Mark Barry | Sep 22nd, 2008

Last week, I posed the question: should we as Christians go with the flow of our culture and soak up as much pleasure as we possibly can?

Let’s explore that option in a little more depth: the pursuit of loving pleasure.

Defining hedonism

This is the pagan approach or to give it a name, ‘hedonism’. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a hedonist is someone who ‘passionately pursues pleasure and sensual indulgence’. So life becomes all about maximising pleasure, gratifying desires and indulging the senses. It’s about knowing what makes you feel good and grabbing it with both hands; bubble-wrapping your life from pain with the anesthetic of pleasure. Paul calls these people in 2 Timothy 3:4 ‘lovers of pleasure’ and Jesus describes them in Matthew 6:24-34 as pagans chasing after food, drink and clothes.

Practising hedonism

We don’t have to look far to find examples in our culture. Magazines, TV, advertising all mass-marketed lifestyle propaganda, with the subtle message: the key to happiness is pleasure. I read this on the back of a hot chocolate packet last week:

You know you want me. You want to hold me. You want to have me to yourself and indulge in my West African and Ecuadorian ways. I am yours. Don’t fight it. Resistance is futile. Surrender to your senses.

I know it’s tongue-in-cheek, but this packaging taps into a whole materialistic ethos on life. If there’s only what we can see, touch, feel, then surrender to your senses! Live it up, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.

Happiness is the great food you eat, the expensive wine you drink, the sexy brands you wear. Money is for plasma-screens and holidays. People are objects to gratify our own desires. Relationships are distant to avoid getting hurt. Happiness is found at the bottom of a glass at the saddest hour of all: ‘happy hour’. Maximum pleasure and minimum pain.

I think we really feel the weight of this as Christians in our country, don’t we? I’ve spent most of my life living as a hedonist and I still really struggle with it, thinking that pleasure can solve all my problems. Surrendering to your senses is a very powerful idea, to want to fill the emptiness, the void in our lives with pleasure. Its attractive because it’s so immediate: instant gratification. I want it all and I want it now!

Even King Solomon tried it on for size. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon says to his heart: ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself’ (2:1). Then he rattles off his check list of pleasurable pursuits: laughter, wine, real estate, possessions, entertainment, sex, concluding: ‘whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure.’ (2:10).

Evaluating hedonism

So how do evaluate hedonism? What’s Solomon’s verdict?

Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 2:11, ‘Behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.’ Solomon had it all – power, riches, pleasure - and still it wasn’t enough!

And secretly I think most of us know this is true. Nothing really satisfies. No matter how great the meal tasted last night, you’re still hungry in the morning. No matter how exciting the casual sex was, you’re still hollow and empty the next day.

Whatever was exciting at first, quickly loses its shine and buzz. (This is apparently called ‘habituation’ by psychologists.) Lindt chocolate has become the minimum standard of chocolate. The iPod and Xbox are so like 2005, when now everyone has an iPhone and a Wii. Porn has to become more degrading and debased to be as thrilling as the first time. Even skydiving (apparently) can become boring the 2000th-time around.

Loving pleasure, in and of itself, doesn’t work. It doesn’t satisfy. In fact the more we seek satisfaction in pleasure itself, the more dissatisfied we actually become. No matter what we try, we’re always left wanting more.

Solomon writes a little later in Ecclesiastes that God has ‘set eternity into the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to the end.’ (3:11). There’s a universal quest to find something that will satisfy us forever. But we’re always left empty. We have a God-shaped chasm in us; a thirst, a hunger for something that pleasure itself can never fill.

God says this about his people in Jeremiah: ‘they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.’ (2:12-13). Trying to replace God with pleasure is like turning your back on an everlasting waterfall of fresh, satisfying, life-giving water and drinking from a stale and leaking toilet. That’s what dogs do! Its stupid – isn’t it?

What’s more its idolatry, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 1, its exchanging the truth about God for a lie and worshipping the created thing -pleasure - rather than the creator who designed it. And as Paul says in 2 Timothy 3, have nothing to do with a godless love of pleasure. Loving pleasure in place of God is a dismal failure. It’s a vanishing mirage that never satisfies.

So where are we to go?

Stayed tuned until next week.