Pleasure and The Individual

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Are you enjoying life? I know some of us are facing very hard things right now. And I know none of us is enjoying life 100% - as if there was nothing difficult. But this morning’s topic - ‘Pleasure and the Individual’ - begs that question: are we enjoying life? Or come at it another way: just thinking back over the last week, what’s brought you pleasure? What have been the two or three most enjoyable moments?

You may have struggled to answer that question – because neither life nor your outlook are positive right now. Or you may have thought of lots of things - but perhaps they seem rather ‘unspiritual’. Maybe you thought of sunbathing; or a night-in with your spouse; or a project at work; or a nice glass of wine; or seeing your children playing; or a meal with friends. Some of you may have thought of things like a really good time of prayer - but even you probably enjoyed something much more down to earth, as well.

And this area can be a problem for Christians. Eg, you find yourself wondering, ‘Should I take such pleasure in things like the garden or music (or whatever it is for you)? Isn’t it a bit unspiritual? And isn’t it an unjustifiable use of time when there’s a gospel to be preached and others are going to hell?’ Or, eg, you find yourself wondering, ‘Given that wine always costs more than tap-water, should I ever drink it? Isn’t that an unjustifiable use of money when others are starving?’ Good questions; and we should ask them. But this area can also be a problem because of all the negative Christian teaching we get. The trouble is: the world takes every pleasure there is and misuses it. And so many negatives therefore get said that we begin to think the pleasures themselves are wrong.

So what does the Bible say? Well, it says God’s will is that we enjoy life – even this side of heaven, even when there’s much that’s unenjoyable. And to unpack that, we’re going to overview the Bible - looking back to creation, then onto the fall and its effects; and then onto salvation in Jesus. So would you turn in the Bibles first to Genesis 1.26 which shows us:


First, ENJOYMENT AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE

As a kid, I was a fan of Thomas the Tank Engine stories. And in one of them, the usually smiley Thomas goes off the rails and ends up up to his bogeys (if that’s the right word) in mud – and looking a picture of misery. Because that’s not what Thomas was made for. He was made to run on rails - and only being what he was made to be, doing what he was made to do, is he going to enjoy life. And so it was that the Reverend Wilbert Awdry (who wrote the stories) taught me the doctrine of creation – that we will only enjoy life by being what we were made to be and doing what we were made to do. And so it is with us. Look at Genesis 1.26:

26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1.26-27)

So we are unique in being created like God and therefore able to relate to him. We were made to be in relationship with him, and to do his will – ie, to be loved by him, and to love him in response. And, like Thomas the Tank Engine, only being what we were made to be and doing what we were made to do, will we enjoy life. Eg, the great theologian Augustine for years looked unsuccessfully for satisfaction in sex with his mistress. But after he finally turned to Christ he looked back and wrote, “O God our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” The psychologists say that to enjoy life we need two basic things - the security of being loved and the significance of having purpose. And if we look for those things only in human relationships and achievements, they won’t deliver. Because we’re trying to fill a God-sized hole with someone or something less than God.

So only relationship with God will give us that bottom-line enjoyment that the Bible calls ‘joy’ – that sense of well-being that doesn’t depend on circumstances or mood. And once God is put first and central, then we can also find real enjoyment in his gifts, like work, beauty, food, sex and so on. And for those, we need to look on to Genesis 2.8:

8 Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden [and the word Eden means ‘pleasure’ – this is a ‘pleasure garden’]; and there he put the man he had formed [and later it says ‘to work it’ – in deeply satisfying work]. 9 And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye [so creation’s not just functional but beautiful] and good for food [again, not just functional like a packet of multivitamins - but mangoes and raspberries and whatever your favourites are – typical of the way creation supplies enjoyment way above merely supplying needs]. (Genesis 2.8-9)

Skipping to 2.18, it wasn’t good for man to be alone, so companionship and marriage are created. And meeting Eve for the first time Adam bursts into the first poetry in the Bible, 2.23:

23 The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman, ' for she was taken out of man."
24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2.23-24)

And you can’t read all that and fail to see that God meant us to enjoy life – to enjoy him, the Giver, first; and then his gifts. So those two or three things that brought you pleasure which you thought of at the start – were they really ‘unspiritual’? Isn’t the sun under which you sunbathed a gift from God? Aren’t sex and work and wine gifts from God? Aren’t children and friendship and food? Don’t let people get away with caricaturing God as anti-pleasure. And let’s not communicate that message ourselves. On the contrary, God wants us to be those who enjoy life and are known for enjoying life. I remember someone giving their testimony here of coming to faith. And she said: “I was drawn to Christ by my Christian friends because no-one was more enjoyable to be with.”

