The Problem with Pleasure

This week we begin looking together at some of the places in which we seek meaning for our lives. One of the biggest areas is in pleasure of one kind or another. The allure of pleasure–you pick your pleasure–is obvious. It feels good. Who wouldn’t want that? But, the question we have to face down is this: Does it deliver on its promise? Keep reading as our series, Finding Meaning, continues.

The Problem with Pleasure

There are some things people enjoy that require…training to be able to actually enjoy.  Fine art is one of those.  I haven’t quite developed enough of a taste for it to be able to enjoy it as thoroughly as others do who have.  There are folks who can go to an art museum and have their spirits fed simply by what they see there.  I can’t do that.  I have, however, had the opportunity to develop a taste for classical music.  While I don’t do it all that often—I mostly listen to news, commentary, and preaching—I genuinely enjoy listening to classical music and from multiple different genres (did you know there were multiple genres of classical music?).  There are some pieces that feed my spirit in a way few other things in this world do. 

One of my favorites is a suite of 15 pieces by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky called Pictures at an Exhibition.  As with many pieces from the romantic era of the mid-19th century, there’s a story behind this one.  One of the composer’s close friends was an artist named Viktor Hartmann.  Hartmann’s death in 1873 at just 39 years old made Mussorgsky reflective.  As he later visited a retrospective of his friend’s work, he decided he needed to capture the exhibit in music.  The pictures have long been forgotten.  The music has not.  The suite features a theme representing Mussorgsky walking from piece to piece and each piece has its own little variation on that theme.  The main theme sounds like this.  That’s the “Promenade.” 

Now, if you’re not a fan of the genre, the first…13 pieces are pretty boring.  Musically speaking, they’re brilliant.  The subtle and clever development of the theme for each different picture is wonderful.  When you learn a little about the pictures, you can see in your mind’s eye what the composer was seeing as you listen to the music.  But, while the payoff is worth it, it does take a little bit of work to get the most out of it.  And that’s exactly the problem with so many of these so-called “higher” pleasures.  Not many people want to invest the time and effort necessary to gain the ability to do something that at first, frankly, isn’t all that fun.  If you are going to develop this particular skill, there are a couple of ways to do it.  You can either listen to lots and lots of classical music until you gradually begin to better understand its intricacies, or you can take some kind of a class on the genre like the Form and Analysis course I took in college.  The professor was a wonderful man, a virtuosic piano player, and as dry as the desert.  It was a real treat having that lecture at 8:00 Monday mornings all…summer…long.  Given the sheer number of pleasures that don’t take any amount of work to enjoy, why bother with one that does?  

Things like classical music and fine art and other high-brow hobbies tend to be more of the exception to the rule.  And the rule is this: Pleasures are easy and they feel good.  And because they are so easy and generally feel so good, it is remarkably easy to get swept up in one or another and let it become the thing that defines our lives. 

Well, this morning we are in the second part of our new teaching series, Finding Meaning.  Over the next few weeks and with the personal reflection on meaning of King Solomon that we call Ecclesiastes, we are taking a look together at how we can find real meaning in our lives.   

The big idea for this conversation is that we are made for meaning.  All of us.  Every person you have ever met or will meet was created with a need to have something by which we define our lives.  People who feel like their lives have no meaning become hollow shells, drifting from place to place and thing to thing in search of something that will fill this gaping hole in their lives.  In particularly tragic and extreme situations, people who have drifted too long push their sense of meaninglessness to its logical conclusion and end their lives.  For too many of those who do feel like their lives have meaning, the meaning they’ve latched on to is something temporary.  It fills them for a time, but eventually it doesn’t anymore, leaving them searching once again. 

This is a gap in our culture where we as the church can come powerfully into play.  As we saw last week as we kicked off this conversation, we have in our possession the one thing that can give people a meaning which does not fade or wear out.   This thing is Jesus.  Life without Christ is meaningless, but when we receive the grace He offers and become part of the big story God is writing for His world, meaning and purpose pervade everything we do.  Jesus forms the only truly stable and solid foundation for meaning we have in this world.  Everything else may look strong from the outside, but it wasn’t designed to bear the weight of life and will eventually collapse if we put our existential weight on it. 

