I’m still working the through The Works of John Newton as per my reading plan for 2019. Thanks to 24 hours of flight time in going to Iraq and returning home, I am back on pace to finish all 6 volumes by the end of the year.
In Volume 5, which I am in now, you will find a collection of letters John Newton wrote to his wife while he was captaining a boat which participated in the slave trade. Though Newton would later repudiate his actions, and makes this clear in the footnotes of this collection of letters, it is still hard to reconcile these letters, the author, and the purpose for his separation from his wife.
Nevertheless, one of the letters I read today helped me with an internal struggle I have experienced since returning from Iraq. The struggle, likely encountered by anyone who has travelled to poorer countries, pertains to the staggering wealth, comfort, and ease we have as Canadians.
Witnessing Internally Displaced Yazidis in their camps or Syrian refugees in their homes, and hearing their stories filled with loss, pain, and death, leaves North Americans to wrestle with the many blessings we have simply because we were born in this part of the world. And though there is mystery in God’s sovereign plan whereby we have this enormous worldly wealth—Why us? Why me? For what purpose?—there is also clarity to be found.
Clarity for these issues, and aids to wrestle with these realities, can come from many places. Scripture is one place; in fact it’s THE place to start. Great teachers from the church’s legacy of ministers can also help us think about these things. These letters of John Newton helped me with a particular aspect of this inner struggle.
Newton, in a letter written a few days at sea from England in the year 1753, writes against the two worldviews of Greek schools of thought in regards to how we think about and engage with worldly pleasures. His point: both the Stoics and the Epicureans get this wrong. Newton brilliantly summarizes their mistakes: “The one pretended, that the world afforded nothing worthy of their notice. The other found, there was nothing in the world deserving of the value they set upon it.”
These corrections are helpful. For the disciple of Christ, it is an affront to God’s work of creation and his immeasurable grace to suggest there is no value in the enjoyment of worldly things. The Stoics failed to realize, as Newton notes, “that the Creator does nothing in vain, and that we have not a single inclination in our frame, but what he designed should, under a proper restriction, be gratified.”
However, neither is a follower of Jesus supposed to glory in creation over and against the Creator. Newton sees this error as worse noting, “Others, to avoid this absurdity [Stoicism], fell into a greater, if possible.” What was the greater error? In Newton’s own words, “By supposing the greatest happiness to consist in the most constant enjoyment of sensual pleasure, they opened a wide door to folly…and left each person to pursue his own propensity, under the notion of pleasure, without having recourse to any standard by which to regulate their conduct.”
As I wrestle with the unprecedented prosperity of the West, having returned from the Middle East, I stray of the path of God’s wisdom if I deny there is anything good in God’s creation. If I try convince myself my bed isn’t incredibly comfortable, or our grocery stores aren’t amazingly stocked, than I am being foolish. I am pretending.
Similarly, if in grappling with the real disparities experienced by my brothers and sisters in Iraq and me, I decide that I should indulge in every carnal pleasure ignoring any boundaries of ethical behaviour, I have also fallen into foolishness. I am pretentious.
The way forward is, once again in Newton’s words to his wife, to understand that “pleasure is our chief happiness” and that “We seek for pleasure, but it must be of the noblest kind, and most lasting duration.” That is his word to those pleasure-seeking Epicureans. We are to pursue pleasure in God, in how he made us, and in how he revealed we are to live. To the Stoic way of life, Newton brings equal correction: “The Scripture teaches us how to enjoy prosperity in its full relish, by considering every instance of it as a gift and token of the divine goodness.”
These instructions are helpful to me. I’m still wrestling, but in that struggle I am not free to pretend that pleasures don’t exist or that I have not been incredibly blessed to live in Canada. Further, I cannot pursue earthly pleasure by abandoning all that God’s Word says about propriety in that pursuit. What can I do? I can thank God for the blessings he has given; I can enjoy them measuredly and biblically; and I can reflect on the goodness of God in the midst of my wrestling with this problem.