10. Recap 1

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 10. Recap 1

Matt 7:13,14  “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Narrow Road requirement: Jesus’ illustration of the narrow and wide gates reminds us that many people go through the wide gate leading to destruction because the road leading through it is ‘broad’ and unrestricted and people want to do their own thing, ignoring God and running on ‘self’. We observed at the start that going God’s way – the narrow road and narrow gate – requires a dying to self and dying to the old self-centred and godless life, what the majority consider a restricted life, but the more we progressed, the more we saw the reasons why that is necessary.

‘Follow Me’ Requirements: When Jesus called Levi to “Follow Me”, it was a call to trust him, but in following Jesus it was also a call to submit to the sovereignty of God. Why? Very simply because God knows best – and we don’t. In fact it was our failure to think and act rightly that enabled the Holy Spirit to convict us and bring us to repentance. Part of that deal meant us giving up or dying to the old life we had lived.

People Problems:  As we looked further at this, we recognised that our ‘not getting it right before’ also meant not getting it right with people. In fact, if it wasn’t for people, this life would be easy, but the trouble is their ways and wants are different to mine, which can mean conflict, so if I am to walk the Jesus way of peace and harmony, it will mean I have to die to my desires and learn to understand others and have care and compassion for them. If I am to achieve that, I will truly have to die to my wishes.

Facets of Forgiveness: But that led us on to consider the difficult question of forgiveness, both our need for it when we have wronged others and to give it when others seek it of us. Perhaps this is one of the hardest areas where we need to die to self if we are to be like Jesus.

Modern Idols: But then we looked more widely at life and recognised that in our old life, although we would perhaps never countenance wooden images of eastern religions, we did, never the less, exalt people and we did rely upon methods, and both of these to the exclusion of God. Oh yes, idols are still very much alive in our modern society and wherever we put our trust in them, it means we will not be putting our trust in God, and therefore we cease to come to the fountain of all wisdom and understanding. We do indeed need to die to the alternative supports where they exclude God.

Aware of Anxiety: While we were looking at the world more widely, we recognised that living life on our own, so often meant that we were full of anxiety which, if we accept as the norm, will settle to become what I called angst, a more deep-seated anxiety which comes from not living in harmony and receiving the resources of The Lord of all. The attitude of self-reign leads so often to a short-fall of ability and that in turn leads to anxiety. The way to overcome that anxiety is to lay down the old life, lay down the self-reign and submit to the Lord of Glory.

‘Less’ or ‘Ish’: From there we considered the conflicting lives of the selfless versus the selfish, the godly versus the godless. We noted that the latter in each case was how we used to live but those lives brought us to failure. We noted how rejecting the selfish or self-centred life requires an application in every area of our lives and that in turn required a discipline and effort, often helped by others. The starting place is death to self and the continuing process requires the effort of me with help from the Holy Spirit. It is a continual challenge to die to self in every new situation or confrontation.

Pleasure: This brought us to the last one, a consideration of the wonder of pleasure that God has given us, while at the same time confronting the very real danger that is rife in our day, of making pleasure the beginning and end of all things. When we do that we are making it a substitute for God, but fortunately or unfortunately it soon creates a jaded feeling in us, together with a need for more and more. Satisfaction is illusory and flits away like a butterfly on a warm summer’s day. It is this recognition that we see results in a need to die to the old life that was pleasure and experience orientated and to the pleasure-seeking attitude that prevails so much today. Pleasure in its right place is a gift from God. When we make pleasure all-important, we stumble, feel jaded and become vulnerable.

Versus God: I want to finish this Part with something about which I have increasingly become aware in recent days. Where we fail to get to grips with these things, as I believe many Christians do, it means that we create both an anger and a yearning in God’s heart that desires to bring His people back to Himself. As the world increasingly (in the West at least) turns its back on God, it opens itself up to the leading of the enemy and so we see ever more strange, weird and, without doubt, ungodly and unrighteous behaviours, an increase in blatant unrighteousness as people reject God’s design and totter down the wide road towards self-destruction.

“Hands Off” Discipline: Romans 1 leads us to believe that this is God’s judgment on the Western world where He has “given them over” to more and more destructive behaviours. For the world, and especially for the Christians who may be drifting alongside this cultural collapse, His desire is for these things to act in a disciplinary manner, i.e. they act as agents to drive people back from the abyss and back to God. Now in the midst, the Lord allows Satan to act as a disciplining agent and we see it when Christians make themselves vulnerable by not dealing with the issues we have been considering throughout this first Part and failing to put them to death. I believe the strength of his activities has been increasing in recent years and I have watched Christians becoming more and more vulnerable to illnesses, problems, difficulties, stresses, anxieties and many other things that should not be in our lives.