But we don’t live in Eden. We live after the fall and need to consider what effect that has on this whole area of ‘Pleasure and the Individual’. So,


Secondly, LOOKING FOR MORE ENJOYMENT THAN GOD GIVES

Why did Adam and Eve rebel against God at the fall? It was not> because life was unenjoyable – it was perfect. It was because of the suspicion planted by Satan that there was more enjoyment to be had outside relationship with God. Look at Genesis 2.16:

16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." (Genesis 2.16-17)

The ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ stands for who has the authority to draw the line between good and evil. And God says only he does. So he draws the moral circle inside which we’re to stay. And he does that to protect the enjoyment, not to spoil it. So now look on to 3.1:

1 Now the serpent [ie, Satan] was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (Genesis 3.1)

So Satan distorts God’s word to give the impression that life with God is all constraint and no freedom to enjoy. So he plants the suspicion that God is not really good and that there’s more enjoyment to be had without him. So since then, God’s gifts and created pleasures have been taken outside his moral boundaries – taken into contexts they were never meant for (eg, sex taken outside marriage), taken to excess (eg, drunkenness), taken selfishly with no regard for others. And for more about the misuse of pleasure in a fallen world, we need to turn on to the book of Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes is one of the Bible’s ‘wisdom’ books. Ie, it’s about how to live wisely in a fallen world that leaves God out of the picture. And one pitfall in such a world is: pursuing enjoyment as your ultimate goal. So here’s the negative lesson of Ecclesiastes about pleasure: pursuing pleasure as your ultimate goal is ultimately unpleasurable. Look at 2.1:

1 I thought in my heart, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good." [So he’s looking at life trying to work out what really has brought/does bring enjoyment, satisfaction. Skip to v4:]
4 I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. 8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well—the delights of the heart of man. 9 I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labour. (Ecclesiastes 2.1, 4-10)

So he’s done the house makeover and the garden makeover; he has power, money, beauty, leisure, music, sex - you name it. 2.11:

11Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had doneand what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2.11)

The word translated ‘meaningless’ is literally ‘breath’: ‘everything was breath’ – ie, short-lived, insubstantial, not leaving him ultimately satisfied. And he says pursuing pleasure as your ultimate goal is like ‘chasing after the wind’: chase enjoyment as your ultimate goal, and it slips through your fingers. Which is true to experience. Maybe that is your experience right now if you’ve not yet turned to Christ and you’re chasing what the world’s telling you to chase. Well, God says you’re chasing the wind. Or maybe that was your experience, looking back to before you were a Christian. I remember another testimony here of a medical student who’d been into most things before turning to Christ. I interviewed him and in an unscripted flash of inspiration he said his pre-Christian life, “was like vegetarian food – you eat as much as you like, but it never really fills you up.” And he suddenly looked horrified at the thought of how many vegetarians he’d just offended. But he was right. Pursuing God’s created pleasures as our ultimate goal doesn’t satisfy. Because good as they are in themselves, they’re ‘breath’ – short-lived, insubstantial - so they don’t fill the hole for people who were made for eternal relationship with the living God.

So let’s see through the way the world glamorises pleasures taken outside God’s boundaries. It’s not glamorous. It’s a lie. And behind the front that people put up there’s actually a great deal of dissatisfaction out there – not to mention despair.


Thirdly, ENJOYING LIFE IN A FALLEN WORLD

We’ve looked at creation and fall. Now onto salvation – God rescuing people back into relationship with himself. And Ecclesiastes also has a positive lesson for such people. Eg, turn over to 5.18:

18 Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. 19 Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God. 20 He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart. (Ecclesiastes 5.18-20)

V19 says: the ability to enjoy life is ‘a gift of God’ – ie, it comes from knowing God and living life under God and looking at life from his point of view. And v19 says that enables us to do two things. One is to enjoy what God has given us – homes, jobs, marriages, children, and all the pleasures that came to mind when I asked that question at the start. And we can enjoy those things because we’re not looking to get ultimate satisfaction from them - we know only God can ultimately fill the hole. So if those other things aren’t perfect, or don’t pan out the way we’d hoped, or are taken from us - it’s not the end of the world in the way it is for the unbeliever whose whole joy is staked on them.

The other thing v19 says is that God enables us to accept our lot. The great enemy of enjoying what we do have is dissatisfaction about what we don’t. That’s what the whole advertising industry plays on. It creates dissatisfaction. But we can say, ‘My lot is God-given. So I’m not going to wish I was someone else and had their looks or brains or job or family or house – as if I could only enjoy life if my lot was different.’ ‘No,’ says the believer, ‘This is the lot God has given me. So I’m going to enjoy him and what he’s given me - and resist dissatisfaction over what he hasn’t as the temptation that it is. So then turn over to 9.7, which gives us believers our marching orders:

7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart... [Skip to v9:] Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless [literally, breath-like, brief] life that God has given you under the sun.... (Ecclesiastes 9.7,9)

So God’s will is our enjoyment of life - even in a fallen world. And that’s found not in the over-the-top pleasure-seeking of chapter 2 (as if we could only ever be happy in the escapism of a luxury holiday – in which case we won’t often be happy), but in the ordinary – in our food, our drink, our home life, our work. And it often involves taking joy in one thing while facing sorrow in another – eg, finding joy in our children, while facing our parents’ ageing and ill-health. Ecclesiastes recognises that life in a fallen world is mixed. But it says that by knowing God, we can still take joy from the joys rather than let them be smothered by the sorrows.

