I can still recall going through my albums and coming across Chuck Mangione’s Feels So Good.
“This has gotta go,” I said out loud. “The title speaks for itself.”
Those of you who remember the brilliance of Mangione’s compositions will also remember his albums were entirely instrumental. Somehow, my guilt-ridden mind felt convinced a man who would title a song “Feels So Good” must have a hidden demonic spirit in him somewhere, waiting to pounce on my soul as soon as I dared to put the album on my turntable.
Why did I feel threatened by a man whose music offered to make me feel good? What in my theology and unformed mind equated “feeling good” with “the devil’s music”?
The fact is, I grew up thinking the devil wants me to do what feels good and God wants me to deny anything that appeals to me, except, of course, going to church, praying and reading the Bible. While the Bible does speak about self-denial and self-control, as well as mission and service, we are wrong in assuming that play can’t be an essential part of our lives.
Our play makes a statement to the world; indeed, it is an act of witness. It loudly proclaims we, the imprisoned, have been set free. Remaining under condemnation in a spirit of gloom denies the effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrifice and His work on the cross, as if we have to make up for Jesus’ deficiencies by maintaining overly serious and sober demeanors. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann rightly proclaimed, “Freedom needs more than to be realized, it must be celebrated.” In other words, we should embrace our salvation with enthusiastic play (in the midst of an appropriate call to service). If God’s redeemed people can’t play and celebrate, then who can? Why should such good news make us seem so sad?
To call God anti-pleasure is to dishonor Him as the one who created pleasure and who promises us pleasure forevermore. It denies God the glory due His name for paying such a heavy price to remove the weight and consequences of our sin. As Moltmann ably puts it, “Both the laughter of Easter and the sorrow of the cross are alive in liberated men.”
Feelings can lead us astray. Our appetites may lead us to ruin. We do need to set some boundaries. But a corresponding challenge threatens us as well: As Christians, we feel so frightened of the decadence that we often denounce the desire. The Bible calls this prohibitionist response an unhealthy and unproductive way to handle pleasure. Consider Paul’s words to the Colossian believers:
“Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Colossians 2:20-23, TNIV, emphasis mine).
In His teaching, Jesus never urges us toward asceticism. He never explicitly commands His disciples to fast, for instance. He does suggest His disciples will fast (Mark 2:18-20), and He gives guidelines for fasting in the proper way (Matthew 6:16-18), but these never take the form of a command. He categorically rejects a strict interpretation of the Sabbath, making the famous and powerful pronouncement, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Certainly, Jesus at times practiced heroic asceticism—a 40-day fast, early morning prayer, not having a place to call home. At other times, however, He clearly ate and drank in wealthy surroundings (even describing Himself as a drinker in Matthew 11:19), to the extent that observers clearly noticed it. Jesus assumed His followers would live disciplined lives while warning them away from a one-upmanship of heroic piety. Jesus wants us to fully engage in life, but never to fall captive to it—the ultimate balanced view of pleasures.
Jesus gave us a glimpse of what God is like. Despite our insecurities and fears about succumbing to pleasure, we must come to grips with a Jesus who was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton (Luke 7:34) in opposition to the ascetic John the Baptist.
In one sense, this characterization badly misses the mark. Remember, Jesus survived a 40-day fast. In another sense, however, it provides a window into the balance of Jesus’ life. Why would anyone level such a criticism unless Jesus did seem to enjoy His meals and a glass of good wine? No doubt the Pharisees witnessed Jesus’ laughter—He was having a good time—and this levity led to those scurrilous accusations about drunkenness. The one who walked on water certainly never stumbled out of a house, and the one who spoke the world into existence certainly never slurred His speech.
When we embrace pleasure, we stand on God’s ground. Those who deny the proper place for pleasure also, perhaps unwittingly, deny the proper place for God. God created this world with some delectable delights. When we open wide our hearts to these delicacies, we open wide our hearts to God. As Christians, it is our invitation as well as our obligation to cultivate and live lives of true pleasure as a pathway to obedience and worship.
This article was originally printed in Neue magazine. Check out NeueMagazine.com for more information. Adapted from Pure Pleasure (Zondervan) © 2009 by Gary Thomas. Used with permission.