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PLEASURES ARE MEANINGLESS
THE NEW RICH
I had stretched myself too thin. I had said yes to too many projects, boards, committees, and task forces. Between my family, the church family I served as a pastor, and the invitations to help the Christian church on a larger scale, I just simply didn’t have enough time. I couldn’t get it all done. Something had to give. At least one of my major commitments had to be broken. But how would I choose?
One of my closest friends said, “Well, obviously not family or church, so what can you say no to on the larger scale?”
I explained they were all pretty important.
“Well, then which one makes you least happy? Which ones aren’t you getting much enjoyment out of?”
You mean I can make the choice based simply on what makes me most happy?
Obviously, we all want to be happy, but how much should the pursuit of happiness play into our lives? How much attention should personal happiness get? To what degree should personal pleasures in life sway decision-making? And, by the way, finishing this book was on the list. How much should concern for my own personal happiness have determined whether you ever read this?
There’s an interesting movement afoot among middle to upper-middle class Gen Xers and millennials called the New Rich (not to be confused with the largely derogatory phrase nouveau riche ). Whereas past generations saw the goal of life as amassing wealth doing whatever work was necessary (including work you didn’t really enjoy) to secure a comfy retirement, the New Rich suggest that’s getting things backwards. Why spend your best days doing work that’s often unfulfilling or not enjoyable so that when you begin to slow down and have aches and pains, then you get to enjoy yourself? That paradigm should be turned on its head! The goal ought to be to design a life in which you can enjoy yourself now! There are two strategies for doing this: (1) Work more efficiently and in bursts of greater intensity, with the goal of then being able to take frequent extended breaks (e.g., work like a dog for six months and then take six months off traveling the world or work like a dog for nine months and then take three incredible months hiking the Andes). (2) Maximize the aspects of your work you enjoy and minimize (via delegation, etc.) the parts of your work you don’t like.
In Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek, one of the bibles of the New Rich movement, Ferriss explains:
Most people, my past self included, have spent too much time convincing themselves that life has to be hard, a resignation to 9-to-5 drudgery in exchange for (sometimes) relaxing weekends and the occasional keep-it-short-or-get-fired vacation. The truth, at least the truth I live and will share in this book, is quite different. From leveraging currency differences to outsourcing your life and disappearing, I’ll show you how a small underground uses economic sleight-of-hand to do what most consider impossible.30
This is no gimmick. Ferriss certainly does teach the skills to live a New Rich lifestyle, which many Westerners today are finding themselves able to achieve. And let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with applying Ferriss’ strategies to one’s life or even adopting a New Rich mind-set for how you might design your life. What might be interesting, though, is pausing for a moment and asking, But what’s the motivation? For Timothy Ferriss, at the end of The 4-Hour Work-week, he tells us clearly, “I believe that life exists to be enjoyed.” (Not too far removed from the Dalai Lama: “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.”)
Slow down for a minute and think about that: “Life exists to be enjoyed.” Notice how Ferriss taps into the concepts we’ve been dis- cussing. By saying, “Life exists to be . . . ,” he’s saying there’s a purpose to life. And by now we’ve seen that there’s a limited number of ways this might be the case: either there’s a cosmic purpose, that is, the universe exists or has been brought into existence for at least one purpose, perhaps that humans (or other self-reflective creatures) enjoy themselves; or there’s moral meaning in life and a person is living the correct way if they’re striving to enjoy themselves and not living the correct way if they’re not striving to enjoy themselves. (And remember that moral meaning can only be derived from a universe with cosmic meaning, so the two are definitely related.)
Ferriss and other New Rich advocates would certainly agree that you can define enjoyment in many different, acceptable ways—from the adrenaline rush of extreme adventures like hang gliding to the sense of fulfillment that comes from helping those in need. (And, in fact, Ferriss would probably agree with the studies that say life’s greatest happiness is generated by helping others rather than self-pleasure or gratification.) So he’s not a straight-up hedonist. (We’ll define that later.) But regardless of how one generates these feelings of enjoyment, the end goal is still what we might call a life of pleasure (pleasure being understood broadly, not just as physical pleasure but also fulfillment, etc.) or a life of accumulating pleasurable experiences. And if this isn’t just Ferriss’ view, but if he’s tapping into a more widely felt vibe in Western culture, no wonder we take so many selfies! We’re storing up so many of these experiences because we depend on them for our meaning in life!
