The words “nature” and “natural” have taken on an almost sacred significance in recent decades, especially with advertisers promising products undefiled (mostly) by human processing. Natural is good, while anything that is not natural is bad.
One of the common criticisms of Christian life is that it’s unnatural, that it denies people their right to enjoy that which is perfectly instinctive (usually referring to some kind of sexual freedom).
This criticism is absolutely true, and it’s wonderful. It’s the very unnatural nature of Christianity that makes it so revolutionary and so powerful.
Christianity is unnatural because it asks us to train and control, and in some cases, flat out deny, our natural impulses. But before we worry about that being too restrictive, let’s look at the purity of “nature” when it comes to human instinct.
Jealousy is natural. Greed is natural. Powerlust is natural. Criticizing and judging others are natural. Sexual entitlement is natural.The natural or “carnal” self is in a constant fight for survival and triumph.
But then Christ comes along says there is more to life than survival. He says that if we seek our carnal life, we will lose our spiritual life. We do not live by bread alone. We don’t need to constantly fret about tomorrow’s troubles. We don’t need to live in fear.
Christ’s teachings fly in the face of natural human impulses. It’s not natural to love our enemies. It’s not natural to forgive. It’s not natural to check our own weaknesses before criticizing others. It’s not natural to restrain our sexual needs when gratifying them could mean harm and betrayal.
But these teachings are gifts, not restrictions. Christian morality is liberating and empowering. We do not want to live in a “natural” society where everyone follows their natural instincts. Life in such a world would be, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously stated, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
The in a sense, the purpose of Christian morality is to actually maximize the amount of fun a human can have. It just so happens that following every “natural” instinct is not the way to achieve that happiness.
As CS Lewis once said, (in the voice of a disgusted devil in The Screwtape Letters):
[God’s] a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore.’ …He has filled His world full of pleasures.
Christianity is not a natural religion simply because God is trying to rescue us from the ravages of a brutal nature and lift us into a life of peace and pleasure our carnal natures can hardly comprehend.
Sheldon Lawrence is the founder of bibledice.com, an award winning essayist, and author of the recent afterlife novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life.”