Ever since the first monks wandered into the Egyptian desert in an effort to get closer to God, Christians have been enthralled with a theology of denial and the practice of an impoverished life as the means to holiness. Somehow we have bought into the heretical idea that if it feels good it must be sin, or at the very least puts us on the slippery slope to a major denial of Jesus. Certainly there are numerous warnings in Bible about pleasure. But a careful reading of those passages would make it clear that it is not pleasure that we are warned away from, but rather being caught in the snare of accepting the Devil’s counterfeit pleasures instead of God’s far more rich, rewarding, and dare I say, intense pleasure.
If you have a hard time accepting that God created pleasure for us to enjoy in all it’s fullness, let me ask you a few questions? Why did God give you taste buds and then make strawberries taste so luscious? If food is only designed to sustain our physical bodies and NOT also include some aspect of joy and pleasure, why didn’t God make strawberries completely utilitarian, no texture, no delightful red color, no savory drops of juice, no mouth popping sweetness? The truth is God wants you to enjoy it and find pleasure in it. It is to be a pleasure that marvels in the graciousness of a God who has given us such good gifts. The same point can be made for numerous other creations of God, from the pleasure of a parent seeing their child succeed, to the joy of a sunset over the Pacific, to the physical embrace of husband and wife in all its passion and intimacy.
We must come to grips with the fact that pleasure is a creation of God and something the Scriptures regularly tell us to enjoy. Pleasures in their proper context are a gift from God. It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to see that in the Song of Solomon, God’s Word celebrates the intense pleasure of a physical relationship between two lovers. The description of that pleasure is so graphic as to border on religious erotica. In plenty of other places the Bible warns against the abuse of pleasure, addiction to pleasure, even the destructive nature of pleasure gone wrong. We need to separate out the warnings about the abuse of pleasure from those times when we are told to embrace the pleasures God has given us.
C.S. Lewis has a great perspective on how Satan views pleasure and how he tries to twist it and give us that counterfeit in order to point us away from the creator of pleasure. His wisdom comes to us in his book, The Screwtape Letters. In that book, a senior demon is giving advice to a demon in training, on how to best ruin the life of his subject, a human being interested in God, the enemy.
“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 [God’s] ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is [God’s] invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage 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…. To get the man’s soul and give NOTHING in return–that is what really gladdens [Satan’s] heart.”
To get the man’s soul and give nothing in return. That is the plan of Satan. His twisting of pleasure and providing a counterfeit is intended to provide less and less of the real thing over time, forcing us into accepting pleasure that is increasingly empty. It is much like the turkish delight in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. It tastes wonderful but leaves one empty. Such empty pleasure makes us into the addict who needs a stronger and stronger fix in order to get the high. Eventually it will kill her. But it is not pleasure that kills the body or the soul. It is the twisted form of pleasure that leaves out the creator of the gift that kills.
How much better would it be if when we had a fine meal with good friends, that we enjoyed the pleasure of food and friendship in all it’s fullness and intensity and gave thanks to God for the gifts? What if husband and wife so celebrated the gift of giving each other pleasure that the joy and intensity of it served and the perfect defense against outside temptation? By the way, the Apostle Paul makes just that point in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 when he says that we are to flee sexual immorality. His method for fleeing is to run into the embrace of your spouse and enjoy the God-given pleasure of one another’s bodies. It is not the pleasure of sex that we are to flee from, but the sinful use of it for a watered-down counterfeit pleasure. That is true of all the pleasures God gives us, whether they be food, wine, creation, sports, reading, building, working at your job, laying on the beach, or countless other Gift-of-God pleasures.
Let me close with a brief word about denying ourselves pleasures. Let’s take fasting. One thing it should do is give us an even greater appreciation for food, not make us think that it is more holy to NOT eat than it is to eat. Jesus both fasted AND ate and drank in such a way that people accused him of being a drunk and glutton. There is a time for denial. There is a time to enjoy. Paul even said that about sex between husband and wife, “only abstain for a short period of time by mutual consent and for the purpose of prayer”. Trust me, any couple who does that will have an even greater appreciation for the pleasure of their intimacy when the time of prayer and fasting is over.
As with most things, enjoying God-given pleasure is all about balance and focus. The balance it not too much or too little. The focus is ultimately not the pleasure itself, but an amazing and gracious God who has gifted us with taste buds, endorphins, laughter, a world of color, sexual intimacy, undying friendship, and more. In fact the pleasures He has created are much like the many miracles of Jesus which John said that if he were to list them all, they could not be contained in all the books on earth.