By Pastor Glenn Pease
Christians have always had mixed feelings about pleasure. They know God made us to enjoy many pleasures of life, and yet there are also the forbidden pleasures. These are often just extremes of what is acceptable. Sex is good, but immorality is bad. Food is good, but gluttony is bad. Abundance is good, but excessive luxury is bad. Power is good, but tyranny is bad. Every pleasure seems to have a danger zone where it goes to far and become a negative. It is like the heat gage on your dash. It is necessary for your car to develop heat, but when it keeps rising it goes into a danger zone, and is then a threat to your car. A good thing gone to far is a bad thing. So it is with pleasure.
Adam and Eve had all the pleasures of paradise, but when they took the forbidden fruit they went into the danger zone, and that pleasure was very costly, for it led to great pain. Christians tend to focus on one aspect or the other of pleasure-the fair or the forbidden. The Puritans spent much of their energy focused on avoiding the forbidden. They even passed laws forbidding laughter on Sunday. Their idea of entertainment was sitting on a hard wooden bench listening to a three hour sermon. They feared pleasure lest it be taken to extremes. They felt the best way to avoid extremes is to avoid even the legitimate pleasures of life. They found pleasure in avoiding pleasure.
Modern Christians have rejected this approach, and feel the Christians should take advantage of the pleasures God has made available. It is obvious we are made to enjoy a great many pleasures. God has given us taste buds to enjoy many tastes, and then provided us through nature a multitude of foods to stimulate these taste buds. A major part of our joy in life is the pleasure of eating. God built us with a nervous system designed to enjoy the pleasures of sight, smell, touch, and sound, and not a day goes by in which we do not experience pleasure by our senses. These are all legitimate and motivate us to seek ways to add to our pleasures.
This may be more healthy than the Puritan approach, but it faces the same danger of lack of balance. Christians can get so caught up in the pursuit of pleasure that they neglect their spiritual life. The Psalms are God's gift to His people to prevent this, and promote the pleasures of the soul, so that we maintain a balance between the pleasures of the flesh and those of the inner man. The pleasure we want to focus on is the pleasure of beauty, and more specifically, the pleasure of God's beauty, or the pleasure of perfection.
Psalm 84 begins with an expression of pleasure in God's dwelling place. "How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty." There is a deep longing in this song to experience again the pleasure of being in this lovely environment where the presence of God could be felt. We are made in the image of God, and so there is a magnetic attraction to what is lovely, beautiful, and perfect. When we see perfect beauty we are compelled to praise. Why do you think millions are spent to make cars look beautiful, and why beautiful women are used to advertise them? It is because what motivates people to buy things is the beauty and pleasure of perfection. We all want to own beautiful things with perfect shape, perfect colors, perfect efficiency. The perfect price is unachievable, of course, but we will pay the price if
the beauty is near enough to perfection.
Anybody selling anything uses beauty to promote the product. Better Home and Gardens gives you pictures of what is a perfect home and garden. This produces in people a desire to possess such perfection. The love of perfection is built into us, for it is part of God's image, and that is why the classics never die. They are classics because they never lose their appeal, for they are aesthetically pleasing to our ears or our eyes. Truly beautiful music and art are permanent for they appeal to human nature in every age, and will continue to do so for all eternity.
God expects man to have pleasure in worship, for it is to be experienced in an environment of beauty. The Temple was designed by God to be filled with the beauty of colors, artwork, sculpture, and gold to appeal to the eye. The vast choir was to produce music appealing to the ear. The incense was to appeal to the nose. The sacrifice was to appeal to the taste. Worship was to be sense oriented so that the whole body, mind, and soul of man would experience the pleasure of perfection, and out of that pleasure praise the God of perfection.
The reason most churches are built with an attractive sanctuary is because beauty is a stimulus to worship. Beauty makes us feel nearer to the Creator of beauty. Ugliness makes us feel nearer to the Lucifer, who by his rebellion brought ugliness into the perfect world of God. Disorder, dirtiness, and anything that repulses us is a hindrance to worship. That is why we must work at keeping the environment of worship one that appeals to our aesthetic nature. God is everywhere at all times, but we do not always sense His presence. It is beauty and perfection that produce in us the sense of His presence.
