“Pleasure leads us where we go.”
The venerable hymn “All My Hope on God Is Founded” in our Hymnal 1982 offers more than one gem in its verses, but I love looking around every time we sing the line in a church, “Pleasure leads us where we go.”
We rarely sing about our pleasures in church, and because my humor remains low-brow, I’m always to curious to see if anyone notices the topic of our tune. Almost invariably, no, no one notices, and there’s a particular irony to church members standing and singing quite solemnly about pleasure, holding on our faces the same expression we use for singing about whether you were there when they crucified my Lord.
The basis of the line is a quite old theological idea, namely, that God alone is the highest pleasure, and that all the pleasures and joys of our lives have their origin in God. As far as I can tell, we rarely take this idea seriously. We say pleasure is good, but we treat it as a distraction—giving it up for Lent, for example.
This hymn disagrees in two ways.
First, it seems to be saying that it’s simply a fact that pleasure directs us in our lives. This is a TED-talk level big idea, and its ramifications are important. We follow what feels good, what we desire, but we’re not usually immature hedonists who throw caution to the wind at the first sign of a chocolate bar. We also love more complex pleasures, like the beauty of art, or the rich sensuality of romantic love, or the multifaceted frustration and delight of our children, or even cookies that are both sweet and salty. This isn’t a thing to condemn – it’s who we are. Pleasure leads us where we go. (Aversion, or fear, plays a related role in pushing us where we go.)
Second, the hymn makes the point that pleasure, and presumably all pleasure considered in the right way, comes from God. In the hymn, God gives pleasure daily, and joy – a high and special kind of pleasure – comes to us only at God’s direct command. In other words, following joy leads us to God. That Jesus walks the way of the cross is not a counter-example so much as an invitation to reconsider how much pleasure, desire, love, and joy must have led him to keep him going.
The hymn is not naïve about our ability to misuse pleasure. According to the lyrics, all kinds of things we rely on “betray our trust.” The hymn’s author uses the examples of wartime glory, the government, and institutions (including the church). In our century, we tend to think of pleasures from a more consumerist framework, emphasizing things like sex, comfort, and control, but the author’s point still stands. What makes these betrayals so gut-wrenching is that, sometimes, we want them to be something more than what they truly are – signs of God’s love but not
themselves our rock or salvation.
Is church pleasurable?
It must be, if it’s to lead us where we go, but for all the ritual, drama, or even charismatic proclamation, we rarely think about pleasure in church. Many of us hesitate to name honestly the pleasures, big and small, that led us to church, and which ones still draw us onward. Because we hesitate to think about the pleasures that lead us, we struggle to talk about them to other people. And in truth, evangelism is nothing less than sharing the growth and transformation of our joy.
Evangelism requires being clear about the heart of our pleasure, the joy that is truly leading us. If we take pleasure in each other, in the hymns, in the soup kitchen, these are all good pleasures, and they belong within a wider joy – growing closer to God. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (via Bonhoeffer) describes it as throwing ourselves into God’s arms, which is a lovely way to think about it.
All of which to say, evangelism is not the marketing of desirable things that betray our trust, but it is the building of genuine relationships based on pleasure, on desire, on love.
Evangelism is an honest conversation about where our joy has led each of us, and how Jesus’s great joy might lead us into throwing ourselves into God’s arms. Evangelism begins with taking both our and our neighbors’ pleasures seriously, but its goal is to share in and make plain the path into God, which, as the hymn concludes in its last verse, is a path so generous that no one can fall.
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