Responses/Effects: Now a problem with this assessment is that most of us, the good, the bad, the indifferent, in the kingdom of God, often seem prey to these things. Now there are two responses to this. First, like Jeremiah being carried away to Egypt in the remnant, so we too can suffer the things of the age. Second, I believe it has been like the tide has been turning and so there is greater effort needed to stand and resist these things.

Answers?  So what is the answer? It is twofold. First, it is to do the thing we have been emphasising throughout this first Part – put to death all these things we have considered, that belong to the old life and should not be in the new life. Second, we are to live out the Christian life as it is portrayed in the New Testament, a resurrected life, empowered by God and living differently to the rest of the world, and that is what we will consider in the next Part.

(As we are in the period of Lent, we will pause up this present series four weeks while we do short meditations on the Cross and the crucifixion)

9. The Path of Plessure

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 9. The Path of Pleasure

Eph 2:3  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.

Tentative Approach: I confess, and I hope you don’t feel this, that I don’t like considering these areas that are ‘doomed for death’ if we are to grow as Christians, I feel very tentative about them. I think it is probably for two reasons. The first is because there is a negativity about death and I often feel challenged when I consider either myself or my church, that just perhaps some of these things do apply and need putting to death. But then, as I said yesterday, I realise that some of these things, if not all, need putting to death afresh on a daily basis. The second reason is that I am feeling frustrated because I want to move on into the second area about resurrection to see what the Lord wants to show us about living lives in his power. But we have to take our medicine first and face the challenges that arise in this Part.

Balance: The difficulty, and I acknowledge it before we get into it in this one – and it is particularly important that I say this to us who live in the West in the early part of the twenty-first century – is maintaining a balance that acknowledges the Lord’s good provision on one side but makes sure we don’t supplant Him by His provision on the other side. I will explain more as I go on.

Made to Enjoy: As you will see from the title and the starter-verse, our subject is pleasure. Now I don’t know if you have every thought about this, but we are made for pleasure. We have eyes to see the wonder of the world about us, and I have been almost drunk in the past as I have gazed on God’s creation, and on beautiful art work. Our visual world is truly wonderful. But then we have ears to hear, that pick up the tiniest of sounds like the scrabbling of a hedgehog in the undergrowth, to the wonders of the incredible range of music that we are capable of producing, to the roar of the sea on the seafront in an amazing storm. Yes, our audible world is also absolutely amazing.

Then we have taste and I don’t know where to start or finish. I have been privileged to travel the world and so have tried so many tastes in many countries and so I hesitate to start describing foods or drinks because it is like a tsunami and I could get carried away. Taste is incredible! But then we have touch and I guess this is the one of the five senses that we possibly take more for granted. I love the feel of wood, that has been planed and rubbed and just waits for further treatment. I love the feel of my wife’s skin, but I will move on quickly. I’m using too much space.  Finally smell, and I leave it to the last because it is so powerful. I will just mention two things and if you don’t know them, where have you been all your life? Fresh coffee and recently baked bread. Enough said. Smell is amazing.

Now I have taken that time and space to make a point – and we could go on to think about many experiences of the human race that bring pleasure and that could take up the page – and the point is that despite the protestations of the ascetics down through the ages, we have been made by God to be the most amazing beings who can ENJOY the physical and material world that He has made. Think about that and it says a lot about Him. Worship Him for His love to us in this way.

Godless Enjoyment: Before we met Christ, this material world was all we knew and we gave ourselves to it in a variety of ways and to varying degrees. In our starter-verse, the apostle Paul speaks about gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts, and there is a danger we become all legalistically puritanical and become unbalanced, denying the truths I have spoken about above, resulting in a harsh life of abstinence.

But he does speak truth, that pre-Christ our life was just those wonderful things I spoke about in the paragraph on the senses and nothing more and when “those wonderful things” are all that energise and motivate us they start becoming jaded and, rather like drugs, we want more and more to get the same satisfaction. For those who know about economics, it is the law of diminishing returns at its best.

