All posts tagged Pleasure

Precision within Idolatry

Note: This post was originally published on the Biblical Counseling Coalition blog “Grace & Truth.” I would highly recommend this organization as a clearinghouse for excellent materials in Biblical Counseling. This post has since been critiqued by Dr. Jay Adams on his blog at nouthetic.org. Next week I will post a reply to Dr. Adams’ critique in which I hope to demonstrate that the content of this blog is not an attempt to be “new” to draw an audience, but rooted in Scriptural directives and example.

One of the areas in which I believe Biblical Counseling can grow is the precision with which we think of idolatry. I am not referring to our ability to identify the object of idolatry: a person, money, an experience, etc… Neither do I mean just singling out the desire that fuels an idolatry: pleasure, control, peace, etc… Both of these are important.

But I believe we can be precise in our understanding of idolatry in another way. An idol (by definition) replaces God. More accurately, it tends to substitute for some aspect of God. Rarely do modern people call their idols “god”; we just rely on them for some particular thing only God can do. Therefore, because God relates to humanity in many different ways, we can turn to our idols in just as many ways.

For purpose of illustration, I will coin the phrases “idols of worship” and “idols of comfort.” Each is meant to capture different aspects of God we can replace.

Idols of Worship

  • With these idols we celebrate the object of our affection.
  • We pursue it with passion because we find it delightful. We try to savor and master the experience.
  • The mode of worship for these idols is pleasure
  • If you will, this is an idol we “sing to.”
  • These idols would have a tendency to stem from our raw sin nature and deem God to be less desirable.

Idols of Comfort

With these idols we turn to them for refuge.

  • When life gets hard we turn to these false gods believing they can provide safety or a form of escape.
  • The mode of worship towards these idols is trust.
  • If you will, this is an idol we “pray to.”
  • These idols typically emanate from experiences of suffering and perceive God to be less available, relevant, or dependable.

Both forms of idolatry share some essential commonality. God has been replaced. The replacement is incapable of sustaining what is being asked. The person will experience forms of disappointment and pain.

Yet the two forms of idolatry are different in important ways. Idols of worship are “classic” idols. Idols of comfort are “subtle” idols. The first is pursued for its own sake. The latter is pursued as a means to an end. The first insults God. The latter doubts God.

What is the relevance of this discussion? Does it change counseling methodology? Does it impact our theology of counseling? I believe it does.

Impact on Methodology

In both cases, the goal is to get to right beliefs about God through Scripture and by repentance. However, the “fear of God” that leads to repentance is very different. Idols of comfort already know fear. They are looking for something to be strong. Idols of worship are more rooted in pride and think they’ve already found what they’re looking for.

The words spoken to someone struggling with an idol of comfort should be more tender. The trustworthiness and understanding of the counselor serves as an ambassador for the trustworthiness and compassion of God. They are drawn from their idol. Dependence is natural and desired. Usually the scariest part of repentance and faith for these people is the absence of control.

The words spoken to someone struggling with an idol of worship are spoken to someone who does not yet see their need to be rescued. They are often still an evangelist for their idol. Their idol serves them and they want to know if God will do the same. More cognitive, relational, and emotional structures have to be torn down and built from scratch.

Impact on Theology

These are not the only categories for idolatry that could be developed. Each way that God relates to man can reveal its own flavor(s) of idolatry. We can try to replace or subsidize any aspect of God’s character or any of God’s activities towards us. The emotions that we are playing to in our false worship become indicators of how what we need points us back to God.

With this conception of idolatry, I believe it allows us to speak of the influence of suffering upon idolatry in clearer, more refined, and more compassionate ways. Our compassion does not have to be the mere avoidance of condescension (“I am a bad sinner too”) or empathy for injustice (“I would be tempted in the same way.”). Our compassion can be more descriptively robust without leaving our anthropology behind or compromising biblical standards.

Extended conversations about pain, neglect, disappointment, and other forms of suffering paint a picture of how someone sought comfort before they knew there was a Comforter. In these cases, repentance may be a very sweet transfer of trust. Conviction may feel like fear and anticipation more than guilt. In which case, idolatry would be “seen through” as much as “put off.”

In these possibilities, the core categories (idolatry) and movements (repentance) of change are the same but the experience (emotions) and role of the counselor (confrontation for idols of worship; directive compassion for idols of comfort) is different. I would hope as we grow in our precision of understanding idolatry that it would enable us to capture the experience of more hurting people, win their trust, and point them to all of who God is.

Join the Conversation:

  •  What other categories of idolatry would you suggest? What is distinct about that category and what part of human experience does it help us understand?
  • What dangers do you see in adding diagnostic categories within idolatry? In your opinion, does the potential reward merit the risk?

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Counseling Theory” post which address other facets of this subject.

