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Transformation: A Life in the Mature Middle (Moralism and Hedonism)

Transformation Blog: Readings from Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus



Transformation: A Life in the Mature Middle (Moralism and Hedonism)

Brandon Cook

Life is about navigating Both-Ands, which creates a balanced path for our feet.  It’s the only path to sanity, let alone happiness.  It’s also what scripture calls us into to learn the posture by which we can fully experience God and His goodness.  And it’s the only way we come into maturity as human beings.

For example: we are called to enjoy the pleasures of life and also to avoid over-indulging.  If you fall too far on either side, you’ll become a dour-faced prude or a wild hedonist.  Moralism on one hand or hedonism on the other, that’s the pattern, which is why, no doubt, Jesus gives us an enduring story about two sons, the younger of which turns hedonist, focused on illicit pleasure, while the older remains a staunch moralist, focused on playing by the rules and getting everything right.[1]  Each extreme, moralism or hedonism, provides the sense of control which our ego desperately craves—control through either the power of certainty/being right or through being able to drown out, even temporarily, our sorrows.  Each is its own sort of “high,” its own type of transcendence.  Rather than bouncing back and forth from one to the other, we are called to turn from both and learn to live in a new place altogether.  This turns out to take quite a bit of work and a tremendous development of character!

Of course, neither son (at the beginning, at least) has much character, nor do they "get it."  They don’t know how to actually be with their father in the radical middle where he dwells.  What do they need to learn?  That their father is not some prudish fuddy-duddy under whose nose they have to sneak fun, nor some angry judge demanding that they get everything right.  Further, that pleasure is both gift and responsibility, not an illicit treat to be stolen but rather a gift to be enjoyed with responsibility.  And that obedience to conscience and what’s right is not some heavy yoke to be born with resentment, but rather a pleasure in and of itself.  All of this they are blind to, living in the extremes of hedonism and moralism far from the radical middle, where maturity dwells.

The parable is for us, for we are like the sons, of course.  The goal of life is to see and know Who God is and to live fearlessly from that reality.  But God dwells in the radical middle (remember, He is three and one, All-powerful and All-vulnerable, human and divine, and on and on) and if we aren’t trained to live there with Him, we may—like these sons—be discontent with how seldom we experience the fullness of God…even though He is quite near to us!

What then, do we need to learn?  That while God is Judge, he is also Compassionate Servant.[2]  That while God is All-Powerful, He’s also All-Vulnerable.[3]   When we see Who God is, we are always freed to live in a new way, with great joy.  And, thankfully, we can actually train ourselves to see God by learning to embrace the Both-Ands all around us

Life, after all, is usually a balance between two extremes, a middle bridged together by a Both-And.  Relationships need order and spontaneity.  Children need structure and flexibility.  Most everything in life has such a corollary.  If you are too lax or too tight, life doesn’t work.  A healthy work life means diligent focus and committed rest.  A healthy soul means both diligent self-reflection and carefree self-forgetfulness.  Life is about constant course corrections between these tensions!  By embracing these Both-Ands, we train and prepare our minds to see God whose Spirit dwells right there amidst these tensions, in the place of maturity and freedom.  And we learn to live not under a rulebook but in real relationship, which is what God was after all along.  

If we have eyes to see the Father who runs to His children—the glorious revelation of Jesus’ parable--even when they can't seem to get everything (or anything) right, our hearts will naturally be transformed.  It's always simply seeing God and experiencing His love which transforms us, and as we embrace Both-Ands, we will learn to see Him more and more clearly.  Ultimately, with those ancient sons, this is all any of us modern day moralists or hedonists need to see!


[1] See Luke 15:11-32

[2] Philippians 2:5-11 captures this Both-And beautifully

[3] See Romans 8 for a picture of the God who suffers and labors with us