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

 

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?