Essay / Theology

The Problem of Pleasure: Why I Am a Christian

John Mark Reynolds, 2004.


Thanks to Craig Hazen, I was able to speak to a group of five thousand Christians at Biola. Here are my remarks.

The Problem of Pleasure

My daughter Jane is six, a very precocious six. She has formed a new club with her friends called The Hanging-Out Girls. When I asked her what this new club did she replied very patiently, “We hang-out.” What was main purpose of the club? She looked at me very seriously and said, “We seek our pleasures.”

That strikes me as a pretty fair description of what passes for American culture today. We are hanging-out boys and girls seeking our pleasures. There seems to be sense to the idea of living for pleasure and if we could stay six years old it might satisfy. But in watching even a six year old, I see too often a great gap between pleasure and what one really wants. Enjoyment often, even inevitably, leads not to more pleasure, but to disappointment. There is a giant gap between a momentary experience of pleasure and what our hearts demand. Our hearts demand a feast, but nature seems stingy.

C.S. Lewis was right when he pointed out the futility of finding joy in any object. Our culture of hanging-out moves from hedonistic joy to intellectual pleasures, but ends up cynical and jaded. It is no accident that the key word for our time may be, “Whatever.” Our forefathers could imagine that if they had more education, more property, more food, more of everything that they would be happy. We know now that this is rot. Many of us have gotten everything we wanted and know it is not enough. The gap between our pleasures and the objects that give us pleasure is one of the most difficult problems of our time. If atheists torment us with the problem of evil, then I would respond that they face a problem of pleasure. All of us are addicted to pleasure, but no pleasure satisfies. We have a need, but no way to meet it.

Atheism can only shrug and go on being disappointed. There is no final pleasure to be found in their world, all their joys are deceptions and illusions. If they had compelling arguments that forced me to believe that the universe that screams transcendent joy is a cheat and a fraud, then I would be forced to believe. Better a hard truth than a comfortable lie, but better still a comfortable truth! There is nothing wrong with looking with great care at the soul-less universe they have created. I have looked with care and discovered that a godless universe is a cheat and a fraud. Is this a relief? Of course, it is a relief, in one way. To some it is frightening to think there is an answer to their longing. The idea that there is a reason for pleasure means that our pleasures do not justify themselves. The fact that I enjoy it is not enough. If my pleasure has a natural goal, then I must seek that goal. That scares me while it also gives me hope for meaning. What is that meaning? My life tells me this: real pleasure cannot be found a thing.

Every child looks forward to Christmas, counting down the days. When Christmas comes, however good it is, it ends. It slips away. If one tries to hold on to it, then the pleasure falls away like the needles on the dying tree in the living room. Things cannot love back and so their joys are small and limited. Loving the man in the mirror avoids arguments, but it is the most barren relationship. Pleasure must end in personhood outside of self. Humans are persons and need the personal to achieve happiness. This is why Plato makes some of the great temptations of Symposium love of other men. This is better, higher, than loving a thing, but it too disappoints. Love does not justify itself. Who has not experienced the pain that can result from confusing a lesser love for the greater?

At this point it is tempting to pull back from personal love. Perhaps we were too hasty. Could we not love ideas? What if we sought the Good? Philosophy, the love of wisdom, at first seems an answer to our longing for pleasure. Ideas are eternal and they seem, somehow, more fit for love than any human being. And it is so, but ideas cannot love us back. They are distant from us, more distant than the stars. Philosophy for its own sake is empty, a journey with no destination. When they tell you the joy is in the journey, don’t go. What kind of trip advertises itself this way? Only a voyage with a horrid end has to find all of its pleasure in the trip. The philosopher taking pleasure only in his own thoughts is likely headed for Hell where he can be alone with his thinking forever. So I seem to need an odd thing. I need an Idea and a person. In Plato’s language, my need seems to be for a divine person, but any god worthy of worship seems so distant. I could never reach him in my own self. God is ineffable, or He would not be enough.

Where can I find a divine idea that is a person who is knowable? Thanks be to God, it is not difficult. Every church shouts the answer to me. The great idea, the Word, became flesh and was in our midst. He is a man. He is god. He is Good, True, and Beautiful, but fully a person. Here is the answer to every problem, the person to which every transient pleasure points. God can be known, not in His essence, but in the Incarnation of His Son.

