What’s your pleasure?” was, and is, a humane and courteous question, for bestowing pleasure is one facet of gracious living. Groucho Marx’s brutal and discourteous answer (“Women. What’s yours?”) shows you why my mother would never let me see any of the Marx Brothers’ films; it also shows why and how pleasure becomes a moral problem. Pursuing pleasure can lead one sadly astray.

What does Scripture say to us about our pleasures? Does it, as some imagine, tell us to give them all up, as having no place in holy living? Certainly not! Scripture favors pleasure—“I commend the enjoyment of life,” says the wise man (Eccles. 8:15)—and only forbids surrender to it as a lifestyle. But this has become an area of real difficulty for Christians in our day.

Since World War II, the West has grown affluent. Society now practices and promotes spending rather than saving, self-indulgence rather than self-discipline or self-improvement, and amusement at all costs. Amusing Ourselves to Death is the telling title of Neil Postman’s 1985 assessment of American television: the same grim phrase might be used to describe the behavior that has led to the AIDS epidemic.

The ideology of pleasure is, in fact, global and has been so throughout history. To treat pleasure as a self-justifying value, and to run all sorts of risks and embrace all sorts of folly in order to get it, was always the way of the world. The modern West is simply doing this more blatantly than poorer communities are able to do, or than it could itself do in earlier times. Here, as elsewhere, there is nothing new under the sun.

Hedonism enthroned

The philosophical name for the vision of life that we are looking at is hedonism. Hedonism means enthroning pleasure as life’s supreme value and therefore as a goal everyone should pursue directly. Hedonism says, in effect, that pleasure-seeking is the height of wisdom and virtue, and that maximizing others’ pleasure is the highest service we can render them. Popular Western culture is increasingly hedonist, and modern Christians are constantly exposed to its brainwashing influences, especially perhaps through the media (“Oprah,” “Geraldo,” game shows, soaps, and so forth) and the endless inflamings of desire crafted by the advertising industry.

That God wants us all to be pain-free and happy, right now; that total satisfaction is what Jesus offers, right now; that present healing of bodily discomforts is available to us all, right now; that it is a good and godly thing to dismiss a spouse with whom one is not perfectly happy and marry someone else; that it is a good and godly thing to engage in genital homosexual behavior, if that gives you positive pleasure—all of these hedonistic notions have become familiar in the church in recent years. That leisure is entirely for pleasure and that improving one’s lifestyle means simply increasing one’s pleasures are unchallenged axioms not only in contemporary advertising, but are unquestioned assumptions among many professed Christians as well. There is a major problem here, for hedonism runs radically contrary to the Christian scale of values.

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Recently the phrase Christian hedonism has gained prominence as a tag for the truth that the God who promises his people joy and delight in their relationship with him, both here and hereafter, does, in fact, fulfill his promise here and now. Christian hedonism speaks a word in season as a corrective of what we may call “Christian anti-hedonism”—the view that pleasure has no place in godly living, that God will always want us to do what we least want to do, and that the real Christian life on earth will always be, in Churchillian phrase, blood, toil, tears, and sweat—in short, sustained heroic misery.

In itself, however, Christian hedonism is not a good phrase for its purpose; for it seems to say that rating pleasure as life’s supreme value is something that Christianity itself teaches us to do, and that is not so.

Biblical Christianity does not teach that any pleasure or good feelings, or any form of present ease and contentment, should be sought as life’s highest good. What it teaches, rather, is that glorifying God by our worship and service is the true human goal, that rejoicing and delighting in God is central to worship, and that the firstfruits of our heritage of pleasures for evermore will be given us as we set ourselves to do this; but should we start to seek pleasure rather than God, we would be in danger of losing both. It is apparent that this is what the exponents of Christian hedonism do themselves think, so my difficulty with them is limited to their choice of words. Real hedonism must be avoided.

How should Christians react to a culture that is so set as ours on pursuing pleasure? Merely to emphasize work rather than leisure, activity rather than rest, and austerity rather than delight is not good enough. This has been done, and the results of doing it are evident all around us. Such teaching turns some Christians into workaholics while leading others to live with a split mind, not relating their enjoyments to their devotions but behaving as if their pleasures are their own business after work is over and have nothing to do with God. How many late-night pizza-poppers, Coke-guzzlers, and sports-watchers among God’s people thank God for these relaxing delights? A positive theology of pleasure, showing its proper place in a holy life, is what we need and lack. Here, in outline, I propose one.

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God’s pleasure garden

What is pleasure? Webster defines it as “the gratification of the senses or of the mind; agreeable sensations or emotions; the feeling produced by enjoyment or the expectation of good.” Like joy, it is a gift of God, but whereas joy is basically active (one rejoices), pleasure is basically passive (one is pleased). The chemistry of it is that morphinelike endorphins flood the brain, producing a euphoric glow at conscious level. Pleasures are feelings—feelings of stimulation or of tensions relaxed in the body, of realizations of something good in the mind, or of realized mastery in some performance or exercise of skill.

