Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Purpose of the World's Pleasures

Let me clear this out right here in the very beginning, to avoid misunderstanding or confusion later on – of course, there are times when pleasures don’t glorify God.  Whenever we delight in and give priority to the world’s pleasures more than we do with God, then that is idolatry – a sin.   Also, there are such things as sinful pleasures – pleasures that are explicitly not permitted by God to be enjoyed by us (e.g. sex outside marriage). 

But pleasure per se is not evil.  In fact, it is something that God has invented, and everything that God invents is good, which we should accept and be thankful for (1 Tim 4:4).  Hence, pleasures are good.       

Sex, food and drink, nature, entertainment, music, pop culture, arts, companionship, rest, vacation and travel, friendship, success, etc.  We are naturally designed to derive enjoyment from these things.  We are meant to enjoy the pleasures of this world.  For this is God’s world, and the world’s pleasures are God’s.
For me, there are four main reasons why pleasures exist:
1.) The world’s pleasures are God’s gifts to us, his children.  Just as human fathers give their children treats, God the Father also gives treats to his children.  By these, God has somewhat shown a glimpse of his goodness and favor to his children, for his glory.       
2.) So that we might have a concept on what is pleasure.  What it’s all about.  What’s the feeling and experience. 
3.)  So that we will have a benchmark – a point of comparison – when we eventually obtain a greater kind of pleasure.  And that once we experience that greater kind of pleasure, we would see how miniscule or irrelevant the world’s pleasures are when compared to it.     
4.) The world’s pleasures are intended as appetizers.  To make us desire for greater pleasures than these.  For pleasures that are not of this world.  For heavenly pleasures.  For eternal pleasures.  For pleasures that can only be exclusively found in God alone.

The pleasures of this world are not the ends.  It is merely the means for us to be led to the Ultimate Pleasure that is found in God.  These world’s pleasures should ultimately bring us to focus on God – for us to eventually derive our ultimate happiness in Him and in Him alone.  That even when time comes that we won’t be able to experience the world’s pleasures anymore, we won’t mind at all, because we now obtain our overflowing and unending pleasure from our fellowship with God, who is the Author of pleasure. 
Unfortunately, instead of letting these pleasures lead us to God, we are okay with just settling with them.  We prioritize them.  We invest our happiness on them.   Instead of seeking God (by the help of these), we seek the pleasures of this world instead.  They become our ends instead of our means to find our Ultimate Pleasure.  We are content with settling with these lesser kinds of pleasures instead of moving on to the superior kind!  As C.S. Lewis beautifully articulated, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Now that we’ve established what the world’s pleasures’ purpose is – to help us to eventually find our full delight in God – and have recognized the danger of enjoying them – that is, focusing our delight on them that we forget about pursuing the greater pleasure found in God – then, what should our approach be on dealing with pleasure?  Should we start hating pleasure then?   By no means!  On the contrary, we should intensify our pursuit for pleasure.  And what I meant by “intensifying our pursuit for pleasure” is for us to stop being too easily pleased with the worldly pleasures but instead let us yearn for such pleasure that is found in God, which is eternally satisfying and extremely delightful. 

Moreover, it also doesn’t necessarily mean we should totally stop enjoying the “lesser kind” of pleasures.  As what was said earlier, they are God’s gifts and they are meant to be enjoyed.  As long as they are not sinful and aren’t hindering us with our relationship with God (but, rather, just the opposite, they are helping us to be closer to God), all these pleasures will always be, as what the Bible says, “permissible” to us (1 Cor 6:12). 

Nevertheless, though the Bible tells us that these things are always “permissible”, it also tells us that not all things are “helpful” (1 Cor 6:12).  No matter how “permissible” these pleasures are, they might not help us in our dealing with matters of eternal significance, e.g. our pursuit of finding our ultimate pleasure in God, and the risk of being distractions is always present in them.  It’s just an unfortunate proven fact that the Devil can easily use pleasures to tempt us into idolatry and sin.  That’s why some Christians totally abstain from some pleasures (e.g. alcoholic beverages, TV or movies).  Now, total abstinence is not a requirement, but it’s very much highly recommended.  Absence of worldly pleasures removes the risk of sinning through them.  And absence of these things allows someone to completely put his full attention to God and draw delight from Him.  Even for those who don’t choose to completely abstain on some worldly pleasures, it is still strongly advisable to periodically abstain from the pleasures of this world – to evaluate ourselves if we sincerely delight in God more than these.   That is why a concept such as “fasting” exists. 

The past paragraph made the whole idea seemingly paradoxical, but that’s just how the way it actually is.  The more we delight in God, the readier we are to forfeit our God-given freedom of enjoying the (non-sinful) pleasures of this world. 

Furthermore – this is a cliché but necessary to mention here nonetheless – according to the Bible, whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we should do it all for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).  This maxim absolutely applies, too, on whenever we enjoy the pleasures of this world.  Thus, determining if a pleasure will glorify God or not should be our foremost consideration when deciding whether we should go on to undertake that pleasure or not, regardless of that pleasure being the “permissible” kind. 

Because whenever God is absent in our dealing with the pleasures of this world – if we fail to seek His glory above our enjoyment of these things – then it would surely lead to sinning.   Thus, if we know that there’s a possibility that the pleasure we are enjoying might lead us to sin or won’t glorify God at all, and we don’t trust ourselves of having the necessary self-discipline to stop enjoying that pleasure when it’s already likely that it will lead us to sin, then it is still best to avoid or abstain from enjoying that pleasure instead of risking the chance of sinning or failing in giving glory to God.

Lastly, as we are enjoying the pleasures of this world, it’s imperative that we retain the positive things but discard the negative things.  Using our understanding of what’s the ultimate purpose of pleasure is and our conviction to keep the glory of God paramount as our filters, we will be able to do just that.  We will be able to watch a movie or read a novel, enjoy the story, and just absorb the wisdom and morals that can be derived from it but would be able discard the unhelpful aspects.  We will be able to appreciate the beauty and/or optimism of the music and lyrics, but won’t be influenced by the godless lifestyle or philosophy of the musician.  When we witness a volcanic eruption, we will forget our terror but instead see it as the manifestation of God’s splendor.  We will be able to spot analogies or illustrations that are relevant to our spirituality and relationship with God when we come in contact with pop culture, and won’t notice those that don’t.  And, thus, we can truly be able to effectively use this world’s pleasures as what they were intended to be – our first step towards an Ultimate Pleasure.  

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