C.S. Lewis on Savoring Temporal Pleasures

A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

“I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage (p. 137).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

How should we treat temporal pleasures? There seems to be very little balance in the way we live out the answer to this question.

Some people live for temporal pleasures and try to find life in ways that resembles chasing for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow – lots of effort, but with inevitable failure.

Other people respond to temporal as if it were a synonym for bad, evil, or wasteful. To them a lack of permanence is the equivalent of a complete lack of value.

Lewis’ quote calls for a balanced response and makes me think of how my wife responds when I buy her flowers. She knows the flowers will not last. She likes them better when I buy the “clearance” flowers, which means she really knows they’re not going to last.

The fact that the flowers will wither does not detract from her enthusiasm for the gift. She gets out a vase, fills it with water, and places them prominently in our kitchen. She comments on them frequently and always looks at them as she walks through the room.

But she doesn’t mistake the flowers for my love, of which the flowers were only a representation. There is no fear in her that when the flowers fade my love is failing with the collapse of each petal. She gets the message of the flowers, so she can embrace the flowers for what they are.

I believe this captures God’s intent for temporal pleasures. They are meant to be a love gift from Him to His children. A good meal, a stimulating conversation, health, a vacation to a beautiful location, or a nice home are all good, temporal gifts.

If we accept them as signs of God’s love and do not mistake them for the substance of God’s love, then we can enjoy them and let them fade without fear or despair. We receive the joy they were intended to give and our affection for the Giver grows.

How would your perspective on temporal pleasures change if you treated God’s blessings like my wife treats my flowers? How would it influence your anxiety and insecurity? How would it affect your sense of gratitude and joy? To whom would these changes be most noticeable?

Do you feel guilty right now? That is another misuse of the gift—further guilt only extends this misuse. If my wife (hypothetically speaking) became too attached to the flowers and missed the love they represented, her repentance would be best expressed through rejoicing in my love—not sorrow.

If my wife (hypothetically speaking) under-appreciated my flowers to protect herself from being disappointed at their fading, her repentance would be best expressed through vulnerably receiving my love—not beating herself up.

If you have not responded well to God’s temporal pleasures through over-indulgence or under-appreciation, repent now by embracing the message of His love that He sent in the form of temporal pleasures. He will rejoice as He sees His purpose for creating those pleasures fulfilled.

C.S. Lewis on Savoring Temporal Pleasures

A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

“I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage (p. 137).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

How should we treat temporal pleasures? There seems to be very little balance in the way we live out the answer to this question.

Some people live for temporal pleasures and try to find life in ways that resembles chasing for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow – lots of effort, but with inevitable failure.

Other people respond to temporal as if it were a synonym for bad, evil, or wasteful. To them a lack of permanence is the equivalent of a complete lack of value.

Lewis’ quote calls for a balanced response and makes me think of how my wife responds when I buy her flowers. She knows the flowers will not last. She likes them better when I buy the “clearance” flowers, which means she really knows they’re not going to last.

The fact that the flowers will wither does not detract from her enthusiasm for the gift. She gets out a vase, fills it with water, and places them prominently in our kitchen. She comments on them frequently and always looks at them as she walks through the room.

But she doesn’t mistake the flowers for my love, of which the flowers were only a representation. There is no fear in her that when the flowers fade my love is failing with the collapse of each petal. She gets the message of the flowers, so she can embrace the flowers for what they are.

I believe this captures God’s intent for temporal pleasures. They are meant to be a love gift from Him to His children. A good meal, a stimulating conversation, health, a vacation to a beautiful location, or a nice home are all good, temporal gifts.

If we accept them as signs of God’s love and do not mistake them for the substance of God’s love, then we can enjoy them and let them fade without fear or despair. We receive the joy they were intended to give and our affection for the Giver grows.

How would your perspective on temporal pleasures change if you treated God’s blessings like my wife treats my flowers? How would it influence your anxiety and insecurity? How would it affect your sense of gratitude and joy? To whom would these changes be most noticeable?

Do you feel guilty right now? That is another misuse of the gift—further guilt only extends this misuse. If my wife (hypothetically speaking) became too attached to the flowers and missed the love they represented, her repentance would be best expressed through rejoicing in my love—not sorrow.

If my wife (hypothetically speaking) under-appreciated my flowers to protect herself from being disappointed at their fading, her repentance would be best expressed through vulnerably receiving my love—not beating herself up.

If you have not responded well to God’s temporal pleasures through over-indulgence or under-appreciation, repent now by embracing the message of His love that He sent in the form of temporal pleasures. He will rejoice as He sees His purpose for creating those pleasures fulfilled.

C.S. Lewis on “Out of this World” Pleasures

A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.’ (p. 136-137).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

I simultaneously love this quote and fear for its misuse. On the one hand, it has great apologetic value for a culture that seeks to find meaning through pleasure. On the other hand, it stands to be misused to justify even sinful desires. In this reflection we’ll consider the danger before the benefit.

