Becoming a Christian means giving up bodily pleasures for spiritual pleasures, right?
In fact, according to Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon “The Pleasantness of Religion,” Christianity increases pleasure through our bodily senses. He explains how in eight ways.
1. By encouraging gratification of our senses
Some people feel guilty about pleasure derived through bodily senses. Whether it’s hearing beautiful music, or tasting a quality steak, or in physical intimacy in marriage, when they feel pleasure in these things, they immediately feel guilty, draining away any momentary joy.
Edwards says that through true religion we can put away our unnecessary scruples and seek, embrace, and enjoy the pleasure that God gives through the senses. Edwards writes:
God has given us of his redundant bounty many things for the delight of our senses, for our pleasure and gratification. Religion is not a thing that makes these things useless to us, nor does it cut us off from the enjoyment of them.
He says that as God has given us five wonderful senses, and “has made much provision for their gratification,” therefore true Christianity “allows us to take the full comfort of our meat and drink, all reasonable pleasures that are to be enjoyed in conversation or recreation.”
2. By instilling moderation
If asceticism denies people pleasure from the senses, then at the other extreme are those who overdose on it, which also ultimately reduces happiness.
In contrast, the Christian should be able to use the pleasures of sense moderately and thus increase their pleasure in them.
Religion allows of the enjoyment of sensitive delights temperately, moderately, and with reason, but the wicked man gluts himself with them. . . . Any of the delights of this world are abundantly sweeter when taken temperately than when taken immoderately, as he that at a feast feeds with temperance has much greater pleasure of what he eats and drinks than he that gluts himself and vomits it up again.
By building up self-mastery and self-discipline through the gracious work of the Holy Spirit within, the Christian is given “the prudence to eat no more honey than he can digest, and that the relish of it may remain.”
3. By adding peace to the pleasure
Religion sweetens temporal delights and pleasures. Religion does not only allow us to enjoy temporal comforts, but adds a new sweetness to them beyond what wicked and sensual men can find in them.
How so? Edwards portrays the wicked man pursuing sensual delights in a wicked way, his flesh driving him on against what his mind, reason, and conscience are telling him, so that any pleasure is accompanied by an inner war “which takes away the sweetness of the pleasure, and his body only is partaker of the pleasure and not his mind.”
He enjoys pleasure, but there is a sting in them, and conscience roars the while and will not give him peace. His own reason will not let him alone to enjoy them peaceably.
In contrast, when the godly person takes the same delights in a way that his reason and conscience approve of, the internal and the external are aligned, “and it is a pleasant feast that the body and soul enjoy together,” and “all is done with peace and without the sting of conscience.”
4. By assurance of safety
Although the wicked may be feasting on all the pleasures of this life, yet he loses so much of his joy because he is in constant fear of losing his pleasure or ultimately of losing his life.
Feed a malefactor condemned to the gallows with the richest fare, he will not have so much comfort of it as one that eats only bread and water without fear.
Because of his sense of security, especially of eternal security, the Christian can experience more joy in even just the basics of life than the wicked can in their luxuries.
The wicked eats in fear but the Christian “with boldness and confidence.”
5. By seeing the love of God behind them
The wicked rarely think of the many people involved in bringing their pleasures to them — the farmer, the distributor, the store managers, etc. Even less does he think of the God who is sovereign over all of these means, again depriving himself of much pleasure.
By way of contrast:
The earthly comforts of the Christian are also very much sweetened by the consideration of the love of God, that God is their Father and friend, and gives them these blessings from love to them, and because he delights in them. But the wicked can have no assurance that his enjoyments are not given to him in anger and in judgment.
For Christians, every crumb of food and drop of water is sweetened by the knowledge that God has deliberately, thoughtfully, and lovingly provided it for them.
6. By using gifts to love God more
The Christian doesn’t just receive more of God’s love in his pleasures, he also gives more love to God by his pleasures.
The temporal delights of the godly are also very much sweetened because they are enjoyed in love and peace. He eats and drinks in love to God and Jesus Christ.
Every pleasant taste, touch, sight, sound, or smell is turned towards God in love. We pray, “Thank you Lord for your blessings which I receive through my senses as evidence of your love, and return to you with praises for your love.”
7. By increasing love to our neighbors
When the wicked are happy they will often gloat over others less happy. Alternatively, they will continue to envy those who have just a little bit more. Thus their pleasures tend to increase malice to others. What a different picture Edwards sees when he looks at the Christian enjoying the same pleasures:
He eats and drinks . . . in peace with his neighbors and charity towards the whole world. (Proverbs 15:17; 17:1; Ecclesiastes 4:6)
Even in the midst of the greatest personal pleasure, the Christian turns his thoughts towards others, wishing that all could enjoy what he had, and delighting in the joy of others who have more than him.
8. By removing the shadow of sin
Edwards imagines a situation where a wicked person does manage to “use God-given pleasures in the right way and time.” Does he therefore come close to the Christian’s joy in these pleasures?
No, says Edwards, because “there are other sins in their lives which cause so much guilt, fear, distress, and pain, that they overwhelm other right pleasures.”
By avoiding sin, the Christian avoids accusations of conscience, fear of judgment, disgrace, and ruin of family, finance, and body — all huge clouds that darken and dampen any moment of joy in the wicked’s life.
So let us pursue the honey of Christ because of all the spiritual sweetness we will enjoy (Proverbs 24:13–14). But also because God has so designed our salvation to sweeten bodily pleasures too.