Take a moment to think about what you’ve seen and heard today. Perhaps you woke up to the alarm playing a favorite radio station. What song woke you? You may have turned on the TV while you were dressing. What topic started your day? What stores and billboards did you see while driving? What were the attitudes of those you spent your day with - negative and gossipy or hopeful and edifying?
We are submerged in our culture whether we like it or not. It is such a part of our lives that we typically do not pay much attention to its influence. But it does influence us. We cannot continually be immersed in the attitudes and actions around us without being influenced. And the greatest danger is the culture’s subtlety. Many of us believe we have our own thoughts and attitudes without realizing that, unless we actively engage ourselves to the contrary, our attitudes are continually shaped by the cultural norms of our society.
Satan is aware of this principle. The Bible says that Satan is the prince of this world (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11), so the cultures in all corners of the world are heavily influenced by Satan. Satan’s goal is to drive you away from God. So the cultural norms he has created will be anti-God. Yet, interestingly, God does not tell us to isolate ourselves from society. Instead he tells us to go into the world and influence the culture that seeks to influence us. John 17:15 “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one.”
Crossroads of the World (map of Israel here)
Ancient Israel was seated on the ‘crossroads of the world.’ In Old Testament times, the main trade routes between north, south, east and west ran through Israel. God intended for the peoples of the world to pass through Israel and notice a difference in the people. Israel, like our society today, was to provide an alternative to cultural norms. The intention was that the people of the world would notice such a good difference in Israel that they would become curious and investigate. Israel could then point the way to God.
But Israel did not follow God’s way. Instead Israel allowed themselves to be influenced by the cultures around them, which lead to their eventual downfall. The societies around them worshipped foreign gods and engaged in activities God warned Israel not to participate in. But the people of Israel allowed themselves to be infested with those cultural toxins. This is an example and a warning to us. Are you influencing the culture or are you allowing its toxins to infiltrate your life?
Our Interaction with Cultural Influences
Even if it were possible, the goal, as Jesus stated, is not to be removed from the cultural influences around us, but to become aware of them and turn the tide. Romans 12:2 in the The Message says, “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.” All of us have become desensitized to a certain extent, so the key is whether we will allow ourselves a fresh look at what’s going on around us and evaluate its impact on our lives.
Each of us will end up on a different point in the cultural continuum, depending on our proclivities, background and experiences. For example, just because a movie is made by non-Christians does not mean that it is an evil production. At one end of the spectrum, some movies clearly contain non-biblical principles. But most that we choose between are not so cut-and-dried. Although, some Christians disagree even on that statement. Some have hard and fast rules, such as never seeing a movie rated “R.” Interestingly, the popular Christian movie a few years ago called The Passion of the Christ was proclaimed by many to be a must-see movie, but it was rated “R” due to the violence of Jesus’ crucifixion.
It is ultimately up to each of us to listen to our own consciences and so determine our actions, remembering Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 2:12, “ ‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but I will not be mastered by anything.”
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself when considering how actively to engage in a specific activity:
1. Am I being entertained by sin?
2. Is this pleasing to God?
3. Does this lure me away from Christ?
The Problem of Pleasure
Theologian Ravi Zacharias talks of ‘the problem of pleasure.’ Have you ever considered that there is a problem with pleasure? He suggests that the problem of pleasure is a more difficult one that the problem of pain. Most of us can hold onto a string of hope in our pain…the hope that it will end one day and all will be well. But what if pleasure runs dry? What if you achieve your goals and experience many joys yet still remain empty and unfulfilled? Solomon, arguably the wisest man who ever lived, had great success in all he did and says this in Ecclesiastes 2:1-11:
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. Ecclesiastes 2:1 “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
In his position as a successful and powerful king, he was able to pursue all the pleasures and accomplishments we dream of and yet he found it meaningless in the end. All of us have experienced this at some point in our lives. The job we so desperately wanted has some negatives aspects to it. The spouse we thought would fill all our days with joy actually have some faults we need to deal with. The car and house wear out. The clothes become outdated. The meal at the fabulous restaurant ended too quickly. The movie disappointed us. The weekend getaway is but a memory and it feels as if we never left home.
The last three words in verse Ecclesiastes 1:11 are key, ‘nothing was gained under the sun.’ ‘Under the sun’ is a Hebrew-ism, meaning that God does not play part in it. These are pleasures pursued under the sun, here on earth, according to man’s wisdom, without input from God.
Yet we often continue to pursue pleasure as if it can provide the peace, contentment and joy we so desire. We look to pleasure to provide meaning in our lives. God did design us for pleasure but not at the expense of our relationship with him. So where we find our pleasure is key. And when we pursue pleasure and contentment more than we puruse God, we are making idols of them and relegating Him to position number two.
Theologian Ravi Zacharias provides three principles for choosing pleasures that will keep God first in our lives and free us to fully embrace the enjoyment that God has for us.
