I was born in New York state, but I grew up in Arizona back in the days when every non-Native American who lived there came from somewhere else. As a near-native Arizonan I knew all the desert survival techniques – they were taught to us in school and by the local media. Don’t camp in a dry wash. Don’t drive off on a scenic tour of the desert without notifying people where you’re going (this was in the pre-cell-phone era when such foolishness could end very badly). Always carry water with you. Stay away from Gila monsters. Don’t let your kids eat oleander leaves. Don’t put your shoes on until you’ve cautiously uprighted them and knocked any critters out. Every year accidents would befall snowbirds because they didn’t seem to realize that they weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto – they were in the Arizona DESERT. The newbs!
And then, I moved back East.
I’ll never forget the day I came home with a little bouquet of wildflowers I’d picked for my daughter. More botanically savvy than I, she saw the pretty leaves I’d used to fill out the bouquet and screamed, because I was handing her a bouquet graced with the lovely fall foliage of poison ivy.
My son nearly hurt himself laughing. He was born in Virginia.
So, who knew?? I thought the leaves made a nice background for the flowers! How could anything that attractive be poison ivy??
But it is true that a lot of things, like poison ivy in its autumnal glory, are attractive and at the same time something you definitely want to stay away from. Everyone who lives in my part of the country has to learn to watch out for poison ivy; you don’t want to tangle with it.
Some Christians view pleasure in the same light as poison ivy – you don’t want to tangle with it! It may seem fun, but it’ll come back to bite you in the rear! Doesn’t the Bible itself warn against pleasure? Even something as innocuous as taking a nap is lambasted in the book of Proverbs:
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man!
And look at the New Testament! The prime example is the apostle Paul, a man who by his own admission was no stranger to suffering!
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
And yet this same man who suffered so much confessed that “I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage!” You would think that that would hardly be necessary after all he’d been through, but he knew that indulging your senses puts you on the slippery slope to hell!
This is really not the majority Christian perspective on pleasure, however. Most Christians will tell you that while pleasure isn’t all sunshine and lollipops, but neither is it Gila monsters and oleander! The Bible does forbid certain “pleasures” that we might be tempted to commit, and your parents probably added their own prohibitions to that list (I know when I was a child, punching my sister sometimes seemed very tempting, and I was sure that I would enjoy it….) Some denominations present their congregations with pre-packaged judgments on various pleasures: certain things like drinking, smoking, dancing, playing cards and non-prescription drug use are to be avoided – they might give you pleasure, but God doesn’t want you doing that kind of thing. Other pleasures, though, like your hobbies and leisure-time activities, the way you spend your discretionary income, are between you and God. As C.S. Lewis put it:
He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least – sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working.
At the far end of the spectrum, there are Christians who go all the way to the “whooping-it-up” extreme, claiming that “liberty in Christ” means that they can indulge in anything their conscience allows (years ago I worked with a Baptist pastor and his wife who preached this) as long as the Bible does not explicitly forbid it. They believe that anyone who tries to warn them that they’re causing scandal is promoting works-righteousness.
As an Evangelical, I straddled two of these positions. I certainly believed in my “liberty in Christ,” but at the same time I took seriously the Biblical warning to avoid even the appearance of sin, and would curtail my pleasures accordingly even if they did not seem sinful to me. I attended a Baptist church that taught that it was sinful to drink alcohol or to smoke cigarettes; I was convinced that they were wrong on that, but I certainly did not want to scandalize my weaker brothers, and therefore I abstained. Basically, I had two lists in my head, “Bad Pleasures” and “Good Pleasures,” and every time I was confronted with a pleasure I mentally jotted it down on either the “Sure, Why Not?” list or the “Don’t Even Think About It” list, and attempted to behave accordingly. It was a constant sifting process, with many factors to be considered. It could get tiresome and somewhat confusing, especially when everyone I knew said that something I indulged in (like a glass of wine when I went out with my students after class) was on the “You did what??” list, while something I eschewed (like watching certain TV programs) was on the “Nothing wrong with that!” list, leading me to wonder if sinful humans were actually capable of assigning pleasures to the correct list in such subjective situations. Some pleasures weren’t easy to categorize. Some things fell into a gray zone. For a Christian who wanted to do the right thing, the whole decision-making process, with all its variables, was a perpetual headache.
And then I read St. Ignatius of Loyola, and was introduced to the Catholic perspective on pleasure:
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him. Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.
The genius of St. Ignatius’ “First Principle and Foundation” is that it boiled my never-ending decision-making process down to an elegantly simple “one desire and choice” – to want and to choose only that which is going to assist me in praising, reverencing and serving God, that I might save my soul.
The problem with our evaluation of “pleasure” is that it focuses on the pleasure, looking it over the way we examine a product before buying it. Is it shiny? Does it sparkle? It’s so soft! Wait till the neighbors get a load of this! The “First Principle and Foundation” insists that we get our eyes off the pleasure in question and focus on the Goal, and how to get there. Imagine a man trapped in a 10-foot-deep pit with no hope of rescue. What do you suppose he is coveting? Prestige? Riches? How about an 11-foot ladder?
He is focused on the goal.
Everything on the face of the earth was created for man to help him in attaining the incomparable End for which he is created. Therefore, categorizing certain created things as “pleasures” and then sorting them onto the “Yes, and often” list or the “I would NEVER” list obscures the actual objective. The real question is, will any given thing, pleasant or unpleasant, assist me in attaining the End for which I was created? If the answer is yes, then I must make every effort to avail myself of the assistance provided by that created thing. If the answer is no, then why would I pursue it? – even something as “good” as companionship or financial security, for “we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life.” These things are “good” or “bad” not in and of themselves, but only as they serve to bring us closer to the one matchless Goal….
Probably the most frightening attribute of members of my generation is that we have become “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” This has led many of us to repudiate God altogether, because sometimes it is seriously no fun following the Crucified One. Yet many of us continue to call ourselves by His Name while indulging in a debilitating love of “legitimate” pleasures, blind to the fact that we are living like evil stewards. We have given our hearts to an idol – sweet pleasure – and it is poisoning our relationship with God.
“Does this thing conduct me closer to God?” “Will this thing smooth the path to Heaven for me?” Truly, “there are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least,” but that is not the same as saying that those things are what I, here and now, need most to bring me closer to God. What I am used to viewing as a “legitimate” pleasure may be a great big bouquet of spiritual poison ivy, and what I think of as unpleasant, something to be avoided at all costs, may be essential to my sanctification. Good stewards put everything God sends them to profitable use, because they know that in the end there will be only one pleasure – eternal and incorruptible – and they will either possess it or forfeit it permanently. Good stewards plan accordingly, and they will not be caught napping when their Master returns.
On the memorial of the Holy Korean Martyrs
Deo omnis gloria!