Twenty-first century living: So we are someone who comes to Christ in the first third of the twenty-first century and we live in a world of material appreciation (that’s the nice way of putting it), a world of material excess and pleasure, a world of technology that increasingly assaults our senses in the communication realm and threatens to overwhelm us. Basic pleasure is being threatened. Boundaries are falling and confusion reigns in the realm of sexuality, as just one example, and more than ever we need to cry – Balance! Christian, keep a hold on God in this ever-confusing world.  Hold to His word, hold to His presence, hold to His reality. If the material is drowning your life, it is a time to step back and bring a balance, with some stuff, perhaps, needing to die.

The “world”: Feelings and pleasure were the arbiters of our life before we came to Christ, but many still focus there and not on Him. The apostle John wrote significantly about “the world” in his first letter, meaning the godless, self-centred world, not the wonderful globe we live on. The Message version puts it very well: “Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.” (1 Jn 2:15-17) The world’s ‘goods’ are for our pleasure but when they are THE source of our pleasure, we’ve lost it, and that needs to die. “wanting, wanting, wanting.”  Wow, that describes the emptiness of so much of life today that reveals the shallowness, the barrenness, the limitations, the inadequacies of living in the materialistic world to the exclusion of the spiritual world of God.

Generation Struggles: I watch the different generations today, struggling with this. The younger generation being carried away with their electronic goods, and their desire for a new and ever new experience, with virtual reality being the tip of the iceberg (or, I might suggest, the forefront of an oncoming tsunami). The older generation so often with more time and money on their hands, but still, so often, godless. We went on a cruise to the Mediterranean some years ago and as it was our first time we were assaulted by people comparing that cruise to other ones they had been on (jaded!) and one couple said to us, “Oh, this is our tenth cruise,” and I couldn’t help thinking, “For goodness sake, get a life!” But it was symptomatic of a people filling in their time, sadly frittering their lives away.

I run a group for the more elderly and its purpose is to build friendships and strengthen memory in the aging, and ultimately lead them to Christ. One of the many things I do with this group is I get people to share in pairs or threes about a particular part of their past lives and having been doing it  for several months, I can tell you this generation have “been there, done it all, got the tee-shirt three times over” but mostly they still don’t know the Lord and are still looking for something.

And So? Don’t lose touch with a vibrant relationship with the Lord, (or get one if you have never had one!) and don’t get to the end of your earthly run thinking, “Well what was all that about?” Pleasure is good and God-given, but pleasure without God just promotes a jaded feeling. The more you know Him, I have found, the more He heightens the pleasure. Yes! Without Him, the pleasure is like chewing straw. Don’t do it.

22. Wrong Methods

Meditations in Colossians 2: 22:  Wrong Methods

Col 2:23    Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence

As we come to the end of the second chapter Paul drives his final nails into the coffin of human spirituality or human salvation, that brought about by our own endeavours. Again to catch the full flow of the logic of what is being said we need to go back to the previous verses. Earlier he denounced following rules: Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?” (v.20,21) and he had gone on to say that such rules were doomed to disappear: “These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” (v.22). It was these ‘rules’ that were “based on human commands” that he now refers to when he says, “such regulations”.

There is a temptation, I suspect, in many to feel these are words of warning against Gnostic malpractices and which therefore have little relevance to life today. I don’t think such a view could be more wrong. We live in a world where excessive provision of material blessing – especially in the West where choice of food is amazing – has actually caused much concern for health and wellbeing which in turn has resulted in an abundance of approaches towards dieting and other fitness regimes. A considerable number of people are concerned about their weight or their shape and perhaps greater numbers are concerned at following self-help manuals or the guidance of mentors or trainers to keep their lives in shape generally.

At the time of writing this meditation (mid 2015)  the trend towards pleasure through materialism is showing signs of collapse, as increasingly in the media there is a recognition that pleasure or satisfaction gained through collecting or owning ‘things’ is short lived. The signs are that people are moving away to seek meaning or pleasure or excitement through ‘experiences’ whether it be sky diving, going on cruises, taking drugs  or a multitude of other experience-creating activities.  So here we have these two streams – self-help and looking for ‘experiences’ – which although very much being twenty-first century manifestations of misguided mankind’s search for meaning and purpose, very much echo the lives and experiences of those following the Gnostic trail in the first century.

So let’s look again at our verse above. All of these approaches of following rules – or someone else’s self-discipline regime – “indeed have an appearance of wisdom.” How eagerly people scan these things today in the weekend papers. The eastern outlook on ‘mindfulness’ has become one of the more recent fads to sweep the Western world taking in both believers and non-believers, for both individual and corporate business  development. Each new thing creates an interest because past things have failed and just maybe this latest thing will provide the wisdom we need.

