What God Made Is Good — And Must Be Sanctified: C.S. Lewis and St. Paul on the Use of Creation

Plenary 6 — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

Last night we heard from Randy Alcorn that we will eat and drink in the new earth. He quoted C.S. Lewis that this is not unspiritual but designed by God. Here’s the longer quote:

There is no good trying to more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why he uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather rude and unspiritual. God does not: he invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it. (Mere Christianity)

That’s true. And my point in this message is that we don’t have to wait for the new earth — we dare not wait for the new earth — to begin eating and drinking to the glory of God. I invite you to turn to 1 Timothy 4:1–5.

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy (sanctified) by the word of God and prayer.

Verses 1–3a describe the apostasy of people who are buying into demonic teachings about the evils of sex and food. Then in the middle of verse 3, Paul begins his response to these teachings, and gives his positive alternative for the right use of creation — in particular, the right use of food, and by implication sex in marriage, and all other pleasures that come from this material world.

So let’s look briefly at the demonic teachings of verses 1–3a, and then focus most of our time on Paul’s positive alternative, with C.S. Lewis giving insights along the way.

The Magnitude of This Issue

But first make sure you feel the magnitude of what we are dealing with here. The issue is: How are we to experience the material creation (which, of course, includes our bodies, and everything we encounter with our five senses) in such a way that God is worshiped, honored, loved, supremely treasured in our experience of material creation?

You can feel the magnitude of this issue in two ways. First, as far as your daily experience goes, there is no more pervasive issue than this. And second, as far as God’s original purpose in creating the world goes, this issue is essential to that purpose.

Unlike many issues, this issue meets you every minute of your day — at least your waking day. In your waking hours, you are always seeing or hearing or smelling or tasting or touching some part of creation that is giving you some pleasure or pain, or something in between. And therefore, the question of how this becomes part your continual worship of God is pervasive.

And when God contemplated the creation of conscious human souls in addition to angels, he faced the question of whether these souls should be embodied, and whether they should live in a material universe, and how those bodies and that material world would accomplish his purposes to glorify himself in creation — because the Bible is unmistakably clear that the communication and exaltation of the glory of God is why God created the universe (Isaiah 43:7, Colossians 1:16; Ephesians 1:6)?

So I hope you feel some measure of the magnitude of the issue we are dealing with here in these verses in 1 Timothy. The devil certainly feels the magnitude of what we are dealing with here, and he is behind the apostasy in the churches, especially in the last days, Paul says. Christians are leaving the faith, Paul says in verse 1 (“some will depart from the faith”). But they probably don’t know they are leaving the faith. They think they are the truly faithful. We’ll see this in a moment.

The Roots of the Apostasy

So let’s look at the roots of this apostasy and see where it’s coming from. The first source Paul mentions is “deceitful spirits.” Verse 1: “Some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to (or giving heed to, believing in ) deceitful spirits.” So the devil and his demons are at work in the church to bring about this deception.

The apostle John calls Satan, in Revelation 12:9, “the deceiver of the whole world.” And when John tackled the heresy of denying the physical incarnation of the Son of God, he said in 2 John 1:7, “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.” So all along the way, leading to the last day, the deceiver is at work in the church.

Demonic Teachings

The second source of this apostasy is that these deceitful spirits produce teachings. They don’t just work subconsciously in the mind or in the heart. They produce teachings in the church. Verse 1 at the end: “devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” So there are teachings circulating in the churches to the effect that true godliness, or superior godliness, involves renouncing marriage and certain foods (verse 3).

Evidently the teaching of demons was that physical appetite for sex and physical appetite for food as defective. They are inferior to a kind of asceticism that sees in the physical world not God’s ideal for us, but something second-class, something for the weak, who don’t have the wherewithal to renounce sex and foods. This was not just a deceitful spirit, but an actual teaching in the church that came, Paul said, from hell. It was demonic.

Coming Through Real People

The third source of this apostasy was real people. Not just a spirit, and not just teachings, but people who were filled with this spirit and who advocated these teachings. Verse 1b–2: People were giving heed to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons “through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared.”