We may never achieve perfection in this world, and all we do may always have defects and flaws, but it is still our duty to strive for perfection and seek to provide an atmosphere that gives pleasure to the senses. It is possible to worship and praise God in a muddy foxhole or in a dusty bamboo hut.
From every place below the skies
The grateful song, the fervent prayer
The incense of the heart, may rise
To heaven, and find acceptance there.
There is no atmosphere where God cannot be praised, but the Bible stresses the beauty of the house of God as an ideal environment in which to worship. Beauty is an aid to worship for God is the most beautiful of all beings. David in Psa. 27:4 writes, "One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to seek Him in His Temple." You may not be aware of it, but for centuries the highest goal of life for Christians was the beatific vision. This is the vision of God's beauty, which we will see when we behold God in all His glory on the throne. John in the book of Revelation got a preview of this beauty, but all Christians will get this vision and experience forever the pleasure of perfection which will lead to perpetual praise.
Worship is to be a foretaste of heaven. It is a sip of that cup of pleasure we will drink for eternity. If we come to church and do not get any pleasure we have not worshiped. If the truth of God's Word does not reveal to us any beauty to appreciate; if the music does not give us pleasure by the message or the tune, then we have missed the essence of worship, which is to praise God for the pleasure of His beauty. If there is no pleasure in some aspect of beauty you will not be worshiping, for worship is expressing pleasure in who God is and what He has done.
The purpose of coming to church is to experience more of the beauty of God. Augustine called God "the beauty of all things beautiful": "The most beautiful": "The fairest of all." He said of God's Word:" Thy truth, bright and beautiful above all." He wrote, "I was borne up to thee by thy beauty." He came to Christ after a life of sin and he lamented, "Too late have I loved thee, O thou Beauty of Ancient Days." Beauty is an aid to worship because it is a reflection of the beauty of the One we worship.
Fortunately we can rise above our environment and worship God even in very non-beautiful surroundings. Corrie Ten Boom had to worship God in a concentration camp where there was ugliness of the physical and spiritual. The sin of man's nature was never more ugly there, yet she worshiped the God of beauty there. But when she was asked to help develop housing for the homeless after the war she directed the rehabilitation of old factories and buildings. One was a former concentration camp. She ordered that the barbed wire be removed and that everything be painted with bright colors, and every window have a flower box. She knew the awfulness of a bleak environment, and she was determined that sorrowing families have some beauty in their lives.
Beauty is basic to pleasure, and pleasure is basic to happiness. Every realm of life is affected by the beauty, or lack of it that we experience. That is why the goal of coming to church is to experience the pleasure of beauty. But since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that is why there is a need for variety. Some people see beauty in old songs, and some see the beauty in new songs. Some see beauty in the King James Version, and others see it in the Living Bible. Some see beauty in the solo, and others in the choir. Some like hand clapping, and others prefer silence. Variety is a part of beauty, for there are many different tastes.
The history of the church is a history of the struggle to find balance in beauty. The Catholic Church went wild and spent fortunes in building great cathedrals with ornate art work and stain glass windows. The Puritans rebelled against this excess, and built plain churches with no art. Some went so far as to forbid paint. Even today some Christians refuse to wear ties because their beautiful colors detract from the attention we should give to God.
All agree, God is beautiful, but they disagree as to how to be made aware of that beauty. Some say use physical beauty to symbolize God's beauty. Others say ignore all other beauty so God has no competition. Probably both work for different personalities. The Old Testament focuses more on the use of external beauty as an aid to worship. The New Testament Christians did not have a temple or church building and so their stress was on the beauty of the spirit. There is no escaping the fact, however, that the environment has a powerful effect on our spirit and makes us more aware of certain truths about God.
The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament His handiwork says Psa. 19:1. The Psalms are loaded with references to nature being a cause for praise. The beauty of what the artist has made makes you want to praise the artist. That is why creation is an aid to worship. It's beauty provokes us to praise its Creator. Abraham Lincoln, one starry night, experienced what we all at sometime have experienced. He looked into the starry heavens and said to his friend Captain Gilbert Greene, "I never behold the stars that I do not feel that I am looking into the face of God." The awesome beauty of the universe compels a believer to be aware of the presence of God. That is what Psa. 84 is all about. It is about experiencing the pleasure of God's presence by means of the pleasure of beauty.
