Is there any point to pleasure?

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
    I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
    and this was the reward for all my toil.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
    and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
    nothing was gained under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 2: 10-11

I was reminded of this over the summer. It was a gloriously hot afternoon, so my family and I walked down to the seaside and spent some time playing on the beach. After a while I became thirsty, so my wife handed me one of those little cartons of apple juice. I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried to satisfy your thirst on one of those cartons but it seemed to me about as satisfying as licking a wet rock. Two sips and it was gone.

The pursuit of pleasure is just like that for the Teacher. He says, “Listen, I’ve denied my heart no pleasure,” but realises it’s no more satisfying than a carton of apple juice. No matter how much he has,  it leaves the same feeling: “I wish I had more. I wish I could keep hold of it, could sustain the pleasure.” But he can’t. There’s nothing to grab hold of. It’s just vapour.

So what is his problem? Look at the beginning and the end of this chapter, where we see parallel phrases in verses 2 and 11. In verse 2 he says, “‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?’”. In verse 11 he says, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

He’s pursued pleasures of every kind, but, at the end of the day, what does it actually do? What does it leave him with? What does it accomplish? And the answer to that is… well… nothing.

Have you ever wondered why Hollywood movie stars, who make more with one movie than we earn in our lifetime, go on making more movies? Wouldn’t you at least be tempted to just pack it in right there and then, and do whatever you wanted for the rest of your life? But they don’t. They carry on. Why? People want to know that they’ve done something with their lives. It’s not just about making money, it’s about achieving something. One of the big problems with pursuing pleasure, one of the things that make it such vapour, is that at the end of the day we haven’t achieved anything.

“Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done,” the Teacher says in verse 11, “and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was vapour, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

Notice those parallel statements: “What does pleasure accomplish?” and “Nothing was gained.” There’s the answer to the question. A life spent pursuing and holding on to pleasure will gain nothing.

What is so helpful about Ecclesiastes is that it not only reminds us that we will be tempted to find meaning in pleasure, it also tells us why. Behind the impulse to indulge in pleasure in sinful or sinfully excessive ways is the yearning we have to create lasting experience in a world of transience. We don’t want the feeling of pleasure to end, so we keep going back to the websites, the bars, the bottles, the lovers and the television series until we find ourselves in slavery to them.

No, the purpose of pleasure can never be pleasure itself. Rather the point of all of the temporary gifts of pleasure we enjoy should point us to the giver of those gifts. He alone can satisfy our desire for lasting pleasure because He alone is eternal. As the Psalmist writes,

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Psalm 16:11

 

Advertisements

Can you be a churchless Christian?

No.

Let me explain.

Normally when you hear this question, the answer goes something like this:

“Yes you can be a Christian and not go to church because being a Christian is not about religion but about having a relationship with Jesus. You don’t have to earn your relationship with Jesus, he gives it to you as a free gift. So technically you can b​e a Christian but you really should go to church.”

This explanation is usually followed up by an illustration of how lumps of coal, when plucked from the fire, grow cool or how sticks, when bundles together, are stronger.

These sentiments, although a bit cliché, are nevertheless true. However, they can also distort our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN?

First of all, the phrase “relationship with Jesus” is misleading because everyone has a relationship with Jesus. Not all relationships are healthy or positive. Some people may have a relationship with Jesus Christ as their enemy but they still have a relationship with him, and even a personal one.

The question we need to ask isn’t so much whether or not we have a relationship with Jesus but what kind of relationship with Him is unique to the Christian?”

The briefest summary I can think of is that a Christian is someone who relates to Jesus Christ as their King, Saviour, and Treasure.

If Jesus is our King, who commands us and leads us, then that would show itself in our lives through and attitude of obedience. If we truly understand that Jesus has saved us from our sins then gratitude and repentance will be present. If we have come to see that knowing Christ renders all else rubbish in comparison then we will long to walk closely with him and grow in our knowledge of him.

Putting aside for a moment the handful of exceptional circumstances where joining a church is simply not possible (such as being stranded alone on a desert island), let us look at what makes it so difficult to reconcile “churchless Christianity” with the Bible.

It begins with the way we think of our churches.

WHAT IS A LOCAL CHURCH?

A local church is not simply the collective noun for a group of Christians: A swarm of bees, a school of fish, a church of Christians…

If two or three Christians go play golf together they are not a church.

Rather, a church is the gathering together of Christians in Jesus’ name in order to worship God and encourage one another through the ministry of the Word.

There is more to say on this about elders, discipline and the sacraments, but for now, I merely want to point out that by “church” the Bible does not mean a trip to the local coffee shop, cinema or football game with another Christian.

So how does this definition of church affect our claim to follow Jesus?

OBEDIENCE TO OUR KING

Can we really claim to have sworn obedience to our King and yet disobey his clear instruction that we should not give up meeting together?

All of us fail in our obedience and trust in his grace to forgive us. That is a very different to constantly and deliberately ignoring his explicit commands without repentance.

This is not to mention the many implicit problems churchlessness creates for our claims of obedience. The commands to love one another, submit to the elders, participate in the Lord’s Supper together are all placed in jeopardy by our simple refusal to commit to a local church family.

