In the summer of 1990, my wife and I had the privilege of attending a conference in southern California at the church led by John MacArthur.
One afternoon, on that memorable occasion, we were invited to the home of the Academic Dean of the Master’s Seminary (his brother, Jerry Smith, was my one of my first professors). The dean (the late Dr. Charles Smith) lived in a private neighborhood that shared a common pool and hot tub.
We (men) wasted no time making our way to the hot tub where we enjoyed some deep theological discussions amidst the bubbling waters.
Not long after that enjoyable visit, I purchased a book that intrigued me with its title, “Hot Tub Religion.” The author (J. I. Packer) was no stranger to me. His writings had deeply enriched my life many times. Dr. Packer also shared a hot tub experience that led him to some good insights about a common approach to religion. He related the following story:
“The other day I was one of a crowd who spent much of a wet Saturday afternoon in a hot tub. My student advisees, who formed the crowd, had advised me to try it; you’ll like it, they said. Previously I had thought of hot tubs as reserved for hedonists in Hollywood and sybarites in San Francisco, but now I know that under certain circumstances members of Regent College’s teaching faculty may also use them. Every day, it seems, one learns something new.”
“As I sat there savoring hot tubness, cracking small jokes and adjusting to the feel of being bubble over from all angles, it struck me that the hot tub is the perfect symbol of the modern route in religion. The hot tub experience is sensuous, relaxing, floppy, laid-back: not in any way demanding, whether intellectually or otherwise, but very, very nice, even to the point of being great fun.”
“Many today want Christianity to be like that, and labor to make it so. As I hot tubbed on, slumping deeper into uninhibited floppiness, I saw why the chromium-plated folk-religion of which I am speaking has gained such a hold. Modern life strains us. We get stimulated till we are dizzy. Relationships are brittle; marriages break; families fly apart; business is a cutthroat rat race, and those not at the top feel themselves mere cogs in another’s machine. Automation and computer technology have made life faster and tenser, since we no longer have to do the time-consuming routine jobs over which our grandparents used to relax their minds.
We have to run more quickly than any generation before us simply to stay where we are. No wonder that when modern Western man turns to religion what he wants is total tickling relaxation, the sense of being at once soothed, supported and effortlessly invigorated: in short, hot tub religion. He asks for it, and up folk jump to provide it. What hot tub religion illustrates most clearly is the law of demand and supply.”
What, then, should we say of hot tub religion?
“Certainly a rhythm of life that includes relaxation is right; the fourth commandment shows that. Alternating hard labor with fun times in right too; all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and Jesus so often went to banquets, the fun times of the ancient world, that he got called glutton and drunkard. Enjoying our bodies while we can, as opposed to despising them is part of the discipline of gratitude to our Creator. And uninhibited exuberances like clapping, dancing, shouting praise and crying out in prayer can be approved too, provided we do not hereby stumble others.”
“Without these hot tub factors, as we may call them, our Christianity would be less godly and less lively, for it would be less human. But if there were no more to our Christianity than hot tub factors- if, that is, we embraced a self-absorbed hedonism of relaxation and happy feelings, while dodging tough tasks, unpopular stances and exhausting relationships– we should fall short of biblical God-centeredness and of the cross-bearing life to which Jesus calls us, and advertise to the world nothing better than our own decadence. Please God, however, we shall not settle for that.”
Good points from Dr. Packer!
It’s not uncommon for people to approach God, church, and religion in the manner described by the hot tub. People who do this often say that with all the stress in their lives, when it comes to Church and God, they just want a soothing, relaxing and supportive experience. They want Church to be like sitting back in the hot-tub as everything around them effortlessly invigorates their stressed out lives. But can we really approach God this way — as if He is the convenient on/off switch to our hot tub?
The danger of this hot tub mentality is not only that it loses sight of the place of service and of self-giving love as God’s path for joyful Christianity, but, in the words of Packer, “it loses sight of the place of pain in sanctification, whereby God trains his children to share his holiness.”
As Packer explains, “The New Testament shows us that in the school of sanctification many modes of pain have their place— physical and mental discomfort and pressure, personal disappointment, restriction, hurt, and distress. God uses these things to activate the supernatural power that is at work in believers (2 Cor. 4:7-11); to replace self-reliance with total trust in the Lord who gives strength (1:8f, 12:9f); and to carry on his holy work of changing us from what we naturally are into Jesus’ moral likeness ‘with ever-increasing glory’ (2 Cor. 3:18). Thus he prepares us for that which he has prepared for us.”
We all have times when we need green pastures and still waters. The normal Christian life, however, is marked by the sufferings of Jesus “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (I Peter 2:21).
It takes God-given wisdom to trace God’s good hand in the hardships of life (James 1:5). But trace it we must! For even in our trials there is joy — when we fix our eyes on “the founder and perfecter of our faith” — knowing His promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 12:2;13:5).
“Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (I Peter 4:19, ESV).