The End of Pleasure | The Voice 12.08: February 20, 2022

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The Voice

The End of Pleasure

I thought to myself, “Come now, I will try self-indulgent pleasure to see if it is worthwhile.”
But I found that it also is futile.
I said of partying, “It is folly,” and of self-indulgent pleasure, “It accomplishes nothing!”
I thought deeply about the effects of indulging myself with wine (all the while my mind was guiding me with wisdom) and the effects of behaving foolishly, so that I might discover what is profitable for people to do on earth during the few days of their lives. I increased my possessions: I built houses for myself; I planted vineyards for myself. I designed royal gardens and parks for myself, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I constructed pools of water for myself, to irrigate my grove of flourishing trees. I purchased male and female slaves, and I owned slaves who were born in my house; I also possessed more livestock – both herds and flocks – than any of my predecessors in Jerusalem. I also amassed silver and gold for myself, as well as valuable treasures taken from kingdoms and provinces. I acquired male singers and female singers for myself, and what gives a man sensual delight – a harem of beautiful concubines! So I was far wealthier than all my predecessors in Jerusalem, yet I maintained my objectivity: I did not restrain myself from getting whatever I wanted; I did not deny myself anything that would bring me pleasure. So all my accomplishments gave me joy; this was my reward for all my effort.
Yet when I reflected on everything I had accomplished and on all the effort that I had expended to accomplish it, I concluded: “All these achievements and possessions are ultimately profitless – like chasing the wind! There is nothing gained from them on earth” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)

The Preacher has seen the end game of pleasure. It is absurdity and a chasing after wind.

The Preacher has established the core emphasis of his message: everything is hevel, a vapor, futile, absurd (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2). Time under the sun proves cyclical: what has happened before will happen again; there is nothing truly new on the earth (Ecclesiastes 1:3-11). Man’s activities and behavior are a “chasing after wind”: pursuing them for their own ends will never lead to getting much of anything permanent; even the pursuit of wisdom is chasing the wind, since wisdom leads to greater frustration and vexation with the way things are (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18).

The Preacher’s message is a hard pill to swallow. We humans do not like to imagine our existence as ephemeral and our labors ultimately futile; we invest a lot of energy into our pretenses of meaning and permanence. The Preacher’s audience can think of many objections and difficulties with what he is trying to advance. To this end the Preacher developed his theme by expanding on many of its components.

The Preacher began such expansions by considering pleasure. The desires and passions of life are basic and primal: humans want to avoid pain and thus to enjoy some level of pleasure. We want life to be enjoyable and pleasant. We want to satisfy our desires. We think this is well and good for us.

“We” should be taken very literally and seriously: the Preacher might be adumbrating the general posture of Epicureanism in the tenth century BCE, but many in the Western world have fully accepted it, however unconsciously, as the default philosophy of modern secularism. What do a lot of people imagine the universe to be? Mostly dead, having developed essentially by chance. Thus, how should people live? We cannot expect to find much meaning intrinsically in the world, so we should do what we can to avoid pain and to find some enjoyment in life. This is what Epicurus had advanced 2300 years ago; this is how many modern people imagine is the way of the world.

But is life really all about comfort and enjoyment? What if we could play out the end game of comfort and enjoyment: if we could have all comfort and all enjoyment, would we find joy and satisfaction? If we could truly avoid pain, would we find life satisfying?

Most of us can only play out this end game in theory. The Preacher, however, can speak from experience, and relied on his personal testimony to provide wisdom regarding the end of pleasure. As Solomon, king of Israel, he was infamous for his great wealth in power, riches, wisdom, and women (Ecclesiastes 2:1-10; cf. 1 Kings 3:1-10:29). So he fully indulged in pleasure. He withheld nothing from himself: he partied. He got all the possessions he wanted. He built houses and elaborate gardens. He owned slaves, livestock, silver, gold, and plenty of jewels. He enjoyed the performance of great singers. He enjoyed the fleshly pursuits with many wives and concubines. In terms of wealth and pleasure, it seemed good to be the king.

Therefore, if anyone could tell us whether or not pleasure could really satisfy, it would be the Preacher. But what did he conclude? It was futile, foolish, accomplished nothing, and was a chasing after wind (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 10-11).

The Preacher’s conclusion might seem harsh and dismissive but proved true. For example, consider some delicious food. We can enjoy the sensual experience of the first bite: the flavors, the texture, the quality of the food. We may enjoy another few bites. Yet after a few bites the food cannot replicate that first experience. Those who use drugs recreationally bear witness in a similar way: the first high might prove to be a powerful and exhilarating experience, and such people will continue to use the drugs to attempt to enjoy that experience again. Yet future highs never quite reach the same level as the first one; often more and more of the drug is required to get any kind of experience; ultimately, those who use those drugs become dependent on and truly enslaved to them. Every other pleasurable pursuit will end in the same way: we become habituated to the experience and it does not provide as much pleasure as it used to. We have to put in a lot more effort to receive diminishing returns of enjoyment. And none of this even begins to touch the process of aging and decay and its concomitant effects on the ability to enjoy pleasures.

