By Jesse Jost
“If anyone desires to come after Me,
let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.”
What comes to your mind when you think of pleasure? Do you feel the same way Walter Bagehot did when he quipped, “The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do”? Or do you think of God?
Think about it. Who created pleasure? Was it Satan’s idea, or God’s? Satan gives us the false impression that he has the patent number on pleasure. His first lie to Eve was that God was withholding something special from her and Adam. He told her that if they did things his way, they would find real fulfillment. Since that time, he has been constantly modifying and adjusting this lie to fit each appropriate circumstance. He harps on the old song that God is trying to deprive us, to rob us of pleasure. He deceives us into thinking that surrender to God will result in sheer misery.
But who created pleasure? God did. He offers real pleasure to anyone who will comply with His conditions. David took God at His word and accepted the offer. Here is what he subsequently told his Creator in Psalm 16: 11, “You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” And in Psalm 36:8 he said, “They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house, and you give them drink from the river of Your pleasures.”
David had tasted real pleasure. He knew that God meant for us to live satisfied and pleasurable lives. God has created so many things that are pleasurable: work, play, marriage, children (most of the time), eating, nature, etc. But He also created us to find the greatest expression of pleasure when our soul is communion with its Creator. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
But we spoil things. We would rather have things our way than accept this awesome gift. We decide to take matters into our own hands and gullibly swallow Satan’s lie. This self-centered attitude is the true robber of pleasure. We need to understand that when Satan tempts us to sin, he is in reality telling us, “I’ve twisted some of God’s pleasures. Sure, they’re not as enjoyable now and you will miss out on life’s greatest pleasure, but if you come with me, I’ll make sure you never shiver from the cold again.” The sad thing is, Satan has billions of takers.
One thing we rebellious earthlings refuse to realize is that obedience to God brings pleasure. When God gives a command it is always for our good; His rules are for our pleasure. Our prideful and self-centered fallen natures make it nearly impossible for us to see this. We foolishly take our God-given desires and insist on fulfilling those desires our way. We become lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. Pleasure is not to be sought as an end in itself. Pursuit of mere pleasure results in ruin and meaninglessness. If you need convincing, read Ecclesiastes. Pleasure was meant to be a by-product of knowing God and doing His will.
You may be thinking at this point that if all this is true, why does Christ tell us to deny ourselves and to take up our cross? Jesus does not ask us to deny ourselves as an end in itself, but to do so for the purpose of following Him. Jesus knows the condition of our rebellious and deceitful hearts. We would rather be the captain of our ship than really enjoy life. As a result, we must die to our old natures in order to see the truth. In this world’s fallen state, God will ask us to relinquish or avoid certain things for several reasons. Sometimes it is because it will harm us, other times God is testing our faith. Most of the time it is because God has something better for us – Himself. I love the lines from Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven.”
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
While we are to deny ourselves, I don’t believe the Christian life should consist of merely suppressing our desires. Proverbs 13:8 says that “when desire is fulfilled it is a tree of life.” It is true that fleshly desires ruin us. However, just suppressing these sinful desires, as Gautama Buddha taught, is not enough. We need to let the Holy Spirit purify and increase our desires for what God has for us. Our problem is that we are far too easily pleased, satisfied with cheap trinkets when infinite wealth is offered us. Paul prayed that the saints in Ephesus would have the eyes of their understanding enlightened, that they would know the hope of God’s calling, and the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints. (Eph. 1:18)
We need to realize how awesome this inheritance is. Our present affliction is but for a moment and is not worthy to be compared with the glory of Heaven. Moses was an excellent example of this. The book of Hebrews says, “By faith Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches then the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward.” (Heb 11:24-26; emphasis mine)
Satan tries to get us to focus on what we are losing. Instead, we must focus on what we are gaining. In this life we see numerous examples of people exchanging immediate gratification for long-term rewards. Athletes will give up ease and comfort for the much greater reward of a medal. Dieters will give up the temporal enjoyment of fattening foods for the much greater reward of being healthy and energetic again. A wise man abstains from the temporary gratification of immoral pleasures for the much greater pleasure of a strong marriage and a wife who can trust him. If we see these benefits here on earth, how much greater are the benefits of exchanging the heartbreak of a life spent in serving Self for the eternal rewards of a life that is spent serving its Creator! As martyr Jim Elliot put it, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” I know that even now, Mr. Elliot is reaping the benefits of his wise choice and for all eternity will enjoy the pleasures of God.
“Father, enable us to fervently desire your best, to see the folly of sin, and to keep in mind what you told Abram, ‘I am your exceedingly great Reward!’”