Excerpt from The Spirit of the Disciplines

Here is one of the most impor­tant dis­ci­plines of engage­ment, yet most over­looked and mis­un­der­stood. It is the com­ple­tion of wor­ship, for it dwells on the great­ness of God as shown in his good­ness to us. We engage in cel­e­bra­tion when we enjoy our­selves, our life, our world, in con­junc­tion with our faith and con­fi­dence in God’s great­ness, beau­ty, and good­ness. We con­cen­trate on our life and world as God’s work and as God’s gift to us.

Typ­i­cal­ly this means that we come togeth­er with oth­ers who know God to eat and drink, to sing and dance, and to relate sto­ries of God’s action for our lives and our peo­ple. Miri­am (Exo­dus 15:20), Deb­o­rah (Judges 5), and David (2 Samuel 6:12 — 16) pro­vide us with vivid bib­li­cal exam­ples of cel­e­bra­tion, as does Jesus’ first pub­lic mir­a­cle at the wed­ding in Cana (John 2), or the appoint­ed feast­ing peri­ods of the nation of Israel. Cel­e­bra­tion was also main­tained by the church in its estab­lished feast days up to the Protes­tant era and is con­tin­ued to today by the Roman Catholic and the Ortho­dox communions. 

Holy delight and joy is the great anti­dote to despair and is a well­spring of gen­uine grat­i­tude — the kind that starts at our toes and blasts off from our loins and diaphragm through the top of our head, fling­ing our arms and our eyes and our voice upward toward our good God. The unabashed­ly sen­su­al and earthy char­ac­ter of cel­e­bra­tion or jubilee is nowhere more clear­ly por­trayed than in the instruc­tions con­tained in Deuteron­o­my 14. Here a tithe of goods pro­duced was to be used in a feast before the Lord on a vaca­tion trip to the big city of Jerusalem. If the city was too far for indi­vid­u­als to car­ry their own pro­duce as pro­vi­sion, the tithe was to be sold for mon­ey,” and the mon­ey tak­en to Jerusalem where — are you ready for this? — Thou shalt bestow that mon­ey for what­so­ev­er thy soul lus­teth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or what­so­ev­er thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the Lord thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine house­hold, and the Levite that is with­in thy gates” (14:26 – 27). 

The strong drink” men­tioned here was, shall we say, not exact­ly sas­safras tea! But the point of this exer­cise, nonethe­less, was pre­cise­ly that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God always” (14:23). The book of Eccle­si­astes con­tains sim­i­lar admo­ni­tions. For exam­ple: Then I real­ized that it is good and prop­er for a man to eat and drink, and to find sat­is­fac­tion in his toil­some labor under the sun dur­ing the few days of life God has giv­en him — for this is his lot. More­over, when God gives any man wealth and pos­ses­sions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be hap­py in his work — this is a gift of God. He sel­dom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occu­pied with glad­ness of heart” (5:18 – 20, NIV; see also 2:24 and 3:12 – 23). 

Be assured that I’m not in favor of drunk­en­ness as a spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline, or even so much as a good thing. Abuse of alco­hol is cur­rent­ly a curse upon the earth. Cel­e­bra­tion is not the whole life or dis­ci­pline of the faith­ful, and it requires sup­ple­men­ta­tion and cor­rec­tion by the rest of a bal­anced prac­tice. But this world is rad­i­cal­ly unsuit­ed to the heart of the human per­son, and the suf­fer­ing and ter­ror of life will not be removed no mat­ter how spir­i­tu­al” we become. It is because of this that a healthy faith before God can­not be built and main­tained, with­out heart­felt cel­e­bra­tion of his great­ness and good­ness to us in the midst of our suf­fer­ing and ter­ror. There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccles. 3:4) It is the act and dis­ci­pline of faith to seize the sea­son and embrace it for what it is, includ­ing the sea­son of enjoyment. 

Cer­tain­ly this will seem far too hedo­nis­tic to many of us. But we dis­hon­or God as much by fear­ing and avoid­ing plea­sure as we do by depen­dence upon it or liv­ing for it. Lis­ten once more to Uncle Screw­tape. He is chid­ing his demon pro­tégé, Worm­wood, for allow­ing his patient” to read a book he real­ly enjoyed and take a walk in the coun­try that filled him with joy. 

In oth­er words,” says Screw­tape, you allowed him two real pos­i­tive plea­sures. Were you so igno­rant as not to see the dan­ger of this?” Then he elaborates: 

The man who tru­ly and dis­in­ter­est­ed­ly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and with­out car­ing twopence what oth­er peo­ple say about it, is by that very fact fore­armed against some of our sub­tlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient aban­don the peo­ple or food or books he real­ly likes in favor of the best” peo­ple, the right” food, the impor­tant” books. I have known a human defend­ed from strong temp­ta­tions to social ambi­tion by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.1

Else­where Screw­tape remarks that when demons are deal­ing with any plea­sure in its healthy and nor­mal and sat­is­fy­ing form, they are on the ene­my’s ground. We’ve won many a soul through plea­sure, he says, All the same, it is His inven­tion, not ours. He made the plea­sures: all our research so far has not enabled us to pro­duce one.” 

Faith in its cel­e­bra­tion some­times becomes a deliri­ous joy cours­ing through our bod­i­ly being, when we real­ly begin to see how great and love­ly God is and how good he has been to us. Even those com­mon­ly thought to be ruined (Luke 6:20 – 23; Matthew 5:3 – 12) — the poor, the depressed, the per­se­cut­ed — have a god­like well-being in his com­pa­ny and King­dom. Feast­ing, danc­ing, singing, ora­tion become insup­press­ible. For by thee,” we shout, I have run through a troop: and by my God I have leaped over a wall” (Psalm 18:29). Thou hast turned for me my mourn­ing into danc­ing: thou hast put off my sack­cloth, and gird­ed me with glad­ness; to the end that my glo­ry may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee for­ev­er!” (Psalm 30:11 – 12). But that is not yet enough. The hills must sing and the trees break out in applause for God (Isa­iah 55:12). Every cre­at­ed thing must praise the Lord (Psalm 148150). 

Cel­e­bra­tion hearti­ly done makes our depri­va­tions and sor­rows seem small, and we find in it great strength to do the will of our God because his good­ness becomes so real to us. 

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Excerpt­ed from Dal­las Willard’s The Spir­it of the Dis­ci­plines. Cour­tesy of Harper­One (New York, 1998).

[1] C.S. Lewis. The Screw­tape Let­ters. Geof­frey Bles, 1942.

Originally published December 1987