The American Pursuit of Pleasure: Is There Something Better?

by Tom Terry

Part of serving a ministry in a foreign country is to identify the chief value(s) of your host country so that you will know what you should and shouldn’t do when trying to reach people for Christ in that country. I experienced this first hand during my 10 years in Mongolia. I listened carefully to what Mongolians talked about and watched their behavior. I listened carefully to the other foreigners I knew in the country, to learn from their experiences. After several years I think I began to understand the chief value of most Mongolians. That chief value is power. In fact, I can define most (not all) of my relationships with Mongolians in terms of power.

When I returned to America after 10 years away it seemed to me that many things here have changed. In a way I feel like I am an outsider from American culture. I’m still American. I still think and act like the average American (or so I think). But when I observe American culture I find myself trying to identify America’s chief values.

One of the truths of culture studies is that it is difficult for a person in his or her own culture to identify the chief values of their own culture. Such people are too close to their own culture to objectify it and examine their culture from an outsider’s perspective. As an example, when I asked Mongolians what their nation’s chief value was I got all kinds of different answers. Yet when I observed Mongolian behavior and read about Mongolian history and culture I came away with the power value. In fact, Mongolian culture is a classic culture known as “power distance.”

But now that I’ve returned to America I find myself looking in on my home culture with a bit of an outsider’s perspective. I don’t think I can objectify American culture completely, I am still an American living for the moment in my own culture. But I find myself doing so, at least somewhat, and I think I’ve come up with America’s chief value—and it’s not a good one.

Pleasure. In every way Americans live for pleasure.

Everywhere I go and everywhere I look since my return to America I see the signs of the pursuit of pleasure. Whether people pursue money, or possessions, they are pursuing pleasure. Everything I see on TV seems to represent the pursuit of pleasure. The products we buy are designed to make life easier, more convenient, more pleasurable.

We have even recreated the church experience with flashing spot lights, high def video, coffee shops, fog machines, and less-threatening sermons (now called “messages”) so that church is perceived as more “welcoming” and “non-threatening.” We want people to be happy and have a good opinion of us. We sue if the coffee is too hot. We complain about the smallest of things which have no long-term or eternal value. We refuse to do something if we “don’t have a peace about it.”

How very American. We think we are sharing the Gospel by talking less about Jesus and more about other things from the Bible—but we’re not. We’re just finding creative, self-serving ways to abandon the ugliness, hardship, and absolute necessity of the cross. We are truly a narcissistic culture. Everything is about the pursuit of pleasure.

So what’s wrong with that?

In and of itself pleasure is not a bad thing. In the new heaven and the new earth we will enjoy pleasures evermore. There will be no sin or grief or trouble for those trillions times trillions of never ending years. But our chief pursuit will not be pleasure, rather, it will be the knowledge and love of Christ—to know the eternal God in every way. But when it comes to life on Earth right now, pleasure can be good, but it can also distract us to what life is all about.

The Apostle Paul warned us about the pursuit of pleasure. He warned us that the days would come when men would be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” In fact, I find it interesting that Paul seemed to place these two things in opposition to one another. The one whose chief aim in life is pleasure is one who is not pursuing his relationship with God. God gives pleasure (Psalm 16:11), but that pleasure is contingent upon our pursuit of God.

Life is not all about pleasure. It’s nice to have. But it should not be the chief pursuit of our lives. When it becomes our greatest aim we deceive ourselves into thinking that God is blessing us when in fact we may be cursed to distraction.

When I think about the people in history or in my life whom I admire the most, every one of those people has endured great hardships, made terrible sacrifices, and seized difficulties and challenges for something higher than themselves, and greater than their own comfort. Those are the people I want to be like, those who endure anything for the sake of Christ. Philippians 3:7-8 should be out motto. “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.”

I like the way John Piper has put this. “If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?”

Can we be satisfied with all our pleasures if we don’t have Christ now, or in Heaven? May such a thing never be. Jesus must be our supreme affection. Without him, everything else in life is transient, temporary, and will contribute nothing of value to our eternity. That’s not how I want to live.


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