But is it true that you should be pursuing a life of happiness? Should this really be the sum total of your goals in life? Is this really all there is to it? And if so, what happens if you fail to experience happiness? Have you failed at life? Or here’s the bigger question: If you’re looking for a cosmically meaningful life, a life that is important and valuable not just because you value it but because it actually is valuable, can this be achieved through pursuing a life of pleasure and happiness? Believing that the purpose of life is to be happy is far more complicated than it looks. And this is one of the reasons why, even three thousand years ago, Solomon touches upon it. Did Solomon find a life of pursuing pleasures any more fulfilling and meaningful than a life of pursuing science and learning?
If anyone had a lifestyle that afforded him every pleasure, it was Solomon. Solomon’s reign was reputed to have been a golden age of prosperity for Israel. The book of the Bible titled 1 Kings, which records Solomon’s life, tells us, “The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy” (1 Kings 4:20). “The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones” (1 Kings 10:27). Besides ruling with great wisdom and judgment, Solomon generated a tremendous amount of wealth for Israel, overseeing the construction of architectural monoliths, such as what we call the temple of Solomon (one of the great wonders of the ancient world). His reputation spread to distant nations. Consider the following account of the famous visit of the queen of Sheba:
When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relationship to the Lord, she came to test Solomon with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan—with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones—she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the Lord, she was overwhelmed.
She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. How happy your people must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.” . . .
King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty. Then she left and returned with her retinue to her own country. (1 Kings 10:1-13)
Solomon goes down as one of the richest men recorded in the Bible, getting everything his heart desired. Sometimes his heart desired good things; sometimes, questionable things (such as his hundreds of slave-wives, his trade in exotic animals and ivory, and his extensive customer list as an international arms dealer). And sometimes his riches were the result of other people’s labors. (He famously conscripted tens of thousands of forced laborers for his great architectural projects.) Regardless, though, if one could generate a meaningful life from pleasures, surely Solomon was the man to give it a try: he had the brains and money to do it, for sure. Yet this is how he responds at the end of his life to a life of generating so much 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 meaning- less. “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.
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
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 2:1-11)
Literary critic and former The New Yorker editor Daphne Merkin describes Solomon as an “acquisition-happy malcontent, this Biblical character blessed with the dazzling ‘life style’ of a corporate raider but burdened with the wrong soul.” What happened? How could Solomon have achieved so many pleasures and yet feel so empty? How can having so much be so meaningless? We live in culture that places the pursuit of wealth and pleasurable experiences as one of the highest goals in life. Think of everything we’ve been taught to pursue! Whether termed as financial security or contentment or straight-up physical gratification, it’s really largely about happiness. How could so many people be so wrong? How is this all “a chasing after the wind”? How is it possible that, after a New Rich life of accumulated experiences, Solomon would say “nothing was gained”?
For millennia, philosophers and thinkers have struggled with understanding what role happiness plays in pursuing a meaningful life. In fact, thousands of years ago, there was a school of philosophy that focused on creating lives built on pleasure. (Its spirit is very much alive in some philosophers today.) The most famous spokesman was Epicurus, who writes:
Pleasure is the beginning and end of the blessed life. We recognize pleasure as the first and natural good; starting from pleasure we accept or reject; and we return to this as we judge every good thing, trusting this feeling of pleasure as our guide.
Epicurus is not promoting a life of senseless pleasure-seeking, drugs, uninhibited sex, and watching TV every day. He responds to his critics that pursuing those types of things obviously doesn’t lead to a sustainable, deep, pleasurable life. Your life would simply be miserable. Rather, the pleasurable life includes a good amount of moderation—something akin to the wellness movement today that promotes a disciplined life, especially in regards to diet, exercise, mental stimulation, and psychologically healthy habits and thinking (but also being careful not to overspend on vitamins or probiotics).
So, with those caveats in mind, how might we assess Epicurus? You might have many questions for Epicurus: How do you know what will be most pleasurable in the long run? Is Epicurus reducing everything we call ethically good to pleasures? If so, aren’t there things that are clearly good but do not derive pleasure (such as self-sacrifice)? And aren’t there things that are pleasurable, even in the long run, that aren’t necessarily good (such as enslaving or harming a small amount of innocent people to bring about long-lasting pleasure for a larger group)? Many philosophers have found Epicurus’ raising of one’s pleasure as the highest good to be hard if not impossible to harmonize with concepts like human rights, the value of great acts of altruism (such as giving one’s life, which doesn’t lead to much lasting pleasure for oneself), or the importance of duty. For these reasons and others, not many philosophers today (although there are a few) consider themselves Epicureans.
But there are deeper questions than just these philosophical ones. The Danish Lutheran thinker Soren Kierkegaard once wrote a story with a character that attempted to live his life as a hedonist (and not the moderate type that Epicurus championed; this was a party animal). This aesthete, as Kierkegaard called him, recognized that things are most pleasurable when they are novel (even skydiving might lose its initial rush after the one hundredth jump), and so the best way to live is to forget as much as possible. In this way, one could try to make oneself nothing but a collection of pleasurable experiences. But note what follows:
My life is utterly meaningless. When I consider the different periods into which it falls, it seems like the word Schnur in the dictionary, which means in the first place a string, in the second, a daughter-in-law. The only thing lacking is that the word Schnur should mean in the third place a camel, in the fourth, a dust brush.
Let’s consider Kierkegaard’s line of thought with a more familiar word from our own dictionaries. The term bank can mean both a riverbank as well as a bank for money (or even the tilt an airplane makes as it turns). The definitions have nothing in common at all, only that they coincidentally share the same word to designate those definitions. A person defining her life in terms of pleasures and nothing else is similar—while every moment might be unique for that person, there’s no real relationship to tie one pleasurable experience to the next except that they coincidentally happen to the same person. My friend Topher pointed out that it’s as if a person’s life was a similar dictionary entry: “Joe’s Life (n.) 1. He went on a roller coaster once. 2. He got hung over 30 times in college. 3. He was almost brave enough to eat pufferfish.” There is no thread to tie one’s life experiences together, and so you really can’t think of yourself as having any real robust identity.
Kierkegaard’s whole point is that life becomes meaningless if we define our lives entirely by the events that make them up, striving to make each event as pleasurable as possible and to escape boredom with as much variety as possible. With no metanarrative running through the events of our lives, there is no essence or personal identity to recognize, just a creature experiencing event after event. If you define your meaning in life through the pleasurable experiences you are collecting, take away the events and you’re left with nothing.
We can understand intuitively enough that the simple activity of collecting things won’t deliver a cosmically meaningful life. It can bring a level of pleasure to be sure, and it generates short-term meaning to be sure. But transient stuff, here today and gone tomorrow, lacks permanence. And treating experiences like things that can be collected can produce the same results. This would explain your feeling when you look back at your life as simply a collection of self-serving events. When you consider these events “under the sun” apart from the biblical metanarrative, life really is cosmically meaningless. There’s nothing you can consider that ties things together into something coherent, permanent, or of lasting value.
And this goes either for Epicurus’ moderate hedonism or a more radical version. Even if the life you’re pursuing is one of healthy, well-balanced, carefully budgeted pleasures and experiences—like the pleasurable sensations of a fit, flexible, yoga-toned body; the rush of reaching a mountain peak; or the pleasure of creating a work of art—the same problems exist for you as they do for the person pursuing a life of not-so-healthy pleasures and experiences—like endless Netflix binges, street racing, or living for the next Friday night orgy. At the end of the day, for cosmic meaning, these experiences need to be anchored in a greater overarching story that gives them real significance. Otherwise, these are just simply events, pleasures that will one day be forgotten and inconsequential.