Pleasure Principle #1
Anything that refreshes you without distracting you from or diminishing your final goal is a legitimate pleasure. Dr. Zacharias uses the story of Gideon’s army in Judges chapter 7 as his basis for this principle.
God was choosing men to participate in a battle. God told Gideon to take the men to a spring and to watch how they drank. Most men got down on their knees and put their mouths to the water. But other men cupped their hand, scooped up the water, brought it to their mouths and lapped it like dogs. God told Gideon it was the latter group who would participate in the war. The stance they took in drinking the refreshing water kept them alert and active, enjoying the refreshment yet being mindful of and ready for the next task. They were not letting the water take their minds from the battle looming ahead of them.
But when it comes down to considering a movie to watch or a book to read, the broader question of your life’s mission may not immediately assist you in your choics. For those moments, consider the definition of sin given by John Wesley’s mother to her son: “If anything weakens your reasoning, impairs the tenants of your conscience, obscures your sense of God or takes away your relish for spiritual things; in short, if anything increases the authority and power of flesh over the spirit, that to you becomes sin, however good it is in itself.” Anything that weakens your conscience and increases the power of your flesh over the spirit will detract from the completion of God’s purpose for your life. If the details of our lives do not increasingly line up with God’s will, we will continue in a state of unrest, lacking the ability to move forward in his peace, purpose and favor.
However, in order to determine if the pleasure is distracting you from the goal, you first need to have a goal. Knowing God’s purpose for your life and specific plans for the short-term sets the foundation from which you can determine if a pleasure is refreshing or pulling you away from your goal and God’s will. If you have never done so, consider writing a mission statement for your life. It will serve as a guide and a path to all that comes after it.
Pleasure Principle #2
While with his army preparing to go into battle, David voiced his desire to have a drink from his well in Bethlehem – how refreshing that would be. Some of his men decided to surprise David and get him that drink. At great risk to themselves, they snuck back to Bethlehem, drew a pitcher of water from his well and brought it back to David.
David was about to drink but stopped. He said he could not indulge in a selfish pleasure knowing that the lives of his comrades had been in danger. So he emptied the water onto the ground to let them know that they are of greater value to him than the fulfillment of his pleasures.
The second principle is this: any pleasure that jeopardizes the sacred right of another is an illicit pleasure. If David had followed this principle later in life, he would not have indulged in adultery with Bathsheba, which resulted in strained family life, which in turn negatively impacted the nation of Israel.
This principle can apply to the daily issues of life in addition to the graver ones. Anytime we take anything that is not ours, it is an illicit pleasure: leaving work early without permission but with pay, habitually coming home late from work until your children no longer hold onto hope that you will be at dinner, or not returning the extra $5 the cashier mistakenly gave you at the store.
We seek peace through our pleasures, but if the pleasures are not obtained in a legitimate way, they produce harm and discontent in the lives of those we care about as well as in the consciences God has placed within us.
Pleasure Principle #3
The last principle is best illustrated by Proverbs 25:16, “If you find honey, eat just enough. Too much of it and you will vomit.” Any pleasure, no matter how good, if not kept in balance, will distort reality or destroy appetite. Ravi Zacharias gives the example of his love of playing tennis. It gives him great delight. But if he played tennis continually, he could not also experience the pleasure of holding his wife’s hand.
Balance is a challenge in our lives. We have so many responsibilities and challenges that sometimes we deny ourselves pleasure. At other times, however, perhaps in response to the stress we feel and the desire for peace, we overindulge in pleasures and they either become toxic in and of themselves or they hinder our main purpose in life. Solomon tells us there is a time for everything under the sun – a time to weep, laugh, play and work. If we become out of balance in any area, including pleasure, we reap the negative consequences.
Four Conclusions to Pleasure
Ravi Zacharias also provides four conclusions regarding pleasure.
1. All pleasure must be bought at the price of pain. With false pleasure, the price is paid after you enjoy it. With true pleasure, the price is paid before the enjoyment.
2. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure, not pain. That next big thing that we believe will bring us joy ultimately passes and we are left empty again.
3. The closer you get to pure pleasures, the closer you get to the heart of God. When was the last time you did something just for the pleasure of it? God made our bodies and minds with the ability to enjoy creation and the creativity within ourselves.
4. Our hearts long for an intimacy that touches both body and soul. The cry of each human heart is to be connected. The ultimate connection is with the One who can fill us to overflowing. No other human can meet that need. It is God “who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Psalm 103:5)
1. Talk about cultural influences you experience that have a negative impact on you or are a source of temptation.
2. Describe an activity you thought was innocent, but that turned out to be harmful. Could you have anticipated its impact?
3. Have you experienced the ‘emptiness of pleasure’? Explain.
4. Do you consciously think about the pleasures you indulge in?
5. Have you ever indulged in too much of a good thing? Explain.
6. Are you able to just enjoy life at times? What pleasures could you indulge in this coming week just for the sheer pleasure of it?