The Stuff of Earth: Rich Mullins’ “If I Stand” and a Brief Theology of Creation

Mullins’ Paradox

       In Rich Mullins’ 1988 song, “If I Stand” (cowritten with Steven Robert Cudworth), there is a line that captures an enduring tension in the heart of any Christian living in a material world: “The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance / I owe only to the Giver of all good things.” [1]    

       There is a paradox here, because “the stuff of earth” and “all good things” are equivalent. “The stuff of earth” that Mullins describes in the song are the rising sun, the shining moon, the warmth of a fire, the shelter of a room, the virtue of loyalty, music, the wind on the prairie, the ocean tide, the love between friends, and the gentleness of a mother toward her newborn. Clearly, the term “stuff of earth” does not represent bad things, because the stuff of earth Mullins has in mind are “all good things,” gracious gifts from God “the Giver.” And yet, these good things from God are in competition with Him for our loyalty. The implication is that “all good things,” while good in and of themselves—for they were made by God who declared them all “very good” (Genesis 1:31)—can nevertheless be bad for us when they entice us to treason. [2] 

Stealing the Stuff of Earth     

       Indeed, the fall of man occurred precisely because a good thing, a stuff of earth, was misused in an act of treason against the Creator of man and all good things. In the garden of Eden, “out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). God placed the first man and woman “in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it,” and authorized them to eat the good food of every one of these pleasant trees—minus one, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:15–17). 

       Though perhaps everyone who has ever heard these words has wondered why God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil there in the first place, it cannot be said that He was being “stingy.” [3] Just a brief consideration of all the very good things God bequeathed to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1 and 2 is enough to prove that they lived “in a paradise of plenty.” [4] God was not barring Adam and Eve from pleasure; just the opposite. John Piper writes that “the point of that prohibition is to preserve the pleasures of this world.” [5] (How this is the case will be explored later.)

       Nevertheless, the lie that God is stingy and opposed to Adam and Eve’s pleasure is precisely what the Enemy insinuates when he convinces Eve to transgress the prohibition, committing treason against the good and gracious rule of her Creator, Lord, and Provider (Genesis 3:1–7). In that act of treason, a good thing became bad. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes”—words that reaffirm the goodness of God’s creation described in Genesis 2:9—“and that it was to be desired to make one wise, she took its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (3:6). What was “good for food” and “a delight to the eyes” was not used in a manner designed, blessed, or allowed by God; instead, it was stolen in rebellion against God’s will and out of ingratitude for all the good things he had already given so freely. 

       As a result of this treasonous misuse of a stuff of earth, man was separated from God (3:8, 24) and placed in opposition to his neighbors (3:12, 16; 4:8). Moreover, man’s relationship to the very good stuff of earth was damaged and distorted. God declared, “cursed is the ground”—the very ground from which He had made all good food to spring up (2:9)—because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (3:17). 

       The effects of this corrupted relationship to the stuff of earth continues to this day. Adam and Eve’s decision to misuse the creation in defiance of the Creator is mirrored in the actions of every one of their descendants. The Apostle Paul writes that “although they knew God” as the Creator of all people and all good things, people “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise”—and hoping to become wise by stealing from God like Adam and Eve did—“they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” and “ exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:21–25). For all this, every man and woman deserves nothing but the wrath of God (Romans 1:18), for in spite of all His good gifts to them, from food (Genesis 2:16) to sex (Genesis 2:24–25) to the very breath in their lungs (Genesis 2:7), man has scorned God as stingy and unfair and usurped Him as King. 

Snubbing the Stuff of Earth

       In light of these things, it is indeed a serious, sobering fact that “The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance / I owe only to the Giver of all good things.” Mullins is right to be troubled by this tension, as everyone should be. Based on historical precedent and man’s inherent depravity, all—even Christians—are prone, even inclined, to treason, theft, and divine copyright infringement. All believers ought to examine their hearts and their habits to see where they may be guilty of idolatry, worshiping creature and creation and not the Creator.

       However, there is another, equally grave danger beside the sin of idolatry. In response to the right conviction that they have sinned against God by worshiping the stuff of earth, at least some will be tempted to condemn the stuff of earth as evil, choosing asceticism to discipline their appetites and worship God more faithfully. (Certainly, I myself have been guilty of this inclination.) Paul, who in Romans 1 warns believers not to worship the creation, elsewhere also warns believers not to reject and despise it. In 1 Timothy 4:1–5, he writes, 

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. 

