Have you ever taken the Lay’s potato chip challenge and tried to eat just one? It’s not easy! Or consider the Pringles slogan: “Once you pop, the fun don’t stop!” Even though we know there are healthier options, those chips taste so good that we want to keep eating more.
On a more serious note, though, we often find it hard to refrain from unhealthy, non-food indulgences as well. Why? Our sinful hearts easily turn pleasurable experiences into idol worship. We encounter something good, and then we often treat that thing as ultimately fulfilling. Have you ever been given a good gift, like sex within marriage, only to use it wrongly, such as a source of pleasure only for yourself and not for your spouse? We usually don’t view pleasure as a good gift from God to be received with thanksgiving. Instead, we see it as a need or a right. The idol then has the chance to persuade your heart to continue feasting, to keep coming back for more pleasure.
Whenever you believe that life is truly found in a certain pleasure, you will continue to experience a gravitational pull in its direction. You will be torn between fighting sin and believing you can’t live without it.
But God wants us to understand life and pleasure in a very different way. Pleasure in itself is not bad. It’s a natural response to anything good that comes from God. C.S. Lewis shows us how pleasure goes awry in his book, The Screwtape Letters. Speaking from the standpoint of one demon to another, he writes, “All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent to its Maker, and least pleasurable.¹”
Pleasure in its truest essence always finds its source in God. Sexual pleasure is not the problem. The problem resides in the receptor of pleasure, our hearts. As Lewis points out, our problem is that we indulge in sexual pleasure in forbidden times, ways, and degrees. We do this because we believe sexual pleasure will bring us life, justifying in our hearts our willingness to disobey God’s commands.
So what can you do to seek deeper transformation and experience pleasure as God intended? Here are three suggestions.
Cultivate a Heart of Thankfulness
Sinful pleasure has a dreadful way of killing our enjoyment of life. We become desensitized to so many good gifts while simultaneously becoming ultra-sensitized to one specific pleasure that controls our affections, time, and energy. Start re-sensitizing yourself to simple, good pleasures in life by thanking God for the food you eat, the bed you sleep in, the relationships in your life, and so on. Of course, all of these temporal pleasures from our benevolent Father pale in comparison to the pleasure found in our union with Christ.
Pursue Pleasure as an Act of Worship
God created you for worship. And while there are clearly-defined, formal ways in which God requires his people to worship him, he created you to bring him praise and glory in unique ways as well. In Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell, an Olympic gold medalist, said, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” For Eric, running was an act of worship. Running brought him incredible joy and fulfillment. But he also refused to let running be his source of life. As the movie shows, when the pleasure of running was offered in a way that stirred Eric’s conscience, he refrained.
How has God made you to feel his pleasure? In what unique ways has he called you into worshipful activities? Whether it is painting, reading, playing sports, parenting, or cooking, acknowledge your Creator and Redeemer in those moments. The more you live before God with your pleasure, the greater power you will have to resist turning that pleasure into an idol.
Fasting as a Way of Realignment
What are those things in your life that aren’t sinful in and of themselves, but that you use in degrees that are sinful? These are things that take too much of your time, attention, and affection, showing that your heart is out of alignment. Are you over-exercising, over-eating, scrolling social media with a jealous heart, or interrupting others in conversation to make sure your own opinion is voiced? Just as a car needs a realignment if it’s veering to one side, so too our hearts need realignment. Fasting is one powerful and purposeful way to give up those activities that you know sinfully pull on your heart. I would recommend at least a week-long fast. The degree of pain and struggle you go through to give that up is indicative of the life you were deriving from it. Allow your fast to be a time of repentance and also a time of true pleasure and life, which can only come from the Life-giver.
Idols lie to us that we are foregoing enjoyment when we forsake them. But nothing could be further from the truth. Idols take your heart’s capacity to enjoy infinite pleasures at God’s right hand (Psalm 16:11) and shrivel it up, so that you can only enjoy the confined, ever-shrinking space of creature-worship. Believe instead that your heavenly Father will give you “fullness of joy” in his presence.
¹C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996), 44.
You can also watch the video, How Does Jesus Meet Us in Our Desires?, which corresponds to this blog.