THE FEW DAYS OF OUR LIVES
In fact, focusing on how many pleasurable experiences we can generate out of life can become a tremendous source of angst, a midlife crisis that’s available to us at any moment of our lives. The average lifespan in North America right now is 80 years, or 29,200 days. If we focus on what our culture considers the productive number of days an average person lives (so not counting early life or maybe the last five years), that leaves us with 65 years, or 23,725 days. That’s 3,389 weeks and around 780 months. Now think for a moment about how much you’ve done with your time. Solomon lists his “accomplishments” carried out for the sake of a pleasurable life: building projects, amassing wealth in terms of servants and gold, groves of trees. Today the average middle-class Westerner might compare these to long-term accomplishments, like trying to develop a good career, a fat bank account, successful children, and a nice house and lawn. Like Solomon, we derive as much pleasure as we can out of these things—possessions, wardrobe, cars, financial security, vacations, and experiences—but then at some point we catch ourselves pausing, thinking about all these things and experiences we’ve collected, and asking ourselves, “But what of real value have I done with my life?” You realize you’ve spent hours upon hours watching TV, hours upon hours shopping, hours upon hours sleeping, hours upon hours socializing with friends and family (or sitting together just to look at your phones), and all of a sudden half of your life seems to have passed and what do you have to show for it?
We can dig even deeper into the vital soul of the question by understanding it in the context of good works. Good works is a theological term for describing the things God has created humans to do, that is, the actions that please God when we do them. Christians believe God has put into all people a conscience, which can easily identify some of these things. If you’re not a Christian, chances are you still feel like you have a conscience that recognizes some of the same things: helping those in need and putting the necessities of others first, as well as making choices that avoid harming others. (This is summed up in the Bible as “love your neighbor as yourself,” but it finds its expression in other religions as well, such as Confucius’ “do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.”)
And when we compare this to our lives that have spent so much time on self-gratification, on serving my needs first, despite all of the opportunities to serve others, we start to see a problem: So much of our lives has been spent bypassing good works. So much of our lives has been self-centered, not other-centered; self-serving, not other-serving. We stroll through our homes, looking up and down at the Blu-ray collections, furniture, closets full of clothes, and we begin to feel guilt, guilt that we’ve been seeking to take care of ourselves far more than others.
And it doesn’t stop there. Not only do we find ourselves neglecting others, but often we’re actively hurting others. A non-Christian friend of mine named Amber has a brother (also not a Christian) who’s really into body modification. Really into it. Face tattoos, eyes dyed black, a dozen piercings on his head, even small implanted horns. All in the name of personal expression. Amber told me— close to tears—about a funeral her brother wasn’t allowed to attend because of his appearance. “The priest told him he’s not welcome,” she said. No follow-up from the priest, no further discussion. And then came the big questions: “Can he do that? Do you ever refuse to let people into a funeral, into a church service?” I told her I didn’t want to condemn the priest too hastily, but in general, “No, we don’t ever refuse people. If the person is there to listen, the whole church family has an obligation to do everything possible to welcome that person. In fact, that’s the one place I’d want your brother, at the funeral, where he might be able to find real comfort in Jesus for that death in his life.” It’s so easy to judge, to say I’d do better than the priest. We’re all awesome at retrospectively figuring out what ought to have been done. And maybe there’s more to the story that Amber and I don’t know. My only point is this: If Amber’s got the story right, her brother wasn’t simply neglected, overlooked, forgotten about. He was actively hurt, willfully rejected from a community event, knowingly barred from an event that was designed to give hope in the midst of tragedy. We know this happens to people. All the time.
And I know that I also live a life of actively hurting others, as do you: lying, bullying, making fun, telling or laughing at hurtful jokes, objectifying people, persuading people into wrong actions, you name it. So we add this to the list of what defines us and our lives: Our lives are not only about amassing things and pleasures and spending time on ourselves rather than on others but even actively taking the pleasure and happiness away from others. If we’re honest, the few days of our lives have been, in essence, as far as the rest of humanity goes, wasted.
