As believers we often talk about the importance of self-denial and picking up our cross in following Christ.
And, of course, we should.
As we do so however, we should be careful to remember that we are not simply talking about self-denial for the sake of self-denial. In other words, the reason we talk so much about self-denial is not simply because we do not believe in pleasure.
The reality is while there are many difficulties that come into our lives as a result of following after Jesus, there is also tremendous joy and good that is produced as well. Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus. It is in fact so sweet that Jonathan Edwards once said, “It would be worthwhile to be religious, if it were only for the pleasantness of it.”
I suppose it would be hard to prove this to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but for those of us who know the joys of following Christ, this kind of statement is obvious. Still, it helps to remember just how kind God has been in saving us, even in terms of our life as it stands right now, and so Jonathan Edwards suggests five different proofs that a real relationship with God makes life more sweet.
1. It doesn’t stop us from enjoying legitimate earthly pleasures.
God has filled this world with many different things to enjoy. The smell of bread. The taste of chocolate. The beauty of the ocean. The sounds of music. Our relationship with God, following Jesus, it doesn’t stop us from enjoying these things. As Edwards once put it, “The sensual man cannot boast of the enjoyment of any kind of gratification but what the religious man may enjoy as well.”
What our relationship with God does do is teach us how to enjoy these pleasures in a way that doesn’t harm us. “Religion teaches us to use temporal comforts like men and not like brutes, like reasonable creatures and not as if we had nothing else but sense and no understanding.”
2. It doesn’t only not stop us from enjoying legitimate earthly pleasures, it helps us enjoy them better.
Tools work best when they are used for their purpose. A hammer is a great tool, but not as a toothbrush. Earthly pleasures are like tools God has given us. But the wicked man doesn’t really know how to use them. He doesn’t know their purpose. He uses them in ways they weren’t intended. And so, over and over, he takes good tools and breaks them. The godly person however, by God’s grace, is enlightened as to the purpose of pleasure and is trained in its use, so the tool does its job and he is able to actually delight in that pleasure to its fullest.
3. It keeps us from false pleasures which though they look like they will produce joy only really produce pain.
Sin is pleasurable for a moment and sorrowful for a lifetime. Satan is a master at presenting the bait and hiding the hook, and our relationship with God, makes our lives sweeter, by keeping us from being ensnared by temptations that look pleasurable but really only ensnare us.
4. The difficulties that our relationship with God brings into our life, in the end, only increase our joy.
If we look carefully at the things that seem most difficult about following Jesus, we will see that even though they are hard at first, they actually increase one’s joy.
For example, repentance. “Repentance of sin is a sorrow arising from the sight of God’s excellency and mercy, but the apprehension of excellency or mercy must necessarily and unavoidably beget pleasure in the mind of the beholder.” In other words, when we see the glory of God it does cause us to sorrow over our sin and turn from it, and that is difficult, but at the same time, we do get to see the glory of God and that produces joy. Plus, repentance produces joy in that it refreshes us in the forgiveness God’s offered in Christ and enables us to have peace in our minds in terms of our relationship with Him.
5. It produces pleasures that are deeper and profound than can be found in any ordinary earthly pleasures by themselves.
“The religious man enjoys spiritual pleasures that are much better than any others. He has pleasures of mind as well as pleasure of body.”
We don’t only follow Jesus for the good it will produce us, the giver is more important than the gift, but as we follow Jesus, we should rejoice that we serve a God who is so kind, that He has stuffed His commands with kindness, and in calling us to pursue Him is calling us to pursue our greatest good.