What is shocking here is that the ascetic impulse, far from a godly response to the sin of idolatry, is actually demonic, leading to apostasy, not greater faithfulness. The same Enemy who tempted Adam and Eve to take and eat so that they could become god-like, also tempts some to not take and to not eat for the same end. As John Piper has written, the devil “couldn’t care less if your false god taught gluttony or asceticism, free sex or celibacy.” As long as the false god usurps God’s place, “he’s fine with either strategy.” [6]

       One Christian thinker who has written extensively, eloquently, and persuasively about the goodness of God’s material creation is C. S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, he writes that “God never meant for man to be a purely spiritual creature. . . . He likes matter,” for, after all, “he invented it.” Therefore, “there is no good trying to be more spiritual than God.” [7] To try to be more spiritual than God is ludicrous. Asceticism is no solution to man’s broken relationship with God or his precarious, idolatry-leaning connection to the stuff of earth; it is no escape from Mullin’s paradox. 

How Not to Eat Chocolate Pudding Cake     

       In short, idolatry (stealing creation from the Creator) and asceticism (snubbing creation, supposedly for the sake of the Creator) must both be rejected by the Christian. The falsehood of either option can be seen using the following analogy: My mother is one of the best bakers I know. When we are together for my birthday, she typically makes one of my favorites, a chocolate pudding cake. On the one hand, if I were to seize the cake from my mother as soon as it was out of the oven, scarf it down entirely and not share any of it with her or the rest of my family, and if I never thanked her for the cake and never even acknowledged her presence in the room, would not any onlooker to the scene want to step in and berate me for my shameless behavior? On the other hand, if I were to push the offered plate of cake away from me, tell my mother that I would rather wash the dishes than eat the cake, that the cake would only make me fat and that it is probably filled with harmful chemicals, and that my eating it would actually be an act of insulting disloyalty toward her, would not the onlooker think I had lost my mind? The former response is idolatrous, the second is ascetic. Either way, I am certain my mother would be disturbed and deeply saddened by the way I would treat both her and the cake she baked for me.  

       If it would be inappropriate for me to behave toward my mother in either of these ways, how much more serious and scandalous it is when people act in the same ways toward God. However, if how not to eat chocolate pudding cake is analogous to how not to receive God’s stuff of earth, then it follows that the proper way to eat chocolate pudding cake is analogous to how the stuff of earth should be received. When my mother bakes me a cake, I do not steal or snub, idolize or ignore it. Rather—naturally—I thank her for the cake. I eat it, I enjoy it, I tell her how good it is, I share it with others at the table, and, once we have all finished eating, I tell her once more how much I appreciated her baking the cake for me, and I tell her that I love her—implicitly, of course, with a love that is far greater than my love for chocolate pudding cake. (I should also offer to wash the dishes.) 

       If the onlooker were to ask her what she thought of this behavior, not once would she say she was afraid I loved the cake more than I loved her. If pressed further for an explanation of her feelings, she might say that she took delight in baking the cake for me, in watching me enjoy it, and in hearing me thank her for it. The onlooker should be able to see an exchange marked by mutual love: My mother loves me, so she bakes a cake; I love my mother, so I eat the cake she bakes for me, and give thanks for it. I do not love my mother because she baked the cake—I already love her and therefore I eat the cake.       

When Eating Becomes Worship

       If this analogy accurately reflects man’s relationship to God and God’s creation, it is not at all surprising that Paul writes that God’s good gift of food is “to be received with thanksgiving” and “made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4–5). Piper helpfully clarifies that “eating is not worship, but eating may become worship.” [8] After all, everyone eats, yet most do so without acknowledging the Creator and Provider of the food, continuing the scandalous folly of Genesis 3 and Romans 1. There is no exchange marked by mutual love in the actions of the idolator. Moreover, just because “eating is not worship,” does not mean that it cannot ever “become worship.” The false teaching of asceticism is that eating is inherently, irredeemably anti-worshipful. But there is no exchange marked by mutual love in the actions of the ascetic either. 

