The Problem of Pleasure

We could accomplish everything on our bucket lists, and “it” still wouldn’t be there.

Glynn Wolfe is famous.  He’s not a sports figure or a movie star, a politician or an inventor.  His notoriety comes from having been married twenty-nine times. As soon as he met and married a woman, he would experience commitment remorse, then eventually bail out of the marriage, and begin anew with another woman.  

Why didn’t he stop the merry-go-round?  You might blame mental health issues, but we resort too easily to this explanation.  It is more likely Glynn was experiencing a part of the human condition that involves a hunger of the soul, a search for some kind of meaning.  And so he kept launching himself into the pleasure of one liaison after another—the excitement of romance, the big build-up to wedding day, the thrill of honeymoon night, and a few months, or years of marriage bliss.  Each time he would hope this one would complete him.  

Disappointment was the only outcome.  Eventually, though most of Glynn’s ex-wives were still alive, and though he had fathered some forty children, he died alone, and broke.  

The short-term rewards of pleasure never brought him the meaning his soul craved.     

The Bible bookends the human experience not with Genesis and Revelation (those are how God bookends His eternal purpose), but with Job and Ecclesiastes.  On one side, Job contains unexplained, random pain and suffering.  On the other, Ecclesiastes contains unbounded pleasure.  In the book of Job, the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.  In Ecclesiastes, the Lord gives and the Lord allows you to keep.  Have it! He says.  

Obviously, we would choose Ecclesiastes to find meaning, and avoid at all costs, the dark drama of Job.  Yet, pleasure, not pain, was the first problem of the human race.  As Eve stood in that primeval garden, everything was perfect.  There was no death or sickness, nor want of any kind.   Yet, the one thing God had prohibited, she simply couldn’t live without.  The words “good,” “delight,” and “desired” show up in Genesis 3:6, indicating she chose to follow the promise of pleasure, trusting it would lead to ultimate fulfillment.   We all know how that turned out. 

The problem was not pleasure in and of itself, but only a pleasure that dismissed God, that separated Him from what was to be enjoyed.  Without the Creator, His exquisite gifts of sex and sunsets, crashing surf, spiced apples, soft grass under bare feet, laughing children, of puppies, hot chocolate, and warm summer rain, all lose their vibrance.  Apart from the Giver, the gift will stop delivering, perhaps not immediately, but over time.  

No passage of Scripture captures this truth more effectively than Ecclesiastes chapter 2:

Eccl.  2:1 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.  9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 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. 11 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.

Solomon himself described the frustration he experienced, by writing in 3:11, “God has put eternity in a man’s heart.”  There is an existential vacuum inside of humanity, as large as the universe.  That means even if a virtual Niagara Falls of pleasure and accomplishment could pour into our hearts day and night, it would not be sufficient to fill it.   

None of the things in  Solomon’s comprehensive list worked for him.  There’s a different content out there, above and beyond those items, that we need.  

Sixteen times the Bible refers to human beings as vessels, that is, containers.  The most famous of these—Romans chapter 9—calls God a Potter, humanity  clay, and the result:  our being formed as vessels.   

 Last week we made the point that human beings were created in the image of God.  That indicates our origin.  We are not accidents.  But the thought that we are vessels indicates meaning.  We are here on earth for a purpose.  

That purpose ought to be obvious—so we can contain him. It’s like the old illustration of a hand in a glove.  As Ecclesiastes demonstrates, we could go to extravagant lengths to fill that glove with other content, but eventually common sense will dictate the glove wasn’t made for any of it.  

The prayer of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians chapter 3, makes clear God’s intention for us:

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 

Note the continued emphasis upon God’s direction—your inner being…Christ may dwell in your hearts…you may be filled. 

In a few chapters following, Paul reveals this concern is still on his mind, as he charges the Ephesians to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).

Nor is this concern something confined to one church.  The apostle also assures the Colossians that “you have been filled in Him” (Col. 2:10).  

These verses were written to Christians, but even if you’re a non-Christian, you can’t miss the potential implied here.  Human meaning itself is realized in God.    

These verses and many  others encourage us to participate in “filling.”  Even Christians must be reminded that this is not a one-time event, but a regular, ongoing experience.

Ironically, Glynn (the guy who was married twenty-nine times), was a Southern Baptist preacher!  This demonstrates how we, as believers, can be conversant with the idea that “there is a god-shaped hole inside of every man, and only God can fill it,” and lecture others on the concept, yet proceed to live as though we ourselves are empty.   To agree with it is one thing, to have the effective reality of it is another.

When I was about nineteen or twenty years old, I became acutely aware of waste.  That is, I began to feel I was throwing my life away.  I had left home already, and to me, that meant the train had left the station. It wouldn’t stop again  for another seventy-five years.  Probably I would wonder how I got there so fast. At that point I’d look back on my life, and what would I see? A pile of toys? A lot of wine, women, and song? That didn’t seem right.

I started dabbling with different ways of finding fulfillment. Since the world was on the cusp of video innovations, I tried to stuff VCRs and VHS tapes into my “glove.”   Didn’t fit.  I tried filling myself with fishing tackle, firearms, games, romance, music.  No good, either.  Nothing turned out as the missing piece.    

God was the only thing I figured would not work. I was sure a hand would never fit a glove. And yet finally at the end of a long process, on April 19th, 1984, at 9 p.m., I finally repented and believed in Jesus.  

And what do you know. He fit perfectly.

You might have been around the block already a few dozen times, and can no longer think of yourself as young.  Maybe you’ve already made quite a mess.  How could God ever want to move into your heart?  Well, for one thing, you are correct.  You have made a mess of your past.  Sinful deeds haunt your memories now, reminding you of what you’ve done, forbidding you to get involved with God.  

Once again though, I have to remind you that is exactly why Jesus died on the cross.  He poured out precious blood there, not only for forgiveness, not only for peace, not only for heaven.  

But so God could move in.


Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green;
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen:
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
Flowers with deeper Beauty shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am his, and he is mine. 

George Wade Robinson, (1838-1877) 

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