If Christianity is true, then all my life, all your life, will end in a vision of spectacular beauty. We will be able to see God in the person of Jesus Christ. We will behold His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. For some the beauty they see in that place will be too great. They will have spent their entire lives pursuing small pleasures and confusing them with the real thing. Only a foolish motorist would camp out next to the sign on Route 5 that says Disneyland, confusing it for the real thing. However, in this life millions may that confusion every day. Every pleasure is a signpost pointing to the source of all pleasure, but we worship the sign. Such humans never make their goal and in fact shake their fist at God for His alleged cruelty. “The sign said Pleasure,” they cry. “How could you cheat us?” And so a good God who invited them to a party, a place where they could be changed, where Adam’s sin could be removed, is blamed. Of course, He is not insecure. He receives their words with sorrow only because they have cheated themselves of great joy. Those who will despite all warnings worship the signs over the destination will be given all the joy they can handle. As Dante points out, Hell is God’s great mercy on men. They have made themselves incapable of receiving any but the childish joys. They demand these joys for themselves, so they receive them in full measure. In Hell they get exactly what they want forever. If ever they could want more, then it would be given to them, but death has come upon them suddenly and they are frozen in their pettiness and small minded error.

Many of us have been delivered from self. Our errors compounded themselves until we were forced to see that the signposts could not satisfy. My own life was a long series of stupidities as I stumbled from one love to another hoping to quench the longing of my soul. Yet Sunday School had told me many times that there would be no rest for me here. How I wanted that to be wrong. When old saints of God said, “Jesus is coming soon,” I would shudder with dread, since it meant I would never get married and experience the pleasures that come with that state. There was so much I thought was good that though I mouthed the platitudes, they were unreal to me. I would have gotten a quiz right if it asked me if Jesus was the only source of pleasure and happiness, but I did not really believe it, not yet. In my wasted twenties, having harmed myself and others, I finally got the message. And oddly, having given up hope of joy in this life, I began to find it.

There is nothing wrong with the lesser pleasures when placed in their proper order. If we will worship a thing and make it an idol, then we will destroy it and ourselves. However, if we can find the source of all pleasure, the Person to which the lesser pleasures point, then all the old joys are given back to us. Of course, one the messages of pleasure is that it exists, but also that its end, its goal, is not yet. Even Christianity does not solve the problem here and now, it just gives it context. The pleasures point forward. The journey has an end, but it is not yet! So my heart longs for the Heavenly City that I know is coming and my hope that it comes quickly. The signs of the times are there as ever. If Christians have been too quick to predict the coming of the Lord to rule in Jerusalem at least now we can understand why. As the years past the signs multiply and the joy increases. Like the day before a wedding.

As she grew older my grandmother, a woman given to visions and a close walk with Jesus, slipped ever more easily between this world and the next. By the time she died, she was more than ready to go for she mostly lived in Paradise. Heavenly beings would appear to speak to her and it was good. The voyage has an end and she knew it. All the real joys of her life had pointed her to the moment of death. It was not an undiscovered country to her, because she had gotten to know One who had been there and returned. It was her country and it was good. So she slipped away and her going was painful to us who still do not see with her clarity, but Tonight, gathered here under the stars, we are given a chance to introduce our friends to this source of all joy, Jesus Christ. Using modern technology, we will gain a tool to point those we love past self to True Self.

The time is not far away when we will enter into His joy, either through His visible return or our own death. Either that joy will consume us or liberate us. Either we will be driven away from home by our own lusts or come home at last to find ourselves and all our hearts true longings. There is Lover who will never fail us, a King who will return and set all to rights. He is the meaning behind every fairy tale and every day dream. His name is Jesus Christ and He existed not just in our hopes, but in deed. He and His City are all around us, within us. It requires merely a shift in our thinking to see the glory that is all there, all around us. Jesus Christ stands ready to fill us with His joy. Almost your neighbor can see Him, even in the pleasures he misuses. As one of my grandparents lay dying, he began to hear the bells of Heaven. “Can you hear them?” he asked my mother. His face was transfigured and changed despite the ugliness of that hospital room. He had found the source of all joy. And that is the question I ask you tonight, “In your heart, can you hear the joyous peal of the heavenly greeting?” Like my daughter seek your pleasure! He is near, He is coming. At any moment, for you, the stars may be dimmed and Heaven open up to you. If you know Him, tell others quickly. He is always at the door of every human heart waiting to enter. Just on the other side of this thought is eternal joy. Look up, your redemption draws nigh!

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