       However, when the eater gives a prayer of thanks to God, recognizing that the food on the table, according to the word of God, is only there by divine, gratuitous grace—ALL of God’s gifts, from breath to cake to salvation, are gratuitous; He owes man nothing!—and when the eater therefore eats with a heart full of thankfulness, then eating becomes worship. Then, the food is sanctified by God’s word and by the eater’s prayer as he repeats God’s word back to Him, that is, affirming what God has already said about food. [9] Here, there is an exchange between God and His creature marked by mutual love: The Creator loves the creature, so He gives Him food to eat; the creature loves the Creator, and so he eats the food He gave to him, and gives thanks for it. The creature does not love his Creator because he gave Him food, though this is proof to him of the Creator’s love for him and of the loveliness of the Creator. However, even if the Creator did not give him food, He would still be worthy of all love and allegiance. So the creature loves the Creator, and therefore he eats the food. The stuff of earth does not compete for allegiance, becoming an end to itself, but it becomes a means to worship the Giver of all good things. Mullins’ paradox is transcended.     

“So If I Stand . . .”

       What is Mullins’ own response to the paradox, “The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance / I owe only to the Giver of all good things”? In “If I Stand,” this paradox leads Mullins to four conclusions, four ways to avoid the sin of idolatry. Thankfully, there is no whiff of asceticism in Mullins’ song; he does not swing the pendulum too far the other way. Instead, Mullins’ response is thoroughly biblical, and instructive for all who live in a material world. 

       First, Mullins recognizes that the stuff of earth serve as pointers toward God.

       He sings, “There’s more that rises in the morning than the sun.” There is “a shelter that is larger than this room.” There is “a music higher than the songs that I can sing.” All the stuff of earth listed should naturally evoke wonder or comfort in the hearer of the song. Every sunrise and sunset, and every permutation of the moon’s appearance in the night sky, is glorious to behold. Music, as Rich Mullins sings elsewhere, is “the finest thing I have ever found.” [10] However, Mullins uses this stuff of Earth, wonderful and comforting as they may be in and of themselves, to direct the hearer’s gaze to something more ultimate. For Mullins, the wonder of the rising sun is lesser than the wonder of beholding the God who said “Let there be light.” The comforts of home are a faint reflection of the reality that God is the shelter of His people. Even music, “the finest thing” Mullins ever experienced on Earth, cannot compare to the beauty and majesty of God.       

        Therefore, when he concludes that “the stuff of earth competes for the allegiance / I owe only to the Giver of all good things,” he is saying that it is tragic that the lesser should ever be mistaken for the greater, and the result mistaken for the source. If God is “more” and “larger” and “higher,” it is folly to reject Him in favor of those things that are only the afterglow and the faint reflection of His greater glory. Instead, those afterglows and reflections can and ought to lead the creature’s gaze from the created to the Creator, to what is truly worthy of all allegiance.      

       Paul teaches the same thing. God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived,  ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything,” and sovereignly places them within certain “periods” and “boundaries” just as deliberately as He first placed Adam and Eve in the garden, “that they should seek God and feel their way toward him and find him,” driven as they are by an innate knowledge of the existence and presence of an “‘unknown god’” (Acts 17:22–27).

       To quote from C. S. Lewis’ classic sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” the stuff of earth “in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them.” [11] However, if “the faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when He made the worlds are what we now call physical pleasures . . . . What would it be to taste at the fountain-head that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating?” [12] To mistake the “lower reaches” for “the fountain-head” is incredible. More incredible still is that the “fountain-head,” God, offers His people more than the stuff of earth; He offers them Himself. It is therefore to Him that Paul, Lewis, and Mullins turn and offer their allegiance.

       Second, Mullins prays for grace, that he may not fall into idolatry.

       When Mullins observes that the stuff of earth is meant to point him toward God who is “more,” and yet also confesses that, in his fallen nature, he is prone to put the stuff of earth in competition with God and sin against his Maker, he prays this chorus: “So if I stand let me stand on the promise / That You will pull me through, / And if I can't, let me fall on the grace / That first brought me to You.” Recognizing his inherent idolatry and his inability to change his own heart, Mullins knows he can do nothing but pray for God’s preserving grace: the grace that saved him (“That first brought me to you”) and now continues to sanctify and prepare him for future glory (“That you will pull me through”). He knows that unless God changes his heart, the stuff of earth will claim all his allegiance and he will remain guilty of treason. And if still he fails to give full allegiance to God, he knows there is grace for him at the cross of Christ.  