Why couldn’t the pedophile, kleptomaniac, homosexual, workaholic, or love-struck promiscuous teenager use this logic to justify the legitimacy of their desires? They feel attractive, compulsion, and strong desire. There is such a thing as sex, stuff, and success. If what I want is in this world, why does heaven require waiting, denying myself, or sacrifice?

I believe it is insufficient to merely reassert biblical morals in response to this question (i.e., “Because the Bible says those things are bad.”). The person asking this question is questioning the Bible, so our point of authority has a shrinking authority to them. Imposing that authority to support the Bible’s authority hurts our cause in that context.

What must be seen by the person asking the question is that each of those pleasures – even marriage, godly sex, and balanced work – are temporal fills for eternal longings. Even the godly alternatives for any given sin were not meant to replace God or become “our personal heaven.” Too often we teach ethics, especially to young people, as if that were the case.

When the point is made this way, life will eventually validate the claims of Scripture. This is most commonly referred to as “the mid-life crisis.” A time when we painfully and disorient-ly realize that what we built our life and hopes on was insufficient for the task. It cannot last, give joy or meaning.

It is at this point, even if someone else waters and harvests the seed that we planted, that the sin-wooed questioner will have ears to hear the gospel. We can pray it is earlier, but how many of us came to the gospel “the easy way”?

Lewis is making an appeal to those who are dissatisfied with their pleasures. Other polemics are needed for those who still believe this world (sinful or not) can provide what they really want. But when we have lived our own version of the book of Ecclesiastes (a great read in light of this quote), we will be ripe for Lewis’ logic.

One (by no means the only) ways that we share the gospel is be being friendly people who hold this world’s pleasures in a balanced perspective. Christians should be people who enjoy this world (it’s non-sinful pleasures) without being ruled by them. This temperance will be noticed and admired (even if that admiration is initially expressed through mocking).

If we are engaging meaningfully in the lives of our non-Christian friends, the question will come up, “How do you live so free? How do you avoid getting caught up, disappointed, and hurt like I do?” We can then “speak” what would have had to have been “debated” before, “I learned that this world’s pleasures were meant to point me to something greater and that helps to keeps everything in perspective.”

C.S. Lewis on Mid-Life Crisis

A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

“It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill. Let the thrill go – let it die away – go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow – and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time. But if you decide to make thrills your regular diet and try to prolong them artificially, they will all get weaker and weaker, and fewer and fewer, and you will be a bored, disillusioned old man for the rest of your life. It is because so few people understand this that you find many middle-aged men and women maundering about their lost youth, at the very age when new horizons ought to be appearing and new doors opening all around them (p.111).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

I am not yet old enough to battle a mid-life crisis, but I can certainly see the traces of it in myself already. I have a strong tendency to want to hold on tightly to pleasures and good seasons of life. Even as I try to dream God-sized dreams, I savor the process and get nostalgic as each stage passes. It would very easy for that to develop into a “glory days” mindset that made me feel desperate for what was.

This seems to be another scenario where our greatest temptations often stem from clinging too tightly to God’s sweetest blessings. Children or an invigorating career are things we thank God for profusely (or at least we should). But as our children mature and marry or our career peeks and we look to pass the baton, is this not the raw material of a mid-life crisis?

Even as I write this reflection and look back at Lewis’ words, I am questioning whether I currently have the strength of faith or rest in God to avoid a mid-life crisis. Currently, I can rest in the fact that I do not, because that morning is not here so God has not issued those mercies yet (Lament 3:23). But I fear that it is clever Christian rhetoric on my part to cover the way I cling to my present blessings suspicious of whether future blessings will be “as good.”

But I can see the folly in my fears. If I don’t let me children mature, grow independent, and pursue the lives God created them for, they would become a burden and seeing their misfortune would bring great pain. If I allow ministry to become “mine,” then it would shift from advancing God’s kingdom to advancing my own. Soon it would be mired in fluctuations between pride and fear.

Lewis is right, when I fail to “let the trill go… they will all get weaker and weaker” as least as pleasure; as masters they will get stronger and stronger. As best I can tell, the solution is to live fully in each moment without living for the moment.

This requires me to truly believe that God is truly the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8) even as sweat seasons of life fade and I deteriorate. What is changing is my capacity, not His goodness. But even this misses the point. I am not fading into oblivion. When I fail to let the thrill go, I am living as if this life is all there is.

Mid-life, by definition, believes I am on the second half of my life. But this is not the kind of creature we are. This is like a fetus having a mid-term crisis at 4.5 months. The event that is looming to change his/her existence is not a tragedy, but a delivery, but not a delivery to be rushed, because God has important plans for the second half.