Note again the things Paul identifies in the Gnostic way that is also common today. First he speaks of “their self-imposed worship.”  Worship is simply highly esteeming something over everything else and when he says it is ‘self imposed’ he means it is brought about by the false teachers and does not flow naturally out of a genuine encounter with God.  If we ascribe to any regime, method or discipline honour that exalts it as ‘the answer’, we are in deception, for nothing and no one is worthy of our worship except God Himself.

Second he speaks of “their false humility,” which simply speaks of their appearance – they look good. You watch these people and initially their regime gives them a buzz and for a while they look good; it seems to work. Look again in two years and you will probably find them trying something else. The present is a false appearance.

Then third, he speaks of “their harsh treatment of the body,” and how people today are subject to fitness regimes which are really hard work. Yes, the motivation of the Gnostics was to do with thinking that the material or physical was bad, whereas today the workout is to improve personal health and appearance, but ultimately both have false foundations.

Paul concludes with a damning condemnation: “but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”  For the Gnostics they beat themselves up because material things were evil, but actually their assessment was false and they often soon gave way to falling back to sensual pleasures. How often today does the person who struggles for months on a really harsh diet eventually give way and fall back into bad eating habits. The thing is that without the proper motivation, all these things are doomed to failure.

We so often hear of people “comfort eating”, meaning they eat to make themselves good because they have such poor self-esteem. When you really come to know you are loved by God and have a place in His plans for the world, you no longer need to use food (or even a fitness regime) to feel good. You feel good because you are loved and you know it! All of these things we have been considering can be summarized as self-help, and people do them because they do not go to the true source of all real help – Christ.

All of the things Paul has been speaking about in the later half of this chapter are substitutes for a genuine relationship with the living God through His Son, Jesus Christ. Observing special days, following rituals, trying to follow self-disciplinary rules, all of these things are substitutes that DO NOT WORK. That is the lesson of this chapter. Make Christ THE focus of your life, enter into a real relationship with him via his Holy Spirit, and you will know a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. May it be so!

23. Be Joyful

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  23. Be Joyful

1 Thess 5:16-18   Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I must confess in passing, I sometimes wonder how those who divided the Scriptures up into verses did so and particularly here why they separated off “pray continually” unless they felt that it was so important that it needed marking out on its own. Very well, we shall deal with each part alone. First of all, “Be joyful always”.

Again, while I’m in a confessing mood, I confess this reminds me of Snoopy Cartoons where I think the girl would say to the others sometimes, “Be of good cheer”, and it was almost a cynical mocking  phrase. At first sight (and this just reveals my ignorance) this seems a little glib, and yet I know the apostle Paul doesn’t do glib. So what does he mean? Does he mean be happy all the time? What is the background of this word ‘joyful’?

Intriguingly in the Law, speaking of the Feast of Tabernacles, the Lord says through Moses, Be joyful at your Feast,” (Deut 16:14) and then “For the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.” (Deut 15:15b) The first verse does seem to suggest happiness and merriment but the second verse seems to suggest that joy  can come in different levels and there is a level that is deeper, more meaningful, more prolonged.

But there is something in those verses that may become clearer with some other verses: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Mt 13:44) The joy or happiness came as a result of finding treasure. The joy or happiness or even merriment in the Deuteronomy verses comes as a result of feasting and the feasting comes as a result of a good harvest. Joy has a cause always. When the angel come to the shepherds after Jesus was born, he declared, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Lk 2:10) The joy within the good news was the arrival of the baby Jesus, the Saviour of the world.

After Jesus sent his disciples out, we read, “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Lk 10:17) Their joy was because they had tasted of the kingdom of God on the earth. When Jesus returned to his disciples after his resurrection we read, “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” (Lk 24:40,41) Their joy was because he was still alive.

At the Last Supper there is an apparently odd connection between love and joy: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (Jn 15:10,11) Jesus experienced joy as he kept his Father’s commands of love, and says we can have that same joy.

Now we need to pause to acknowledge that joy is greater than mere happiness. Although the two are almost the same, joy seems a form of happiness that has greater depth of origin and rises to greater height of expression. A dictionary definition of ‘joy’ is ‘a very glad feeling; great pleasure; delight.’  Joy bubbles out and comes from a well founded reason. When a baby is born we aren’t just happy, we are full of joy. When an athlete breaks a world record, they aren’t just happy, they are full of joy. When a football team scores the winning goal of a Cup Final, in the last minute, they aren’t just happy, they are full of joy.