TRUST IN OUR SAVIOUR

Likewise, can we really claim to have put our trust in Jesus to save us if we do not love to join together with the church?

Jesus not only reconciled us to God but to one another as well. To be saved is to be brought into the Body of Christ by the blood of Christ. Ignoring the local Body of believers, and yet claiming to believe that Jesus saved you, makes little sense when one considers that the church is what we have been saved for.

LOVE FOR OUR TREASURE

Jesus told his disciples that whenever two or more gathered in his name (local church), he would be with them. Jesus is especially present with his people when they are gathered together, just as he is present among the lampstands in Revelation.

If I claim to love Jesus why on earth would I not want to be where he is? If I love Jesus then my place is with his people who gather in his name. If I have no interest in being in His presence with His people…well, it doesn’t sound right does it.

Save me from my enemies?

Psalm 3 English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.

Lord, how many are my foes!
    Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
    there is no salvation for him in God. Selah
But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,
    my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the Lord,
    and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
I lay down and slept;
    I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
    who have set themselves against me all round.
Arise, O Lord!
    Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
    you break the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the Lord;
    your blessing be on your people! Selah

David was going through a rough time. His own son sought to depose him from the throne and even murder him. That cannot be easy.  Understandably, even admirably, he cries out to God for salvation from his enemies.

But how many Christians, in the West at least, would say that they have “enemies”? Should Christians even have enemies?

Given that this comes up in the Psalms pretty often I thought should probably think it through otherwise I’m going to have these questions assaulting me every morning.

So here are a few enemies that every Christian will encounter in their sojourn through this life.

Enemy 1: The World

The “world” is the word used by the Bible to describe humanity in its rebellion against God. It is the current of human culture moving away from God toward all kinds of evil. It is hard to swim against the current all the time. Sometimes we may experience this in general ways. For example, we may struggle against temptation to indulge in pornography or to believe that science is more trustworthy than God’s Word. Sometimes the enemy of the world takes a more personal form: a work colleague who openly ridicules your faith; a friend who begins to hate you because you cannot condone their actions; an extremist who threatens you and your family because you are a Christian; a senseless act of crime that leaves you reeling in shock.

Enemy 2: Your Sinful Nature

The ever-present enemy for Christians is the enemy within. Our own sinful nature is what makes the world tempting to us in the first place. But it doesn’t leave us alone when we come home from work or switch off the computer. It is an incessant urging within us to disobey God and act selfishly.

Enemy 3: The Devil

Satan and demons are still a reality in our world. I know it seems silly to believe in that these days but if we begin to buy into that then we are in real trouble. The devil is real and so is the threat he presents to health of Christians. True, he will not triumph in the end. True, he is under God’s authority even now. But he is still a prowling lion ready to devour.

Enemy 4: Other Christians

What struck me about this Psalm is that the enemy in David’s mind was not worldliness, or Satan or even his own sin. Rather His enemy was his son Absalom, who was his own family and even his own faith. To use the contemporary equivalent, Absalom went to church with David.

The influence of the world, the sinful nature and the devil on Christians means that from time to time we will be opposed in our lives and faith by other believers. It may be because they are not truly born again. It may be that they are true Christians behaving sinfully. Most of the time, these are the enemies that hurt us most.

And yes, it means that you and I are not immune to the possibility of being the enemy either.

Cry Out to God for Salvation

If you’re a little overwhelmed at the prospect of all of these foes then hopefully you will also see how wonderfully relevant this prayer is to all of us. The only one who can save us from these enemies is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God’s sustaining power and protection alone can give us peace in the face of those who oppose us and seek to harm us. This is especially true for believers living on this side of the cross because we have seen God’s triumph over his enemies through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Salvation, from beginning to end, belongs to the Lord. Cry out to Him.

When we shake our fists at God

Psalm 2 English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

2 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

What fascinates me about those who claim to be atheists is how much anger they have toward God. Most recently, this has been demonstrated by British celebrity Stephen Fry here, but perhaps more famously by Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchins. It fascinates me because anger toward God is not the emotion that I expect from someone who says that there is no God. I can understand apathy, or even ridicule, but not anger. I think this Psalm provides an explanation as to why it is that there are so many angry atheists in the world: the real motivator behind claims of disbelief is not science or intellect or morality but rebellion. The real reason for unbelief and disobedience is treason against the Creator.

This applies as much to the Christian as to the atheist. What grieves me most is that despite my conviction that Jesus is the rightful King of all creation, there still exists a part of me that would see His throne toppled and my own established in its place. This desire triumphs every time I choose to disobey his Word. Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

We need to recognise the rightful rule of the Creator over our lives. To do this we need to give allegiance to the King he has appointed: Jesus Christ. God has established the rule of His Son and no amount of fist-shaking can do anything about that. Yet to all who do fear Him, who do submit to Him he is also a refuge. The same King who lovingly rules over us, also forgives us our treasonous acts and offers us grace and mercy.

O God, help me to see the futility and arrogance of my rebellion against you. Help me surrender all to the service of King Jesus. Help me to know that my treason is forgiven in His name.