Youth and the Pleasures of Piety
I’m glad I’m old. Some of you may be offended that I regard a person of fifty-four as “old”, so let’s agree that I’m speaking only for myself. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that I’m glad I’m not young. What the youth of today face is far worse, in my opinion, than anything my generation endured in the sixties and seventies. Without minimizing the social and sexual upheaval of those days, young people in the 21st century are confronted with an array of temptations that few of us could ever have anticipated thirty-five years ago. I won’t describe them. Just open your eyes and ears, and pray for our youth. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting that those of us over fifty are immune from such temptations. Far from it! But let me move on to my primary point.
The church, in my opinion, has not done a very good job of trying to persuade its youth to say “No” to the passing pleasures of sin (Hebrews 11:25). Generally speaking, older Christians have employed one of two tactics in their attempt to motivate teen-agers and twenty-somethings to walk in the path of righteousness. On the one hand, many have labored to portray immorality in the ugliest and most unappealing terms possible, hoping this would frighten away youthful wills from the decadent and destructive ways of our society. Sin and its consequences are certainly ugly, at least in the long run. But in the immediate present, the allure of the world, flesh, and the Devil often appears to trump whatever negative fallout one might incur down the road.
Others have taken a slightly different approach. Rather than constructing elaborate and graphic images of the horrors of sin, they argue that the problem is the presence of desire in the human soul, in particular the desire for pleasure. The target of their loud and often angry harangues is the longing, the yearning, the passion in the human heart for joy and happiness and fascination and excitement. Typically they deal with this “problem” by insisting that all such impulses are themselves sinful and must either be ruthlessly suppressed or exorcised (as if they were the product of a demonic presence).
Enter Jonathan Edwards. In a sermon entitled “Youth and the Pleasures of Piety” (preached first in May, 1734, but later on multiple occasions throughout colonial New England), Edwards took a different tactic. Make no mistake. Edwards could portray the horrific consequences of sin in the most vivid and graphic imagery imaginable (and some of it unimaginable; witness his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”). But far more dominant in his ministry was his appeal to the superior pleasure and joy to be found in true “religion” (a good word for Edwards, by the way).
Edwards believed that the greatest objection voiced by young people to the pursuit of religion was their fear that it would undermine their pursuit of pleasure:
“This is what they aim at, to spend their youth pleasantly; and they think, if they should forsake sin and youthful vanity, and betake themselves to a religious course of life, this will hinder them in this pursuit. They look upon religion as a very dull, melancholy thing, and think, if they embrace it, that they must have done in a great measure with their pleasures” (Sermons and Discourses, 1734-1738, Yale edition, volume 19, p. 89).
His principal argument in this little-known sermon is that religion, far from being a hindrance to the experience of pleasure, is the most direct and effective way to attain it.
The sermon is based on Proverbs 24:13-14 – “My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, there will be a future, and your hope will not be cut off.” We eat honey because it is sweet and pleasant to the taste. No one has to pay us to eat it nor do we eat it to attain some greater pleasure than the one that comes from tasting its sweetness. So, too, says the proverb, “it is with respect to piety or wisdom: ‘tis as much worth the while to practice this for the sake of the pleasure of it” (82).
Edwards acknowledges that many young people will find his argument “strange and paradoxical” (82). To suggest that “spending youth in the practice of religion and virtue . . . is the way to obtain pleasures vastly more excellent than by spending youth in sin and vanity” (82) sounds more than a little odd to most people, regardless of their age.
The approach Edwards took was as unusual in his day as it is in ours. He proceeds to argue at length that the problem isn’t the pursuit of pleasure but the willingness of uninformed minds to settle for comparatively inferior joys when God offers unsurpassed and far more durable delights. The pursuit of God brings “delights of a more sublime nature” (82), “pleasures that are more solid and substantial . . . vastly sweeter, and more exquisitely delighting, and are of a more satisfying nature . . . that exceed the pleasures of the vain, sensual youth, as much as gold and pearls do dirt and dung” (83). Don’t abandon your desire for pleasure. By the way, you couldn’t, even if you wanted to. Rather, seek those pleasures that are greater and more satisfying and capable of bringing fulfillment and joy that exceed the best this world has to offer.
Edwards points to the way in which young people in particular are obsessed with outward adornment, “in making a fine appearance”(83). But by embracing true religion “they would have the graces of God’s Spirit, the beauty and ornaments of angels, and the lovely image of God” (83). Don’t abandon your desire for beauty, he counsels, but seek the beauty “that would render [you] far more lovely than the greatest outward beauty possible,” namely, “that beauty that would render [you] lovely in the eyes of Jesus Christ, and the angels, and all wise men” (83). What this world offers is “vile in comparison [with] the beauty of the graces of God’s Spirit” (83).
