One of the oldest searches known to humanity is the search for happiness. Perhaps the widest path cut in this search is the path of pleasure. One of those who espoused this path was Epicurus, a Greek who lived more than 2,300 years ago.
Epicurus believed the purpose of life was the pursuit of personal happiness. By happiness he did not simply mean well-being; he meant sensuous pleasure. Epicurus did not believe in an afterlife. Since we are going around only once, he thought, we might as well grab all the gusto we can get.
In a letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus wrote: “We recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.”
Epicurus is dead, but his ideas are not. In the search for happiness, the path of pleasure is as wide as ever. People still use pleasure as the standard to judge every good.
We don’t eat simply to survive and be healthy. We eat because we like how something tastes. Many people don’t have sex simply because it’s one of the most intimate experiences God designed for a husband and wife. People have sex because it brings pleasure.
According to Alice Frying in her book, Seven Lies About Sex, people who have sex outside of marriage usually believe one of three things: (1) if we are truly in love, sex is OK; (2) if I want it so badly, it must be natural and therefore OK; (3) if God doesn’t take away my desire, it must be OK. Following these as value statements means that the pursuit of pleasure is more important than the pursuit of holiness.
C.S. Lewis said: “It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness. The sweetness is still a beam from the glory. That does not palliate the stealing. It makes it worse. There is sacrilege in the theft. We have abused a holy thing.” We abuse a holy thing when sex is only about pleasure and people are only objects in our pursuit of fulfilling a desire.
Barna Research Group Online reports that in 2001 the most common basis for moral decision-making was doing whatever feels right or doing what is comfortable in a given situation. Nearly four out of 10 teens (38 percent) and three out of 10 adults (31 percent) described this as their primary consideration in decision-making.
Here lies the source of many of our problems. As citizens, we learn that every American has the right to pursue happiness. However, many of us are turning the pursuit of happiness into the god of pleasure.
Pleasure is like a “strangler fig” plant that encases a tree, shields it from light and steals its nourishment. Pleasure covers our thoughts and motives. It puts a stranglehold on our wallets, time, priorities, bodies and minds. Our desire for pleasure keeps growing until we are completely encased in its clutches.
Long before Epicurus lived, Solomon created gardens and parks, amassed wealth, and kept a harem of beautiful women. He wrote in Ecclesiastes that he decided to test life with pleasure to find out what was good.
But every pleasure proved to be meaningless. “I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Eccl 2:10-11).
The pursuit of pleasure as the first innate good strangled the life out of Solomon. He chased every pleasure imaginable and discovered it was like chasing the wind.
God is not against pleasure. Remember, it is God who created us with appetites, desires, and as sensual beings. But God also created us as spiritual beings. Without being connected to God through Jesus—whom the New Testament calls the True Vine—our ability to discern holy pleasure from unholy pleasure is diminished.
Ultimately, holiness brings happiness that is lasting. Pleasure is only one of the many aspects of holiness. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “the temperate man does not shun all pleasures, but those that are immoderate, and contrary to reason.”
It is not God’s highest priority that we experience pleasure with every decision we make. Epicurus was wrong. Pleasure is not the first good innate in us. The first good innate in us is the desire to connect with the Highest Good, who grants us the wisdom to know when pleasure is profitable and when pleasure is vain.
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column first appeared in The Moultrie Observer.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.