James (Steve) Clay, MABC, LPC
In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape, a senior demon, writes a series of letters to his nephew, Wormwood, an apprentice demon, advising him in how to tempt a man, known as “the Patient.” Having failed to keep “the Patient” from the gift of salvation, Wormwood is now on a quest to steer him toward an ineffective and joyless Christianity. In an interesting passage in chapter nine, Screwtape informs Wormwood of a chief characteristic of humans that can serve as their inevitable downfall. He writes:
You are much more likely to make our man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne when he is dull and weary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy and expansive. Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His [God’s] invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure so that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.
Misuse of Pleasure?
What Screwtape identifies as a vulnerability of humans is the misunderstandings about and misuse of pleasure. Pleasures—all of them derived from God—are intended for the good of man. Yet frequently they become snares useful to the real Enemy (Satan) when they are pursued by fallen people living in a sinful, broken world. In this state, pleasure become a veritable source of suffering and misery.
In many ways, a personal pursuit of pleasure reveals fallenness, both in what is sought and in how it is pursued. As Screwtape incisively observes, pleasure is, on the other hand, of God. To Wormwood, then, it is imperative that it be used in conjunction with fallenness in order that it might become a lethal tool in his arsenal of tactical weapons. How the are we to think of pleasure? References of pleasure are frequent in scripture—both in reference to God and to man. The scriptures, for instance, say of God, “but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 147:11). Many of the references to man’s pleasure warn against those things in which pleasure would only bring him harm. For instance, 2 Timothy 3:2-5 declares:
For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
Pleasure as a source of suffering?
Thought of from another angle, the seeking after and enjoyment of temporal pleasure can become a type of suffering—an existential emptiness of the soul that leaves one without a sense of purpose and, thus, leading toward despair. Perhaps ultimate suffering is to see no value in life—that all of life becomes seen as a painful joke, foisted upon us by a remote, uncaring God. G. K. Chesterson wrote: "Meaninglessness ultimately comes not from being weary of pain but from being weary of pleasure." In this regard, perhaps the most despondent moments come when indulging a most desired experience, one that was believed would bring the ultimate sense of pleasure, and yet it has betrayed you, leaving you empty. This is especially true when it has come at the expense of a conviction that is tied to your sense of identity.
What is the importance of this reality? We can derive from it that it is not so much the sting of pain that has the power to steal our sense of meaning, but rather misdirected, frustrated and unsatisfied pleasure. In it we feel the pervasive and disorienting disappointment of a continual search for happiness and meaning. Said succinctly, for the person who arrives at the point where the continual musings of the mind revolve around the rumination of “Is this it?!, meaninglessness and commensurate suffering are inevitable. Is there any wonder that so many have tried hedonism (not Christian Hedonism, in which we seek pleasure in God Himself) and found it wanting . . . only to turn to nihilism. Solomon notes all of this as he writes in the book attributed to him for its wisdom:
So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him, God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:9-11; 22-26)
Such are the words of a man who tried it all, found only temporal pleasure, and who, at least at that point in his life, failed to see the purpose and meaning of life. All was vanity. Today we might call this depression . . . God calls it a man coming to the end of himself. Later, Solomon would come to the sobering conclusion that wise is the man who learns to “fear God and keep His commandments” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). His reference point had changed from himself to God.
A Search for Meaning
So if pleasure in the created order, apart from God, brings meaninglessness, where is meaning to be found? It can only be found in wonder and awe. And wonder and awe can only come from one Who cannot be fully comprehended and yet seeks to make Himself known and enjoyed. At the Cross we see Him on full display . . . His justice, His love, His holiness, His humility. All those things that we long for, admire, are moved by, wonder at, and hope are formed in us . . . are seen in the Cross. God's greatest gift of delight comes to us when we find our greatest delight in Him. Our most ardent attempts to find pleasure apart from Him ultimately fail.
Why then do we seek meaning in any other places? People are naturally depraved fools, unable to fully see the glory and wonder of God and His grace. We are fools in need of our Savior's wisdom--wisdom that bids us look unto the things above and not below (Colossians 3:1-3). The Cross is the wisdom of God. The Cross fills us with wonder. The Cross calls us to live for another kingdom. The Cross, and nothing else, makes sense out of our existence, for it leads us to the God who provides there what are greatest need calls for. The Cross shows us God’s glory in His unfathomable love and grace. Unredeemed hearts cannot see or wonder at such love. But God, being rich in His grace, has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6b)
Never! God created us to enjoy His creation and all its pleasures, but always in reference to Him, the Giver of all good gifts. We find our greatest pleasure in being filled with wonder of Him and living as to please Him by seeking our joy in Him by faith (Hebrew 11:6). The Psalmist declared the same in saying, “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11b)
As we seek to point others to the Lord, let us be careful to help them see the futility of earthly pursuits for pleasure that ultimately germinate frustration, hopelessness, and despair. But let’s go further. Let’s point them to Christ as not only the one who by His death pardons sinners, but also by regeneration of their hearts, enables them to see His glory as inexpressibly beautiful and more pleasurable than all else. That vision of His glory will launch them on a pursuit for pleasure that will not be frustrated or come to an end, but will build toward and last forever in eternity. Let us emphasize that finding pleasure in God is God’s work. Engage in humble prayer in recognition of this truth. Seek the Lord that He might help you see more of Himself, that He might be glorified in being enjoyed.