Meditations in Meaning & Values 8: What is Pleasure?
Eccles 2:1 I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless.
Perhaps a little reminder would be appropriate. We are considering meaning, purpose and values in life, initially helped by the jaded writing of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. He is a good case study because without doubt he had been there and done it in so many areas of life that, more than most, he has the right to speak out about life. Tragically his writing is limited to experiences “under the sun” which excludes spiritual matters and therefore the conclusions he arrives at, although valid, are limited to the investigation of the life of a materialist. We have just considered fame and fortune and now we ponder on the merits and meaning of ‘pleasure’.
So what is pleasure and is all pleasure good? The first thing to note is that God has designed us to be people who experience pleasure. Pleasure is, according to a dictionary, enjoyment, delight, sensuous gratification of experience. Sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing are the five senses we have and each is able to provide us with pleasure. It is amazing when you think about it more and more, how pleasurable our senses can be. And God made us like this!
But is pleasure good in itself? No, it is neutral. When a person takes cocaine I am told it produces a pleasurable experience, but one so strong it yearns to be repeated and repeated and repeated, and becomes addiction. The same can be true of alcohol abuse. Pain is meant to act as a warning to us but some people distort God’s design and get pleasure from either inflicting or receiving pain (sadists and masochists). Sexual infidelity we sometimes refer to as taking the forbidden fruit, and perhaps in so doing we identify it with the sin of Adam and Eve. All sexual promiscuity is based on temporary pleasure and the thought of the pleasure blinds us not to think of consequences, the consequences of betrayal, the consequences of marriage breakdown, the consequences of family upset, or of sexual disease or unwanted pregnancy. Perhaps more than anything else, sexual sin comes from the anticipation of pleasure, but pleasure at a cost.
We sometimes speak of ‘comfort eating’ where the pleasure of eating appears to satisfy feelings of inadequacy. How often, I wonder, do we seek pleasure to cover up an emptiness? Indeed some people make seeking pleasure the focus of their life. Solomon did it in his quest for meaning. In fact he was able to say, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure,” (2:10) yet still his conclusion was, “But that also proved to be meaningless.”
How strange this thing called pleasure is. Enjoyment or pleasure is a gift of God and yet we can so easily abuse it by excess or by chasing it across forbidden boundaries. Yes, this is the reality, that although God has designed us to receive pleasure in so many ways, it is not to be used in excess or for crossing forbidden boundaries. The young person who starts taking recreational drugs often soon finds the lure of something more, something more powerful and when addiction takes hold, the lift becomes blighted with a whole host of other forbidden things, that are contrary to God’s design for us – lying, stealing, cheating and worse. The initial quest for pleasure can, without God, so easily lead on into so much more that should not be. King David wanted the pleasure of rest, so did not go out to battle with his men. From his palace he spied a young woman sunbathing, so he sent for her and had sex with her (Don’t call it making love; it was pure sex, pure enjoyment). She became pregnant so David tried to cover it up and sent for her husband to have a rest from the battle and spend the night with his wife, but the man would not play ball, and so David had him killed on the battlefront. A man died because another powerful man wanted pleasure. God was not amused and held David accountable which was painful.
The gift of pleasure should evoke praise and thankfulness in us, and both directed towards God because He is the giver of all good things, or as the apostle James put it, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” (Jas 1 :17) I like how the message version puts it, “Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light.” Writers write, composers compose and designers design – all through pleasure. We are made creative beings and when we are being creative we get pleasure because we are made in the image of God.
Perhaps we might conclude by saying that whenever we live or act or speak ‘in the image of God’ it will bring pleasure. It is a pleasure being a child of God and knowing the Father’s love and the blessing from the Son brought by the Spirit. But there is another word that is related to pleasure and it is ‘satisfaction’. When we exercise the ‘spiritual disciplines’ as they are sometimes called – prayer, worship, reading and studying the word – they bring us both pleasure and satisfaction. Indeed everything to do with living out our relationship well with the Lord is both enjoyable and satisfying – because that is how He has made us. How wonderful!