Marshaling the power of pleasure
One of the deepest pieces of spiritual advice I've ever heard came from the pen of the famed 20th-century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon. "Hundreds of spiritual ills could be solved with a good night of sleep," he wrote.
Spurgeon meant that the answer often isn't "spiritual" at all; it's practical. Do you feel depressed? Tired? Burned-out? Instead of "praying and fasting" for a solution, have you ever considered getting more rest?
Clinical counselor Douglas Weiss gives a marvelous example in his book The Power of Pleasure. During his work with a school superintendent who felt depressed and burned-out, Doug realized the guy had almost no pleasure in his life. He lived for work, duty and responsibility. After talking about his past, they discovered this man had warm memories from his childhood in a rather poor Alabama neighborhood where most of the cars were pretty old and in need of frequent repair. So every evening the men on the block would gather to replace batteries, pull spark plugs or change brake pads.
This superintendent, stuffed in a building for nine hours a day, overseeing people instead of talking to them about sports and life in general, felt as though he were melting in the midst of his responsibility. He missed regular times of connecting when he didn't always have to make a decision.
He had some simple choices: go on antidepressant medications, quit his job, or learn to build an appropriate amount of pleasure into his already-busy workweek. The superintendent wisely went home and called a cousin who had purchased a car kit the year before but who had barely started working on it. They made a weekly appointment to begin earnestly building the car together.
It was just that easy. The depression lifted, and the superintendent discovered renewed energy. By making a small, once-a-week investment, he became more pleasant at home, more energetic at work, and a much happier person. (This is not to call into question a clinically diagnosed case of depression being treated with appropriate medication. Even when medication is necessary, however, lifestyle changes always form a part of recovery.)
Instead of seeking out the latest guru for spiritual advice, I'm calling you to first try something simple: become more intentional about marshaling the power of pleasure in your life. Respecting this God-designed need will ultimately make you healthier, happier and more effective in your calling and ministry. Denying it for a significant period of time not only puts you at risk but decreases your joy and usually lessens your ability and faithfulness. We become like dull saws, poor imitations of how sharp we used to be. More effort won't get the job done; in fact, it'll just make things worse. We need to take the time to get sharpened.
Is your marriage flagging? Well, when did you last have fun together? When did you last put effort into the sexual relationship, or simply spend even a few hours doing something both of you enjoy?
Have you lost touch with your teenager? Why not do something together that makes you laugh? Don't lecture her. Don't counsel her. Don't do anything but enjoy being around her. For just one evening, make it all about fun.
Are your colleagues at work (or church) cutting each other down? Have they been competitive, unproductive and irresponsible? If you have spent weeks trying to uncover the "buried sin," if you've prayed and fasted for the "spiritual warfare" to lift but nothing has happened, may I suggest a much simpler solution? Do you see any pleasure in anyone's life, or does everyone look pretty close to miserable? Why should you expect a pleasurable climate when miserable people gather together?
My friend Kevin Harney noticed that his staff at Corinth Reformed Church had hit a particularly rough patch due to overpacked schedules, the demands of ministry and the typical church challenges. With wisdom, he decided to turn an upcoming staff meeting into an ice-cream social. He and the other lead pastor made smoothies, malts and health shakes (for those who like that sort of thing), and everyone just hung out. In Kevin's words, "We got absolutely nothing done that day except what needed to be done most: we played and ate ice cream like kids." In Kevin's mind, this moment of pleasure became a turning point. "We didn't need another strategy meeting," he said. "What we needed was the sacrament of ice cream and laughter."
For your sake, for God's sake, for your family's sake, for the sake of everyone who has to put up with your self-inflicted state of misery, get some pleasure going! Begin viewing temptation as an indication that your life may have shrunk and that you may need to expand it in a practical, physical sense (while not completely ignoring the spiritual issues). In short, whenever you begin to sense the allure of sin, it's time to find a holy and healthy alternative.
Gary Thomas is a writer and founder of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality. He is the author of several books, including Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, Holy Available and the Gold Medallion Award-winning Authentic Faith.