The base meaning of the word entertainment is “to hold.” It’s a term for maintaining interest. To entertain is to capture and hold one’s attention. And we naturally find the passive watching of television more appealing than labor. Entertainment holds us. But the on-demand access we have for a lifetime of captivating entertainment literally at our fingertips also raises really important questions about what is it that most holds my attention. Does God have any chance at competing for my attention with the allure of Hollywood? Thus, this question from a listener named Craig.
“Dear Pastor John, hello! I know that I have begged for Christ to receive my heart and life. My repentance is sincere. I have stopped my willful sinning, and I am doing everything I can to live a holy life. My question is about my desire and satisfaction in spiritual discipline and worship. I prefer entertainment to time with God. That’s the honest truth. Time with God feels like labor. Entertainment is the passive place I go to get away from work for a while. But I am also terrified for my soul, because my past tells me I’m just not trying hard enough, and I will regret this in the future. Is my preference for entertainment over communion with God simply a personal discipline issue?”
Well, nothing is simple. This is a really important question, and I’m happy to say something about it. Though, in the end, Craig, you and I both know that we must experience a miracle to delight in God more than we delight in the entertainments of the world. Nothing you do or I do can finally, decisively make that happen. It’s a gift of God. But God has given us means, so let’s see if I can say something that might be helpful.
One of the things that I want to say is that I know there are people who would counsel Craig by simply saying, “Lighten up. Good grief, you sound like a legalist. Just go ahead. Relax and enjoy the entertainments that feel like they are a threat to your holiness. You are perfect in Jesus, you know, because you have your justification. It doesn’t matter what movies you watch or how much time you spend with TV or video games or Facebook or Twitter. It doesn’t matter. Just lighten up and enjoy your freedom in Jesus.”
“The New Testament never says, ‘Lighten up.’ It says, ‘Fight to the end.’”
The problem with that counsel is that it totally contradicts the relationship between justification and sanctification. When Jesus and Paul and the writer of Hebrews and the other New Testament writers describe the glorious truth that we are accepted by God — that is, justified by God or loved by God by grace alone, on the basis of Christ alone, through faith alone — that reality unleashes a power for holiness which we in fact experience through major spiritual warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
I don’t think the New Testament ever says, “Lighten up.” It says, “Fight to the end.” Of course, part of the fight is to be cheerful under the light burden and easy yoke of Jesus. Jesus said to cut off your hand or gouge out your eye rather than give way to the entertainment of lust. Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). If you don’t put to death the deeds of the body, you won’t live. John says, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
Those modern-day antinomians, who use their own unbiblical brains to describe the indiscriminate lifestyle of justification, are leading many people astray. I can congratulate you, Craig, for caring so deeply about this matter of personal holiness, and I hope you’ll never solve the problem of your distress by embracing teachings that contradict the Bible. It will be a very short-lived solution.
The Battle for Sight
What should we do? What should we do when a focus on God and Christ and the Spirit and his saving work in the world feels boring or unsatisfying? What should we do when the excitements of TV and movies and video games and sports feel so attractive and so exciting — far more interesting than God? What should we do?
You are right to do the first thing — tremble. Maybe we should tremble. And the reason we should tremble is because that preference for the world is the condition of the whole world. The natural man cannot receive or enjoy or be satisfied or find supremely interesting the things of the Spirit. They are foolishness to him (1 Corinthians 2:14). That’s the mark of the natural man. Therefore, if we feel that way, we should tremble because we’re acting like mere men — not like children of God.
Something is keeping you, Craig, (and a few million others like you) from seeing God and his ways for who he really is. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that if we see him for who he really is — if we “behold his glory” — we will be changed from one degree of glory to the next. Something is hindering you from seeing and tasting the totally beautiful, totally interesting, totally satisfying God in Christ and all that he is for us. I don’t know what it is in your case, Craig. But that’s where the battle is fought — the battle for seeing. We need to see.
Here are three suggestions, and maybe the Lord will use one of them.
Share God’s Worth
One, ask the Lord to direct you to someone who’s a nonbeliever, a baby believer, or a falling-away believer so that you can share with all your heart what it is about God that should draw them back. Now, that’s going to sound counterintuitive to you. You don’t feel like you’re in a position to do that.
“Find somebody who’s not a believer, tell them how worthy Jesus is of their belief, and see what happens.”
But I have seen it over and over again in my own life and the testimony of others. When I am thrown into a situation where my own love for God is tested by my love for people and my desire for them to know God and enjoy eternal life, barriers come down between me and God.
Barriers are torn down to my experience of the truth and beauty of God. Counterintuitive as it sounds, I suggest you go find somebody who’s not a believer, tell them how worthy Jesus is of their belief, and see what happens.
Think Through Your Downtime
Two, think through what kinds of downtime you need and what forms of downtime would be pure and not a contradiction of your holiness. My guess is that without giving it a lot of thought you are defaulting to worldly entertainments, which leave you with a sense of compromise because the worldview with which they’re so saturated (and other aspects of immorality in them) are defiling your conscience.
God intends for us to have downtime — the spring can’t be always wound tight. So think through the kinds of downtime that would be pure, and wouldn’t be so blatantly in competition with your delight in God. Make them an expression of delight in God.
Find a Good Book
Here’s the last suggestion, and it’s right off my front burner. Find somebody who’s dead (some great author) or somebody who’s living who speaks or writes about God as one who has really tasted and seen that God is glorious and beautiful and satisfying and who writes about it in such a way that when you read it you taste it.
“Think through what forms of downtime would be pure and not a contradiction of your holiness.”
Right now, I’m reading John Owen on the duty of being spiritually minded. That’s what Owen is doing for me. I use my Sundays especially for Owen. Well I have a lot of time otherwise, but I get a long period Sunday afternoon where nothing is scheduled usually. So I sit on my couch, and I’ll let Owen do work on me. He is helping me with the very problem you expressed.
When I read him, I awaken to the authentic reality of what the Bible means by spiritual mindedness. I realize what a dunce I am. Owen unpacks biblical phrases in a way that makes me feel like I’ve never read them. Then joy starts to rise as I taste. Yes, yes, there is a case to make that I know what he’s talking about. But it’s glorious, and I feel it afresh.
I pray, Craig, that you will not give up that fight but come to the end of your life and say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).