Pleasure and Joy

What gives you pleasure? What gives you joy? I think for many of us, there is a difference between pleasure and joy.

In his book “The Screwtape Letters,” C. S. Lewis creatively plays with the idea that a pesky little demon (“Wormwood”) is coached by his uncle, “Screwtape,” a demon of higher distinction, on the destruction of a new Christian. Lewis’ insights and observations are priceless, even as he educates and warns all Christians about the nature of evil and the goodness of God. It is rather like “reverse psychology,” as well as “reverse theology.”

Screwtape exposes true human nature; his intent is to use the failures and frailties of humanity toward annihilating the relationship between people and God (who he calls “the Enemy”). He takes up the human concepts of “past, present, future and eternity,” especially as they relate to the pleasures of human life. He wants Wormwood to help his human to live primarily in the Present because that is the human “reality.” Humans obey the “present voice of conscience…giving thanks for the present pleasure.” It is true that we live primarily in the present, taking life one day at a time – that is our reality. Yet, “we sometimes tempt a human to live in the Past.” In troubling times, we tend to recall the “good ol’ days” of the past; at the same time, we try very hard to suppress the old wounds and failures. Even so, for some people, past events are still so vivid that it is difficult to let them go and rejoice in the present. “The Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays” [promise]. For good reason, the evil one encourages the focus on the future, because more often than not, we imagine the (terrible?) “what-ifs” of the future and miss the blessings of today.

Screwtape advises, “it is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also it [the Future] is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities….Nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust and ambition look ahead. Do not think lust an exception. When the present pleasure arrives, the sin (which alone interests us) is already over. The sin, which is our contribution, looked forward.”

Lewis makes his readers pause and think about pleasure and happiness – past, present and future. Today the media, washing over our brains, insists that we all forget about the present (which they consider to be dreadful), and look to the future, because it will be so much brighter than the past. In today’s present, we are urged to look ahead to the future – to our retirement, or our children’s future, or our next vacation or a cruise, or even a utopian life where everyone will be rich, healthy and happy.

In fact, the evil one has a plot of promises that suck the joy and pleasure out of today. “We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap on the altar of the future every real gift which is offered to them in the present.” Indeed, his words strike a chord in a society that says what you have is never enough and we are entitled to something more, greater, happier. Human government has always promised a better future for everyone – better jobs, better roads, better health, better food, better air, more and more pleasures to satisfy and entertain right now. But what we end up with is more mental illness, and anxiety and less hope.

Notably, Lewis is right when he says, “the devil is a liar.” There is no guarantee that the future will be better and that we will be “happier.” World history is full of evidence for this truth. Pleasure can deceive; it can be short-lived. Pleasurable times can evaporate into thin air and the future is no happier than the past, especially if pleasure takes the form of sin. It is only “wishful thinking” to believe that this world will ever grant to all human beings all the things that they think they want (and “need”) to make them happy.

So, is there no hope? Screwtape leaves us with no hope; that is his job. However, his Enemy is a God of hope. He is a God of great gifts, which are eternal, not temporary. Unceasingly, he bestows gifts on undeserving people:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 6:23). “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift [of grace]!” (2 Co 9:15).

“For it is by grace you have been saved, though faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9).

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (Ja 1:17).

His greatest gift of all, of course, is the gift of his Son who redeemed us and gave us new life in his Spirit. Thus, believers can have a deep, abiding JOY that surpasses any momentary worldly pleasure or happiness:

“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). “So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again, and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy….Ask, and you will receive, and your joy will be complete [in Christ]” (Jn 16:22, 24).

“I have spoken to you with great frankness; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds” (2 Cor7:4). “In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (2 Co 8:2).

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer…” (Ro 12:12).

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit….” (Ro 14:17). “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Ro 15:13).

Screwtape is going down….!

“Look to Jesus as your joyful focus. If you draw too much from other pleasures, they will eventually let you down. The nature of addiction is that you need more and more of a substance to get the same effect as before. This is a self-destruction trap. However, if you make Jesus your focus, the less dependent you are on other things. Thank God for all the things you enjoy – loved ones, shelter, food, sunlight, starlight and [ultimately] his glorious presence” (Jesus Always by Sarah Young, p. 112). Amen.

Author: Judy

Christian educator, writer, specializing in the New Testament

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