The word “insincerity” is “hypocrisy” (Greek hypocrisei). In other words, these are professing Christians who presented themselves as teaching a higher godliness, but they were, Paul says, “false speakers” (“liars”). They may or may not have known they were speaking falsely. All we know is that they were teaching the teachings of demons and not the teachings of God. They were hypocrites. They presented themselves as one thing, when in fact they were another thing, whether they knew it or not. Their consciences had been cauterized. Which may mean they were too callous to know they were speaking falsehood, or so callous they didn’t care.

Satan’s Deadly Subtlety

It seems to me, the most pressing question here is: Why would Satan seek to spread this kind of asceticism among the churches? At first glance, it seems odd to us. Isn’t Satan’s specialty, when it comes to sex to entice people to want more, not less? Isn’t pornography the issue today, not celibacy?

Isn’t his specialty, when it comes to food, to entice people toward the destructive forces of gluttony and obesity, not toward moderation and abstinence? Doesn’t Ephesians 2:1–3 describe our spiritual deadness in sin as “following the prince of the power of the air. . . carrying out the desires of the body . . . and by nature children of wrath”?

Oh the subtlety of our great adversary! Of course, he wants you to do pornography and fornication and adultery and gluttony. But do you think he only has one strategy for using food and sex to bring about rebellion against the true God?

Whispers of the Fall

Compare his strategy in 1 Timothy 4 with his strategy in Genesis 3. His very first question to humankind was about food. It went like this: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1).

What had God said about eating from the trees of Eden? Genesis 2:16–17: “The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.””

So what was God saying? He was saying: “I have given you life, and I have given you a world full of pleasures — pleasures of taste and sight and sound and smell and feel and nourishment. Only one tree is forbidden to you. And the point of that prohibition is to preserve the pleasures of the world. If you eat of that one, you will be saying to me: ‘Your will is less authoritative than mine, your wisdom less wise than mine, your goodness less generous than mine, and your Fatherhood less caring than mine.’ So don’t eat from that tree. Keep on submitting to my will, and affirming my wisdom, and being thankful for my generosity, and trusting joyfully in my fatherly care. There are 10,000 trees with every imaginable fruit for pleasure and nourishment within a two-hour walk of where we stand. They are all good — very good — and they are all yours. Go, eat, enjoy, be thankful.”

And what does Satan make of that? He made of it a tightfisted God. He took the prohibition of one suicidal tree and treated it as a prohibition of all: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). Now, we could linger long here to see how this seed of distrust in God’s generosity took root in Eve. But that’s not the point here. The point here is Satan’s strategy and how it compares to 1 Timothy 4.

His strategy was to portray God as stingy, withholding something good of his creation from Adam and Eve. And in Genesis 3, Satan wanted Eve to believe that God is a withholder of good, and he wanted her to rebel. And that’s what happened.

The Deceiver Uses Gluttony and Asceticism

Now, in 1 Timothy 4, Satan again wants us to see God has a withholder. For those who want to know him best, and rise to the level of the really spiritual, they should realize God prefers if they not experience sexual pleasures in marriage, and he prefers that they not experience the pleasurable sensations of certain foods. The demonic teaching is the same: God was a withholder in the garden, and he is still a withholder.

The difference is: In the garden, Satan wanted us to reject the God of the garden, and here in 1 Timothy 4, Satan wants us to embrace him. Either way he accomplishes his purpose. The true God is not known or loved or trusted or treasured. If you reject God because you’ve been deceived, or embrace God because you’ve been deceived, the result is the same: You are wedded to a false God — a god of deception. And in the end, that’s all Satan cares about. He couldn’t care less if your false God taught gluttony or asceticism, celibacy or free sex. It makes no difference to him. He knows better than we do: this world of sight and sound and smell and touch and taste — this world and every pleasure in it — is designed for the worship of the true God. And if Satan can use abstinence or gluttony to promote a false, stingy God, he’s fine with either strategy. All food is for the sake of knowing and enjoying the true God.

Paul’s Response

On this, Satan and St. Paul are agreed. So let’s turn to verses 3b–5 and see how Paul responds to this teaching of demons. Let’s read verses 3–5 again:

[The hypocritical advocates of the teaching of demons] forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy (sanctified) by the word of God and prayer.

