Wednesday, January 17, 2007

On Goodness and Pleasure

If something is good, is it pleasurable? If something gives pleasure, is it good? Well, maybe, but that certainly can’t be a rule to live by. That is mainly because original sin (along with all our unoriginal sins) has distorted our perception of the good and has misdirected or perverted the energy of pleasure.

Medicines and surgeries may be good if they result in improved health, but the experience of them does not give pleasure. Self-denial for righteousness’ sake is definitely good, but can be a painful experience, especially if we are attached to pleasurable things that are not good for us. I think you’re probably already well aware of many available things or experiences that are designed to give pleasure, but are not good, either for body or soul. So we have to set some criteria so that goodness and pleasure both serve the will of God.

The ancient philosophers said that to the virtuous person, practicing virtue is pleasurable. I suppose your level of pleasure in practicing virtue will tell you just how virtuous a person you really are! Most of us do find some struggle or even distaste in being virtuous, because we have not yet been fully cleansed of all our inordinate desires or attachments. But I think that we generally do find some satisfaction in doing what is right, in serving God and his people with integrity, generosity, and cheerfulness. Goodness does bring its own sort of pleasure, but it is pleasure of a higher level than mere bodily satisfactions. That is why it may seem, at least in the beginning, less intense and tangible than baser gratifications. But the pleasure of goodness is ennobling, elevating, while the cheap thrills that our sensation-seeking society offer are often degrading or dissipating.

The pleasure that follows in the wake of goodness is of God; it is a warm ray of his blessing. It therefore necessarily excludes sinful pleasure. But pleasure sought for its own sake often entails sin, because discernment is lacking, as well as the explicit intention to do only good. If we seek the good solely because it is good, then pleasure (perhaps simply that which comes from a clear conscience) will follow—even if doing what is right entails some hardship or suffering, as it often does. But if we seek pleasure merely because it is gratifying, then selfishness, sin, and corruption will likely follow. We have to have our priorities straight if goodness and pleasure will exist in harmony, bearing fruit for spiritual maturity and sanctification.

St Paul makes it clear what our focus should be: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). In another place he exhorts us: “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is…” And he is not afraid to come right out and say: “Put to death what is earthly in you: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry… put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander and foul talk… do not lie…” (Col. 3:1-9). He knows this is a formidable task, for they “lived in them.” But you see that he urges them to seek goodness, for it brings blessing. And he urges them to set aside many things which give pleasure, even if it is merely a perverse or bitter pleasure.

Pleasure isn’t bad in itself (though you might get that idea from certain of the monastic fathers or some Byzantine liturgical texts), but it only becomes so when it is sought for itself, sought outside of God’s will, sought for an immediate gratification, perhaps at someone else’s expense. God created us with the ability to experience pleasure, so He must have intended us to enjoy life, as long as our pleasures are not immoderate, inappropriate, untimely, or simply sinful. But we’re not always accustomed to seeking what is good precisely because it is good, so we get off the track and begin serving ourselves instead of the Lord. Then the relationship of goodness and pleasure becomes unbalanced or distorted. Then we become "lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God" (2Tim. 3:4).

I came across a little poem by Kathryn Mulderink a while back, a “test of fidelity,” which we can perhaps reflect upon when we need to recover the priority of goodness over pleasure. The reward of fidelity to goodness is an eternity of pleasure, but we’re still in exile from paradise, so it’s important now to discipline ourselves to seek “what is above, what is true, honorable, pure,” etc. God loves us infinitely, and asks from us only faithfulness. We owe Him the best of our love. With this I’ll close:

The test of fidelity
(every love affair has them, of course)
is not in the fire,
nor in the peace;
not in the most visible things,
nor the most obvious.
The test of fidelity
(and faithfulness is the first principle, of course)
is in the tilt of the heart’s valves,
the delicate pathways of the brain,
what glances eyes are allowed to steal,
the secret strengths and hidden weakness.
The test of fidelity
(without questions, we fail before we begin, of course)
is in what we do in secret,
what we keep from human eyes.
Yes, this is where the Beloved’s light penetrates—
this is where we must be free.
The test is in the darkness—
it is temptation overcome
that betrothes us at last.