Friday, October 10, 2014

Pleasure - a Christian approach

'...but she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth'  (1 Timothy 5.6)

Christians, historically, have had a reputation for looking with disdain at pleasure.  But, is it really true that the orthodox Christian teaching is that all pleasure is sin?   No.  What has been the consistent teaching of Christians on this subject is that pleasure, particularly physical pleasure (and, to a certain extent spiritual pleasure), is that there are dangers involved in the experience.

There is a difference between recognising the hazards of pleasure and condemning pleasure. If Christian teaching was that pleasure was sinful, then we would be taught to feel guilty about it.  But that is not taught.  What is taught is that Christians should beware of the spiritual dangers involved when we feel pleasure.  For every Christian's 'old nature' can and does exploit pleasure to strengthen itself at the expense of our 'new nature'.  Even spiritual pleasure can be risky, since the sinful nature will take times when such pleasure is absent to build a case against the new nature as a 'buzz kill' and a joyless waste of time that could have been spent in 'dissipation and drunkenness'.

But the dangers of physical pleasure to the soul are more common.  In the developed world today, more physical pleasure is available than ever before.  Thus today's Christian should treat pleasure with even more caution than ever before.  If we don't then the current deplorable situation we see today among Christians will be the story of our personal life.   According to a recent survey, 50% of Christian men (and 20% of Christian women) are addicted to pornography (!) No wonder Christian divorce rates are the same, or higher, than the divorce rate among unbelievers.  Christians are falling victim to alcoholism at an alarming rate.  Obesity, and its consequent health damage, is epidemic among Christians, far more so than among people of any other religion.  Internet and video-game addictions are robbing Christians of whole periods of their lives that they can never get back.   As St. James would put it, 'My brethren, these things ought not to be so'.

This is why Christians have historically treated pleasure as they have - because we have always had the same human tendencies to take God-given experiences of pleasure and ruin them by letting our sinful natures take over.  What St. Augustine in his writings called 'voluptuousness' is what Christians today might call 'addiction' to pleasures that make our old nature so strong and well-fed that our new natures are unnecessarily crippled as a result.

'...You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore'  (Psalm 16.11).

St. James did say, 'Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights...' (James 1.17)  Pleasure is one of those gifts.  Plenty of Scripture testifies to the fact that God has created - and Himself experiences - pleasure.  Jesus knew that people saw '...the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' (Luke 7:34).  A far larger body of devotional literature and hymns written by Christians also testifies to the positive side of pleasure.  A great Lutheran chorale has the title 'Jesus has Come and Brings Pleasure Eternal' (LSB 533 - tune: Jesus ist kommen, grund ewiger Freude).

The key to understanding the Christian view of pleasure is the distinction between Heaven and Earth. On this Earth we have pleasure - but mixed with danger.  In Heaven we shall have pleasure 'pure and free from sin's alloy' - to borrow a phrase from William Dix.  Then, in immediate and full communion with God, and His heavenly host, as Paul Gerhardt put it in his great Eastertide chorale 'Auf, Auf, Mein Herz mit Freuden!':  'He brings me to the portal that leads to bliss untold.  Whereon this rhyme immortal is found in script of gold: "who there my cross has shared, finds here a crown prepared.  Where there with Me has died shall here be glorified'.

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