       Therefore Rich Mullins’ song, and the entire theological issue of how to rightly use to stuff of earth, leads to the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The only hope for treasonous idolators and falsely pious ascetics, each of whom deserve God’s just wrath, is that Christ has borne that wrath in their place. In His death on the tree Christ reversed the curse incurred by Adam and Eve’s treachery at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Christ, the only Righteous One, never misused God’s stuff of earth. When the devil tempted Him, just as he tempted Adam and Eve, to use the stuff of earth for selfish gain, Christ was faithful to His Father and refused (Matthew 4:1–11). He is the better Adam, who triumphed where Adam failed. Christ was sinless, yet “for our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Now, Christ’s perfect record is accredited to all who put their faith in Him, and God justifies them as if they had never sinned, exonerating traitors and even adopting them as His sons and daughters. Moreover, those who are justified by faith in Christ are given the Holy Spirit, who creates in them a new heart that increasingly desires and is “careful to obey [God’s] rules” (Ezekiel 36:25–27). It is only through the gospel of the cross of Christ that people can be reconciled to God, and it is only through this gospel that they can once again use the stuff of earth rightly with praise and thanksgiving as they live in faith and obedience. 

       Piper writes, “Every lasting blessing was bought by his blood.” [13] This includes every stuff of earth, and every believer’s ability to relate to them without idolatry or asceticism. No biblical theology of creation is complete without an understanding of the gospel that is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). The gospel of God’s saving grace is the only answer to the tension between creature and Created, and the only solution to Mullin’s paradox. The Christian life is to be lived entirely by grace through faith: faith in “the grace that first brought me to You” and “will pull me through.” This is true even when the Christian sits down to eat or looks outside to watch a sunset .  

       Third, Mullins makes Christ, not the stuff of earth, central and ultimate.

       He continues the prayer-chorus of “If I Stand” with these words: “And if I sing let me sing for the joy / That has born in me these songs.” Though Christ is not explicitly mentioned in the song, the source of “the joy / That has born in [him] these songs” is Christ. When Mullins sings, he does not want to sing for his own glory, but for the glory of Christ and for the joy he has in Him. Music, a stuff of earth, must be used to exalt Christ, whose beauty is the reality to which the beauty of music points. Christ is far superior to all the stuff of earth, and so the stuff of earth ought only to be used in a way that honors and displays His supremacy. 

       When Christ is primary, the secondary things are preserved, put to proper use and appreciated in proper proportion. In idolatry, secondary things are made primary, but as a result. both primary and secondary things are lost. Lewis writes, “if [secondary things] are mistaken for the [primary] thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.” [14] In asceticism, secondary things are rejected, in the misguided hope that this will secure the primary thing’s rightful place. Since Paul says that such a view leads to apostasy, asceticism not only banishes secondary things but actually banishes Him who is primary (1 Timothy 4:1–3). In trying to seize only one thing and reject the other, both idolatry and asceticism lose everything.

       In contrast, in the biblical view of creation, there must be what St. Augustine called a rightly ordered series of loves. When the Creator is loved and enjoyed above all else, creation can be loved and enjoyed in its appropriate context. To quote Lewis again, “When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.” [15] This is what Piper means when he writes that “the point of that prohibition [in Genesis 2] is to preserve the pleasures of this world.” [16] When Adam and Eve broke the prohibition, all their pleasures were cursed. If they had not broken the prohibition, but honored God the King as primary, as of greater worth to them than the forbidden fruit, they could have kept their pleasures unstained from the curse of sin. 

       Rich Mullins understands that he needs to have his loves properly ordered, so that he ultimately loves “the Giver of all good things” more than His gifts, and secondarily loves music and all God’s other gifts for God’s sake and God’s glory. And so he prays that he may sing only “for the joy” he has in Christ. 

       Finally, Mullins looks forward to the new heavens and the new earth, where the stuff of earth will always be used for, and not against, the worship of God.

       His chorus-prayer concludes with the words, “And if I weep let it be as a man / Who is longing for his home.” Though the Christian is surrounded by wonderful stuff of earth to be received with praise and thanksgiving, it would be foolish to believe that the Christian life is one endless banquet of delicacies to enjoy. The ground is still cursed. Work is still toilsome. There is still poverty, disease, and strife among neighbors. The Christian still struggles with indwelling sin. The Christian life is marked as much—if not more—by seasons of famine as by seasons of feasting. Over this, the Christian, like Mullins, ought to “weep,” and live a life of intermingled lamenting and rejoicing. The Christian life is one of pilgrimage, and the pilgrim is still far from his final home, the new heavens and new earth where sin will be no more. 

