The Pleasure in Pleasure and the Emptiness of it all
I remember, in the early 1990s, watching ex-Manchester United legend, George Best, on a popular TV chat show. Best was, of course, the best; an incredibly skilful and flamboyant winger who scored goals for fun. Shockingly, however, at the pinnacle of his game he quit football and instead pursued the lifestyle of a celebrity, partying, drinking and short-term, high profile relationships with a succession of beautiful women.
In November 2005, having struggled for decades with alcoholism, George Best died from complications following a kidney transplant at the relatively young age of 59.
I remember George Best telling an anecdote about the aftermath following a particularly crazy night out with other famous footballers and celebrities. Best told how he awoke in an expensive London hotel with a famous model besides him, the room littered with champagne bottles and evidence of the revelry of the night before. Best recalled being interrupted by a maid who looked around the room, looked over at the bed and then asked, ‘Mr Best, where did it all go wrong?’
How the studio audience laughed at the naivety of the maid and the audaciousness of this ex-footballer turned womaniser. This was laughter tinged with envy and pathos for ‘Good Ole George’, the boy from Northern Ireland who was now one of the most famous men on the planet enjoying the fruits of his labour and living life to the full.
As we turn to the book of Ecclesiastes we find that Solomon is the ultimate realist.
And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. (Ecclesiastes 2:9)
Solomon recognises that there is pleasure in pleasure.
Let me explain.
I recounted the above anecdote on Sunday evening during the sermon and no one laughed. Not a single smirk nor snigger. And yet, when Best told the story on the chat show, the entire room erupted. Why is this?
Well, firstly, I am no comedian and it could well be that I murdered the anecdote in the telling. But I think there is something more going on behind the absence of laughter. Christians are uncomfortable with stories like this. We are uncomfortable with the idea that the world-over people are indulging and deriving pleasure from sinful pursuits. We would rather believe that behind the endless parties, drinking and womanising there is a profound sense of despair (and, of course, in some cases there is).
Christians need to wake up to the truth that there is pleasure in pleasure.
Our unbelieving friends drink because it brings them enjoyment. They attend wild parties because it amuses them to do so. They sleep around because it brings them pleasure.
This should change the way in which we approach an unbelieving world engaged in all the world has to offer. They do not need our naïve pity; they need the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Solomon writes, ‘for my heart found pleasure in all my toil’. Solomon tested pleasure to a degree that you and I will never experience, he sought pleasure in parties, achievement, wealth, sex and power and he concludes that it felt good and he found enjoyment in all his toil.
But, this enjoyment comes at a price; this pursuit of pleasure requires effort. Solomon is under no illusion that this pleasure pursuit is toil. All of us feel this. We drink too much on a Friday night and suffer on the Saturday morning into Saturday afternoon. If we continue to drink copious amounts of alcohol we will become dependant and eventually become sick and maybe even die.
The pursuit of pleasure through sex is similarly wearying. There are young men the country over who spend endless hours buying the right clothes, hanging out in the right places, practicing the right lines and spending innumerable hours in the gym working out in the hope of fleeting pleasure on a Friday night. This leads me to Solomon’s third conclusion.
There is an emptiness in all this pleasure.
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)
Let us think about this carefully and clearly. None of this is to deny that there is pleasure in pleasure, but Solomon concludes that the toil expended in pursuing pleasure somehow undermines and undercuts the experience of the pleasure itself. In other words, Solomon concludes that the pleasure payoff is not worth the effort expended in the pursuit.
There is a realisation that comes with such living. It may take a month, a year, ten years or a lifetime, but eventually the penny will drop. Who knows what George Best felt in the final days of his life? Who knows what we will feel as we wake up, perhaps after another crazy night out, and the pleasure has faded and we are left with nothing but a handful of air? Who knows how it will feel when we realise that our life, our pursuit of pleasure, has been an exercise in futility, a chasing after the wind.
The call of the gospel is to trade up. The call of the gospel is to exchange fake, futile and fleeting pleasure for a joy which lasts.
Consider the words of Jesus,
I came that you might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10)
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:10-11)
Earthly pleasure is fleeting, temporary, unsatisfying and, ultimately, of no lasting value. God designed it this way that we might continue our search for joy and lasting fulfilment and be satisfied in the Son of God (Ecclesiastes 1:13, 3:11).
A life surrendered to the Son of God is a life lived fully. A life lived in obedience to the Son of God is a life full of joy.
My prayer is as you read this and as we continue our walk through Ecclesiastes that God would strip away the false allure of lesser pleasures in order we might seek true satisfaction, infinite joy and find it in him.
…if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that the Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday by the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)