In 2 Timothy 3 the apostle Paul gives us a description of the times in which we live, the “last days,” the days between the first and second coming of Christ. He ends the list of descriptive words with these words “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (v. 4). What an apt description of the twenty-first century! When you walk into Sam’s Club or Costco the first thing you see is the big screen TVs. When you leave the stores like Target and Walmart, you find the latest releases on CD and DVD right next to the Hershey’s bars. In this context it is crucial for Christians to reflect on the place of pleasure in our lives. We must ask ourselves: What are godly or innocent pleasures that we can and must pursue? What are guilty or sin-stained pleasures that we must put off? In the following articles we will seek to answer these questions. First we will look at what constitutes innocent pleasure and see how at times we twist and taint them. In the second and third articles we will look at guilty pleasures—how to identify them and how to fight against them. Our goal is to analyze the place of pleasure in our Christian lives and provide guidance to living as “lovers of God rather than lovers of pleasure.”
Pleasure and the Christian
The pursuit of pleasure occupies the highest of priorities in our culture. Much of our time is spent trying to entertain ourselves with our big screen TVs, home entertainment systems, amusement parks, mega movie theaters, and snowmobiles. Many people live only for the weekends. Many only work so that they can have money to entertain themselves. As Christians we have not been unaffected by this excessive drive for entertainment.
In the climate in which we live it is absolutely essential that we reflect critically on the place of pleasure in our lives. Many Christians react to our culture by denying the legitimacy of entertainment. They say that we must focus only on the spiritual issues and do our duty. We must withdraw from this culture before we are polluted. This approach to our culture is problematic on at least two accounts.
First of all, it denies the radical reality of sin. Simplistically, this view teaches that sin is located in the entertainment culture, so if we avoid this culture we avoid sin. This is a denial of the radical nature of sin, which is always located in the human heart. Sin is not outside of us but inside. To withdraw from the world is not the same as dealing with sin. When the apostle John urges us to fight against the world, he points to the world in our hearts: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15–17; cf. James 4:4). We must guard against the worldliness of our own hearts. This is not done by fleeing out of this world, but by crucifying the sinful nature and putting on the new man in Christ even in the area of entertainment.
The second problem with this approach is even more dangerous. To advocate withdrawal is a denial of God’s original good creation. It is to attack the Creator himself when we withdraw. The psalmist reminds us in Psalm 24:1 “The earth is the LORD’s, and all its fullness.” Everything in this world is from God; every good and perfect gift is from God. Recreation is a gift from God. It is a most wonderful gift that provides us so much pleasure and joy. It also is a great source of rest for so many who are overwhelmed by the burdens of life, allowing us to catch our breath in this restless world. We must not deny ourselves or others the legitimate pleasures in life that God has given because some people are prone to abuse these good gifts of God. This is the perennial human problem: we are creatures of extremes. We react to one extreme with another.
Since the approach of withdrawal is problematic, what should our approach to recreation be? Instead of falling for the defective approach that our culture pursues, we must examine what pleasure truly is and enter our culture with the bigger and brighter pleasures that God offers. We must be people who are truly able to have pleasure without being consumed by the pursuit of pleasure. Even in this area we must be light and salt in our culture.
What is Innocent Pleasure?
Consider your own life for a moment. What are the truly innocent pleasures you delight in? Make a short list if you want. The innocent pleasures in your life can be gotten at by asking yourself the following questions: What gives me simple pleasure? What truly refreshes me? Where do I lay my cares down? What are the pleasures in my life that leave no lingering guilt? Innocent pleasures leave no tarnish, no blemish. They are truly blissful pleasures.
What are the kinds of things that are truly innocent? Here are a few things I have come up with: Watching a sunset or sunrise, enjoying a good breakfast, wrestling with my sons, visiting with a friend, drinking a warm cup of strong coffee, reading a good book, spending time with my wife, watching a good movie. Innocent pleasures are often unique to us. What is pleasurable for one is not necessarily pleasurable for another.
Innocent pleasures are often ordinary things in life that bring us a moment of joy as we simply delight ourselves in them. There are actually many occasions in our lives to enjoy such moments of pure, unstained pleasure. But one of the big problems with our culture in its excessive, restless search for entertainment is that it strips these moments of pure simple pleasure of their God-given joy, because they don’t seem to measure up to the thrill-standard that we have set for ourselves. Today we are pressed to go for the thrill, and the thrill drains out of our lives all the small, innocent moments of pleasure that surround us at every moment.
Another enemy of innocent pleasures in our lives is our own tendency to use these innocent pleasures in ways that are not so innocent. We often turn them into escape hatches. We look to them to provide us an escape from the pressures of life. The typical pressures we want to escape are boredom or loneliness, stress or frustration, and the hurt and pain caused by others who treat us unfairly. What do we do? We become excessive TV and movie freaks; we begin to snack excessively; we seek emotional comfort from food or animals. The list goes on and on. Think about this: What are the situations in your life that drive you to seek an escape? How do you seek to escape them? What “innocent pleasures” do you look to for your comfort?
What is the problem with looking to these things to provide us with an escape from the stresses of life? The problem is that we are looking toward pleasures to provide us what God alone can provide. We are in this way exchanging the Creator for the creature. This is idolatry; it is to exchange the truth of God for the lie, and to worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). When we look toward food to bring us emotional healing when we have been hurt or frustrated, we are exchanging the creature for what God alone can supply. When we make idols of innocent pleasures, we destroy those pleasures, because we are seeking from them far more than they can supply. It is no wonder they leave us so empty.
The antidote to this tendency of ours to inflate “innocent pleasures” is to come to God, the source of purest pleasure. The psalmist leads the way when he says: “In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (16:11). This is what we need to learn to say. We must learn to say with Asaph in Psalm 73:25–26: “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” God is the greatest and purest pleasure our soul can delight and rest in. We must rest and delight ourselves in Him. When God is our biggest pleasure, then all the little pleasures fall into place as well. When our delight is in God, then we will also take true delight in the innocent pleasures in life, because then we will not look to these gifts to provide what is ultimately to be found only in the Giver of all pleasures. When God is on the pleasure-throne then all the other pleasures in life take their place, and we are able to enjoy them abundantly.
Rev. Jacques Roets is the pastor of Redeemer United Reformed Church in Dyer, Indiana.