    The Christian is supposed to “set [his] hope fully on the grace to be brought to [him] at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). When their hope is set upon future grace and the future inheritance (1 Peter 1:4), Christians will not mistake the stuff of this earth as the real thing, but will recognize that they are only shadows of the coming reality. Lewis writes, 

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. . . . But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.” [17] 

Mullins knows that the sun and moon he sees, the music he hears, and the heat of the fire he feels are only the first sketches of God’s great masterpiece. He also knows that, until he reaches his final home, he will continue to fight the temptation to give his allegiance to stuff of earth instead of God. Therefore, he prays that he would long all the more for his final home, even with tears in his eyes.

The Way of Trust

       Rich Mullins' “If I Stand,” recognizing the grave danger of idolatry, yet avoiding the equally grave danger of asceticism, charts a course between the two extremes. This course is defined by biblical faithfulness toward God even as the believer enjoys the stuff of earth, God’s good gifts. The stuff of earth must lead the believer to set his affections on the Giver, not the gift. This is only possible through the power of the gospel, which transforms the heart to love God more for Himself than for His things. Only this gospel can order the creature’s loves so that the Creator is loved before the creation, and the creation is loved for the Creator’s sake. All the while, the believer is to wait eagerly for the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth, where the stuff of earth will no longer compete for his allegiance to God, but will always be used and enjoyed rightly to God’s eternal glory and his eternal joy in Him. 

       The only way any believer can ever practice this biblical faithfulness and “stand” is by faith in the grace of God—a faith not exercised by selfish idolatry or self-righteous asceticism. Gilbert Meilaender writes,    

When [Christians] attempt to understand their lives within the world of biblical narrative, they are caught in the double movement of enjoyment and renunciation. Neither half of the movement, taken by itself, is the Christian way of life. Trust is the Christian way of life. In order to trust, renunciation is necessary, lest we immerse ourselves in the things we possess, trying to grasp and keep what we need to be secure. In order to trust, enjoyment is necessary, lest renunciation become a principled rejection of the creation through which God draws our hearts to himself. [18] 

Instead of idolatry, there ought to be enjoyment, and where there is enjoyment, there must also be renunciation. Instead of asceticism, there ought to be renunciation, and where there is renunciation, there must also be enjoyment. This, too, is a paradox. However, the paradox is bound together by trust in God, the Giver of all good things. In faith and trust, believers “stand on the promise that [He] will pull [them] through.”

* * * 


  1.  Rich Mullins and Steven Robert Cudworth, “If I Stand,” Google Play Music.
  2. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.  
  3.  John Piper, “What God Made is Good—and Must Be Sanctified: C. S. Lewis and St. Paul on the Use of Creation,” The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C. S. Lewis, ed. John Piper and David Matthis (Crossway, 2014), 136. Piper provides a detailed exposition on 1 Timothy 4:1–5, coupled with a selection of quotations from C. S. Lewis on the goodness of Creation, both contributions that have been instrumental in the development of this essay. A PDF of the book can be downloaded for free at Piper’s chapter in the book can also be heard/watched in sermon form at  
  4.  Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Crossway, 2011), 177. On pages 177–179 of their book, DeYoung and Gilbert give a helpful, brief overview of the nuances and “complexities” of how Christians should relate to “material possessions.” They conclude, “To be a Christian, then, is to receive God’s good gifts and enjoy them the most, need them the least, and give them away most freely.”
  5.  Piper, The Romantic Rationalist, 135.
  6.  Ibid., 137.
  7.  C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, 2001), 64. 
  8.  Piper, The Romantic Rationalist, 137.
  9.  Ibid., 142.
  10.  Rich Mullins, “Elijah,” SongLyrics.  
  11. C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” 3.
  12. Ibid., 8–9.
  13.  Piper, The Romantic Rationalist, 145.
  14.  Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” 3.
  15.  Piper, The Romantic Rationalist, 138.
  16.  Ibid., 135.
  17.  Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” 8.
  18.  Gilbert Meilaender, “To Throw Oneself into the Wave: The Problem of Possessions,” in The Preferential Option for the Poor, ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Eerdmans, 1988), 85. Quoted in DeYoung and Gilbert, 179.