Christians have an awkward relationship with pleasure. How are we supposed to approach things like sex, steaks, football games, cool summer breezes, a good beer, laughter, and a tickling our children? Are we supposed to feel guilty? Excited? Isn’t the life of a Christian serious business? Isn’t our culture driven by a love of pleasure and shouldn’t we be salt and light in this wicked society? Don’t things like sex and beer lead to all sorts of sin? Wouldn’t it be better if we focused on doing our duty instead of pursuing pleasure?
There are at least four ways we sin in our pursuit of pleasure. In a later post I will flesh out how to approach pleasure positively.
Sin #1: Trade Lasting Pleasures for Temporary Ones
Sin is pleasant. If it wasn’t, who would be attracted to it. But it is pleasant in a temporary, short sighted way. Sin is pleasant in the same way Esau’s bowl of soup was pleasant or Bathsheba was pleasant for David. Yes it tasted good or felt good, but then it was gone and these men awoke to the reality of what they had lost. Satan’s great goal is to get us to trade lasting, long term pleasure for short, fleeting pleasures. Satan knows that God is pleasure. When we come to him we find joy, happiness, and pleasures without end (Psalm 16:11). Satan knows that God will fill all our needs and desires far beyond our expectations, if we will just pursue Him with all our might and wait on Him to provide. So he makes us push. Sex before marriage is a great example. Almost every study ever done on the subject says that people who do not have sex before marriage, marry one time, and stay with that person are happier than those who don’t. Yet Satan whispers in our ears, “It will be fun to sleep around before marriage.” And he is right…sort of. Sin is fun for the moment. But it reaps pain in the long run.
God is not saying, “Give up temporary pleasure for eternal pain.” Nor is He saying, “Give up temporary pleasure to do your duty.” He is saying, “Give up temporary pleasure for lasting pleasure.” Of course, this works eternally (Romans 8:18). We give up many things in this life because we know the next life will bring us great pleasures, the greatest being God himself. But it also often works in this life. A young man who waits on sex will usually find his sexual relationship with his wife better, filled with more pleasure. A woman who controls her eating will find that piece of pie tastes so good at the end of the day. A teenager who gets his work done first will find that he can rest with a clean conscience.
Solution: Do not give up lasting, long term pleasures for short, fleeting ones. Instead pursue lasting pleasures within the boundaries of God’s good Word.
Sin #2: Pleasure is Sinful
Many Christians agree with #1. Yes we must wait. We must not give in to the world’s temptations. But we do it out of duty instead of delight. In other words, we buy into Satan’s idea that God’s rules are there to keep us from pleasure and fun (Genesis 3:5). We know we are supposed to follow God, but we think this means giving up pleasure. After all, God is a harsh task master. For many conservative Christians pleasure is a sure sign that sin is lurking somewhere. This is a temptation for homeschoolers, Roman Catholics, evangelical Christians, and anyone in between. We know the world makes the mistake of trading lasting pleasures for fleeting ones. Therefore we overreact. Pleasure is bad. Sex can only be about procreation or it can only be a duty to protect ourselves from sexual temptation. Why do we approach it this way? Because God does not like us to have fun. We watch our weight, what food we eat, how we spend our money, how other people spend their money, how we spend our time, how other people spend their time, etc. We don’t watch comedies, tell jokes, dance, like vacation, or enjoy sitting on the deck and watching the sunset. In short, we believe life is very serious, very practical, and we are not here to have fun.
There are two signs a person is trapped in this mindset. First, they feel guilty about pleasure. If something makes them happy then it is probably sinful. They may do it, but penance must be paid later. Second, they give disapproving glances when other people are joyful. They think to themselves, “A happy person is probably a sinning person.” A child gleefully running to get a cookie is probably greedy. A man who loves eating a steak is probably a glutton. If my son enjoyed that movie there was probably some sin involved. And so on.
But, fortunately, God is not this way. God invented all those pleasures. He made cows so we could butcher them and eat a rib eye. He made sunsets, mountain ranges, ocean beaches, and snow. He made men who would invent baseball, movies, rock music, roller coasters, go-carts, hot dogs, and corn bread to go around our hot dogs. He created wheat so we could have a thousand types of bread and beer. He created dogs, cats, birds, and snakes. He created men and women to fit together physically. God loves pleasure. He put us in a world where are there are pleasures without end. He is taking us to a world where there will be pleasures beyond imagination. A person who hates pleasure or thinks pleasure is sinful is living in rebellion against God and His world.
Solution: Without guilt, fully enjoy all the pleasures God gives to you. He wants you to enjoy that movie, that ball game, that new car, that steak, your wife, your child’s laughter, and yes even the snow.
Sin #3: We Enjoy Pleasure, But Do Not Thank God
This mistake is worshiping the creature instead of the Creator. God gives good things to all men, not just Christians (Matthew 5:45). All humans can enjoy God’s gifts. Non-Christians can keep sex within marriage. They can teach their children the discipline necessary to enjoy money, food, house, home, work, etc. They can take pleasure in a sunset or a kitten. But proper use of God’s good gifts is not the final goal. The goal is doxology, praise, and thanksgiving to the God who gave those gifts. Here is where all those who do not worship the living God fall short.
Christians can fall into this trap. We enjoy God’s gifts. But instead of enjoying the gift and then thanking the Giver, we stop at the gift. We do not have to give explicit thanks for all good things. But our lives should be ones of perpetual thanksgiving.
By the way, Christians who think pleasure is sinful (#2) cannot be truly thankful. Why would a person give thanks for what makes them feel guilty?
Solution: Give heartfelt thanks to God for the gifts and pleasures he gives to you daily.
Sin #4: We Enjoy Pleasure, But Refuse to Deny Ourselves for Others
Here the failure is not lack of gratitude, but rather failure to love our neighbor. With this sin we enjoy God’s gifts, we may even give thanks for them, but we do not moderate our pursuit of pleasure for the sake of others. We love God’s physical gifts to the detriment of loving those around us. A man can love to play golf and not be sinning. But when golf becomes more important than family he is sinning. Usually this has to do with how much or what manner we do something, not the thing itself. Eating out is not a sin. But if you eat out so much that your family suffers financially that is a problem. Watching football is not a sin. But if you refuse to fellowship with the saints because of the football game then you are sinning.
Often loving our neighbor and enjoying God’s good gifts can and should be combined. A father can teach his children to play golf instead of spending every Saturday away from his family. My brother loves to run. As his kids have gotten older he has included them in his hobby instead of selfishly setting them aside to pursue his own goals. We can invite friends over for a beer instead of just enjoying it ourselves. We can go on a hike as a family instead of just husband and wife. We don’t have to, nor should we do this every time, but it will help keep our pursuit of pleasure within God’s bounds if we strive to include others. A true joy and pleasure is one you want others to experience.
Solution: Pursue pleasure, but make sure you are not running over your neighbor to do so. Make sure your pleasures are used in service of others. Include others, as you can, in your joy.