But the Teacher clearly expects us not to waste our lives through selfishness and acts of injustice. He writes, in fact, that he believes his God takes considerable issue with this. For those who do evil, “there will be . . . a time to judge every deed” (Ecclesiastes 3:17). If there is a God, he certainly expects people not to waste their lives on self-directed pleasure-seeking but rather to live a life of serving others. And if we can’t do these good works that God requires, and at times even find ourselves not wanting to do these good works, why would God want to spend eternity with people who are more interested in themselves than others, people that replace happiness with pain? The only solution is for the Creator to find a way to fix the creation gone wrong, and we’re right back at the metanarrative: The Bible promises that God has a good ending in mind, an ending in which this selfishness, pain, and suffering will come to an end.
SURELY THERE’S MORE TO IT
Alvin Plantinga could very well go down in history as one of the greatest philosophers of the turn of the 21st century. With seven honorary degrees and many prestigious academic awards like the Templeton Prize, Time magazine has described him as “America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher.” As a Christian spending a lifetime of thinking on how to think about Christianity, he believes there’s still plenty left to do to figure out how the biblical metanarrative sheds light on our deepest longings and experiences as humans. For example, at the end of a festschrift (a collection of essays celebrating his scholarship), he shares the notes to a short talk he gave titled “Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments,” the purpose of which was to show young thinkers that there’s plenty of room for exploring the implications of the biblical metanarrative in philosophy. One of his arguments for God’s existence (here argument simply means “a line of reasoning”) goes as follows:
The Argument [for God’s existence] from Play and Enjoyment:
. . . Evolution [says]: [Play and enjoyment is] an adaptive means of preparing for adult life (so that engaging in this sort of thing as an adult suggests a case of arrested development). But surely there is more to it than that. The joy one can take in humor, art, poetry, mountaineering, exploring, adventuring (the problem is not to explain how it would come about that human beings enjoyed mountaineering: no doubt evolution can do so. The problem is with its significance. Is it really true that all there is to this is enjoyment? Or is there a deeper significance? The Westminster Shorter Catechism [says]: the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him (and his creation and gifts) forever).
Do you follow Plantinga? Sophisticated atheistic evolutionary explanations certainly can be made for how play, pleasure, and enjoyment have come to be part of the human experience in all cultures. We can see how evolving the capacity to experience enjoyment might motivate the learning of certain skills that help a species survive. For example, puppies “play fight” with each other and in doing so learn how to really fight. But if that’s the only reason we give for why humans enjoy things (it benefits their survival), something seems to be lacking. “Surely there is more to it than that,” Plantinga says. Do humans enjoy companionship only because it’s useful for the survival of the species, or is there more to it than that? Do humans take pleasure in a sunset only because it’s somehow useful for the survival of the species, or is there more to it than that? Do humans seek adventure only because it’s somehow useful for the survival of the species, or is there more to it than that? If that is all there is to it, then that means there’s nothing inherently good about companionship, sunsets, or adventures. Instead, it would seem that the idea that sunsets are good arises from within us—the feeling that they’re good simply being a feeling placed there to help us survive. Given atheistic evolution, sunsets simply are; they are simply another thing within this universe that came into existence through random forces. But something deep within us tells us that there is something inherently good about these things. That whether or not people are around to find sunsets beautiful (or anyone cares enough to notice sunsets anymore), they still are beautiful.
And when we feel pleasure in other things, such as gossiping, hurting other people, and getting away with crimes, can we justify these feelings of pleasure at least in part (or at least in the past) as somehow useful for the survival of our species? Or is there more? Can we say that there’s something inherently bad about these things?
If we’re looking for atheism to give some type of transcendent, cosmic meaning to these actions, we’re not going to find it. It’s impossible. Atheistic evolutionary explanations can only reduce the meaning to something short-term—something assigned value only for a given time by the sentient creatures involved. But given the Christian metanarrative, things change. All of a sudden it all takes on epic meaning. . . .
