disciples of John fast often and make prayers, and likewise those of the Pharisees, but Yours eat and drink?” (Luke 5:33). In effect Jesus’ answer was: My disciples eat and drink now, for now is the right time to eat and drink. When it is the right time for them to fast and pray, then they will fast and pray (see Luke 5:34-35).
So it is good for us to eat meat or drink, or to work hard or play hard, just so long as we do so with moderation, thanksgiving to God, and in a way that does not cause our brother to stumble (1 Tim. 4:4; Rom. 14:21). Such things as what we eat and what we drink or how we spend our free time should not cause disagreements or arguments among Christians. We each belong to God. He is our sole master. Therefore, how each believer uses his Christian freedom is a matter between him and God alone: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” (Rom. 14:17). This text means that what you decide to eat or drink, or what job you choose to work, or how you prefer to spend your free time are not my business, and neither are my preferences yours. What we should be concerned about for one another is how to stir up one another unto obedience (righteousness), how to be at peace with one another, and how to increase one another’s joy.
However, we must be careful not to seek to satisfy sinful passions under the guise of Christian freedom. We can easily deceive ourselves and disguise sinful desires by dissembling “but there’s nothing wrong with it.” Accordingly, Scripture warns: “Live as free people, yet not using your freedom as a cloak for evil, but as bondservants of God,” (1 Pet. 2:16). What a revealing exhortation this is! You and I must guard our hearts from doing things that in and of themselves might be okay, but not when we do them in order to satisfy sinful desires. For example, it is fine to enjoy sweets, but I cannot let sweets become an idol. It is fine to see a movie, but not in order to stir up sinful lust. There is nothing wrong with working hard at something, provided that I’m not doing it in pride. I can with anticipation look forward to another season of golf, as long as it does not impinge on necessary duties. When people immoderately use the good things of this life they commit idolatry and corrupt themselves spiritually to their own harm. Thus, God’s laws are good and will always do us good when we obey them. May He give us the grace to prize obedience to Him over every good thing, so that we would never use things immoderately!