I pray now for the awareness and willingness to live fully in every moment God gives me without continuing to live for that moment when the next one comes.

C.S. Lewis, Bulimia, and Pornography

A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

“The Christian attitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again (p.105).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

This quote alludes to a connection between bulimia (the desire for food but not calories; chewing but not digesting) and pornography (the desire for closeness but not vulnerability; having but not belonging). But as the parallel is developed, it should be construed as the male (lust) and female (body image) version of the same problem. In recent years the struggles of men with eating disorders and women with pornography have both risen significantly.

Rather each is a version of wanting the reward without the risk with a different pleasure. Both are forms of pseudo-comfort which in the end bring greater shame, isolation through secrecy, and life disruption. Both leave the individual feeling fake and unable to relate to others because of perceived inadequacies exacerbated by fixation on physical appearance.

Lewis hits on the key point – “you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself.” Elevating one aspect of any pleasure over the others and seeking to make that aspect compensate for the whole (the binge eating of bulimia or erotic stories associated with pornography), leaves the individual in a dangerously imbalanced condition.

Let me illustrate with an unrelated example. In high school, I sustained a significant ankle injury playing baseball. It required crutches and significant rehab. After several weeks of ankle exercises I got to the point that my injured ankle (left) was stronger than the other. But I was still limping as a means of self-protection.

The doctor told me, “You have to stop limping. If not, your left ankle will not be prepared to take the sudden weight shifts that happen in athletic events. By limping now you’re preventing the ankle from getting used to the full weight transfer, which is different from the muscular and ligament strength we’ve been building.”

Someone who struggles with bulimia or pornography may have an attractive figure, good social skills, and many friends of the opposite sex. Many are perfectionistic over-achievers. But they are limping (hiding) their authenticity about insecurity. Hence while their performance may be strong in key areas, they are not prepared for the vulnerability (the equivalent of sudden athletic moves of everyday relationships).

Isolated pleasure (food without calories or sexual gratification without intimacy) creates a character imbalance that results in a moral failure. With each moral failure, the “limping” becomes more logical and “needed.” If I had not stopped limping and injured my ankle again, I would want the self-protection of limping even more.

We must see the danger in picking apart the pleasures God designed for us to enjoy; as if we can reconfigure them and make an “improvement.” We are not picking undesired toppings off of a pizza. It is more like we are taking chips out of a computer and hoping it will still work. The more its performance lags, the more we tinker. Let us recognize that God’s pleasures come as wholes and ask Him for the courage to embrace them as He has designed them.

Life Dominating Pleasures

There are certain passages of Scripture that are notorious for stimulating a debate, confusion, and fear. One such passage is Ephesians 5:4-5 (and its “cousin” in I Cor 6:9-10):

“Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”

Passages like this can quickly (if we take them seriously at all) make any one of us doubt our salvation. Passages like Ephesians 5 and I Corinthians 6 can also be used to “hammer” particular sins, especially sexual ones like pornography, adultery, or homosexuality. Yet we often overlook the fact that crude joking and coveting are on the same list.

What are we supposed to do with a passage like this? What is this passage trying to get us to evaluate? Should we use the presence of certain sins to undermine the assurance of our salvation? Should we avoid passages like this in order to protect ourselves from undue fear?

I would like to propose one question (among others) I believe we can safely take from this passage and use to effectively make application of this passage – what is my life-dominating pleasure? I believe that is the big point.

If sex is my life-dominating pleasure (i.e., fantasy through porn, same-sex attraction, pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, or even the frequency of sex within marriage), then chances are I do not truly know the God of the Bible.

If I get my kicks through coarse humor or if I believe that some new gadget/car/home/etc… is going to make my life what I want it to be, then I have not been captured by the character of The Holy God.

If I have to escape from the pain or stress of daily living through alcohol, drugs, golf, computer games, a hobby, etc… because I do not believe there is anything else that can help me, then the God I claim to know is drastically inferior to the God of Scripture.

Paul’s question does not hinge on what sins a Christian can or cannot commit or how frequently or infrequently a Christian can commit certain sins and remain a Christian. Paul (as Scripture always does) is aiming right for our hearts. Paul’s logic would go like this:

  • If you live as if this world has more pleasure to offer than God, you do not know God.
  • If you live as if this world (or you) can protect you more than God, you do not know God.
  • If you live as if this world is more worth having than God, you do not know God.

The question is not whether we have “lapses in our sanity” (and I do not think that language is too strong). The question is whether we have come to the place that we believe that belonging to God is our life-dominating pleasure (Luke 9:23-24; Gal 2:20; Phil 3:7-11). That is what it means to be a Christian, or as Paul says in Ephesians 5:5 to inherit the kingdom of God.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Addiction” post which address other facets of this subject.