Still, search we do, and so from the safety of our firm foundation, we are going to spend our next few mornings together looking at some of the places we turn to other than Jesus in order to find meaning.  Even if these various other areas don’t represent a particular challenge for you, they do for a lot of other people—maybe even the person sitting next to you.  Because of this, it is worth our time to understand them better; to understand what is so attractive about them, the meaning they promise to give us, and the reason they always fail to deliver.  And, as we have already seen this morning, one of the chief areas people search for meaning is in pleasure.  Indeed, it was one of the first areas that Solomon pursued.  Check this out with me in Ecclesiastes 2:1 and following. 

“I said to myself, ‘Go ahead, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy what is good.’”  In other words, Solomon knew that one of the places folks regularly turn for meaning is pleasure.  So, he set out to see if any could be found in it.  His efforts ran the whole gamut.  Pick back up with me in v. 2 and let’s see what he experienced: “I said about laughter, ‘It is madness,’ and about pleasure, ‘what does this accomplish?’  I explored with my mind the pull of wine on my body—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to grasp folly, until I could see what is good for people to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.  I increased my achievements.  I built houses and planted vineyards for myself.  I made gardens and parks for myself and planted every kind of fruit tree in them.  I constructed reservoirs for myself from which to irrigate a grove of flourishing trees.  I acquired male and female servants and had slaves who were born in my house.  I also owned livestock—large herds and flocks—more than all who were before me in Jerusalem.  I also amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces.  I gathered male and female singers for myself, and many concubines, the delights of men.  So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; my wisdom also remained with me.  All that my eyes desired, I did not deny them.  I did not refuse myself any pleasure, for I took pleasure in all my struggles.  This was my reward for all my struggles.” 

That’s quite a list of accomplishments, isn’t it?  If it could be done, Solomon did it.  If it could be had, he got it.  If it could be bought, he purchased it.  If it could be made, he built it.  He set out to experience every bit of life he could.  And, for the most part—at least by the account we have here—he succeeded.  Now, we’ll take a look at his conclusions on the whole project here in a minute, but let’s jam for a second on a few of these pleasures he mentions.

He talks about laughter.  I don’t know about you, but I love to laugh.  There has been more than one scientific study of the beneficial health effects of laughter.  It really is good medicine.  And in spite of what Solomon says here, there is laughter that’s good.  And yet in the broader culture, we don’t hear much of that kind of laughter these days, do we?  We hear laughter that’s political.  Laughter that’s partisan.  Laughter rooted in the misfortune of others—this is the bread and butter of the long-running America’s Funniest Home Videos.  Laughter that’s off-color at best.  Laughter caused by things that are truly meaningless like cats doing…cat things.  You see, all laughter has a source and a direction.  The things we laugh at reflect the state of our soul.  So while laughter can certainly be good, much of it really is meaningless just like Solomon says. 

The wise king also talks about testing himself with alcohol, specifically wine.  Now, this is one of those subjects that can get a little uncomfortable, especially in a Baptist church where our history with the drink is…complicated.  As an example of a bit of positive laughter, the Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website, posted an article a few weeks ago entitled, “Entire Baptist Church Still Pretending Not to Drink.”  It reads, “Based on the church’s strong convictions, every member of the church is staunchly committed to pretend to abstain from alcohol while in the presence of other Baptists. . . .Take Ethel Carver, 82.  She credits her long life to her zealous dedication to the Lord, eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and casseroles, and pretending not to down two shots of whisky before bed every night.  ‘Ever since I was a little girl, my parents raised me right, the Baptist way,’ she said.  ‘We don’t smoke, we don’t chew, we don’t drink alcohol unless no other Baptists are around.  Just like the Bible says.’”  Now, of course, that’s all made up and silly, but it makes the point. 

Alcohol is a touchy subject and not without good reason.  It is a pursued source of pleasure that has wrecked many, many lives.  The Scriptures are explicitly clear that drunkenness is a sin, but whether you drink at all or not is between you and God.  Perhaps the bigger question here is how Solomon managed to explore “the pull of wine on [his] body” while yet maintaining his wisdom.  We can only guess at that question, but the point is that here is yet another pursuit of pleasure he found to be meaningless.  The same goes with the pursuit of pleasure in any mind- or body-altering substance.  Indeed, any “pleasure” that requires the forfeiture of our mental or physical capabilities in order to get the most out of it, isn’t really going to be very pleasurable for very long.  Being a slave isn’t very fun. 

Then Solomon drones on about his building projects and possessions and wealth and culture and the like.  Again, it’s a pretty spectacular list of accomplishments.  Some critics say the whole thing was made up by someone writing much later to boost Solomon’s reputation.  Literarily speaking, though, it has little enough in common with those kinds of ancient documents to set such criticism on pretty shaky ground.  Solomon had it all.  He had it all and what did he have to say about it?  Look at v. 11 now: “When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind.  There was nothing to be gained under the sun.” 

