The Accommodation Of Hedonism

From what I read, Christopher Hitchens, the renowned atheist who recently passed away from cancer, would not have shied away from the label hedonist. After all, Wikipedia notes that he referred to himself as an Epicurean.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hedonism as “the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life.”

Not many people would quibble with the idea that it’s right and proper for a sane person to go about finding satisfaction of desires. I mean, are we supposed to look for unhappiness instead? Are we supposed to search out opportunities for slavery or deprivation?

Actually the fact that so few Americans would find fault with a life lived in pursuit of pleasure clarifies the guiding philosophy of our day. We are, quite frankly, hedonists.

I shudder at the thought because I remember studying hedonism in school in connection to ancient Rome where toga-wearing Caesars were fed grapes by scantily-clad slaves, where they would gorge themselves then throw up so they could continue “enjoying” the feast, where orgies were routine. Drunkenness and debauchery seem the most appropriate words to describe what I thought of in conjunction with hedonism.

And now, hedonism is us.

Little did I realize back in those school days that in my lifetime young girls would binge and purge, that drunkenness and debauchery would describe a lot of college life, that “threesomes” would become a TV joke, that “dating” would be replaced by one-night stands and marriage by “relationships.”

As if all this isn’t bad enough, I look at the Church, and I see many professing Christians accommodating hedonism. Some do so in an unapologetic, aggressive way, saying that God has promised His children good gifts so we ought to be holding Him to His word by naming and claiming what we want.

Others are more circumspect, involving themselves in political movements that would ensure a continuation of the privileges of living in a wealthy, capitalistic society.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not an advocate of socialism in any form, but neither do I believe the Church should take up the fight to preserve capitalism. The truth is, one system is built on laziness and the other on greed, so it’s a little like picking your poison.

Except, with our hedonistic beliefs these days, not so many people recognized the poison of greed — unless, of course, it’s corporate greed. Corporate, that great nameless monolith that we can blame for all the ills of society, because goodness knows, Man certainly can’t be to blame.

In a round about way, this brings me back to my beginning — that innocuous definition of hedonism in the dictionary, the one so few people would mind being associated with. It’s hard to call someone greedy when they are simply trying to satisfy their desires, the same as everyone else.

There’s an unspoken understanding that people should play fair in the process, and those who don’t such as Fanny Mae and Bernie Madoff, deserve our wrath. But those racking up millions by playing baseball or basketball in Southern California? Glad to have you here among us. And wouldn’t we like to be just like you!

The problem for the Christian in accommodating this attitude, even in our subtle ways, is that we no longer imagine satisfaction without the pleasures of life, as if somehow God isn’t enough to satisfy us — just He, Himself.

How ironic when Paul says that to live is Christ. In a short passage to the Colossians he refers to knowing Christ as wealth, riches, and treasure. I wonder what we the Church in America would name as our wealth, riches, and treasure.

Published in: on January 5, 2012 at 6:51 pm  Comments (9)  
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Knowing How To Get Along … With Or Without

The Apostle Paul was an amazing man. Not perfect, mind you (there was that little tiff he had with Barbabas over John Mark, for example), but still a remarkable example of how a Christian should live. One thing in particular stands out to me, however — his contentment.

I’ve been thinking about his statement in Philippians about his attitude toward his financial situation. “I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (Phil. 4:12).

When I’ve read that verse before, I’ve been thinking primarily about how Paul learned to get along with humble means, how he dealt with going hungry, suffering need. Today it dawned on me that he was also saying he had to learn how to deal with prosperity, how to handle being filled and having abundance.

So what are some characteristics of getting along in each of these conditions? These are the first things that came to my mind.

Getting along with humble means, a person would need to remain generous, not penny-pinching. He’d also need to deepen his trust in God’s provision. Third, he’d need to foster a spirit of joy and rejoicing when others are blessed in ways he is not.

I think of people in Scripture who exemplified these traits. The widow who gave her last coin in the temple collection is one of the most generous persons on record. Her poverty did not stop her from worship and service, though it cost her all she had.

The widow of Zarephath that God sent Elijah to was generous in the same way. She was about to prepare a final meal for herself and her son when Elijah asked for a drink of water and a bite to eat. She didn’t turn him away but informed him of her meager provisions. He said, fine, make the last of the flour and oil into bread as you planned, but make me a little cake first. And she did, based on his promise that her supplies would not run out.

In that regard, she’s also a great example of someone trusting God to provide, but then so was Elijah. He’d just come from the brook Cherith where God fed him by sending ravens to bring him bread and meat. But this was a time of drought, so eventually his water source dried up. No trouble. God sent him to Zarephath where he found the widow with … practically nothing. So together they trusted God to replenish the flour and oil day after day.

King Saul’s son Jonathan seems like a great example of someone rejoicing in the success of someone else. Never mind that David would be taking the throne instead of Jonathan, he gave David his armor and sword, protected him from his father’s jealous rage, and essentially blessed his future rule.

Learning to get along in humble circumstances is only half the story. We are also to get along in prosperity. The characteristics I see that are required include not hoarding what we have, not squandering it, and not loving it more than we should.

Jesus addressed these issues. He told the parable about the prosperous man who decided he should deal with his great wealth by building a bigger barn. He didn’t see the light of the next morning.

Jesus also told the story about the prodigal son who squandered his money in riotous living. He’d been given a generous inheritance, but when famine came, he’d used up all his resources. When he came to his senses and returned to his father, he repented, not for squandering his wealth but for going his own way. The way he handled his money was only a symptom of the breakdown of his relationship with his father.

But Jesus told another story that reinforces the idea about not squandering our prosperity — the parable of the talents. Three servants were given money to invest. Two were praised when their master checked up on them. The only one who was rebuked and punished was the one who had squandered what he’d been given to invest.

Mark 10 tells about an encounter Jesus had with a rich young power player that underscores the importance of not making money into a god. This young guy was conscientious and diligent. He played by the rules. He was scrupulously religious. But for some reason he felt compelled to ask Jesus what he was missing. Jesus told him he needed to sell all his stuff and come on the road with Him and the other disciples. Mr. Very Rich couldn’t do it. He loved his stuff too much.

Getting along with humble means, getting along in prosperity — they both have their challenges. How remarkable that Paul navigated through the waters of both extremes to be content in whatever circumstances. Ah, but not remarkable. I forgot to add the key verse (one we use out of context more often than not). “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

Published in: on November 18, 2011 at 6:26 pm  Comments (1)  
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