BUILT FOR PLEASURE
The Christian metanarrative says, “You are right to feel absolutely disappointed in atheistic evolution’s explanation for the human experience of pleasure and happiness. The truth is much better, much more in tune with our intuitions. You enjoy and derive pleasure from relationships, sunsets, and adventure because you were literally designed to recognize the very real goodness in these things.” Remember our review of the first couple chapters of Genesis? Again recall that the Christian metanarrative begins with God creating humans as scientists and creating the world as a perfect playground where they could discover, research, and do experiments. Similarly God created this world to be enjoyed. God created two humans, not just one, a husband and a wife, perfect companions so that they could enjoy each other. God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and then he created woman (Genesis 2:18). According to the Bible, the first poem in history, and also the first recorded words spoken by a human, was a love poem that praised God for creating a perfect companion and praised God that the two of them were made from the very same substance and essence: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). God created them with the capacity to bear children, to create families and communities, so that we could have dinners, dates, parties, game nights, pickup basketball, and dances. Some lines from another poem in the Bible celebrate God creating “wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts” (Psalm 104:15). Jesus himself was criticized by the puritanical for enjoying the camaraderie and dinner parties of hedonists and pleasure-seekers. Speaking of himself, he said, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’” (Luke 7:34). We were literally made to be social creatures, deriving pleasure from spending time together, and those pleasurable times together are a gift from God. In Solomon’s own words, “When God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, . . . this is a gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:19).
God created humans with an aesthetic sense and placed them within an aesthetically beautiful world. As functional as this world is (the earth rotates while revolving around the sun to give us temperature regulation and seasons), it’s also beautiful (the earth rotates to give us sunsets and revolves around the sun to give us summers to swim in lakes and winters to ice skate). And humans have the ability not only to discover and utilize its functionality but also to sit back and take pleasure in its aesthetic beauty, even mirroring and reconfiguring its beauty in works of art. The Canadian poet Marjorie Pickthall believed the aesthetic experience plays such a central role in explaining why God created us that she goes so far as to personify Beauty in the Garden of Eden in one of her brilliant poems, titled “Adam and Eve”:
When the first dark had fallen around them
And the leaves were weary of praise,
In the clear silence Beauty found them
And shewed them all her ways.
In the high noon of the heavenly garden
Where the angels sunned with the birds,
Beauty, before their hearts could harden,
Had taught them heavenly words.
God endowed humans with a sense of adventure. Again, there is a functional quality to the hills, streams, oceans, and valleys. And humans were created with the capacity to discover many practical and pragmatic purposes for them and even to take delight in learning those purposes, as another poem in the Bible sings, “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them” (Psalm 111:2). But God also created humans with the desire to hike those hills, canoe those streams, surf and sail those oceans, and hang glide over those valleys. The adrenaline rush feels good, because we were made for it to feel good. God wants us to enjoy his creation, revel in it together, and praise his handiwork. In the words of the Christian runner in the movie Chariots of Fire, “God made me for a purpose, . . . but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
If there’s a reason, a design, a purpose for the human ability to enjoy relationships, to take pleasure in sunsets, and to seek the thrill of adventure, and if that purpose comes from above humans themselves and is in fact infused into the very purpose of this universe, then we can say the pleasures we experience are cosmically meaningful. But only if their purpose comes from over the sun, as it were. “Under the sun,” pleasures considered only within the realms of a godless, purposeless world lose their cosmic meaning.
LIFE WITHOUT PLEASURE
And what of the times life isn’t pleasurable? The congregation members I serve in Ottawa, Ontario, work closely with refugees of the Nuer tribe of the South Sudan, and many congregation members have become their close friends. Recently one of these friends, Robert, told me his story. After sharing with me his own life full of warfare, famine, and hardships, he told me that one year ago his brother was killed in the midst of the violence of South Sudan’s civil war. His brother’s children are now missing, and he’s working through all the needed paperwork to travel back to South Sudan to try to find them. He has no idea where they could be or where to start looking.
There is pleasure in this world, and yet there is a good deal of pain. How can we explain these two realities simply by looking around “under the sun”? Solomon himself writes that too often for human-kind, “All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest” (Ecclesiastes 2:23). And, “As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them” (Ecclesiastes 9:12). What went wrong?
