Last time we began to reflect on the place of pleasure in the life of the Christian. We looked at those innocent pleasures that fill our everyday life with unstained joys. We also mentioned our tendency sinfully to twist these pleasures and turn them into idols, seeking more out of them than what they can supply. In this way we not only rob God, but we also destroy the pleasure to be found in these innocent things.
We ended by emphasizing that only when God is God and He is the greatest and purest pleasure of our hearts, one in whom we truly delight, only then can innocent pleasures find their rightful God-given place in our lives. In this article I will focus on identifying the guilty pleasures in our lives.
What are Guilty Pleasures?
Guilty pleasures are those pleasures in life that leave us stained. After we have indulged in them, they leave us feeling dirty, guilty, or just empty. These pleasures never leave us without some discomfort, uneasiness and restlessness. They always leave a stain behind. Some of these guilty pleasures are easy to identify: lust, gluttony (overeating), and sloth (laziness). But there are more subtle ones. In the previous article we spoke of our tendency to turn innocent pleasures into guilty ones when we begin to use them as escape hatches from the pressures in life. When we look to these pleasures to provide us with some kind of escape from the stresses, the pains, the lonely moments of life, we turn the innocent pleasures into guilty ones because we look to them to supply us with what God alone can supply. Think of recreational shopping for a moment. No longer do we shop because we need something; we are shopping merely for the fun of shopping. Shopping itself becomes the means by which we give meaning to our lives. Or take our tendency to snack between meals—eating for emotional comfort or merely for the sake of eating. Do you see the subtlety of such misuses of good things? Things that by themselves are perfectly good can become huge stumbling blocks in our lives.
So how can we spot the guilty pleasures in our lives? How do you know when something has crossed the line from an innocent pleasure to a guilty pleasure? When do you know that something that is innocent in and of itself, is used in an impure and unholy way by you? Here are five guidelines to assess the pleasures in your life and to see whether they have crossed over the line. It is a guilty pleasure . . .
1) When it is obviously wrong: Those things that God in his Word expressly condemns are obviously guilty pleasures. Lusting after a woman, delighting in pornography (Matt 5:27-31), abusing alcohol or drugs (Luke 21:34; Eph. 5:15-18), delighting in telling stories about others (1 Tim. 5:13), all of these and many more God explicitly forbids. Therefore, examine your lives. Do you take pleasure in some things that God has expressly forbidden?
2) When it controls you: When it has taken you captive. You obsess about it. It is constantly in your mind. You delight to dream about it. It consumes your time and seems to be irresistible. It has become an obsession. Lust obviously has this powerful influence on people. But shopping or anything else that seems to be constantly on your mind can also take you captive. It owns you! What are the things in your life that dominate your time, your thoughts, and your desires?
3) When you hide it from others: You will spot those guilty pleasures in your life by looking at those things you delight in secretly. You do them covertly so that no one can see you. It is those things you hide from your spouse or closest friends because you know that they are illegitimate pleasures. You feel ashamed and embarrassed to acknowledge that you take pleasure in them. But remember it is part of the powerful sway of these sinful pleasures in our lives to be hidden and unacknowledged. Because they are hidden, they can operate with freedom and power. For us to break free from these guilty pleasures we must begin by claiming them and acknowledging them to ourselves, to others, and above all to God! What are those pleasures in your life that you hide from those closest to you?
4) When it hinders your duty: When it steals away from the good things you should be doing, then you know you are dealing with a guilty pleasure. You neglect to do something good because you could not resist indulging your secret pleasures. It is a guilty pleasure when you persistently fail to do your homework or daily devotions because you would rather spend the time surfing the Internet, watching television, or __________ (you fill in the blank). What are the pleasures that hinder you most in doing good?
5) When it doesn’t deliver what it promises: Sinful pleasures offer us great things. Pornography offers us the rush, the sexual titillation, without the messy emotional relationship that marriage brings. Recreational shopping promises to fill your life with meaning and purpose. You are empowered by all the decisions you have to make, and you are able to define yourself by what you buy. But the promises of sin are always deceiving. Sinful pleasures are unable to deliver what they promise. The sexual rush that pornography brings and the meaning and purpose that shopping brings leave us void and empty afterwards. It causes a great cloud of guilt to hang over our heads. An idolatrous pleasure by its very nature cannot deliver what it promises, because it promises something that only God can supply: true lasting joy and purpose in life. All that these pleasures can supply are pale imitations of God’s gifts, and therefore they always leave us empty. So what are those things in your life that you expect will provide you with pleasure but instead always leave you feeling empty and disappointed?
Take these five guidelines and examine your life. Pray that the Lord will help you to search your heart to discover what guilty pleasures you hide in your heart. Ask the Lord to help you to deal with them. (The Lord willing, the next article will provide help to fight against these guilty pleasures.)
1. In 2004 I attended the annual teaching conference of the Christian Counseling & Education Foundation in Philadelphia. One of the workshops I attended was led by David Powlison, entitled: “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” named after the book by Neil Postman. When I returned home, reflecting further on my notes from that workshop, I wrote three articles. In 2005 Dr. Powlison published his workshop entitled “Pleasure” by Punch Press. My work, although it owes much to David Powlison’s stimulation and insight, is sufficiently different that I offer it up for the edification and sanctification of God’s people. For those who might be interested in further reflection on this, Reformed Youth Services published a Bible study guide for young people’s groups based on this material, entitled, Amusing Yourself to Death.
Rev. Jacques Roets is the pastor of Redeemer United Reformed Church in Dyer, Indiana.