So what is our joy, our very glad feeling, our delight?  It must be the realization of the wonder of our salvation. Within that must come, not only the knowledge of His saving grace that brought us to Himself, but the wonder of His Holy Presence within us and the fact that He is there for us and leading us into His perfect purposes for us. Whatever happens today, He will be there for me, working to bring good for me (Rom 8:28) and He will continue to do this until the day I die and go to be with Him for ever. If that knowledge doesn’t bring me joy it means either I haven’t yet appreciated the wonder of it all, or I have allowed the enemy to distract me with lies. Work on coming to an ever greater understanding of these things we’ve just said and when necessary (which is always) “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil and he will flee.” (Jas 4:7)

With the Spirit within, joy is part of our inheritance: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace.” (Gal 5:22) and “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Pet 1:8,9). This joy is not a surface, frothy happiness, but a deep-seated inexpressible and glorious ‘very glad feeling; great pleasure; delight,’ that comes from knowing Jesus, knowing God’s love for us, knowing the power and presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit within us.  Prophetically the Son declared about Creation, “I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” (Prov 8:30,31)  There was the Son, full of joy as he worked alongside the Father. Remember what we saw earlier, I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”  Jesus’ joy comes from working alongside the Father, doing what he sees the Father doing (Jn 5:17,19), working in perfect harmony. There is the model for us.

34. The Good Life

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 34 :  The Good Life

Eccles 3:12,13   I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil–this is the gift of God.

Sometimes there are verses that look so simple and straight forward that you wonder why bother with them, but which in fact speak of deep truths. I have that feeling about these two verses. As a Christian you might think these verses are too simplistic and miss out on all the potential of the Christian life but, I suggest, there are some foundational issues here that determine how we will reach out for all that potential.

Look at Solomon’s starting point: “I know there is nothing better….” This man with all his wisdom and all his experience pushes all of his great achievements aside and says, THIS is actually the best way; there is nothing better that this! Now that is quite startling and especially to the modern mind that gets caught up in learning, in personal development, in achievement, in wealth and in possessions – and actually falls short in all of those things. Here, says Solomon, is the starting point for the good life.

He starts by speaking of TWO things: “to be happy AND do good.” Happiness is the first goal Solomon puts before us and yet most of this book is about his failure to achieve it and, as we commented in a previous meditation, it is the elusive element of modern life. Yes, so much of modern life is spent searching for that thing and many of us settle for the externals that we conclude must be the nearest we can get to it: having a good salary, achieving fame, obtaining ‘things’, going out for meals and for entertainment. Now each of these things may be good in themselves but they do not guarantee happiness. Having a nice house, a partner who looks good, children who are doing well at school. Yes, all OK, but not guaranteed to bring happiness. Ultimately, he concludes at the end of the two verses, happiness is a gift of God or, we might say, comes to us from God when we have a relationship with Him. In fact if we don’t have a relationship with him, we may have all the trappings and all the externals, but true happiness will always evade us.

But then he says, secondly, that ‘doing good’ is the other thing we should be aiming for. But what is doing good? Is giving money to someone ‘doing good’? It may not be. Is working for a charity ‘doing good’?  No, it may be a self-centred job, done for no other reason that to get money to live. No, good isn’t about the outward working but the motivation behind it. Philosophers have debated whether anyone can truly do good for any other reason than self pleasure or self achievement. So how can we do good, and trust that it is good? The answer has to come with Solomon’s ending – it is a gift from God, or it comes as God guides us.

But then he goes on and says something that seems too simple: “that everyone may eat and drink.” This is the first of a second two part goal.  But doesn’t everyone eat and drink? Doesn’t everyone do this?  Those are very much Western questions born out of the assumption that food and drink is readily available, but that isn’t so everywhere in the world. So, yes, for us in the Western world, the vast majority of us will have food and drink, and even have it in abundance. In fact looking at excessive waistlines, some of us have too much and we’d do better to give some of it away to those who don’t have it.