One way of describing Paul’s response to the teaching of demons is to say: eating is not worship, but eating may become worship. And verses 3–5 are Paul explanation of how that happens — how eating and sexual relations becomes worship.

Not Worship — But Can Be

Sexual relations in marriage are not worship, but may become worship. Smelling toast and bacon early in the morning is not worship, but may become worship. Feeling fall breezes on the skin, and fall sunshine on the face, and fall colors in the eyes, and fall fragrances in the nose, are not worship, but they may become worship. Tasting and enjoying the pleasures of this world is not worshiping or honoring or loving or supremely treasuring God, but may become that.

Tens of thousands of people in Minneapolis are enjoying and being sustained by God’s glorious creation in these fall days. And for some them — I pray many — this enjoyment comes like a stab of longing that Lewis called Joy or Romanticism. A stab of longing that whispers: “This beauty will not satisfy your soul; it beckons you toward something you do not yet know.” That’s how Lewis came to Christ. But first he had to learn: this joy, these stabs of longing, were not worship. But they could become worship.

Help from Lewis

Lewis devoted an entire chapter in his book Miracles to the fear he felt that in coming to Christ he would lose nature — lose the material world: “Where will you go to seek the wildness?” he asked.1 And what he discovered was that only Christianity, with her doctrines of Creation and the Fall, portrayed and preserved Nature as the horrible, wonderful, lovable, wild thing that she is.2 He feared that if she were dethroned as the main thing, her lure to him, and his love to her, would be over. But instead he discovered this: “Because we love something else more than this world, we love even this world better than those who know no other.”3

Or as he said in a letter to a woman who feared losing the memory of her husband,

When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.4

Lewis certainly believed this about nature, as well as people. If it is a first thing, we will lose it. If it is second, it will be more wild and wonderful than ever. In the full flower of his Christian faith, while defending *super*naturalism with all his might, Lewis said, “She [Nature] has never seemed to me more great or more real than at this moment.”5

In the chapter on charity in The Four Loves, he put it like this:

Emerson has said, “When half-gods go, the gods arrive.” That is a very doubtful maxim. Better say, “When God arrives (and only then) the half-gods can remain.” Left to themselves they either vanish or become demons.6

God Created These

What Paul is doing in 1 Timothy 4:1–5 is showing how God arrives in the eating of food so that food can remain the glory that it is rather than vanishing or becoming a demon. Look with me at how Paul’s argument flows here. I want you to see this for yourself. Verse 3: “They forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods” — and here starts Paul’s response and argument — “. . . foods that God created . . .” That’s the first response. “These things you are rejecting are God’s creation.”

Paul will come back to this in verse 4 and draw out the implication of the goodness of creation, but here his point is that creation has a purpose. So he says in verse 3, “. . . that God created to be received [literally a prepositional phrase of purpose “for receiving, or for sharing in] with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” So Paul’s response is: You hypocrites say these foods are to be renounced. God says, they are to be received. That’s why they were created, to be received, shared in. That’s their purpose.

For Those Who Believe

And food was not created to be received in just anyway, or by just anybody. There is a way food is to be received, and there is a kind of human for whom food was created to be received. Food was “created to be received with thanksgiving” (verse 3). Food was not created only to keep us alive or give us physical pleasure. Food was created by God in order that God might be thanked. Hence: Eating is not worship, but it may become worship. Where there is no thankfulness to God in the heart, eating is not worship, but a kind of prostitution. Eating minus gratefulness to God is not what eating was created to be.

And not only was food created by God to be received in a certain way; it also was created to be received by a certain group, namely, those who believe, and those who know the truth. Verse 3: “. . . God created [food and sex] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” The most obvious thing to point out is that now we see three acts that make eating what it is meant to be, and none them is an act of the stomach or the taste buds. There is thanking and there is believing and there is knowing. So the most obvious thing to see is that at least part of what makes eating worship is acts that are not in themselves eating.

Eating food becomes worship by acts that terminate on God not merely on food. Thanking is for food, but to God. Believing is believing in God and his Son Jesus Christ. Knowing terminates on truth and ultimately on God. Eating is not worship. Eating becomes worship — through knowing and believing and thanking. The created world is not an end in itself. It finds its meaning when people, created in God’s image, use it with a mind that knows God, and a heart that believes in and thanks God.