Given a purely empirical or atheistic evolutionary interpretation of experience, there is no explanation except to say that pleasure and pain just are: they are random results of the chaotic forces of time. Perhaps an ethic of some sort or an explanation for human behavior can be built upon the biological experiences of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain (what the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called the pleasure principle). But the resulting portrait of human life is cold, devoid of color and life. The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, in his Nebula award-winning novel Starship Troopers, imagines a future society built on these very principles—one of its ethics professors, also a military instructor, summarizing its ethical foundation:
Man is what he is, a wild animal with the will to survive, and (so far) the ability against all competition. Unless one accepts that, anything one says about morals, war, politics—you name it—is nonsense. Correct morals arise from knowing what Man is—not what do-gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellies would like him to be.
And it can be so appealing to buy into this worldview, because we do act like wild animals! But given a Christian metanarrative, although we might act like wild animals at times, we are not simply wild animals. Much of the pain in the world arises not from animal instinct but from all-too-human cruelty, following suit with our first parents following after the Enemy.
The biblical metanarrative puts us in the midst of an epic Story, the greatest tragedy of which is that humans, first through greed (a close cousin of cruelty), walked away from God. In response to this tragedy, God did two nearly incomprehensible things. He promised that someday he would come to earth himself to defeat the Murderer (and be deeply wounded by him). And he also allowed pain and frustration to make its way through our world, so we would never fool ourselves into thinking that we’re all right without him. As C. S. Lewis once said, pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Yes, there still is pleasure in the world, because God limits the Murderer’s efforts to destroy all that is good—and because, out of love, God still just simply enjoys giving people happiness, even people who treat him like a stranger. But we simply can’t derive pleasure from the world as we were first meant to.
Although our hearts yearn for companionship, we never find it perfectly. In fact, sinful humans often recoil from one another—companions even hurting each other, hearts even breaking. Although the occasional sunset still moves us to revel in its beauty, we also see ugliness all around us (and our aesthetic sense is tuned into recognizing ugliness just as much as beauty). Although we desire adventure, life usually feels drab, and adventures end in terror and sadness as much as thrill. God wants us to see that something is lacking in relationships, sunsets, and adventures. There’s an ultimate emptiness to it all, until that emptiness is filled with his love. This is why he lets us bear the marks of sin in our souls and in the soil.
The Teacher very much believed in this part of the biblical metanarrative. “What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!” he laments (Ecclesiastes 1:13). Before the Teacher spends the rest of his scroll describing this heavy burden, he wants you to know that it came from God. Later he writes, “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other” (7:13,14). Why are there bad times, painful days? God made them, Solomon says, and no one can unmake them. And again, “When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night—then I saw all that God has done” (8:16,17). And so the Christian (and the Teacher’s) metanarrative accounts for both pleasure and pain and says that they are both real, meaningful, and serve a greater overarching story with a good ending. In fact, there’s more to life than simply seeking pleasures. The metanarrative explains pleasure and pain, but it doesn’t tell a story that’s only about pleasure and pain. There’s more to it than these things. There’s more to the meaning of life than these things.
PLEASURE AND THE PURPOSE OF HUMAN LIFE
Even if we are designed to experience pleasure in life (and that gives meaning to our pleasurable experiences), let’s not confuse that with the purpose of life being for pleasure. We were designed to experience pleasure, but that’s not the only thing we were designed to do, and the reality is that our ability to experience pleasure is auxiliary to our ultimate purpose. In other words, unlike the New Rich, our metanarrative can show that if we are not experiencing pleasures in life, that doesn’t mean we’re failing in life.
A helpful analogy might be God’s design for marriage. God created marriage with an essence, and flowing from that essence come blessings. (The word essence means what’s at the core of a thing’s identity. If you take away a part of a thing’s essence, it’s no longer that thing.) Potential blessings that God intended for marriage include children, sexual pleasures, and companionship, to name a few. But if one of these blessings doesn’t flow from a particular marriage, has that couple failed at marriage? Newlyweds or the infertile have no children but still have marriage. Illness, injury, or old age may limit a couple’s sexual pleasures but they’re still married.