Jesus would provide similar wisdom a millennium later: what would a person gain if they gained the whole world but would forfeit their lives (Matthew 16:26)? If all we are living for is comfort and pleasure, what will we do when we can no longer enjoy either? How much are we sacrificing, and how many people are we hurting, in order to obtain something ephemeral and can never deliver on its promises?

Thus the Preacher has explored the end of pleasure for us. Pleasure promises much but delivers little. We cannot find comfort, deliverance, or rescue in pleasure. At the bottom of that well can only be disillusionment, frustration, and pain. Life cannot be just about satisfying our desires. May we instead seek to find deliverance, joy, life, and rescue in God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Voice 5.14: April 05, 2015

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The Voice

Gods of This World: Stuff

And he said unto them, Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth (Luke 12:15).

The pursuit of things, or stuff, is an age-old story. We have not added a new twist to that story; we have simply “succeeded” in ways which would seem fantastic to previous generations. Our lives today are saturated with stuff.

Jesus, having warned the people to keep themselves from covetousness and reminding them that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, tells a parable about a man whose land had produced plentifully; he decided to tear down his barns so as to build larger ones (Luke 12:16-17). Americans can relate to that story: even though household size has diminished in size over the past few decades, the size of the average house has increased. People need more room in their houses to store all the stuff they keep buying! We cannot escape the message; marketers have done their task well. Everywhere we look we are bombarded with advertisements enticing us to buy more things. They would make it seem as if our lives would not be complete without the newest technology, the complete set of dishes, etc. We are known for being a consumerist society, but it seems that one of our major problems is that we are not actually consuming what we purchase; we just keep storing up stuff!

We may store stuff. but it does not take very long before we become overwhelmed by it. How many times do we have the urge to purge our stuff? What happens if we think about the prospect of moving: do we break out into a cold sweat just imagining the trial of having to figure out what to do with all that stuff? All of a sudden we start to wonder if our stuff is subtly but surely becoming our master!

Compulsive hoarding Apartment

Why do we heap up so many goods and items? We have many things because we use them in order to live or make life a bit more effective or pleasant (things like houses, cars, dishes, cookware, food, drink, etc.). We keep some things because they commemorate our activities or because we associate them with pleasant memories. We find other things are useful to keep around when needed: tools, emergency supplies, etc. Yet sometimes we get stuff and keep stuff because it suits our pride or vanity, attempting to “keep up with the Joneses.” Sometimes we just like the feeling we get when we obtain stuff.

Obtaining and maintaining possessions is not inherently problematic or wrong; while on earth all early Christians, and Jesus Himself, obtained and used food, clothing, necessary supplies, and even luxuries like expensive ointment (e.g. Matthew 26:6-13). Jesus does not condemn the rich man of Luke 12:16-21 simply for being rich but because he laid up treasure for himself while not being rich toward God. Thus it is not inherently problematic or wrong for us to have houses, cars, food, drink, cookware, technology, etc.

Yet we must always be aware that our possessions can become as our god; such is when our obsession with stuff becomes a snare and sin to us. The rich man in Luke 12:16-21 put his trust not in God who gave him abundance but in the abundance itself; he had no answer to God when his soul was demanded of him before he expected it. Such is why Jesus gives the pointed reminder of Luke 12:15: we must not fall prey to covetousness, because our lives do not consist of our possessions!

Thus we cannot define ourselves or be defined by the stuff we have, obtain, and/or use. We can store up supplies for an emergency or a rainy day, but such is no guarantee of safety. As humans we are very easily tempted to put our trust in the things that we have stored up around us and to forget that we must put our trust in the One who allowed us to obtain all such things. We do well to remember that we came into this world with nothing, and we shall take nothing out of it (1 Timothy 6:7).

Such a warning is equally apt in terms of sentimentality. Television shows abound with people known as “hoarders,” whose houses are filled to the brim with stuff collected over many years. When such people are profiled it becomes evident that their hoarding of possessions is a symptom of a much greater problem, either some sort of insecurity or the investiture of great emotional significance into a wide variety of goods. While it is natural and understandable for us to associate certain objects with memories and emotional significance, our lives do not consist of our possessions, and we can all too easily make too much of them. Life is but a vapor; a natural disaster could easily destroy all of our goods, and if we have our lives, we have not lost any of our humanity. It is a blessing to keep memories; it is good to preserve keepsakes; but we must always keep such things in perspective.

Modern life is awash in things and stuff. Christians must always remember that our lives do not consist of the abundance of our possessions. Our possessions can never truly make us safe, they cannot make us more human, and they cannot fully preserve memories. Life is worth living, not because of stuff, but because of God and our fellow human beings; we came into the world with nothing, and we cannot take our stuff with us. Let us put our trust and our investments in God and not in our stuff!

Ethan R. Longhenry