Seriously?  He didn’t get anything out of any of the pleasures he pursued?  None of it?  What about the incredible gardens he built?  The children he fathered?  The songs he wrote?  They people he fed?  The Temple he built?  Solomon didn’t deny he’d done a lot of stuff.  In fact, he was explicit about that.  He was saying that his pursuit of all these different sources of pleasure didn’t accomplish anything of enduring value in and of themselves.  They didn’t provide a big enough story to give his life the meaning they had promised. 

And think about the promise of meaning all of these different pleasures hold out for us.  Have you ever known anyone who always seemed to be the life of whatever party they were in?  Have you have been that person?  Laughter may bring pleasure, but when we find our identity in laughter, if nobody’s laughing, we don’t have any purpose.  We’ve talked about the emptiness of alcohol.  Perhaps it’s a good companion—that’s a decision for you to make—but it’s indisputably a terrible master.  As for the rest, surely there’s meaning there, isn’t there?  Great buildings are a monument to their creator, aren’t they?  I mean, there are some architects who have household names—Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, I. M. Pei.  Sure, but how about this: Do you know who designed the Empire State Building?  Surely there aren’t many more iconically American buildings than that one.  It should have been a lasting legacy to its designers, Charles Lamb, Arthur Harmon, Yasuo Matsui, and Gregory Johnson (who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry), but I’ll bet not a single person in this room, probably this town, and possibly even this whole county could have named one of them 30 seconds ago.  Depending on the generation in which you were born, you may know some of the most popular artists of your formative years, but if we go far enough back, I’ll bet the list of popular musicians we can name gets pretty small.  In their day, they all had a huge impact on their culture, and yet their memory is lost to history but to a select few who make studying such matters their business. 

Solomon himself is a rather gleaming example of this.  The breathtaking beauty of the Temple whose building he oversaw is legendary.  The sheer amount of gold covering nearly every surface would have been mind-blowing.  It was the kind of place where you couldn’t walk in without dropping to your knees in humble adoration of the God whose name it bore.  Situated where it was on the top of a mountain, it would have been a light for much of the world to see.  And yet, artist renderings aside, there’s not a soul alive who actually knows what it looked like.  The last of that generation died somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 years ago.  When it came to sheer wealth alone, at one point in his reign, Solomon was importing 25 tons of gold per year from his mythical African mines.  The writer of 1 Kings talks about silver becoming about as valuable as Venezuela’s currency because it was so plentiful.  And yet, the only historical record we have of the existence of any of the things he did including the fact that he lived at all is in the Scriptures.  Now, for we who accept the historical worthwhileness of that particular record, that’s enough, but whether we do or not, it’s all we have.  None of his building projects remain.  They don’t even exist as ruins uncovered by archeologists.  It’s all gone.  The only thing that remains is the Biblical record and its calls to faithfulness both in light and in spite of everything Solomon did.

So, what’s the point of all this reflecting on how Solomon’s pursuits of pleasure wound up meaning nothing more than the cautionary tales they told?  Exactly that.  The pleasures he pursued meant nothing on their own.  The only meaning pleasures of any kind afford us is when they are firmly situated in a context larger than themselves.  That’s it.  Absent that they’ve got nothing of any lasting value to offer us.  Yes, they will nearly all feel good in the moment, but taken out of context and on their own terms, the feeling doesn’t last.  It can’t. 

Indeed, a part of the reason all of these pursuits of pleasure on Solomon’s part came to nothing is that they were isolated like this.  He didn’t pursue any of them as part of any kind of a larger program or context beyond satisfying himself.  Listen again to his description of all his accomplishments starting back in v. 3, but with a little extra emphasis this time: “I increased my achievements.  I built houses and planted vineyards for myselfI made gardens and parks for myself and planted every kind of fruit tree in them.  I constructed reservoirs for myself from which to irrigate a grove of flourishing trees.  I acquired male and female servants and had slaves who were born in my houseI also owned livestock—large herds and flocks—more than all who were before me in Jerusalem.  I also amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces.  I gathered male and female singers for myself, and many concubines, the delights of men.” 