Wherever beauty is it should be an aid to worship for the Christian who is being sensitive to all beauty as God's gift. The problem with the pagan world was that they saw the beauty of creation as an end in itself, and they worshiped the creation rather than the Creator. This was their folly. But we are to get pleasure in the beauty and perfection of creation that leads us to praise God as the author of that beauty. This is worshiping God in spirit and in truth, which Jesus said is what God is seeking in us. God wants us to recognize that He is the author of all that is beautiful. The goal of all beauty is the praise of God, and not the praise of beauty.
Pleasure is not perfected until it leads to praise. When it leads to praise it is the pleasure of perfection, for you are pleased enough with something that it makes you think of the perfection of God. If you do not get that far, but stop short by just admiring the beauty of the setting, or song, or whatever, you have robbed yourself of the highest pleasure. You will note that the Psalmist in verse 2 makes it clear that the goal he longs for is not the beauty of the dwelling of God, but God Himself. His heart and flesh cry out for the living God. He does not want to get to God's house merely for the aesthetic pleasure of seeing the beauty of it. He wants the pleasure of perfection; the pleasure of the ultimate beauty; the beauty of God's presence. The practical implications of this are clear.
We need to make a constant effort to look past both men and nature to see the perfection of God. Man is fallen and so is nature. But man still has the image of God, and nature is still a marvelous revelation of the wisdom and beauty of God, but both are far from perfect. The pleasure of perfection comes to us, and makes our worship authentic, when we see all we do, and all that nature reveals, as a sign pointing to the God of perfection. The song will not be perfect, but it can have a degree of beauty that makes us think of the perfect beauty of God. The sanctuary will not be perfect, but it should be pleasant enough to make us think of the perfect setting of God's presence.
The point is, as we worship we need to use the inadequate beauty of time as a stepping-stone to the infinite beauty of eternity. This means worship takes effort. You have to love God with all your mind, and by mental concentration let the imperfect beauty of your environment lead you to the pleasure of God's perfect beauty. This is often forgotten in our modern culture where the focus is on self-pleasure and entertainment. We are gluttons for entertainment because it draws the crowds. The problem is entertainment is self-centered and not God centered. The issue is did I feel good, and not, did I meet with God and worship Him. It is not that feeling good is bad, but when that is the goal it takes the place of worship.
One of the leading authors on worship is Robert E. Weber. He writes in his book, Worship Is A Verb, "We must let go of our entertainment expectations and remind ourselves that we are not in church to watch a Christian variety show. We have gathered together in worship to be met by God the almighty. God, the Creator of the universe, the one who sustains our lives, our Redeemer and King, is present through proclamation and remembrance. He wants to communicate to us, to penetrate our inner self, to take up residence within us. And as we go through the experience of meeting with Him in this mystical moment of public worship, we are to respond." His point is, worship is not just something that happens to you, it is something you do. You use the environment as stepping-stones to get to God. The music and the message are not ends in themselves, but means to the end of experiencing the pleasure of God's perfection.
I do not profess to be an expert in worship. I know for a fact that I hear many a soloist and many a choir, and my pleasure ends with their performance. I experience pleasure in the music, but I do not let it lift me to the pleasure of perfection. I fail to rise on the wings of the song and sore to the presence of God, and praise Him. My worship becomes self-centered, and my focus is in how the music is affecting me, rather than how it is lifting me to praise God. It is hard to overcome the conditioning we develop by our habits.
I read this story that illustrates the problem. "A young family took a vacation to the South Western part of the United States, taking along grandparents who had just retired from farming. As they stood over looking the Grand Canyon, everyone made delightful comments about its beauty. They were overwhelmed with the variety of colorful hues and the magnitude of this vast gorge. They noticed that grandpa wasn't saying anything, however. They soon learned his silence was not a result of awe when he said, "You can't grow much corn here!" An opportunity to sense the awe of God's wisdom and beauty was lost because of a self-centered focus.
Because of this you can have the most beautiful setting possible, and be in a sanctuary that is an architectural wonder, and still fail to worship, because worship is not a matter of state of the art, but a matter of state of the heart. You need to come to God with a passion to praise Him, and a passion to worship Him, and a passion to sense His presence, and then you will experience the pleasure of perfection.