Christian Living

Pleasure (and Power and Pride)

In my last two articles, I wrote about Pride and Power and my aim in each was to warn us of the danger of shielding ourselves from the God who is Love. I argued that Pride turns us away from our Creator so that the reality of our smallness and dependence is not exposed; I argued that Power often bolsters Pride by helping us to keep reality at bay, in case reality breaks through and shatters our self-delusion.

But what about Pleasure? Like Power, it is not inherently evil, but, like Power, it can all too often be twisted to the service of the Enemy. Pleasure, which is originally intended to guide us out of ourselves and into God’s goodness, can, in our hands, actually lull us further into ourselves, and further away from the One higher and greater than us, from whom and in whom the greatest pleasure really comes.

Firstly, our tastes have become out of touch with genuine goodness. That’s why following the Lord Jesus hurts a lot at first, and why Peter will say things like “as obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.”[1] Spiritually speaking, our tastebuds are addicted to junk food. We need training, and training, by definition, takes us out of our comfort zone.[2]

Secondly, we live in a world at war. The Enemy is always on the prowl to snatch a lamb or two from the flock,[3] and if he can’t terrify us by brute force, he will seduce us away bit by bit, often luring us with Pleasure. [4]

Thirdly, Pleasure is too easy to accommodate and corrupt. It doesn’t sting like pain and so it’s not so obviously a challenge to our already existing agenda. It’s too easily co-opted and twisted. Even with genuinely good pleasure, it’s hard to say “enough” and keep things in proportion. Ears already dulled by Pride will not hear a word of warning at the best of times; the distinction between the worshipful “I love this and give thanks for it because it is good” and the prideful “This is good because I love it and I must have it” disappears, and any natural brakes are totally overridden. (So I read Proverbs 25:16 and wonder just how much honey it would take before I threw up…)

Throw Power into the mix and it is easy to see how those ruled by Pride use their Power to seek more and more Pleasure, which then allows more Pride, and so it goes on. Consider the story of King Solomon. Think of his splendour and his success. Think of his tragic downfall. Now ask: What happened?[5]

So is Pleasure just too great a risk? Should we avoid it altogether, like the problematic hand or eye that causes us to sin?[6] Consider the lavish descriptions of both Eden and the New Jerusalem. Consider Jesus’ continual appeals to our pleasures: the kingdom of God is like a fine pearl or a secret treasure. He never compares it to a boring chore! In the Book of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom says, “desire me more than honey”, not more than homework. Even Peter’s exhortation (the same Peter who challenged us to escape the passions of our ignorance) is to “crave pure spiritual milk … if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” [7] The assumption is that the Lord, our Lord, is actually good. In fact, pleasurable. Want-able. Craveable. “As the deer pants for streams of water, so pants my soul after you, O God.”[8] So to dodge all pleasure would ultimately lead us away from God himself! Which is kind of prideful…

Perhaps this is what Paul is thinking of as he writes to Timothy warning against those who “forbid marriage and require abstinence from certain foods…”.[9] After all, the passage continues:

“…God created [these foods] 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.”[10]

That is, if God says, “Here you go, this is a good thing for you,” the correct, godly response is not to say, “Oh, no, I can’t have that, it’s too nice,” but rather, “Thank you, Lord!”

On the other hand, if God says: “No, don’t go there, that is not the way to goodness,” then the correct response is not, “But how can it be wrong? It feels so good!” but rather, “Okay Lord, you know best.”

The heart of the matter actually isn’t pleasure-or-not, but God’s-agenda-or-not. That is why we need to constantly follow him wherever he leads, and that is why we need to constantly train and be trained to find our highest pleasure in him, himself. If simply being with him is our favourite thing then we will be free to enjoy things when he so directs, and happy to let them go and follow him somewhere else, even though we don’t know why or where at first.[11]

If heaven is unveiled access to God, then we will only enjoy it once we learn to enjoy him, and all other things in him, his way. That is, we will only be able to enjoy heaven when we really have nailed the first commandment! But it is not an artificial command to love the Lord your God—he genuinely is what is truly best for us!!

This is an important issue to consider as we hold out the message of Jesus the King to a generation long obsessed with pleasure: Who is this King? Is he in fact “pleasant”? Is he “good”? Under God, our answer to these questions and our lived testimony will impact the plausibility of the gospel in the ears of the not-yet-believing. However, we, and eventually our neighbour, must also be able to step outside of ourselves and our culture and see that what is being offered, no announced, in the gospel of the Lord Jesus is a reality so earth-shatteringly profound that the word “pleasure” hardly does it justice, and that we, if we were wise, would joyfully sell all we have to possess it.[12]

[1] 1 Peter 1:14

[2] see Hebrews 12:11

[3] 1 Peter 5:8-9

[4] Consider Luke 8:14, and the methods of the adulteress in Proverbs 7, and of the Lady of the Green Kirtle in C. S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair.

[5] 1 Kings 1-11; cf Deuteronomy 17:14-20

[6] Matthew 5:29-30

[7] See 1 Peter 2:2-3

[8] Psalm 42:1

[9] 1 Timothy 4:3

[10] 1 Timothy 4:3-4

[11] C. S. Lewis captures something of this in the beautiful scene where a Talking Horse of Narnia first meets the Lion, Aslan:

“Then Hwin, though shaking all over, gave a strange little neigh, and trotted across to the Lion. ‘Please,’ she said, ‘You’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.’” Loc 22194 “The Horse and His Boy” in The Complete Works of CS Lewis e-artnow 2016, ebook.

[12] Matthew 13:44