William Bennett describes happiness as a cat; if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.
The pursuit of pleasure is a modern-day addiction. The Bible tells us that one of the signs of the last days would be that people are lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (2 Timothy 3:1–3). That is an accurate assessment of our culture today. We are a pleasure-mad society. Pleasure is said to be biologically desirable and good for physical and mental health. The pursuit of pleasure has been a subject of interest since antiquity. In everyday language, the term “pleasure” is associated with sensory pleasure like the enjoyment of food or sex. But in its general sense, it includes all types of positive or pleasant experiences, including enjoying sports, seeing a beautiful sunset, or engaging in intellectually satisfying activity. We all want to be happy and have a right to happiness, but at what expense.
In his book, Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar talks about the shortcomings of two conventional ways of pursuing happiness that we’re familiar with in the modern era. We have the Rat-Racer who believes that you work hard today and will pay off in the future. One day, I’ll be happy. One day, I’ll have enough status, enough money, a big enough win that I will be able to experience happiness. They argue that one should not worry about today’s struggles but focus on the future destination where happiness will be awaiting you. The second group is the hedonist, who happens to be the opposite. The hedonist believes life is short, and the goal is to cultivate as much pleasure as possible in the present and avoid pain at all costs. The journey is everything because you cannot count on what may happen in the future. Drink up! Have fun and live it up, for tomorrow we may die.
Unfortunately, Rat racers often wake up at the end of their lives and say, “Is this all there is?” Where is all that joy I was expecting to feel? And a deep resentment and sadness for all that they missed while the rat race consumed them skin in. On the other hand, hedonists wake up with a hangover and eventually become numb to worldly pleasures. The meaningless of it all sinks in, and they wonder whether they will ever find happiness. A reasonably typical cycle is for a rat racer to burn out, turn to hedonism, which ultimately feels meaningless, and finally end up in a perpetual state of unhappiness. Focusing on the future did not work, while still focusing on the present failed.
THE RAT RACER IN THE BIBLE
The Rat Racer and hedonist are all in the scripture. The Bible has much to say about these arguments, as well as providing a healthy guide. We shall listen to what the scriptures have to say then finally come to a Biblical solution to this dilemma.
Jesus will call the Rat Racer a Rich-fool (Luke 12:13-21). Jesus gave a parable regarding this. He said that the land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, what shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops? And he said, I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, ‘Fool this night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God (Luke 12:13-21). He pursues materialism in the hope that once he has enough, he will eventually be happy.
The man sacrificed for the future, hoping that his soul would relax and eventually enjoy without further struggles once he accumulated much. He was so much possessed with getting much and not for any other reason but to make himself happy. The purpose of having is self-indulgence. I deserve it; I owe it to myself; I’ll do it my way. One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possession (Luke 12:15). To be a fool in God’s sight is to have missed the point of life. The remarkable thing is that the person God calls a fool we would very often call successful or a person to be envied. We have been nurtured in a society that seduces with the promise of affluence and measures worth based on possessions and positions. While he thought he would be a master, Christ shows that he was a servant since God controls life, and we have no assurance of how long we shall live. There is one who controls our days, and they are numbered and recorded in God’s book (Psalm 139:16).
HEDONISM IN THE BIBLE
Solomon was the other gentleman on the extreme of hedonism. Whatever his heart desired, he never denied it. Have fun and have it now since tomorrow may be too late. Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 narrates Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure. Interestingly, he tried everything done on this earth only to realize it was all in vain. He stimulated himself with wine (Eccl. 2:3). From wine, he pursued projects, enlarged his house for himself, planted vineyards, gardens and parks, planted all kinds of fruits, and made ponds for himself (2:4-6). Are these not the same things we seek to achieve? He moved to own great possessions that included male and female slaves, flocks and herds (Eccl. 2:7). No sooner had he lacked fulfilment than he moved to the next. He graduated to collections of silver and gold and the treasures of kings and provinces. The silver and gold we pursue may not give us the inner satisfaction we long for. He further got into the world of entertainment (Eccl. 2:8a). He provided himself with male and female singers; who could not satisfy the inner longing for true happiness. He pursued sex finally, but the emptiness within him never left him (Eccl. 2:8c). After all the above pursuits, he concludes that it all accomplished nothing and was vanity. Have you found true happiness in all your pursuit? The more we indulge in wickedness, the more we feel empty and lose the meaning of life.
Solomon concludes that although the “feelings” were genuine, enjoyable and authentic, they did not linger and thus did not accumulate to produce something more extraordinary and lasting. For example, how satisfying today is yesterday’s supper, movie or sexual experience? The pleasure leaves, and we are only left with memories. Sensual pleasures cannot be accumulated or stored; they are fleeting and transitory. We need to understand the difference between legitimate and illicit pleasure. Legitimate pleasure is momentary and leaves you only wanting more. Illicit pleasure is also momentary, but it leaves you feeling guilty and ashamed.
FINDING TRUE JOY DAILY IN LIFE
Anyone who makes pleasure the primary goal of life becomes desensitized to earth’s greatest delight, which is fellowship with God and is the abiding joy of heaven. As David wrote in Psalm 16:11, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” No pleasure can rival that of fellowship with God—a pleasure that is a foretaste of heaven. Happiness is based on happenings, while the source of true joy is God himself and being in his presence makes us experience this true happiness that lasts. Everything created by God, from food to sex, is meant to be enjoyed within God’s set boundaries. If pursued without knowing that they are God-given and protected by his loving and logical boundaries, the love for food, for example, becomes gluttony, the wonderful gift of sex and sexuality becomes perversion, etc. God created us for the pursuit of pleasure, His pleasure (Rev. 4:11). When we endeavour to live for His glory and enjoy the pleasures that He has created within the framework of expression that He intended, He then receives pleasure from the very ones that He has created. As children of God in Christ, our greatest pleasure will only be realized when we make the goal of our living to please Him. The Bible tells us what our real pursuit ought to be as young people. We are advised to flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart (2Timothy 2:22). True happiness flows from majoring in the major. Viktor Frankl says, “Happiness cannot be pursued. It must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” We surrender to and pursue to fulfil the purposes to which he created us; only then shall we find true happiness.