Temporary and Lasting Pleasure

I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.’ But that also proved to be meaningless. ‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?’ I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly – my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.

Ecclesiastes 2: 1-3

The Teacher turns to pleasure as he begins his search for lasting satisfaction. “I thought in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.’ But that also proved to be meaningless (or vapour). ‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?’ I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly – my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.’”

What he does, in his attempt to find something lasting, is turn to the party atmosphere. It’s the sort of hedonistic attitude that believes that having a good time, all the time, will provide us with a lasting sense of meaning. But he discovers that it doesn’t last. It doesn’t work.

Advertising often tries to convince us that, by buying a particular product, we can improve our lifestyle. Going along with it is a form of escapism. Sports, entertainment and TV, all potentially good in themselves, often seem to be more about shutting our ears to the things we don’t want to hear about – like God, or death. In the same way, drinking and partying can numb us to reality, even if only for a short time. As the saying goes, drinking leaves you as empty as the bottle afterwards. And it’s true, isn’t it? Countless celebrities and other famous people seemingly have everything, and yet they still have a void to fill. They turn to drink, to drugs and to fame to fill it, but all they do is ruin their lives.

As David Hubbard says bluntly, “[Pleasure’s] advertising agency is better than its manufacturing department … one drink, one sexual fling, one contest won, one project accomplished, one wild party – none of these, nor all of them put together, can be enough to bring satisfaction.”

Living for pleasure, whether through drink, drugs, gambling, sex, money, fame, adulation, or success inevitably leads to an addictive need for more and more to feel satisfied. But it never does satisfy! When these things become idols to us, or when they are pursued without regard for God, they bring disappointment and emptiness.

And it is important to realise that this is not only a warning to the godless. Christians are not automatically immune from making an idol out of pleasure. Some Christians are addicted to drink, drugs and pornography. Some waste hours of their lives following television series after television series. Christians – including pastors – were numbered amongst those exposed as potential adulterers by the Ashley Maddison website leak. Sadly, we have grown very comfortable in the West with its culture of prosperity and indulgence.

Christians seek pleasure as much as anyone else, but the difference is that we should know where genuine lasting pleasure is to be found – in Christ alone. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of our struggle as Christians. Will we live for fleeting pleasure now, in this world, or will we live for eternal pleasure later, in the world to come?

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STILL HAVEN’T FOUND WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR?

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.                                                                                                                                             

Ecclesiastes 2 v 24-26

Life is like a toilet-roll just out of reach.

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”  Jim Carrey

When you study Ecclesiastes, you begin noticing it everywhere. Every place you go, every person you meet, you see Ecclesiastes happening. It’s sometimes really hard to get out of your head, rather like one of those tunes that you catch on the radio.

Ecclesiastes is like that because so much of it describes our experience of life. What is that experience? No matter what we go through – the good times and the bad – and no matter what we do or how successful we are or where we go, always hanging over us is the knowledge that one day we will lose it. There’s nothing that we can keep hold of.

This, however, does not stop us from trying. Oh how we try! We try but fail to find something ultimately fulfilling, satisfying and permanent in this world and it leaves us with a sour taste in our mouths. Life is, well, frustrating…like when you drop the toilet paper and it rolls ever so slightly out of your reach. Close, but not close enough to avoid the inevitable.

In the last blog, we saw that the word translated as “meaningless” in the NIV and “vanity” in many other translations, is actually defined in the Hebrew dictionary first as “breath” or “vapour”. And we saw that the thing about breath or vapour is that you cannot hold on to it. It appears and then it disappears. So to live as if things in this life “under the sun” are permanent, is like trying to chase after the wind, or grab hold of vapour, or keep hold of breath. It can’t be done. And trying to do so is futile.

In Ecclesiastes 1:12 – 2:26 is a search for something in this world that is worth taking hold of, something that we can grasp, that we can live by, that doesn’t go away or fade. The writer explores concepts like pleasures, wisdom and work, all the time looking for something  within which he can find meaning. And the reason why he concludes with “Vapour! Vapour! All is vapour!” or “Breath! Breath! All is breath!” is that he finds nothing in this world that we can hold on to forever.

What can we do?

 

The end of the chapter two describes the problem of permanence that we all face in this life. However, it also the hints at the solution.

