Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Gary Thomas's new book, Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad about Feeling Good?, (Zondervan, 2009).
Eating a big, rich chocolate brownie. Watching a classic movie or the latest football game. Taking a long afternoon nap. Traveling on an exotic trip. Relaxing with a hot oil massage. Hiking outside in the fresh air. Life offers a plethora of ways to experience pleasure. But how often do you actually do something just for pleasure? And when you do something that feels good, do you feel bad about it?
Too many Christians feel guilty about having a good time. The world's pleasures can pull them into sin and distract them from important work, they worry. But God himself created everything that brings people pleasure - and He intended his creations to be enjoyed.
You honor God by accepting the good gifts that he offers and using them well. Your pleasure can bring pleasure to God. Here's how you can overcome guilt and enjoy pleasure in your life regularly:
Check the level of joy in your life
How much joy do you typically experience? Does your faith give you joy, or has your faith become mostly about obligation, duty, and responsibility? Recognize that, if your joy level is low, you become especially vulnerable to temptation. Sin tempts you more when you're feeling deprived then it does when you're satisfied. When you deny yourself appropriate pleasures, you'll be likely to fall into illicit pleasures.
Ask the Holy Spirit to renew your mind
When God gives you his perspective on the pleasures he has created, you can think properly about them and discover how to use them in the ways He intends. The same pleasure that may draw an unbeliever farther away from God may draw a Christian closer to God. While enjoying fine art could lead someone else into pornography, for instance, it could lead you to more fully appreciate how God designed nature. What makes the key difference is how you're approaching a particular pleasure. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you use each good gift according to God's design for it.
Thank God for your blessings
Express your gratitude to God regularly for the things that bring you pleasure. As you enjoy those things, let them become instruments of praise to God for how generously he has blessed you.
Look for what pleasures reveal to you about the One who made them
Pleasures aren't just ends in themselves. They can satisfy you temporarily, but they don't have the power to fulfill you in any lasting and truly significant ways. However, pleasures can reveal something good about God to you, which can draw you closer to him when you enjoy them. For example, if you enjoy eating fruit, you can marvel at God's creativity when you taste the many different varieties of fruit He has created. Let pleasures lead you closer to the God who made them. Let them become instruments of worship in your life.
Fully engage with life's pleasures without falling captive to them
Pray for the courage you need to embrace life's pleasures fully, and for the self-control you need to enjoy them in moderation. Aim to partake of life's pleasures freely, but without falling into the excess that can enslave you. Remember that, just as it's unhealthy to enjoy something excessively, it's also unhealthy to completely prohibit something that God gave you to enjoy.
Find healthy alternatives to illicit pleasures
Remember that you're especially vulnerable to the temptation to use pleasures in sinful ways when you've deprived yourself of healthy pleasures. Ask yourself these questions to gauge the danger in your life: "Am I consistently tired?", "Do I feel really lonely?", and "Am I living, worshipping, and ministering out of a sense of joy and delight in the Lord, or do I feel driven by frustration, duty, and obligation?".
If you push yourself too hard or deny yourself healthy pleasures for too long, you can suffer a breakdown spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. So give yourself regular breaks to engage in pleasurable activities that refresh you. If you're busy enjoying life in healthy ways, you'll be far less attracted to illicit pleasures than you would be if you deprived yourself.
Figure out what you most enjoy
Consider what types of activities give you true and lasting pleasure. What renews your sense of joy in life? What inspires you so much that it helps you live a faithful life? Make a list of the activities that come to mind. Then consider how you can start pursuing those activities as often as possible within your current schedule.
Control your pleasures so they won't control you
If you've developed a sense of entitlement to certain pleasures you enjoy regularly, they may have an unhealthy hold on your life. They also become unhealthy when you feel obsessive, impulsive, or compulsive about them, or they devour other activities in your life or lead you to bizarre behavior. Plan to fast from them for a period of time. Then, after taking a break, you can return to those activities free to continue to enjoy them. Make sure that you're always submitting to God - who is greater than any pleasure - rather than just following where your pleasures lead.
Count the cost
Pray for the wisdom to be able to discern when it's worthwhile to pay for an expensive pleasure (such as a family vacation that will strengthen your relationships) and when it's not. Be willing to make financial sacrifices in other ways so you can responsibly afford the pleasure that you most value. For example, if you particularly enjoy wearing expensive clothes, you can better afford them if you save money from eating at home rather than out at restaurants often.
Enjoy time with your family
Try to make the time you have with your family as enjoyable as possible. Let your kids relax in your presence and have fun with you regularly. Go out on dates with your spouse and enjoy sexual intimacy together.
Find "pockets of pleasure" in the midst of difficult circumstances
Don't give up on pleasure when you're stuck dealing with tough circumstances, such as a chronic illness or prolonged season of unemployment. Look for pleasurable activities where you can so you can retain joy in your life despite your situation.
Don't deny yourself the pleasure of laughing often at life's funny moments. Doing so will bring joy into your life each day.
Adapted from Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad about Feeling Good?, copyright 2009 by Gary L. Thomas. Published by Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Mich., www.zondervan.com.
Gary Thomas is a writer and founder of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality. He is the author of several books, including Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, Holy Available, Sacred Parenting, and the Gold Medallion Award-winning Authentic Faith.
Original publication date: November 13, 2009