After Church: Pleasure and Christianity?

Allow me to present a particular example, without context, that has been bothering me for quite some time.

I was born and raised an Evangelical Baptist; notably, there are certain connotations that arise from such a connection. Probably the most prominent is the constant focus, especially for young persons, to get married as quickly as possible. My parents, who were married in their late 20s, were not at all concerned by this particular part of the “Christian culture”, and basically let me do what I please. The impetus for getting married early stems from several sources: parental concerns (or forcing marriage), trying to kick one’s children out of the house, and probably the most prominent culprit, a fear of sin.

I’m not saying, of course, that fear of sin is a bad thing; all Christians, at some point or another, need to recognize sin in their own lives, confront it, pray about it, and take steps to correct it. What I am worried about is when the fear of sin takes over one’s life, until all other concerns hold second billing. That includes Christ, of course; I’ve seen this phenomenon in just about every Christian environment I’ve ever entered. Some call it “legalism”, and it is still around, believe it or not. Even Catholic doctrine has mostly eliminated this particular strain, but it remains in Evangelical circles all the more.

Thus, “pleasure” enters into the discussion. The problem, in my view, is that pleasure gains a negative connotation – I.e., a connection to “sin”. So, things such as watching movies, listening to music, playing video games, drinking alcohol and venturing at all into popular cultures becomes falsely conflated with “sin”, and ultimately banned from “true Christians”.

Pleasure, as I define it, is the enjoyment of any particular activity, physical or mental. This can go from intellectual delights such as philosophical and theological discussion (hey, the point of this here blog!) or as base as…well, anything you can name that doesn’t involve such activities. A great meal (gourmand, here). Video games. Pleasure, like anything else, is good in moderation, bad in both excess and forced decession. Moderation, as a word, isn’t really found in the Bible, but temperance exemplifies the same context. It’s found in both the Testaments, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. – Philippians 4:5 NKJV

And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. – 1 Corinthians 9:25a NKJV

Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls. – Proverbs 25:28 NKJV

And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; – Ephesians 5:18 KJV

For the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty. – Proverbs 23:21a NKJV

24 There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. 25 For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? 26 For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God’s sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 2

It’s clear that those who also believe in sola scriptura abandoned the parts they don’t like. Apparently, from what I’ve heard as of late, Jesus was a social justice missionary who told people to work themselves to death until they die. The stakes are high and eternity is long, so they say. This would be a problem, I’d imagine, if it was all up to me as a human being. Reading Job, I was struck by the idea that God puts human beings in control:

17 ‘Can mankind be just before God?
Can a man be pure before his Maker?
18 ‘He puts no trust even in His servants;
And against His angels He charges error.
19 ‘How much more those who dwell in houses of clay,
Whose foundation is in the dust,
Who are crushed before the moth!
20 ‘Between morning and evening they are broken in pieces;
Unobserved, they perish forever.
21 ‘Is not their tent-cord plucked up within them?
They die, yet without wisdom.’

Verse 18, especially, interested me terribly. Assuming that we’re looking at divinely inspired Scripture, the righteous man Eliphaz indicates that God gives us tasks, but doesn’t trust in us to do them. Huh? What? Shock! I’m pretty convinced that God doesn’t place us in control; rather, he makes us active participants in the redemption process. Ultimately, it’s up to the Creator, but that’s why we are “co-heirs” Christ. We are still only children, but God is the Father. You would imagine that this would involve a father’s perceptive eye that he can’t treat his children like slaves, right? Maybe I’m just taking the metaphor a bit too far, but you get the idea.

Paul repeatedly states that Christ has freed us from the Law, yet we try to “reintegrate” it into ours lives as often as possible. God gives you freedom, but we impose limits because we can’t handle it. Have we not learned that the “wages of sin is death”? Why, exactly, would we regress willingly to a state before Christ saved humanity? It is, in fact, the fear of freedom. We need to control ourselves, and we certainly have the power in Christ to do so, but our need FOR control drives us to create arbitrary rules for ourselves (I’m talking about Christians, here) that aren’t necessarily Scriptural. It doesn’t apparently matter that Jesus turns water into wine and gets everyone drunk there (and we have no idea how good a drinker Jesus was, either), and certainly nothing is said of it in Scripture. Jesus comes “eating and drinking”, unlike John the Baptist; that’s an exercise in contrasts. People even justify their abstinence from drinking by convincing themselves that “wine” in the Bible is some kind of different, low alcohol content fermented substance. Christians don’t need to dilute themselves, but control themselves.

As such, “pleasure” is never the antithesis of Christianity, but a central component. This is not quite John Piper’s Christian Hedonism (God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. ), but it’s a start. When Christians reject pleasure, which God obviously created us with the capacity to have, whatever it might be, we reject a part of the creation. Like everything else, pleasure has been corrupted by sin, but that can’t mean we avoid it altogether. It’s simply a part of human existence, whether one likes it or not. You might, even by accident, experience pleasure; what differentiates one from the other is your motive behind such pleasurable activities. When Christ states that sin begins in the mind, he isn’t joking. You can even take pleasure in NOT having pleasure, a kind of pride.

Let’s all say this boils down to Christians needing temperance and self-control. Still, what greater pleasure is there than to be saved in Christ? The ones experienced on earth give us glimpses, mere flashes, of heavenly pleasure, of a perfect world, of an Eden that has been hidden away. Why deny such things, if done in the proper mode. As such, pleasure isn’t antithetical, but essential. We must rejoice, nay, are commanded as such (Philippians 4:4 ), and we should do so willingly. Joy should be a pleasure in itself; everything just adds to it.

That’s why I play video games, after all – pleasure.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.