From the Archives: Getting Pleasure Right

Reprinted with permission from Spiritual Reflections.

In The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer made the following assertion in an insightful chapter entitled, “Why We Must Think Rightly About God”: “The most portentous [weighty] fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God” (p. 9).

Tozer does not mean that one’s words or actions are of little consequence. Rather, he means that one’s view of God serves as the control center for one’s words and actions (Luke 6:43-45, James 4:1). False views about God will naturally and inevitably issue forth in a lifestyle that, despite all pretensions to the contrary, dishonors God (Matthew 23:1-36). Conversely, right beliefs about God have the potential to fuel genuinely righteous deeds.

A proper view of God certainly does not guarantee godliness—Satan himself holds many orthodox views about God (James 2:19). Nonetheless, Tozer is right to suggest that evil behavior is always rooted in false beliefs about God.

For instance, moral failure awaits anyone who embraces the notion that God is a soft-hearted deity who characteristically overlooks sin. While God is a God of grace and love, the Bible also reveals Him to be a God of severity, judgment, and holy anger (Deuteronomy 4:24, 9:7; Romans 1:18). When one’s worldview precludes the notion of God’s fearful holiness, his or her sensitivity to the glorious beauty and absolute necessity of God’s grace is muted. And where a keen sense of the wonder of God’s grace is blunted, the power to renounce ungodliness is proportionately sacrificed (cf. Titus 2:11-12).

Striking out on a different trajectory from those who hold a low view of the severity of God are individuals who proclaim His severity quite loudly, yet promote an equally distorted view of God. It is this emphasis that I would like to specifically address in the remainder of this essay.

In starkest form, some fancy God as a stern killjoy who meticulously calibrates moral laws to render life miserable for His creatures. Why else demand that red-blooded human beings not covet what belongs to others, not gossip against their enemies, not twist the truth to protect themselves, not crave sex outside of marriage, and even love their enemies—returning good for evil—and so forth? It seems that those who propose such a view of God are content to cast a cursory glance in His direction and to draw the hasty conclusion that He is little more than a celestial tyrant intent on inflicting misery and squelching joy.

While seldom if ever articulated, this distorted view of God tends to lurk in the shadows and subtly attach itself to the vision of God held by many. But such thinking will not satisfy those committed to constructing a biblical worldview.

Let it be known that God is not an enemy of human pleasure. Quite to the contrary, the Bible describes Him as the “God who gives us all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). Further, the psalmist holds out the prospect that in God’s “presence is fullness of joy, and at his right hand there are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). On the authority of these verses alone, we may conclude that God created the universe for our pleasure and promises pleasures to us for all eternity. God is clearly a pleasure-giving, not a pleasure-stealing God!

How then are we to understand the many pleasure-restricting, pleasure-denying commands of Scripture? Perhaps no author has investigated this question more memorably (and no less accurately) than C. S. Lewis in his insightful book The Screwtape Letters. This provocative book poses as a series of letters between a demon named Screwtape and his nephew, Wormwood. Young Wormwood is assigned a “patient”—a young man recently converted to the Enemy (God, from Screwtape’s perspective).

Filling the role of mentor, Screwtape admonishes Wormwood in the finer points of human temptation. He hopes his understudy will succeed in luring the new convert away from Christ. For his part, Lewis employs Screwtape’s letters to cleverly illustrate the biblical truth that God is a pleasure-giving God. Screwtape instructs Wormwood,

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [i.e., God’s] ground. I know that we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research thus far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence, we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever-increasing craving for an ever-diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it’s better style. To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens our Father’s [i.e., Satan’s] heart. (p. 44)

Bemoaning the goodness of God, Screwtape continues to complain to Wormwood, once again revealing God as a pleasure-giving God:

[God is] a hedonist at heart. All those facts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures forevermore.’… He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side. (p. 83)

Screwtape continues his diatribe against God as Lewis insightfully stresses a unique aspect of God’s pleasure-giving relationship to man:

The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by the union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial time…. Now, just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty. If we neglect our duty, men will not only be contented but transported by the [mixture] of novelty and familiarity…. Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up. This is valuable in various ways. In the first place it diminishes the pleasure while increasing the desire. The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns. (pp. 91-92)

Genuine pleasure, Lewis rightly suggests by way of Screwtape’s rantings, descends as a gift to humanity from the Creator. Pleasure conceived in any other way is a dangerous distortion of reality. Our quest, then, is to enjoy the pleasures of life as God intended them to be enjoyed—not a whit more, and not a trifle less.

Food, for instance, is created by God for our pleasure, but a man may enjoy this pleasure too passionately, or too often, or too selectively, and suffer for it. God intends for us to enjoy material possessions, but a woman may enjoy them too much or seek enjoyment in possessions that do not legitimately belong to her and thus invite untold misery into her life. Sex is an exquisite pleasure from heaven, but the Creator knows people can experience sex too soon and/or share this pleasure with the wrong person or persons and suffer terribly. Yet Scripture consistently instructs us that legitimate joy can be found in the proper channeling of these very pleasures (Genesis 2:23-25, 9:1-3; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, 10:31; 1 Timothy 6:17; Hebrews 13:4; Revelation 22:1-3).

There are untold pleasures in God’s good world that must be restricted, delayed, shared, or even shelved in order to realize higher purposes. Pleasures that are not properly managed in the interest of these higher purposes tend to create addictions that increase cravings while diminishing satisfaction and introducing unproductive pain.