Do you hear it?  Do you hear why his pursuit of pleasure fell so short, why he ultimately describes it as futile, a pursuit of the wind, and nothing to be gained under the sun?  They were all about him.  They were all pursued for their own merit.  They were pursued as meaning unto themselves.  And that’s exactly the problem.  Pleasure of any kind isn’t big enough to sustain the weight of our lives.  Pleasure on its own can’t give us the meaning we seek.  I want you to remember that.  If you forget everything else we’ve talked about this morning, remember this one thing: Pleasure on its own can’t get us the meaning, the joy of life, that we seek.  In fact, let me help you a little more than that.  It’s easier to remember something that rhymes.  Also, the cheesier it is the better.  So, try this on for size: Pleasure may make you shout, “Oh boy!” but on its own will never bring joy.   Pleasure may make you shout, “Oh boy!” but on its own will never bring joy.  Say that with me.  “Pleasure may make you shout, “Oh boy!” but on its own will never bring joy.”  Is that cheesy enough for you?  As long as it sticks, I’m okay with that.  Pleasure may make you shout, “Oh boy!” but on its own will never bring joy. 

But…does this all mean we need to forego pleasure in order to be faithful followers of Jesus?  The ascetics of early centuries of the church thought so.  One, named Simeon the Stylite, was famous for withdrawing from society and living out his days on the top of a 50-foot pillar.  He would pull food and water up in a bucket to keep himself alive and otherwise sat up there and meditated on the Scriptures all day.  And how many Christians of the fairly recent past won for all of us a continued reputation of being priggish killjoys?  I mean, that’s the whole premise of the classic teenage rebellion movie, Footloose.  And yet, who created so many of the things in which we find joy?  Go home this afternoon and google “stunning nature images.”  The results will take your breath away.  Our God created every bit of it.  It is literally unbelievable to think that a God who is responsible for such beauty in the world around us could expect us to eschew every pleasure.  You see, the problem isn’t pleasure.  The title of the message is a little misleading on that point.  The problem isn’t pleasure at all.  Genuine pleasure—the experience of happy satisfaction and enjoyment—comes from God.  He’s the one who gives us the ability to experience real pleasure.  As I was preparing for this message, I listened to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition again in its entirety.  When I got to the final movement, I had to stop what I was doing, turn my speakers up as loud as they would go, and just soak in the incredible music.  And listening to this, can you blame me? 

It was a genuine pleasure for me.  And that was a good thing.  Pleasure is okay to pursue…in its proper context.  Pleasure may make you shout, “Oh boy!” but on its own will never bring joy. 

And just what is that context?  It has to be experienced as a gift from the creator of joy and as something which points you to give Him the glory He is due.  Because, you see, God is the greatest pleasure of all.  His presence is a delight that will never fade.  He won’t hold us captive for a constantly receding spiritual high.  Have you ever experienced that moment when you were right where you were supposed to be, doing what you were supposed to be doing and just felt good because of it?  Our souls were made for Him.  When we plant ourselves there, we will know a pleasure that no amount life can take away from us.  It will be a pleasure that can actually become foundational for all other pleasures.  We can begin to truly enjoy the fruits of God’s good world because we are enjoying the God who created it.  Trying to seek out meaning from any pleasure in this world on its own is like picking a piece out of a puzzle and marveling at its beauty apart from the larger whole.  It may indeed be a work of art on its own, but no matter how beautiful it is, it is only a piece of the much larger picture which is not only made complete by it, but which in fact makes our ability to enjoy it more complete.  Pleasure may make you shout, “Oh boy!” but on its own will never bring joy. 

Solomon couldn’t find any meaning in pleasure, and you won’t either.  But that’s only because that’s never what pleasure was for.  God created the various things of this world that bring us pleasure…to bring us pleasure, not to provide a foundation for meaning.  Again, pleasure may make you shout, “Oh boy!” but on its own will never bring joy.  So then, what do we do with them?  We enjoy them.  Immensely.  When you experience that moment of sheer delight in something you enjoy doing, relish it.  Let yourself feel the pleasure.  But don’t let it stop there.  If you do, the feeling will run out and you’ll be just as empty as you were before, maybe even more so.  You’ll be like a rubber band that gradually loses its elasticity over time.  Instead, let the pleasure direct your heart and mind to the one who is the source of every good and perfect gift.  Then it will have served its purpose—to point you in the direction of where the meaning you seek can be found.  Pleasure may make you shout, “Oh boy!” but on its own will never bring joy.  But when you put it in the context of the God who is good, you will know the joy and the meaning you seek. 

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