True religion will also bring “the sweetest delights of love and friendship” (83). Loving God “is an affection that is of a more sublime and excellent nature” (84) than the love of any earthly object. Such love is always mutual, and thus the love one receives from Christ “vastly exceeds the love of any earthly lover” (84).
Furthermore, by pursuing the true religion of knowing Jesus Christ young people “obtain the sweetest gratification of appetite; not of carnal, sensual appetites, but of those that are more excellent, of spiritual and divine appetites, holy desires and inclinations; those that, as they are more excellent in themselves, [are] more suitable to the nature of man, and are far more extensive, so are capable of gratification and enjoyments more exquisite sweet, and delighting. They that truly embrace religion and virtue, there are infused into them new appetites after heavenly enjoyments” (84).
Let me pause for a moment and ask, Have you noticed how often Edwards employs the word “more”? He does not say, “instead” of pleasure seek God, as if they were two mutually exclusive options, but rather seek your pleasure IN GOD, for the latter is always “more” exquisite and “more” extensive and “more” excellent and “more” sublime and “more” solid and substantial and “more” satisfying.
Another ground of appeal is the company and friendship one gains in the pursuit of true religion, specifically, intimacy with God himself. The Father and the Son, according to John 14:21-23, come to “make their abode” with young people and to “manifest themselves to them” (85). Those who embrace true religion “with a spiritual eye do see Christ and have access to him to converse; and Christ by his spirit communicates himself to them” (85). And would this not be “the pleasantest and the happiest company” possible? (85) “Is not the God that made us, able to give us more pleasure in intercourse with himself than we have in conversation with a worm of the dust?” (85)
Some fear that the pursuit of God will deprive them of the enjoyment of things in this world. But Edwards is quick to point out that “religion doesn’t forbid the use of outward enjoyments but only the abuse of them” (85). Indeed, “the senses and animal appetites may be gratified in a manner religion allows of” (85). “Outward enjoyments,” notes Edwards, “are much sweeter, and really afford more pleasure, when regularly used than when abused” (86). In other words, temporal delights are better and more satisfying when they are experienced virtuously. “Vice,” says Edwards, “destroys the sweetness of outward enjoyments” (86).
Biblical piety, contends Edwards, even “sweetens” solitude! Many who indulge their sensual appetites in unbiblical ways “are afraid of solitude . . . for they have nothing to entertain them [when] alone” (87). But those who pursue God enjoy times of solitude “for then they have the better opportunity to fix their minds on divine objects, to withdraw their thoughts from worldly things, and the more uninterruptedly to delight themselves in divine contemplations, and holy exercise and converse with God” (87).
The peace that comes from knowing one’s sins are forgiven “is enough to give quietness and cheerfulness” wherever you are or whatever you are doing (87). Even what Edwards calls our “diversions”, by which he has in view hobbies and leisure activities, etc., “are abundantly sweetest when virtue moderates and guides them” (87), for it regulates them “according to the rules of wisdom and virtue, and would direct them to suitable and worthy ends, and make them subservient to excellent purposes” (87).
Edwards doesn’t hesitate to exhort the young to “forsake all ways of vice and youthful vanity, [and] to renounce all licentious practices in sinful indulgences of carnal appetites” (88). He encourages young people not to employ their minds “when alone, in vain imaginations and sinful thoughts” and to “avoid lewd ways of using [their] tongue” (88). But here is why forsaking such sinful ways is wise and appealing and the only sensible thing to do: because then you will have “the gracious presence of God and his smiles, a good conscience, and a sense of God’s favor, accompanying the pleasure you have in outward things, which will unspeakably sweeten them. Seek that divine grace in your heart, whereby your soul may be beautified, and adorned, and rendered lovely in the eyes of God; and whereby you may live a life of divine love, a life of love to Christ, and communion with him” (89).
Sin can exert a powerful vice-grip on the human heart, one that mere shouts of denunciation and threats of divine wrath fail to dislodge. The promise and allure of sensual gratification must be countered by the promise and allure of a gratification in God that is sweeter, more sublime, more beautiful, more exquisite, more excellent, more solid, more substantive, and more satisfying.
One can only wonder at the impact of the church on this younger generation (and the older one as well) if such were our strategy for dealing with sin. Don’t demonize their desire for joy and pleasure, but point them to Him in whose presence there is “fullness of joy” and at whose right hand are “pleasures evermore” (Psalm 16:11).