 

His conclusion is not that eating, drinking and working are the be-all and end-all of life, so just invest everything into that.” He is saying that these good things  – eating and drinking and finding satisfaction in your work – are gifts from God. And it is not just the good things themselves that are God-given gifts; so also is the ability to appreciate and enjoy them! God alone gives satisfaction and joy, and even wisdom.

 

Only God is permanent. Only God is lasting. Only he is not a mere breath. You can hold on to him. You can keep him. He is never taken away. He is unchanging. He is also the creator and sustainer and source of all things. So you can eat and drink and work, and you can enjoy these things as temporary gifts because you know you have God, and he satisfies your desire for the eternal. It is only when we’re with God that we can appreciate our life in this world for what it is – a temporary gift.

The apostle Paul says something very similar. In Philippians chapter 3, verses 7 – 10 he writes, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

 

What is it like to be a Christian?

I was asked this question after giving a talk at a youth group and, I have to admit, it completely stumped me. I wanted to launch into rhetoric about how wonderful and exciting the Christian life is. I wanted to… but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. The Christian life is wonderful. The trouble is that it doesn’t always feel very wonderful or exciting. Sometimes it is hard and still other times it feels downright mundane.

Ecclesiastes agrees. The first chapter suggests that everything is a mere breath (translated as “meaningless” or “vanity”) because of the endlessly insignificant repetition of day in, day out activities. Verses 3-11 of ch 1 say the following…

What do people gain from all their labours
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
    yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
    there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
    ‘Look! This is something new’?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them.

Again and again it seems to be saying, “Look, things just happen over and over. They go round and round and round in this endless spiral, and it seems so boring, so mundane, so repetitive and so pointless.”

But perhaps you would have me believe you’ve never felt like that in your Christian life? That you’ve never felt that things were dull and repetitive? That you’ve never struggled to see the point behind what you were doing or what your life was wrapped up in? That that experience is only true of non-Christians?

Maybe its just me who has always hated routine, always hated tedious, mundane tasks? Yet I find that these are the things you have to keep on doing. You wash the dishes but they get dirty again. Each day my wife and I sweep the floor under our table. Then we feed our children, and have to sweep the floor under the table again.

It’s like that with the trivial things. But it’s the same with more significant things, isn’t it? We wake up, we get dressed, we brush our teeth, have breakfast, go to work, come back from work, eat dinner, brush our teeth, go to bed, wake up – and do it all over again. Even as Christians we say to ourselves, “What is this all about? How tedious this is!” 

So how does this shape our understanding of the Christian life?

Firstly it helps us to adjust our expectations of the Christian experience. In their brutally honest song Expectations, Caedmon’s Call highlight the importance of honesty about the Christian life.

“That boy had the highest of expectations
And he heard that Jesus would fill him up
Maybe something got lost in the language
If this was full, then why bother?

This was not the way it looked on the billboard
Smiling family beaming down on the interstate.

And you know that we all try to blame someone
When our dreams won’t rise up from their sleep
And the reaching of the steeple felt like one more
Expensive ad for something cheap

This was not the way it looked on the billboard
Smiling family beaming down on the interstate.”

We need to remind ourselves that Christians, like all people, are caught up in the effects of the fall. That means we are subject to the same tedium, disappointments and frustrations as everyone else. Armed with this knowledge, we will see that these experiences of life do not indicate that Christianity is not true or that we are not real Christians.

Another difference this should make is to shape the way we think of faithfulness. Let me quote from Michael Horton’s book, Ordinary: a sustainable faith in a radical, restless world. He says:

“Contentment is the virtue that contrasts with restlessness, ambition and avarice. It means realizing once again that we are not our own. As pastors or parishioners, parents or children, employers or employees, it is the Lord’s to give and to take away. He is building his church. It is his ministry that is saving and building up the body, and even our common callings in the world are not really our own, but they are God’s work of supplying others including ourselves with what the whole society needs. There is a lot of work to be done, but it is his work that he is doing through us in daily and mostly ordinary ways.”

Can you see that – how the Gospel impacts a life of endlessly repetitious and temporary things? We are not our own. We were bought with a price. And we live our lives as worthy of the gospel through the ordinary things that he works through us to accomplish his purposes.