But this is linked with, “and find satisfaction in all his toil.” We’ve already touched on this in previous verses. The former part that we’ve just briefly considered was so obvious that we almost thought it unnecessary to mention and the implication is that the latter part should be the same – that we get pleasure from our work. However, a simple examination of much work in the Western world reveals that this is far from the truth. Perhaps it is something that we have taken for granted: work is hard, work is unpleasant, but we have to do it. Well for many of us, we have to do it because we have set our sights on a very high standard of living. For some of us we have to do it because we have caught the waft of riches and we’ve been hooked. Many of us sacrifice family relationships for such ambition. Perhaps we need to check our priorities and look at our lives afresh and turn to God and ask for faith and vision to see another way.

Each of these four things – happiness, doing good, having sufficient supply and enjoying our work – is a gift from God. If we lack any or all of them, perhaps it is time to seek the Lord and ask for His wisdom to readjust our lives. The Bible is full of wisdom on how to live. If we disregard God’s design, in whatever way, it may be the reason that we are lacking any of these four things. Submission to God’s will is ultimately the crucial issue here, for did Jesus not promise, seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6:33) Disregard this at your own cost.

9. Pleasure

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 9 :  Pleasure

Eccles 2:1-3 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. “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine.

Pleasure features highly in our society in these early years of the twenty first century. Even the person on benefit so often seems to manage to buy drink, cigarettes and Sky TV. Going up the social scale, eating out has become far more common than thirty years ago when it was only the province of the rich. No longer. Fitness Clubs abound with members, Theme Parks are full in the holidays, flights abroad are packed as soon as the holidays come, house and garden makeovers are not uncommon. Oh no, pleasure activities play a large party of modern life in an affluent society. Almost certainly, more than at any previous time in history, pleasure activities are within the reach of large numbers of people. Ask around. In any one small area enquire how many people have travelled abroad or participated in some form of adventure activity – white water rafting, bungee jumping, pot holing, etc. etc. You’d be surprised. Yes there is the underclass where these things are mostly still out of reach, but for that biggest social block of all in the middle, those with some money, there you will find almost without thinking the attitude, the world is my oyster.

Solomon had been there before us. He had the money and the opportunity to test out pleasure. ‘Experience’ is the god of postmodernism, and having new experiences is the object of many Google searches. Solomon had all the experiences he could find. Let’s have a party, let’s have a banquet, let’s do….. whatever it was he had done it. Yes the wine had flowed among the privileged hangers on, and there had been much laughter, but afterwards, he felt jaded.  The media tell us that in Britain every weekend one million people take recreational drugs, but the one thing we do know about drugs is they wear off and we want some more. Last weekend’s buzz must be matched at least this weekend. In my pre-Christian days, I have stood in a pub throughout the evening watching people get more and more into an inebriated state where, so often, sickness is the consequence. Health statistics tell us that drink related illnesses are increasing. The also tell us that sex-related diseases are rampant. Pleasure, in whatever form, is having its kickback.

Possibly more than anything else we’ve covered in these meditations so far, I believe this pleasure seeking that Solomon speaks about, is applicable to our society. It is applicable in two ways. First there are, as I’ve already suggested, larger and larger numbers reaching out for the pleasures that are available in this day of relative affluence (although again statistics suggest that much of it is done on debt), but also there are larger and larger numbers who are desperately trying to cover up an inner emptiness, the same emptiness that Solomon revealed in this book. What does pleasure accomplish?” he asks us. A short term buzz, and then afterwards a variety of physical maladies and a flat feeling, a jaded feeling that remains – until the next time.

Now the thing about pleasure is that we are made for it. Have you ever realised how are bodies have been designed by God to have pleasurable experiences? Whether it be food, drink or whatever. God has given us a world of incredible provision with incredible variety, and given us the senses to enjoy it. Yet push God out of the frame and it all seems pointless. Searching after pleasure, in itself, is a pointless exercise. Solomon was right. Making pleasure your primary goal means that it is quickly devalued. Pleasure, it seems, is a bonus that God has given to your lives. It’s not supposed to be the primary goal, simply a bonus to all else. Wisdom is required to go with pleasure, for too much of a thing is clearly harmful – whatever the thing. Self-control is a vital characteristic if we are not to become jaded. Wisdom and self-control both come from God.

Pleasure without thankfulness is a greedy gorging. Thankfulness is the awareness of provision that is not to be taken for granted. Thankfulness recognises that God is the provider of all good things. So, next time you go out for a meal, be thankful. Next time you go away on holiday, be thankful.  Next time you go swimming, golfing, climbing, walking or whatever, be thankful.