Now you may be worried that this talk of us enjoying life takes the focus off God. Well, let’s turn on to the New Testament to 1 Timothy 4. The apostle Paul is writing against certain teachers who are telling Christians they shouldn’t enjoy certain things. 4.3:

3They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4.3-5)

The point is: there is no competition between us enjoying life and putting God first. Quite the opposite. What we’ve already seen is that putting God first leads to us enjoying life. What 1 Timothy 4 adds is that our enjoying life, if we turn it into thanksgiving, only serves even more to put God first by glorifying him as the Giver. So, eg, if the pleasure we thought of at the start was sunbathing, we need to learn to ‘receive sunbathing with thanksgiving’. Not just to lie there saying to ourselves, ‘This is great’ - which any unbeliever can say. But saying to God, ‘Thank you, Father, for this pleasure.’ Have you thought through what it means to sunbathe to the glory of God (or whatever it is for you)? - because you should. And if you’re not yet a believer in Christ, you need to know that those moments when thankfulness just wells up inside you are God pointing you to himself. As G.K Chesterton (I think) put it, ‘There comes in the life of every unbeliever the tragedy of being thankful and having no-one to thank.’ Maybe that’s how you felt at the birth of your children; or at falling in love; or whatever. But the truth is: there is Someone to thank. That’s the message of pleasure – which you may still be ignoring.

But your other worry might be that talk of us enjoying life takes the focus off others – this could sound highly individualistic – like our culture. Well, turn over to 1 Timothy 6.17 - where the apostle Paul says I am to...

17Command those who are rich in this present world [which is virtually all of us – who have a lion’s share of the world’s resources] not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. [But who is ‘us’? Us is not just ‘us here’, it’s ‘us, the whole human race’. So we who have a lion’s share of God’s provisions are meant to give to others so that they too can richly enjoy. Hence, v18:] 18Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. (1 Timothy 6.17-18)

That’s why I said at the start it was a good question to ask, ‘If wine always costs more than water, should I ever drink it? Isn’t that unjustifiable when other people are starving?’ Because God’s will is enjoyment of life for all. And we’ll have to justify to him how much we richly enjoyed things, compared to how much we gave to enable others to do the same.


Fourthly, ENJOYING LIFE IN THE LIGHT OF ETERNITY

Ecclesiastes was written before Jesus’ first coming, but still applies to us. The big difference now is that Jesus’ death and resurrection has revealed that there’s a wonderful, eternal life beyond this one for those who trust in Christ. So we need, lastly, to put all we’ve seen in the light of eternity. So one last turn to 1 Corinthians 7.29:

29What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short [ie, the clock is ticking to Jesus’ second coming. So, read on:]. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7.29-31)

So God wants us to enjoy marriage, and things and times that make us happy, and the possessions we buy and so on. But he says: don’t get engrossed in them as if they’re the ultimate thing in life. They’re not. Even marriage is only temporary – only ‘till death us do part’. That’s why I said at the start that the question about gardening or music (or whatever it is for you) was a good one. ‘Isn’t it an unjustifiable use of time when there’s a gospel to be preached and others are going to hell?’ Living in the light of eternity doesn’t rule out gardening or music-making or whatever it is for you. But it does rule out being engrossed in them - as if there was no urgency to getting the gospel out to non-believers and as if there was no urgency to doing all we can to spur on fellow-believers. And I think it goes without saying that we all need more urgency in a culture that thinks this life is all there is and doesn’t realise the clock is ticking towards judgement. So we should be forgoing legitimate enjoyments for that reason – eg, forgoing one of our precious free evenings to lead Christianity Explored or to come along with a friend. And you know what? In God’s win-win economy, we’ll actually enjoy that more than seven nights in with a take-away, or seven rounds of golf (although there’s nothing wrong with take-aways or golf...).

The last thing to notice from 1 Corinthians 7 is the start of v30, which talks about ‘those who mourn’ – ie, are unhappy for whatever reason (it’s not just referring to bereavement). That reminds us that it’s not God’s plan, this side of the new creation, that we enjoy life without pain. In the new creation, like the book of Revelation says, ‘There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain’ (Revelation 21.4), but now there will be all those things. And the largest part of New Testament (NT) joy is based on anticipating our future beyond this. Which is why Paul says: don’t be engrossed in your unhappiness, either. But offset it, overcome it by banking on your eternal future. Eg, as and when our bodies and health fail, we need to rejoice that we’ll soon be enjoying resurrection bodies forever.


So the question we began with was, ‘Are you enjoying life?’ What God has been saying to us this morning is that it is his will that we do. And that that’s possible if we first enjoy him; if we then enjoy his gifts within the mixed bag of our circumstances; and if we look forward to the next life when the enjoyment will be unmixed, 100%, with nothing whatever to spoil it.

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