Pleasure belongs to God’s plan for humankind. As God himself takes pleasure in being God and in doing what he does, so he means human beings to find pleasure in being his. Adam and Eve’s state was all pleasure before they sinned (Eden, God’s pleasure-garden, pictures that), and when the redemption of Christians is complete, pleasure—total, constant, and entire—will have become their permanent condition.

Never again will they hunger;

never again will they thirst.

The sun will not beat upon them,

nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb … will be their shepherd;

he will lead them to springs of living water.

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev. 7:16–17, NIV)

Thus the words of Psalm 16:11, “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand,” and Psalm 36:8, “You give them drink from your river of delights,” will find fulfillment. God values pleasure, both his and ours, and it is his pleasure to give us pleasure as a fruit of his saving love.

Saints and sadists

Pleasure is Janus-faced: as a human reality it may be good and holy, or it may be sinful and vile. This is not because of the nature of the pleased feeling itself, for that in itself is morally neutral; it is because of what produces it and what goes with it. Do saints find pleasure in praising God? Yes. Do sadists get pleasure from hurting people? Yes again.

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If pleasure comes unsought, and if we receive it gratefully as a providential gift, and if it does no damage to ourselves or to others, and if it involves no breach of God’s laws, and if the delight of it prompts fresh thanksgiving to God, then it is holy. But if the pursuit of one’s pleasure is a gesture of egoism and self-indulgence whereby one pleases oneself without a thought as to whether one pleases God or anyone else, then, however harmless in itself the pleasure pursued may be, one has been entrapped by what the Bible sees as the pleasures of the world and of sin (see Luke 8:14; 2 Tim. 3:4; Titus 3:3; Heb. 11:25; James 4:3; 5:5; 2 Pet. 2:13). The same experience—eating, drinking, making love, listening to music, painting, playing games, or whatever—will be good or bad, holy or unholy, depending on how it is handled.

In the order of creation, pleasures as such are meant to serve as pointers to God. Pleasure-seeking in itself sooner or later brings boredom and disgust, as the wise man testifies (Eccles. 2:1–11). Appreciating pleasures as they come our way, however, is one mark of a reverent, God-centered heart. A Jewish rabbi is credited with affirming that, on the day of judgment, God will hold us accountable for any neglect we have shown of pleasures he provided.

Christian teachers have insisted that contempt for pleasure, far from demonstrating superior spirituality, is actually an expression of the Manichean heresy (the view that the material world and everything it yields have no value and are indeed evil) and a manifestation of spiritual pride. Pleasure is divinely designed to raise our sense of God’s goodness, deepen our gratitude to him, and strengthen our hope as Christians looking forward to richer pleasure in the world to come.

Escaping the pleasure grip

This truth about pleasure was not fully grasped in the first Christian centuries. The Greco-Roman world that the early church confronted was in the grip of a frenzied pleasure-seeking mentality, with overeating, drunkenness, and sexual shenanigans as preferred amusements, just like today; so it is no wonder that the early church fathers spent more time attacking sinful pleasures than celebrating godly ones, nor that this perspective was carried into the Middle Ages, in which the world-renouncing asceticism of the monastery was thought of as the highest form of Christianity. But through the Reformers’ and the Puritans’ appreciation of God’s grace and insistence on the sanctity of secular life, the biblical theology of pleasure finally broke surface.

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John Calvin states it best. In his Institutes, in a chapter entitled “How We Should Use This Present Life and Its Helps,” he warns against the extremes of both overdone austerity and overdone indulgence. He affirms that not to use for pleasure those created realities that afford pleasure is ingratitude to the Creator. At the same time, however, he enforces Paul’s admonition not to cling to sources of pleasure since we may one day lose them (1 Cor. 7:29–31); and he recommends moderation—that is, deliberate restraint—in availing ourselves of pleasures, lest our hearts be enslaved to them and we become unable cheerfully to do without them.

It is ironic that Calvin, who is so often considered the embodiment of gloomy austerity, should actually be a masterful theologian of pleasure. It is no less ironic that the Puritans, whose public image is of professional killjoys (H. L. Mencken defined Puritanism as the haunting fear that somewhere, somehow, somebody may be happy), should have been the ones who have insisted again and again that, in the words of Isaac Watts, their leading songster, “Religion never was designed / To make our pleasures less.” And it is supremely ironic that, after two millennia of Christian culture, the West should now be plunging back into a self-defeating hedonism that is horribly similar to the barbaric pagan lifestyle of the first century, while decrying the Christian religion as basically antihuman because it does not set up pleasing oneself as life’s highest value. But the wisdom about pleasure that Calvin voiced nearly five centuries ago remains basic to authentic Christian living, in this or any age.

James I. Packer is Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Systematic Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. This article is adapted from an essay in God and Culture: Essays in Honor of Carl F. H. Henry, edited by D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Eerdmans, 1993).

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