The quality of one’s life then depends largely upon experiencing pleasure rightly. This includes knowing when it is time to avoid a pleasure altogether and to thereby choose a path of self-denial or even suffering. Yet even on a path thus chosen, joy can and should factor profoundly into the equation. That is to say, the immediate pleasure that is sacrificed is offered in the interest of a greater pleasure to come, as when Jesus “for the joy set before him” [future] “endured the cross” [immediate suffering] (Hebrews 12:2).

But how do we fruitfully determine when and how pleasures are to be enjoyed, restricted, delayed, shared or avoided in the interest of higher purposes? Without ignoring the need for individual Spirit leading in this regard, a general answer is found very early in the pages of Scripture. In Genesis chapter 3, God commands Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree in the center of the Garden. “Every tree in the Garden is a legitimate source of pleasure,” God tells Adam, “but not this one. Do not eat its fruit. On the day you do, you will surely die.”

Duly warned, Adam and Eve made the critical decision to ignore God and to secure pleasure on their own terms. Eve saw the forbidden fruit as a source of pleasure in the form of food and increased knowledge—nothing inherently wrong with food and knowledge (Genesis 2:16, Proverbs 2:1-7). But by choosing to eat the fruit, she chose to enjoy a pleasure God had forbidden. Adam followed his wife’s sin; and, as God had previously warned, the disastrous consequences were forthcoming. An immediate pleasure, enjoyed self-autonomously apart from divine favor, proved utterly ruinous.

Genesis 3 establishes that God alone has the authority to arbitrate human ethics. He alone has the right (and the capacity) to determine for mankind what constitutes a legitimate pleasure and what does not. As the Creator He alone can finally determine when, how, and to what degree we are to enjoy a pleasure. As with Adam and Eve, the crucial issue is whether or not we will believe Him and submit to His instruction or venture to grasp pleasure on our own terms. The issue is whether we will worship pleasure as a god (self-autonomously) or worship God as our soul’s pleasure (submissively).

It is important to note, as we make this choice, that the Lord of heaven and earth presents Himself not as the cold law-giver, but as the loving disseminator of our deepest joy as human beings. What is more, much more, is that as we submit to divine regulation in the pursuit of temporal pleasures, we discover that God Himself is our highest and only complete pleasure and the one through whom every legitimate earthly pleasure is enlivened.

In his autobiography, The Confessions, the once-licentious Augustine (AD 354-430), and later bishop of Hippo Regius, dramatically experienced and insightfully articulated this relationship between enjoying both God and earthly pleasures in harmonious tandem. He discovered that God was not a killjoy but a joy-giving and joy-enhancing God.

There is a joy which is not given to the ungodly but to those who love You for Your own sake, whose joy You Yourself are. And it is the happy life, to rejoice to You, of You, for You; this is it, and there is no other. They who think there is another, pursue something else which is not true joy. (Book 10)

Once a dutiful slave to the pleasures of sexual promiscuity, Augustine could look back after his conversion to his days of moral darkness and thank God in prayer:

You were ever with me, mercifully rigorous, and sprinkling with most bitter alloy all my unlawful pleasures, so that I might seek pleasures without alloy [i.e., pleasures in God]. I could not discover where to find such pure pleasures, save in You, Lord … You have drawn me out of all my most evil ways so that you might become a delight to me above all the allurements which I once pursued, that I may most entirely love You and clasp Your hand with all my affections…. It was my sin that I sought pleasure…in His creatures…and not in Him. Therefore, I fell headlong into sorrows, confusions, and errors. (Book 2; Book 1)

After receiving Christ as his Savior, Augustine could pray, “You are the fullness and never-failing plenteousness of incorruptible pleasures” (Book 2). Thus armed with an accurate view of human pleasure, Augustine could clearly see the true nature of God’s restrictive commands: “Your best servant is he who seeks not so much to hear from You what he wants to hear, but rather to want that which he hears from You” (Book 10).

There remains at this very point, however, a significant problem for each of us. For although we may rightly acknowledge that God is our soul’s deepest and infinite pleasure, and although we may consequently yield to His will as the Governor of our temporal pleasures, we find ourselves very much alive to disobedience. Like Adam and Eve, we find the temptation to experience pleasures outside the strictures of God’s gracious regulation quite formidable.

First, we must realize that properly identifying and rightly experiencing legitimate pleasures in a fallen world will ever remain a matter of developing spiritual maturation. Said more bluntly, we will fail. Our flesh will remain susceptible to evil pleasures unless and until we are finally glorified. We all are a work in progress in this regard.

Yet secondly, it is here in our weakness that God meets us with an unexpected pleasure. In His unmerited grace He offers to freely supply us with spiritual power to obey His will and thus to enjoy what He intends for us to enjoy as He intends for us to enjoy it. And, in the end, this power comprises yet another gift of His grace and thus, not ironically, another source of exquisite pleasure (Psalm 16:11, 2 Peter 1:1-4). The joys simply never end!

In summary, a proper view of God enables the believer to perceive that every good gift—every legitimate pleasure—comes from the gracious hand of God (James 1:17). The happy product of such a realization is an attitude of submission to the authority of God who determines for us what is good and what is evil—to His glory and for our eternal pleasure.

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