What Makes Eating Good

Paul’s response to the ascetics continues in verse 4: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” Now Paul draws out the sweeping implication of God’s creating food and sex: The implication is that they are good. “Everything created by God is good.” It is the teaching of demons to imply that physical or material reality, in its created essence , is defective. And because of this Paul says in verse 4, “nothing is to be rejected.”

Well, no, not exactly. In fact, it is absolutely crucial that we realize this is not Paul’s argument. Paul does not argue: “Creation is good, therefore nothing is to be rejected.” He does not argue: Creation is good, therefore eating is good. He does not argue: Food is from God, and good and enjoyable, therefore eating is good and enjoyable honors God. That’s not what he says.

What he says is: “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” The divine goodness of food does not make eating food good. What makes eating good food good — or at least one essential part of what makes it good — is the thankfulness of our hearts. What makes the act of the mouth good is the act of the heart.

Sanctifying the Good Creation

Then finally Paul puts the final explanation in place for why thanking and believing and knowing are essential for the right uses of food and sex. Verse 5: “For [in this way] it [everything God has made, “nothing is to be rejected,” verse 4] is made holy (sanctified) by the word of God and prayer.”

The clearest and most important thing to see here is that the good creation must become the sanctified creation. It’s not enough for creation to be good from God’s side; it must be sanctified from our side. It won’t do to say that because creation is good, eating is good. Eating may be fraud. Prostitution. In order for eating not to be fraudulent, the food must be sanctified. Not just good by creation, but sanctified by the word of God and prayer.

How Eating Becomes Holy

What does it mean for food to be “sanctified,” or “made holy”? Last year I stood here in this conference and argued that God’s holiness is his infinite worth owing to his transcendent, self-existent uniqueness. And our holiness is feeling and thinking and acting in accord with the infinite worth of God. And a thing becomes holy by being set apart for God as a means of expressing his infinite worth.

So, for example, Jesus said, “Which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold holy?” (Matthew 23:17). Here the use of gold in the temple “sanctifies” the gold (same word “sanctifies” as in 1 Timothy 4:5). The gold is not itself changed, but it is given a God-exalting function by the way it is made part of God’s temple. It is set apart for God as a means of expressing his infinite worth.

So sanctifying food, or making food holy, means setting it apart as a means of expressing the infinite worth of God. This is how eating becomes worship. This is how all things become pure. “To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). Because the pure are the holy and the holy sanctify all things by the word of God and prayer.

By God’s Speaking and Ours

How do the word of God and prayer sanctify food? How do they set it apart as an expression of the infinite worth of God? The most obvious observation is that the word of God is God’s speaking to us, and prayer is our speaking to God.

So the general answer is that food is set apart as an expression of God’s worth when we listen to what God has to say about food (and believe him, as verse 3 says), and when we speak back to him our affirmations of his truth with gratefulness and with believing pleas that he help us taste his worth in this way.

“Nothing to Give but Himself”

Now, to make the answer more specific, we could go so many different directions at this point. Because God has told us so many things in his word about how food relates to him.7 But I am going to focus on just one thing suggested by C.S. Lewis in a provocative section in Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer. Here’s the excerpt:

Creation seems to be delegation through and through. He will do nothing simply of Himself which can be done by creatures. I suppose this is because He is a giver. And He has nothing to give but Himself. And to give Himself is to do His deeds – in a sense, and on varying levels to be Himself — through the things He has made.

In Pantheism God is all. But the whole point of creation surely is that He was not content to be all. He intends to be “all in all.”8

I am sure I do not understand all Lewis means by this. But it seems to me that he is onto something that has profound implications for the way food is sanctified in our use of it. He says, “He has nothing to give but Himself.” Now that strikes me as true before creation.

Before creation, when God contemplated creating beings who would experience maximum joy with him forever, he had no treasure chest outside himself to look into and ponder which of these would make his creatures happy. He was the treasure. He alone existed. He alone was of infinite value. So when he created the material universe for us to live in — food, sex, colors, sounds, tastes, textures — he was doing it to give us himself for our enjoyment.

