Bishop Peter Brain Reflection 42: The problem of pleasure.

REFLECTIONS & ENCOURAGEMENTS: understanding and growing through the covid-19 challenge.

Bishop Peter Brain Reflection 42: The Problem of Pleasure.

There have been many books written to answer the questions we have about pain. God is often rejected because of what is seen as the problems of pain: why does a loving God allow pain and why doesn’t a powerful God stop it? But I have not heard people asking the question: why does God allow pleasure? Pain can cause us to think about God in much the same way as physical pain prompts us to see the doctor, whereas pleasure tends to suck us in to the notion that it is God’s job, indeed duty, to give us end on end pleasures. But pleasure has its pains, and the more pleasures we seek the less pleasure we experience. Instead of becoming aware that we need help when we experience pain, pleasure keeps on tripping us up, as it numbs our hearts and souls.

Ravi Zacharias comments: Pain forces us to accept our finitude…pain sends us in search of a greater power…But disappointment in pleasure is a completely different thing. While pain can often be seen as a means to a greater end, pleasure is seen as an end in itself. And when pleasure has run its course, a sense of despondency can creep into one’s soul that may often lead to self-destruction. Pain can often be temporary, but disappointment in pleasure gives rise to emptiness-not just for a moment, but for life [The Logic of God. Pages 116-7]. This should not surprise us, since experience and observation confirm Jesus words that the seed which fell amongst the thorns: stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are chocked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. [Luke 8:11-15].

This diagnosis could have been spoken by our Lord of our Western culture, whose worries mostly come out of riches and pursuit of pleasures. Of course there are good God given pleasures that drive us closer to Him than away from Him. I think of the words of Erasmus [c.1500] on the Founder’s gate at the Botanical Gardens in Wellington N.Z: This garden is dedicated to the memorable pleasure of: Rejoicing the eye, refreshing the nose and renewing the spirit. Sadly, however, many of the pleasures on offer, either become ends in themselves, lead us away from God or are in themselves ungodly. During the pandemic we have been able to spend social distanced time with family and friends, by letter, email or phone, go for walks, smell the roses, read and (re)discover latent hobbies. But the pursuit of drinking, binge movie viewing, pornography and the like can leave us unsatisfied, numb and having to have more and more of the same, [and mostly more perverse, since it now takes the increasingly bizarre to satisfy us]. Pleasure can prove elusive if it is pursued as an end in itself.  But is there a healthy way to pursue pleasure? Here are some thoughts.

[i] True pleasures come to us from God. The phone call to say hi, the letter/parcel in the post, the word of encouragement, the shared walk, the cuppa with a friend are all God given gifts. They will be kept from becoming idols relied upon or a cause of bitterness, with God or others if not forthcoming, by gratitude to both God and the people who may have shown us the kindness. We are warned about the sinfulness of thanklessness [Romans 1:21], and encouraged by the fruits of thankfulness [Luke 17:11-19], with its transforming nature in the congregation [Colossians 3:15-17] and in all circumstances [1 Thess 5:16-18]. J Gresham Machen’s warning is timely: Nearly all the Pauline Epistles…begin with a prayer of thanksgiving. This very fact is itself instructive; we are entirely too much inclined to resort to prayer only in times of great stress when all other means have failed. Such conduct is madness; God is not our servant, at our beck and call, who might be willing to keep out of our way till we think we need Him; if we neglect him in prosperity we may call in vain when adversity comes. Without thanksgiving, joy is far more dangerous to the Christian life than sorrow; when we are satisfied with worldly blessings, we think we have no need of God. Thanksgiving wards off this danger. By making God a sharer in the blessings he has given, these blessings do not separate us from him, but keep us all the more fully in his presence [The New Testament: An introduction to its Literature and History-page 327 Banner].

[ii] The combined power of Satan, the world and our own foolishness to settle for the gifts of our Creator rather than the rich fellowship with Him that he wants us to enjoy is strong and often pervasive. We are fortunate, therefore, to have many warnings from God as to the seductiveness of pleasure seeking. These include: Matt 7:13-14; Lk 8:23-26; Rom 12:1-2; Phil 3:17-21; Col 3:5-11; 1 Tim 6:6-10; 2 Tim 4:9; 1 John 2:15-17. Speaking about the value of fasting John Piper challenges this drift into idolatry: the absence of fasting is the measure of our contentment with the absence of Christ [A Hunger for God p 93]. The tendency to drift from excitement with Christ and God’s promises into a conformity to worldly values like financial security, pleasure in things, travel, wine and even convivial friendships is ever so easy to fall into since most pleasures of the world are given to be enjoyed. Indeed Heb 11:25 reminds us of the fleeting pleasures of sin. Whilst we are not to be ascetics [denying the goodness of God given pleasures] we must not become practical atheists. The balanced apostle comes to our rescue with his wise counsel to Timothy in his first letter @4:1-8. Two helpful correctives to this dangerous drift are the place of thankfulness [4-5] and the importance of assessing all things, even good things like keeping fit, in the light of eternity [4:8]. Put bluntly, the truism we cannot take our money with us [6:7] does not always lead to a decrease in our discretionary spend on pleasures [dinning out, travel, entertainment, gyms, cars, bucket lists and the like]. Not for saving but for sending our money ahead of us in the currency of heaven [people who have been converted and nurtured]. The pandemic provides many opportunities to feed and encourage our persecuted brothers and sisters, through the ministry of the gospel as outlined in 1 Tim 6:17-19 where Paul’s example is paramount since he so clearly followed our Lord’s exhortation in Matt 6:19-21]. For us in the West, to divest ourselves of our money for the sake of others means we can only be the blessed as we do [Acts 20:35], whereas we risk great loss in failing to do so. The test of thankfulness [1 Tim 4:4-5] will swing us away from pleasure seeking as a means of happiness.

[iii] An example of this is found in the wonderful Ephesians 5:18. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Here are contrasting ways of living, perhaps we could even say of facing problems or boredom. Not only is it stark but it is timely given its context. The previous verses run: Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Could it be, for us in the West, with all our material blessings, have this timely opportunity to be both wise and to become more filled with the Holy Spirit than ever before? What I mean is simply this. It is one thing not to live in debauchery, which I am sure we don’t, but it is altogether another to be filled with the Holy Spirit. No synthetic gift to us, like wine, can take the place of the authentic presence within us of God the Spirit Himself. But if Satan cannot deflect us with debauchery he will certainly be happy to have us settle for the respectability of not becoming drunk on wine [or other respectable addictions]. Even the use of wine in moderation can rob us of drowning our sorrows and sadnesses, in the gracious Godhead [and the older we get and the more the pandemic exerts its grip there are more sorrows and disappointments to face] through prayer, immersion in the Scriptures and giving ourselves to ministering to our fellow believers, as 5:19-21 suggest. These proven means of grace can be so easily short circuited by sitting in front of TV, with a wine or beer to settle our nerves or to binge out with face-book friends. The Holy Spirit may still be in us, but not as fully as God would desire with prayer as our first preference. This fellowship with our Father, made possible by our Lord’s death and mediating role, is invigorated, initiated and energised by the Holy Spirit [Eph 6:18-20, Rom 8:26-27 and 8:34; Heb 4:14-16].

[iv] John Newton’s hymn Glorious things of thee are spoken reminds of our Lord’s desire for His children. The last verse is worth pondering: Saviour since 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 worldlings pleasure/All his boasted pomp and show/ Solid joys and lasting treasure/None but Zion’s children know.  Amen!

Peter Brain 23rd September, 2020

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