Pleasure is not a bad thing, but neither is it the best thing in our lives. Even when the experience of pleasure is moral, it is transitory. In a word, pleasure ends. To understand why this is we need to understand the difference between the created and Uncreated. That is, the difference between the things God creates and God.
One way of understanding the things God creates (and this includes human beings) is that created beings change. The first big change is from non-existence to existence. There was a time when I was not and then I exist. The change from non-existence to existence—from not being to being—is a consequence of God’s creative will and grace.
And this process of changing doesn’t simply end when something is created by God. Creation is dynamic, it is always changing.
Uncreated Being—God—however doesn’t change. This doesn’t mean that God is static—He isn’t—but why? At the risk of over simplifying the matter, God doesn’t change because He is perfect. Change is only possible for the imperfection.
Imperfection isn’t necessarily bad. To borrow from St Gregory Nyssa, the human ability to change, that is our imperfections, reflects our call to become evermore like God Who is Himself perfect and unchanging. Perfection for human beings, Gregory says, means to change and change often.
So, back to pleasure.
Pleasure will always pass away because the object of pleasure is created and so it will always change. If nothing else, the pleasure I receive from eating a hamburger can’t last because eventually I will finish the of the hamburger. Or it could happen that I’m longer hungry and so I don’t finish the hamburger (this has NEVER happened to me, I merely mention this in the service of completeness) . Or maybe, the hamburger will get cold, or something will happen that distracts me from my meal or spoils my appetite. For one reason or another, a pleasurable situation will eventually change and with the change pleasure will end.
But the changing nature of pleasure conceals within itself a call for something greater. Rightly understood, pleasure is an invitation to joy.
Pleasure is finite because the object of pleasure is finite. Joy however comes from God and my conformity to His will for me. So joy lasts, joy endures, because (if I can say it this way) the object of joy is the eternal and never changing God. Does this mean that joy can’t end? No, it can. Or rather what ends is my obedience.
When I fall into sin, I separate myself from the joy of obedience. This is why for St Augustine grief is symptom of sin. Sin, disobedience, robs me of joy and I grieve its loss.
Hidden within my grief is my desire to find joy in that which can—at best—only give me pleasure. It might be food, or sex, or wealth, or honor, or the works of my own hands or imagination. But whatever it is, the grief reveals my disobedience.
At its core, my grief reveals my lack of gratitude, my desire to receive the good things of life as if they were not gifts from an All-loving God.
Success in this life, whether it is personal or professional, material or social, can only bring me pleasure. This pleasure however can be transformed into joy if my success is itself a reflection of my obedience to God. Pleasure becomes joy, in other words, through love of God and, in God, other people and the creation.
Too often Christians reject success and the pleasure it brings because we are, rightly, concerned about seeking our own will and not the will of God. At the same time, when our success comes as a consequence of our obedience to God, the pleasure of a job well done is itself a good thing and not something that we should reject.
To be sure, the relationship between pleasure and joy, personal success and obedience to God’s will, is often more complicated then I’ve sketched it out here. And I’ve not even touched on what all of this means for my relationship with my neighbor or myself. But even this complexity is a good thing since it too points beyond itself to the mystery of God’s love for us, a love that will always outstrip our understanding of it.
Returning to my original point, as the fruit of our personal obedience there is a legitimate place for pleasure in our Christian life. Put slightly differently, real success, and so true pleasure, is the fruit of love.
As always, your questions, comments and criticisms are not only welcome, they are encouraged.