Why can’t we love pleasure and God at the same time? Paul seems to assume that we can’t. And it’s a text that confuses a podcast listener named Gabriel, who writes in to ask: “Hello, Pastor John. My question is about that phrase in 2 Timothy 3:4, ‘lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.’ Does this establish a dichotomy between seeking pleasure and seeking God? If so, why is it impossible to do both? Why can’t we love pleasure and God at the same time?”
It is about time that we get this question. I mean, we are Christian Hedonists, and there’s a text just crying out for attention. So, let’s put the text in front of us. Here’s what 2 Timothy 3:1–5 says:
In the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
Now, Gabriel is certainly right to flag this text as something that needs special attention, especially from a Christian Hedonist like me: “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” Is this, then, not an indictment of Christian Hedonism, which says that we should pursue our fullest and lasting pleasure in God no matter what it costs? That’s what I believe and have devoted my life to arguing for and trying to live. Gabriel wants to know, Can’t we pursue pleasure and God — can’t we love pleasure and God — at the same time? To which Paul seems to say, “No, you can’t.”
What You Really Crave
So, what we have to do with a text like this is not turn away from the text and start making up our own views about pleasure and about God, but stay with the text and let Paul tell us how he’s using his words — namely, the word pleasure and the word God in particular. Paul is clearly treating them as competitors for our affections, for our love — loving pleasure rather than loving God. He’s treating God as an object of our love, and he’s treating pleasure as an object of our love.
And when you think of them that way, pleasure is clearly being perceived as an idol, an alternative to loving God. That’s the way Paul is setting it up. Paul is not asking the question, if looked at another way, whether God might be our pleasure. He’s not asking that. He’s not talking about that. If God is our pleasure, then pleasure can’t be in competition with God, but pleasure is virtually the same as our love for God.
So, Paul is using the word pleasure as an object of delight, not an act of delight. Mark that. That’s so important to get our categories clear. He’s treating the word pleasure, he’s treating the reality of pleasure, as an object of our delighting, not the act of our delighting. If pleasure is an object of delight — something we delight in — then it competes with God, and we have to choose God above pleasure. But if pleasure is viewed not as the object of delight, but the act of delighting, then God can be the object of that delighting. He can be our delight, be our pleasure, and in that sense, pleasure and God would not be in competition at all.
But that’s not the way Paul is thinking here. Paul is thinking here of pleasure as a physical or psychological sensation that we crave more than we crave God. And in this sense, pleasure has to become an idol, and we must choose between pleasure and God.
God, or His Benefits?
Let me tell two stories that illustrate what I think Paul is getting at. Here’s the first story. I remember over twenty years ago interviewing Sam Crabtree as an executive pastor candidate for Bethlehem, and he’s been at Bethlehem ever since. In the interview, he said something that made me love and admire him and his insight. We hired him. I love Sam. He’s still wise.
He said he worries about some churches that, in their worship services, seem to be loving loving God more than loving God. Let me say it again because it struck me, and that’s why I remember it all these years later: he was concerned that, in some worship services, people seem to be loving loving God more than loving God.
So, a person might say he’s taking pleasure in God in worship, and that would be good. But he might slip over into taking more pleasure in the pleasure of taking pleasure in God than in really taking pleasure in God. And we all know this danger, right? We can slip into loving the emotional music, or slip into the emotional fellowship, or slip into the various physical and psychological sensations that attend a focus with God, while God himself slowly disappears.
The beauty of his character and the beauty of his ways just drop out of our consciousness. That would be a religious form of the kind of thing Paul is concerned about here, loving pleasure rather than loving God.
‘I Choose You’
Now here’s the second story. It’s an even more pointed illustration, I think. Soon after Noël and I were married, I read a book about sex in marriage, and it made this amazing statement that I had not thought of before, but ever since have considered it just stock, beautiful, glorious, obvious wisdom. It said, “One kiss after sexual climax is worth a thousand kisses before sexual climax.”
Now, why would that be? It’s because all the kisses of foreplay are ambiguous. They might be owing to strong affections for your spouse as a cherished person, or you might have gotten so caught up in the love of pleasure, the sensations, that the kisses have no connection with the preciousness of the person, and are only expressions of sexual abandon and sexual sensation.
But after sexual climax, when there are no overpowering physical sensations carrying you, but only the preciousness of the relationship, then a tender, eye-to-eye, heartfelt kiss says, “You are more precious to me than all those sensations. And if I had to choose, I would choose you, you, Noël. Not mainly the sexual sensations that you give me, but you, are my cherished treasure.”
Highest Pleasure in God Himself
Now, that is, I think, what Paul is getting at in relation to God. Remember, it says — this is amazing — in 2 Timothy 3:5, that these people have an “appearance of godliness,” while they are loving pleasure more than loving God. But in fact, they are being sustained not by the power of godliness, not by the power of the beauty of God’s person and the preciousness of his fellowship; they’re being sustained by the secondary pleasures of being part of the Christian community.
So, the answer to Gabriel’s question is this: You can’t love pleasure and love God when pleasure is conceived of as an alternative object of your affections, luring you away from a superior delight in God. But you can pursue pleasure and pursue God at the same time if God himself is your pleasure.