He was not saying: I am not enough for you; so I will supplement the gift of myself with the gift of physical things, since the gift of myself would be less satisfying than the gift of me plus physical things. That’s not why he made the world. There’s another possibility. And that’s what Lewis is getting at.

Why God Made the World

As God contemplates creating the world, Lewis says, “He has nothing to give but Himself. And to give Himself is to do His deeds — in a sense, and on varying levels to be Himself — through the things He has made.” In other words, God creates the physical world for man to live in, so that in and through the vast diversities of goodness in creation, God could communicate his own vast diversities of goodness to us.

Which means that the physical universe is thus not an added treasure alongside God. Rather, the universe is the kind of garden or orchard where human beings can best taste and see the manifold goodness of God himself.

I’m suggesting, along with Lewis, that of all the possible ways that God could have revealed the fullness and diversity of the supreme value of his being, he concluded that a physical world would be the best. The material creation was not God’s way of saying to humankind: “I am not enough for you.” It was his way of saying: “Here is the best garden where more of what I am can be revealed to finite creatures. The juiciness of a peach and the sweetness of honey are a communication of myself.”

In Jesus’s Name

Remember Lewis’s words: “He has nothing to give but Himself. And to give Himself is . . . to be Himself — through the things He has made.” This is risky because it could be taken to mean pantheism — that the enjoyment of the peach and the honey is the enjoyment of God, because the peach and the honey are God. He could be taken that way.

But he tells us explicitly in the context not to take him that way. What Lewis wants to say is that to enjoy the juiciness of a peach and to enjoy the sweetness of honey is to enjoy God, not because the peach is God, or the honey is God, but because that kind of sweetness and pleasantness is indeed in God and from God, and this is the best way God can communicate his sweetness to us.

If Lewis is on the right track here, what then does 1 Timothy 4:5 mean when it says food “is made holy, or sanctified, by the word of God and prayer”? It means the word of God teaches us to taste food as a communication of his diverse goodness and his supreme worth. And when we taste food as a communication of God’s goodness and worth in the eating of this food, we offer up our prayers of thanks, and ask him to give us the fullest possible feast of his supreme worth. And we pray this in Jesus’s name, knowing that every lasting blessing was bought by his blood.

Taste and See

Circling back to the beginning, it may be more obvious now why demons would promote teachings that communicate the defectiveness or inferiority of food and sex by forbidding them from the truly godly. This is, in the end, a demonic attack on the holiness of God — on the supreme worth and excellence of God.

And Paul’s response to it is: Rejecting food is not the path of holiness. Sanctifying food is the path of holiness. God made it. It’s good. But that goodness does not make eating worship. The word of God and prayer make food holy, and make eating worship. And they do it by showing us how to taste the sweetness of God in the sweetness of honey, and give him thanks.

May God take all the messages of this conference, and all the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, and all the wonders of this world, and all the truth of his word, and grant you to taste and see that the Lord is good. And with the help of C.S. Lewis may you communicate it with a joy and skill as never before to a world full of unsatisfied longing.

  1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947), p. 65. 

  2. “This attitude [a kind of asceticism that has a healthy respect for the very thing being rejected] will, I think be found to depend logically on the doctrines of Creation and the Fall. Some hazy adumbrations of a doctrine of the Fall can be found in Paganism; but it is quite astonishing how rarely outside Christianity we find — I am not sure that we ever find — a real doctrine of Creation.” C.S. Lewis, “Some Thoughts,” in Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), p. 733. 

  3. C.S. Lewis, “Some Thoughts,” 734. 

  4. Walter Hooper, editor, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963, Vol. III (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2007), 247. 

  5. C.S. Lewis, Miracles, 65. 

  6. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Geoffrey Bles, Ltd., 1960), 109 

  7. For example, he has told us that he created it; that it is good (1 Timothy 4:4); that it not only is meant to sustain life but to give pleasure (1 Timothy 6:17); that food like all other creation exists for the glory of God (Psalm 19:1; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 1:16); and that we are sinners and do not deserve any of this goodness (Romans 1:18; 3:9), so that for believers food is an absolutely free foretaste of glory bought with the blood of Christ (Romans 8:32).  

  8. C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harcourt, 1963), 71.