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

 

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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?

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.”