We come to the final article of our reflections on pleasure in the Christian’s live. We looked at innocent pleasure that fill us with unstained joy in the first article. In the second we focused on guilty pleasures that leave us feeling stained, guilty, and empty. In this article I want to focus on how to break with these guilty pleasures. The strategy we will set out in this article to redeem sin-stained pleasures will also apply to the twisted innocent pleasures we spoke about in the first article. Our aim is to see how to break with all sinful pleasures so that we can enjoy the truly innocent pleasures to the glory of the God of all pleasure.
How to Fight Against Guilty Pleasures
In this broken, sin-cursed world we will never have peace. We long for peace. Often we settle for a false peace in our desire to avoid the struggle by indulging in sinful escapes. But this will not suffice. The Christian is always at war in this fallen world. This also applies to our pleasures. What strategy can we implement to fight against guilty pleasures and to put them away from us? There are essentially five things I want to highlight in this struggle:
1) Take a break: After you have identified a guilty pleasure in your life, take a deliberate break for one week. We begin with a short break, which, after initial success we will extend more and more. So take a short fast for a week to begin. Resist it. Cease to indulge in it for a time. See what happens. You will most likely encounter a fierce struggle. You will find yourself desiring, craving and wanting to indulge more and more. It is possible that you will become obsessed with what you have denied yourself. You will discover an almost overpowering desire for it. This is not unlike what an addict feels. These addictive cravings are present in every sinful human heart that looks to something in creation to provide what God alone can give. This experience is clear to see in major issues like gambling, pornography, alcohol, or drug abuse. But when you declare a fast from chocolate or snacking or video games, you will experience a similar struggle. This is a sign of an idolatrous pleasure! Begin by resisting. Do not let weariness overcome you; listen to the encouragement from Hebrews 12:4 (ESV): “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”
2) Understand your weakness: In this struggle notice when and why you are most likely to fail. Why do you seek such an escape hatch? Some of us indulge in guilty pleasures because we are bored. We have nothing to do, so we snack. Some of us do it because we want emotional support. We feel lonely, angry, and frustrated, so we indulge in food, shopping, or movies. Sometimes we indulge because we give ourselves a reward for doing something well or completing a task. You get the idea. What are the things, the patterns, and the emotions that trigger your desire for that guilty pleasure? What gives you “permission” to indulge? You will never be able to fight against these sinful pleasures in your life if you do not see the patterns that lead into it.
3) Understand the power of the cross over sin: When you have felt the intensity of the struggle and have seen your particular patterns that lead you into sin, it will become clear that you are not able to fight this fight by yourself. Our power and strength is insufficient for this war. What you need is to fight against these pleasures by the cross of Christ. You must understand the gospel and how it speaks to these pleasures in our lives. Listen to the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 6:5–11:
For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul is saying that the Christian is united with Christ in his death and resurrection. So when Christ died, the believer died. When Christ was made alive, the believer was made alive. Here we have the central principle that helps us to fight guilty pleasures in our lives. We must understand that we have died to them. We are no longer enslaved to them because Christ died to sin, and in him we also died to sin. So now we must consider ourselves dead to this sin. We are alive also in righteousness to live for God. We have the power to break with these powerful sin-stained pleasures in our lives. In this struggle—and it will be a fierce struggle—we are totally dependent upon Jesus Christ. In two expressions in Galatians Paul set forth what should be our battle cry: First, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (2:20) Second, “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (6:14). In both these statements Paul makes clear that his hope lies in Christ. In his death, the world is crucified to the believer and the believer to the world. The believer no longer lives in sin but through the life-giving power of Christ. So here we have the answer to those soul destroying pleasures.
4) Cultivate the superior pleasure in Christ: We must also begin to see the bigger picture. Since we are creatures made with a thirst and longing for the living God, our longing cannot be satisfied with anything in this creation. The more we seek to quench this thirst with something in creation, the more we thirst. The longing only intensifies because no creature can satisfy this God-longing of the human soul. This is why we must cultivate and encourage ourselves to see the superior soul-satisfying pleasure that is found in knowing Christ. Paul’s attitude in Philippians 3 should become our own: “Yet indeed I also count all things as loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord . . . that I may gain Christ and be found in Him . . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection.” (v.8–10). The following stanzas from the hymn by Johann Franck, “Jesus, Priceless Treasure,” captures this supreme joy in Christ well (441 Psalter Hymnal):
Jesus, priceless treasure,
Source of purest pleasure,
Truest Friend to me:
Ah, how long I’ve panted
And my heart has fainted,
Thirsting, Lord, for Thee.
