I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. 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 worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. Ecclesiastes 2, verses 1 – 3.
A small list of things I like in this life: medium rare steak, good scotch (and bourbon), Super Bowl Sunday, an evening playing Pit with my family, the feel of a fan blowing cool air on my skin, a good run in the early morning, fart jokes with uptight people, deviled eggs (see previous), ‘light bulb’ moments of revelation, puppies, hot coffee, the color green, new car smell, John Wayne movies, afternoon naps, afternoon sex, a job well done, talking with good friends, first class airline seats, red wine, the city of Minneapolis, the beach, most anything by Rachmaninoff, walleye fishing, helping somebody in need, and finding good deals at the mall.
Notice anything missing? That’s on purpose. I left it (or Him) out in the spirit of the verses. The first part of this book talked about how things without God are meaningless; duh. But the things that it mentioned – work, nature, senses, thoughts, learning – were more ethereal and not sensual. You can enjoy work, nature, thinking and learning, and you can use your senses, but they aren’t designed for pleasure. If meaning isn’t to be found in those things, then perhaps it could be found in pleasure.
This was perhaps when Solomon, the Teacher, turned to things designed to make one happy by experiencing them. Our party culture seems to endorse that. Thomas Jefferson would have liked it. We think of Jefferson as one of the wisest of America’s founding fathers, and he enjoyed his pleasures. He was refined, tasteful and epicurean. While Jefferson lived, he lived well, even extravagantly. When he died, he left behind so many debts that his estate was sold off to only partially pay them. This is the same man who edited out parts of the Bible that centered on Christ’s divinity. I wonder what he did with Ecclesiastes.
Jefferson liked his wine, his luxuries, his philosophy and his wealthy lifestyle. And he squandered all of them. If only he’d paid attention to Solomon’s words about how even those pleasures were a waste of time. The warning of that is, after all, contained in these three verses. When the writer of them discovered that the knowledge of the world was empty without God, he turned to contemplate and to experience the pleasures of the world to see if they could replace his longing for real meaning. Laughter, wine, women, food: he tried them all and to excess like the rest of the epicureans would. He lived better than Jefferson ever did and, if those things could make someone happy, you’d think they would have done so for Solomon.
Instead, he still felt empty. Why is that? You know the reason.
I’ll say this for Solomon: he has more self-control than I would have. You read it up above: I like wine, and laughter, and frivolity. I like those largely shallow things because they’re fun. Life should be fun. Faith should be fun. When I was a teen, our minister always ended his sermons with a benediction that said “may your week ahead be full of joy, peace, laughter, love and fun in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” Amen, Guy Newland; well said. Life should be fun. Every day we should strive to have fun, to enjoy ourselves and make the most of it because we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow.
But without God even a guarantee would be meaningless. It would be just as meaningless as those thoughts, that academic learning, or the best wine, the prettiest lady and the best meal you could imagine. Even Solomon in all his splendor found that out.
I’m sending out this proverbial early on a North Texas morning after we were up very late at my house. One of my kids snuck out for a little sensual pleasure last night, and called me when they got in a bind. They thought they could sneak out, have some fun, and sneak back home before anyone knew. But when they were done their car wouldn’t start. Thank God they called when that happened because they could have gotten hurt, arrested, or worse. Today, the punishment for their particular infraction is swift, appropriate, and non-negotiable: just like it would be had they been confronted by the local police. Society has become lax in how it treats this particular pleasure and that’s both tragic and dangerous given that it’s a gateway to deeper and more severe problems. Said kid doesn’t like that punishment, but my wife and I are parents and it’s our God-given pleasure and duty to enforce a standard whether the punished likes it or not. What they did was without God – and without brainpower, apparently – and it’s critical that they understand this. If society won’t frown on this behavior for the person’s own good, we intend to because we love them and want to see this behavior turned so that it doesn’t hurt them in the future. If we didn’t do this, then their behavior would likely spiral. While there’s time, I prefer to highlight how bad behavior, even when it’s fun, is without God and can’t be tolerated.
Yes, we like many things in life, and given the right context for them, that in itself isn’t bad. My mom tells me that she always saw her own grandmother frown and smirk whenever children were having fun. Apparently my great-grandmother was so pious that she thought when anyone was laughing they were knee-deep in some kind of sin. To paraphrase Don McLean, I can imagine seeing Satan laughing with delight when people like you, me, my kid, Thomas Jefferson, and even King Solomon pursue our pleasures while ignoring the Lord who gave them to us. That doesn’t have to be the case because there is a better, more natural way. We can enjoy those things we like but being thankful and moderate in how we do so. We can have a lot of fun while still doing the right and honorable thing. Rather than sneaking around to avoid doing so, maybe it’s time we invite the Lord in to join the party in a way that enjoys and celebrates without compromising Him or ourselves.