Sunday, March 16, 2008

Essay - Understanding Right Pleasures

In his article “The Pursuit of Happiness in Perspective,” Darrin McMahon warns against the pursuit of happiness. He points out that even the fact that we can have this discussion is a luxury - “the privilege of peoples whose more pressing needs have been satisfied already.” True, the discussion is a luxury, but it the actual pursuit? For him, the answer is a resounding yes, because his view of pursuing happiness is that of Huxley’s masses in Brave New World:

…. Consuming in abundance, indulging their desires

without guilt or inhibition, distracting themselves

with the virtual reality of films with simple plots

and the cult of youth.

If this is all it means to pursue happiness, then I agree with the heavyweights, J. S. Mill and George Orwell, that it is indeed counter-productive to try to find happiness by pursuing it. Barry Schwartz wrote a follow-up essay in which he agreed with McMahon that there is a problem, but says it is not pursuing happiness that causes it, but pursuing pleasure. He says,

I think McMahon is right that the unbridled pursuit

of pleasure is cause for alarm. I think he’s wrong

that the pursuit of happiness is equivalent to the

pursuit of pleasure.

He adds that “for many of us, the pursuit of happiness has become equivalent to the pursuit of pleasure. Of course it has. This seems obvious. Happiness and pleasure can only be separated in rhetoric. In discussions like these, definitions can be narrowed and nuanced until it is logically possible to be happy without having pleasure. But it doesn’t work in real life. When we are happy, we are taking pleasure in something.

Marriage, work, children, reading, sex, eating, conversation, Jesus - these are all sources of pleasure (and there are, of course hundreds more). They vary in their value and in the kind of pleasure they bring, but none of them is trivial and all of them can be a part of true, meaningful happiness.

Schwartz and McMahon are right that if pleasures is only the banal sedatives of Brave New World, then it is not the source of happiness and is certainly not worth pursuing. But why would we define it that way? If happiness and pleasure are worthless and vain, then what is left to describe the emotions of deep joy?

Schwartz concludes in his essay by saying,

Our task then, is not so much to criticize efforts to

increase happiness. It is instead to make sure that

we are trying to increase happiness, “rightly


Absolutely! We want to strive for real happiness. But wouldn’t the same reasoning he uses to defend happiness lead us to say that it is also our task to make sure we are trying to increase pleasure - as long as it is pleasure “rightly understood”?

But what kind of pleasure is that? Now comes the acid test. The Scripture is filled with the synonym for happiness: joy. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he states emphatically, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control..” (5:22, 23). Yes joy! True joy does not come from the world or it’s offerings, but from the Spirit. Joy in serving Him, joy in worshipping Him, joy in obeying Him. In this vain, joy can even manifest itself so that we find true joy in His blessings, chiefly grace and mercy, but also giving our time to others less fortunate, doing special things for people in need or hurting. We can even find joy in the simple things: children, flowers, the sun and rain, reading His Word and praying and meditating on Scripture. In a so-called microwave society, we get so impacted and turned around by our things and choices that are supposed to influence our joy, but only overload our sense of desire to get back to basics of the fundamental meaning of joy.

I’m not saying eliminate our possessions at the exclusion of finding joy, or stop doing this, that and the other, but many of us can change our focus in the things that allegedly give us happiness. Pursuing happiness rightly is to change one’s perspective. Being Christ-centered and pursuing a God-ward relationship is the key to real, time-tested happiness. From there, all else will fit in: the important things in life without the added stress, heartache or the drama.

The Christ-centered believer is joyfully ambitious only for the performance of God’s holy will and the display of His self-sacrificing love. Just as our Saviour came to serve rather than to be served (2 Cor 5:28), so the true Christian lives to bless and serve others rather than himself. Spiritual stature will be measured by God according to how close a resemblance the believer bears to the Christ of the cross. Joy comes in serve to others.

Many who are seeking to accept Jesus as their Savior or those who come to Christ figure that they have to give up something or some things. Yes, your life! But salvation is gain in that it is one step closer to true joy. At the same time, your joy does not necessarily change outside circumstances (unless God chooses to intervene). Your joy in Him is a shield to allow you to glide through the turbulent times. Joy comes through faith and obedience:

“their mourning into joy.” (Jer 31:13)

“joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17)

“make my joy complete.” Phil 2:2

“a joyful heart is good.” (Prov 17:22)

“to praise God joyfully. (Luke 19:37)

This is pleasure (happiness, joy) rightly understood.


No comments: