In Pursuit of Pleasure
A common conundrum faced by Christians and Church leaders today is what to do with the myriad pleasures and pastimes that people pursue. How do we relate to activities that are not sin (and therefore not outright forbidden) but are still things of this world that often drag people down from the spiritual to the carnal? In my previous post, I gave three principles that help us determine whether the ease we enjoy is acceptable or if we have followed our fun too far.
Those principles, however, only guard against the danger of falling into excess entertainment. This is only one side of the subject. Some Christians and churches react to the pull of worldly pastimes by denouncing all forms of pleasure and, at times, happiness itself. In dealing with this problem, people often tend toward one of two extremes, which are described well in the essay I quoted in the last post:
One Christian follows the round of gaiety with the maddest of the merry; another wears a hair shirt, and starves himself into a skeleton. One treats life as all a frolic; another as all a funeral… We swing like a pendulum from the indulgence of the Epicurean to the severities of the Stoic, failing to recognize… that it is the glory of Christianity that, rejecting the absurdities of each, it combines the cardinal excellencies of both.
Living a Christian life is not about finding a balance somewhere between ecstasy and austerity. Rather, it is about fixing our desire on God and having Him become our one passion that surpasses all others. This worldview will prevent us from getting wrapped up in petty pursuits;we will not have the time or interest for them in the first place. This will keep us from falling into the ditch of austerity or apathy. Instead, we will have a fire within us that we will not be able to contain.
In his book, Desiring God, John Piper puts it in the rather extreme terms of being a Christian hedonist. A hedonist is one who believes that the pursuit of pleasure is the most important thing in life. A Christian hedonist realizes that true pleasure is only found in Christ and His work, and, as a result, sacrifices everything in pursuit of that pleasure. While at first glance it seems selfish and wrong to serve God for our own pleasure, it is actually exactly what God is asking of us. He wants us to love and desire him with everything we have because this desire is what ultimately brings him glory. A cook receives pleasure and glory from the joy people get from his food, an artist his paintings, a musician his music, and so on. Similarly, God receives pleasure and glory when we as humans receive our greatest pleasure in Him—when we find and enjoy Him in every aspect of His creation.
The foundation for this is laid out in the very beginning of the Law of Moses. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” (Deut. 6:4). It is reinforced in the Gospels: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.” (Matt. 22:37-38). The great and all-consuming love of our life is to be the Lord our God. He is to be our world, our life, our all and in-all, and out of this will grow the greatest passion and pleasure a human can have.
Jesus told the lawyer in Matthew 22 that “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” When we love Him as the one true passion of our lives, it will spill out in every aspect of our religious walk. This journey into true pleasure begins with our conversion. In Matthew 13, Jesus describes finding the Kingdom of Heaven as finding a great treasure. Finding this treasure causes the discoverer to joyfully give up everything he owns and values just so that he can possess that treasure. And when he does, it is worth every bit of sacrifice it took to gain. This is the joy we experience at conversion. We have found a treasure, and the joy we gain is worth giving up the entire world to possess.
A burning desire for God will transform our worship. Take a moment to peruse the Psalms. The desire and love for God and His Law that comes out in every one of them is manifest. Whether it is in joy and exuberance, a desperate plea for help, or a contrite call for forgiveness, the one thing that the psalmists desire is God, to be in His presence, to bask in His glory, to rest in His protection.
One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple. For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion: in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me; he shall set me up upon a rock. And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me: therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the Lord. (Psalm 27:4-6)
This desire for God will be poured out in love both for Him and for others. It is not surprising then that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is also precisely what Paul is saying in I Corinthians 13.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. (I Cor. 1:1-3).
All of our religion needs to stem from a burning desire to know God and to do his will, or it is profitless. The greatest contributions, the most well-intentioned offerings, and the deepest sacrifices are meaningless if they are not driven by a love for God and others.
We do not have the time to discuss them all, but this change will affect how we relate to finances, the Scriptures, and to marriage. The last area we will discuss, however, is suffering. To an earthly hedonist, suffering is anathema. It is to be avoided at all costs. To a Christian hedonist, the opposite is true: suffering is a source of joy. Paul says in Romans 5:3-5 that “we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience, and experience hope; and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” We do not just put up with suffering, we glory in it because we have a hope for something greater. We are making a sacrifice for the benefit of something beyond. Paul says again in Colossians 1:24 “[I] now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church.” Paul took joy in his sufferings—of which he had many—because it was to the benefit of the Body of Christ. Our sufferings are a source of joy because of the gain that is given to the cause of Christ through them. We can only experience this level of joy if our earthly body, reputation, and possessions are nothing to us, totally driven out by our passion for Christ.
As Boreham so aptly stated,
It is the glory of Christianity that, rejecting the absurdities of each [repressing vs indulging our passions], it combines the cardinal excellencies of both.
Following our earthly passions will only result in bitter disappointment, death, and destruction. God’s answer for this is not in repressing our passions, but in redirecting them to Himself—in feeding them, and growing them until they consume our entire life and being.
Oh that Christ was truly our passion and our all, just as the author penned these words so strikingly:
Show me Thy face! One transient gleam
Of loveliness divine,
And I shall never think nor dream
Of other love save Thine;
All lesser light shall darken quite,
All lower glories wane;
The beautiful of earth will scarce
Seem beautiful again.
Show my Thy face! My faith and love
Shall henceforth fixed be,
And nothing here have pow’r to move
My soul’s serenity;
My life shall seem a trance, a dream,
And all I feel and see,
Illusive, visionary — Thou
The one reality!
Show me Thy face! I shall forget
The weary days of yore;
The fretting ghosts of vain regret
Shall haunt my soul no more;
All doubts and fears for future years
In quiet rest subside,
And nought but blest content and calm
Within my breast abide.
Show me Thy face! The heaviest cross
Will then seem light to bear;
There will be gain in every loss,
And peace with every care;
With such light feet the years will fleet
Life seem as brief as blest,
’Til I have laid my burden down,
And entered into rest.