Can you still have a marriage without robust companionship? Over their first 30 years of marriage, my dear friends Gerry and Doreen had grown to be each other’s closest companions and confidants. But then in her 50s, Doreen had a major stroke, and as happens with some people, her personality drastically changed. She simply was no longer the companion she used to be. Irritable, often angry, sometimes verbally violent and combative, the stroke had traded in Gerry’s close confidant for someone he at times couldn’t even recognize. This can torture a spouse. In such painful circumstances, we might ask, “What’s really left of that marriage?” But there is certainly something left. In fact, everything was left. Don’t confuse the blessings with the essence.
The essence of marriage is commitment. God created marriage so that spouses would help and take care of each other. In so doing, they act as a dim mirror of how God takes care of us. (This is explicitly stated in the New Testament as the purpose of marriage for the Christian, in Ephesians 5:22-33.) Now, after Doreen’s stroke, Gerry was called on more than ever to be a husband to his wife. And he did it brilliantly. He took care of her every need, watched over her at home until she needed to be moved to a facility, and then visited her several times a day, eventually moving into that same facility. The marriage was painful at times, but it was meaningful. Gerry had an opportunity, and he often took it, to be that dim mirror of Jesus’ faithful love every day.
Apply this analogy to the ultimate purpose of human life in general. We’ve recognized that there are potential blessings that flow from being human in this world that God made (and that he still fills with his glory)—the potential blessing under discussion being pleasure, whether the pleasure derived from companionship, sunsets, adventure, or the like. But life’s potential blessings, though part of God’s design or intent (like the pleasures of sex he intended for marriage), are not life’s purpose. The ultimate purpose of human life is not experiencing pleasure (or avoiding pain). God sums up the ultimate purpose of human life beautifully and clearly in his two Great Commandments: love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself. Notice: Just as the essence of marriage is other-focused, the purpose of human life is other-focused. Humans were created to love, to serve, to care, to be of benefit, and finally—just as God does—to find delight in bringing good into others’ lives.
And so we’re called to a life that ends up finding pleasure without living for it. This life of love brings us pleasure from three sources: knowing the biblical metanarrative, serving others, and pausing to simply enjoy the pleasures of life in God’s world.
Regarding the first source: Once immersed in the biblical meta- narrative, our greatest pleasure comes from being in a relationship with God, a fellowship (or communion) with him. Jesus spoke of the joy that comes from knowing him and from gathering with others who know him—joy that no one could take away (John 16:22). The apostle John, Jesus’ dearest friend, once wrote (in a letter that became one of the books of the New Testament) about joy being made complete when a person not only learns about what Jesus has done for them but then shares this good news with others. John said his own joy was made complete by helping others find community with Jesus:
We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. (1 John 1:3,4)
And so, in a very real sense, the greatest pleasures in life (“inexpressible and glorious” pleasures, 1 Peter 1:8) are found in discovering the biblical metanarrative—that there is a God who created us, loves us, and saved us; that there is hope for the future and a good, loving God in control—and in helping others recognize his love.
Regarding the second source: As John wrote, we also find service to other people pleasurable. That’s what completes our joy: giving God’s love a face and hands, sharing both his news and our lives with others. We begin seeing every other human being as we see ourselves within the biblical metanarrative: as created beings whom God values, loves, and entered into our world to save. We begin to find a unique sense of pleasure in loving our neighbors as ourselves, that is, in helping one another out and enjoying the new friendships and communities that follow. In fact, the very first Christians who gathered together are described as enjoying life like this:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. (Acts 2:44-47)
Note what kind of hearts they had. Not just generous. Not just sincere. But also glad. In one another’s homes and cooking and company, they found pleasure.
Regarding the third source (the one on which Solomon focuses most in Ecclesiastes): We’re called to take time and revel in the everyday pleasures of life as God in his providence allows us to experience them. Especially given the hardships we experience in life, God invites us to pause when the pleasures do come and to revel in them. Solomon himself says, “However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many” (Ecclesiastes 11:8). And, “I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15). We don’t seek ultimate, transcendent, cosmic meaning in our pleasures, since the pleasures considered by themselves to be “under the sun” (apart from the biblical metanarrative), Solomon tells us, are meaningless. But we can experience moments of pleasure as the brief moments they are—brief reminders that, given the cosmic meaning the biblical metanarrative gives us, life is beautiful. God did build us for pleasure. And so much more.
End chapter three