Thine I am, O spotless Lamb!
I will suffer
Naught to hide Thee,
Naught I ask beside Thee.
Hence with earthly treasure!
Thought art all my pleasure,
Jesus, all my choice.
Hence, thou empty glory!
Naught to me thy story,
Told with tempting voice.
Pain or loss or shame or cross
Shall not from my Savior move me,
Since He deigns to love me.
Hence, all fear and sadness!
For the Lord of gladness,
Jesus, enters in.
Those who love the Father,
Though the storms may gather,
Still have peace within.
Yea, whate’er I here must bear,
Thou art still my purest pleasure,
Jesus, priceless treasure.
This is the kind of joy in Christ we must cultivate. It is a joy that is not dependent upon our mood or circumstances in life. It is a total soul-filled delight in Christ.
There is another reason why we must cultivate this kind of joy in Christ to replace our delight and joy in guilty pleasures. Sin-stained pleasures battle against our joy in Christ and diminish our boast in Christ. We cannot and will not find Christ to be sweet, lovely and glorious when we seek joy and delight in sinful pleasures. So here we see that we do not have the option; we must confront these pleasures. They war against our love for Christ. They divide our loyalty and so rob Christ. Do you see the urgency and the necessity of dealing with these things?
When we make Christ our true pleaser and rejoice in him as our priceless treasure, then all the other earthly pleasures fall into the right place, and we can enjoy them for what they truly are: gifts from the hand of a loving Father for the enjoyment and pleasure of his children. When we enjoy the gifts of God as gifts, glorifying God by our enjoyment of them, they take their rightful place. Rejoicing in God as the ultimate pleasure does not destroy earthly pleasures; it purifies and sanctifies them so that we truly get to enjoy this world!
5) Give yourself to others. This might seem to be a side issue, yet this is of the utmost importance. Jesus summarized the law of God as love for God and love for our neighbor (Matt. 22:36–40). Seeking our truest pleasure in God does not mean isolation from others. This would be profoundly unbiblical. Giving ourselves to God and giving ourselves to our neighbor are not mutually exclusive actions; they go together. When we are united to Jesus Christ, he also unites us with his people, the members of his body. This has profound implications for breaking with guilty pleasures. Notice that most, if not all, illicit pleasures are self-indulgent, self-centered acts. We pursue them in isolation. So to break with them it is important that we not only know them and break with them through the cross, replacing them with the superior joys of Christ, but it also requires that we give ourselves to serve others who need our help. When we get involved with others, it will help us to find pure, innocent pleasure and fulfillment in the company of others, or it will help us find meaning in helping those in need, giving them pleasure. In contrast to the sin-stained pleasures that leave us empty, miserable, and guilty, these pleasures are truly meaningful, pure, and fulfilling. They bring us true joy and contentment. Being an active member in the local church is not killing pleasure but one of the means by which God gives pleasure to his people as they serve and give themselves to others. “And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).
Here we have set before us a strategy to fight against guilty pleasures in our lives. Each of us has a duty to fight against sinful, idolatrous pleasure. In this culture that is so bent on pleasure, we must stand strong in the gospel of Christ. May God help us to continue this struggle to treasure him as our exceeding joy (Psalm 43:4). The following words of John Newton’s hymn, “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” (402, Psalter Hymnal), are a final reminder of the superior joys Christians have:
Savior, if of Zion’s city
I, through grace, a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy Name.
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All His boasted pomp and show,
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.
1. In 2004 I attended the annual teaching conference of the Christian Counseling & Education Foundation in Philadelphia. One of the workshops I attended was led by David Powlison, entitled: “Amusing ourselves to death,” named after the book by Neil Postman. When I returned home, reflecting further on my notes from that workshop, I wrote three articles. In 2005 Dr. Powlison published his workshop entitled “Pleasure” by Punch Press. My work, although it owes much to David Powlison’s stimulation and insight, is sufficiently different that I offer it up for the edification and sanctification of God’s people. For those who might be interested in further reflection on this, Reformed Youth Services published a Bible study guide for young people’s groups based on this material, entitled, Amusing Yourself to Death.
Rev. Jacques Roets is the pastor of Redeemer United Reformed Church in Dyer, Indiana.