Pleasure— A Christian Perspective

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“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. That phrase, should sound familiar to Americans. For many of us, those things are assumed to be what life is all about. Especially that last part— having freedom to pursue what makes you happy. And in a culture of aesthetes, it is often assumed that pleasure is the key to happiness, and so the more pleasure, the more happiness. Ethicists have a word for this sort of assumption about life— eudaemonism, and really it goes back to Epicureanism. It’s interesting about that last word, which originally referred to people who were primarily concerned with pursuing the pleasures of the mind (better understanding, the solving of life’s puzzles, and so on), but in modernity has come to be associated with the philosophy which has as its motto ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die’, the philosophy of the carpe diem folks of old. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…’

Our culture, for better or for worse, really does often tout not merely visceral pleasures of various sorts (eating, drinking, sex, etc.) as the key to happiness, but it often indeed assumes that ‘whatever makes you happy’ is the course a person should pursue in life. I blame the Founding Fathers in part for fanning the flames on this misadventure. What they may not have fully grasped is that when you urge the most narcissistic culture on earth to pursue ‘whatever makes you happy’ this can lead to all sorts of selfish, self-centered, anti-social, and frankly just bad forms of behavior. It leads to what Paul calls ‘the works of the flesh’— “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, things like these.” This sounds like a description of either: 1) the results of a frat party; 2) an episode on some lurid soap opera, or 3) one episode of the movie ‘The Hangover’. Paul goes on to warn that people who persist in that sort of behavior will not enter the Kingdom of God— and N.B. he is warning Christians this could happen to them. Does this mean one has to be a killjoy to be a Christian? Are we anti-happiness? By no means.

To be sure, some Christians themselves have assumed that the tourniquet mentality was the Christian mentality. That is, that Christians favor an ethic chiefly characterized by what we abstain from— ‘we don’t smoke, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with the girls that do’. Of course the next line of that Homer and Jethro song is ‘we ain’t got no girl friends’!! Full credit to the holiness movement of the 19th and 20th century for reminding us that vices are not virtues, and vice versa, but at the same time it did not much help us parse what the relationship is between pleasure and happiness and holiness. One thing is clear from 1 Thess. 4.3 which says “for this is the will of God for you– your sanctification which entails abstaining from fornication’. This is something rather different than assuming that what Paul really meant was ‘for this is the will of God for you– your happiness, and endless pleasure in the bargain’. I remember at Carolina seeing two bumper stickers which read ‘if it feels good, do it’ followed by ‘if it moves, fondle it’. Those were not the good ole days. They led to lots of sexually transmitted diseases, children out of wedlock, and the abuse of women, not to mention drugs.

Here is where I say that God’s goal in life for us is not in the main our happiness, nor should it be our goal. Nor should our goal in life be pursuing as many pleasurable experiences as we can. There’s nothing wrong with some happiness, and with the right sort of pleasures within certain moral parameters, but neither should be our raison d’etre. John Wesley was of the mind that what really is our summum bonum, is holiness, and indeed what will really make you happy is drawing close to God and mirroring God’s holy nature. If you want enduring happiness, then reflect the character of Christ in your life. I would go further than this.

For one thing, I would say that joy is one thing, and happiness is another. The NT has a lot to say about joy, and Paul himself says in Gal. 5 that it is the fruit of the Spirit, mentioned right after love. This joy is not produced by our circumstances, good or bad, but by the inner work of the Spirit in our lives. This is why Christians can often be joyful in spite of adverse circumstances. Happiness seems to always be dependent on our circumstances, but joy is not.

For another thing, what we are really supposed to be pursuing in life, and what is unquestionably the will of God for our lives is love of God with our whole hearts and lives, and love of neighbor as ourselves, and love of our friends and fellow believers, and yes even love of enemies. That, above all else is God’s will for our lives, and this may or may not involve visceral pleasures or what the world calls happiness. Jesus, of course was in no way opposed to enjoying a good meal and fellowship even with notable sinners. Jesus was no killjoy, but he was also not on a mission to cram as much pleasure and happiness as he could grasp into his life. He found those pursuits trivial, and their benefits fleeting compared to pursuing God’s ongoing will for his life, which included love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control, and oh yes— suffering for those one loves, indeed even suffering for the good of one’s enemies. Suffering did not make him happy, nor was it pleasurable, but it absolutely was the loving thing to do. And now we begin to see the real lay of the land when it comes to the difference between happiness and love.

At the end of the day, the pursuit of happiness and pleasure leads away from self-sacrifice and self-giving love, and leads fallen human beings in the direction of self-indulgence, and more self-centered behavior, something narcissists don’t need to be encouraged to do. My advice would be to pursue genuine love and holiness, for God’s love is holy, and as a serendipity there will be plenty of happiness, and even pure pleasure along the way. But if you pursue the latter instead of the former, you have mistaken the means for the ends, the peripheral for the central, and the bonuses for the pay check. Sorry Founding Fathers— life is not, and should not be all about the pursuit of happiness and its attendant pleasures.


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