Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad About Feeling Good?

Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad About Feeling Good?
Book by Gary Thomas
Review and Extra Commentary by Virginia Knowles

 I am so delighted to able to review Gary Thomas's newest book Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad About Feeling Good? If "a merry heart doeth good like a medicine," then this is just what the doctor ordered! Though it is not a comedy book, I still laughed all the way through. There is something about truth that brings both liberty and joy to the heart. I'm thankful that Gary Thomas wrote this much-needed book, which seems to me to be a gift from God's own heart. It resonates with all that the Lord has so graciously been showing me in recent years.

The theme of this book is that pleasure is a good gift from God, designed to renew and satisfy our souls. It draws us to our loving Lord in gratitude, and helps guard us from illicit temptations that might otherwise pull us away. Rather than always looking on life as a dreary duty, we should embrace and cultivate God-glorifying pleasure. In this 250 page book, Gary explores how pure pleasures can bring abundant blessings to our lives, how to celebrate life, the danger of excess or damaging influences, counting the cost, choosing the things that make us happy, enjoying life with our families, finding pleasure in difficult circumstances, and the healing power of laughter. He alerts us to three signals that we are not allowing for enough pleasure in our lives: extended tiredness, loneliness/alienation, and lack of joy in life and in God. He also takes into account that different kinds of things make each of us happy, such as sensory pleasures (touching, hearing, tasting, smelling, and looking) or pursuit pleasures (creating things, excitement, mental stimulation, relationships, and laughter). For the past few years, I have been thinking about God as Creator as well as Redeemer and of the value of the common grace of sensory beauty and human friendships, so I'm thrilled that Gary has written a book that emphasizes this aspect of our Christian experience.

At the end of each chapter, you will find questions for reflection. At the conclusion of the book, there are additional questions that can be used with the small group video curriculum. Many Scriptures and quotes from classic Christian literature (Francis Fenelon, G.K. Chesterton, etc.) are woven throughout each chapter as well.  I appreciate that he takes time in the footnotes to tell us who these other authors are, too!

I particularly appreciate, in the first chapter, Gary's extended discussion of how people who try to "mortify sin" through sheer will power are so often unsuccessful because they are not displacing unholy temptations with godly delights. If we want to get the victory over sin, pleasure is one of our most faithful allies.

As Gary writes:

"Spiritual triumph begins and ends with finding our satisfaction in God above all things. We serve a generous God, however, who eagerly wants to bless us with many other pleasures, gifts from his hand, that delight us—and in delighting us, bring pleasure back to him. Rather than seeing these gifts as competitors that steal our hearts from God, perhaps we can gratefully receive them and allow God to use them to ruin us to the ways of the world. Prayer and fellowship are among life’s richest pleasures, but let’s not stop there. Let us learn to fill our souls with beauty, art, noble achievement, fine meals, rich relationships, and soul-cleansing laughter. When we acknowledge these pleasures, we acknowledge God as a genius creator of brilliant inventions. Let us be wary of a faith that denies these blessings as “worldly” and unfit, as though Satan rather than God had designed them. Let us refuse to fall into the enemy’s trap of denying ourselves God’s good pleasures so that we end up deeply vulnerable to illicit pleasure. In truth, God created us first for his own pleasure, not our own; but when we live a life of holy pleasure, we do bring pleasure to God. In this context and with this understanding, pleasure can become a powerful force for piety and goodness." pg 17

"The rate at which we are losing our young people should alarm every church in this country. Some estimates put the loss at 75 percent. Many experts are trying to find out why kids raised in church abandon it in their twenties. Here’s a clue: If teens think they have to leave the church to celebrate, why would they ever want to stay? If every time they enter the walls dedicated to God’s service they hear only about their shortcomings, their obligations, and their irresponsibility, what would make them want to come back? I’m not saying we shouldn’t confront the sin of the young. Of course we should. Their sins—including their selfishness and apathy—need to be challenged. But let’s preach the good life every bit as much as we warn them away from the path of destruction. Let’s invite them to drink from the well that truly satisfies, and then let’s live it so that they see with their own eyes the glory and happiness of an obedient Christian." pg 29


Are you excited about this book already? Here's some extra good news! Until January 11, you can download Pure Pleasure for free from Gary Thomas's web site. Sure, I strongly encourage you to buy your own print copy, too, since it's much easier to read sitting in a cozy arm chair than in front of a computer screen, and since an author deserves payment for his work! But at least you can get a sneak preview right now, and another benefit of having the digital book too is that you can search for words or phrases. You can download Adobe Digital Reader, which is much more sophisticated and user-friendly than regular PDF, at the same time.

You can order your print copy from here: Pure Pleasure by Gary Thomas at CBD or directly from the author's web site (and watch Gary's intro video clip) here: Pure Pleasure by Gary Thomas at Center for Evangelical Spirituality.

And now, after this more general review, I have a few observation about how the concepts in Gary's books (not just Pure Pleasure) relate to families, especially those who are home schooling. 


Many moms and dads struggle to truly enjoy their children because they are so intent on building their character and correcting their errant behavior. This is especially apparent in the home school movement when we are (hopefully) making extra sacrifices to invest in their success. They simply have to turn out right, or how could we justify the time and money we spent? PLEASE remember that our children are treasures from God, whether they are complying with us or not. The atmosphere in our homes must become one of affection and acceptance, rather than grumpy disapproval. Otherwise, our kids will quickly discover that Mom's and Dad's religion is not the only game in town, and they will drift or even run to wherever they feel they're getting a fair shake and good vibes. Josh McDowell has said, "Rules without relationships reap rebellion." When you are thinking about enjoying the pleasures from God, I hope that your children are right at the top! Take some time to have some fun with them as a whole family and one-on-on. How long has it been since you had an awesome vacation or even a daytrip that wasn't strictly educational? Yes, it costs some money, but you only have so long with your children before they grow up and move away. (Ask me how I know this!)

Here are a several terrific ways to have some guilt-free fun with your kids. 

  • Cuddle up on the couch with your kids to read a good book: How to Read Aloud and Enjoy It and When Mother Reads Aloud.
  • Do something that is both fun and educational: Got a Hand, Make a Puppet.
  • Make Christmas presents: Great Gifts Kids Can Make for Others.
  • Take the entire month of December off from traditional school: Advent Adventure Unit Study for December.
  • Play games like Pente and Mancala that use strategy, but are simple and fun enough for parents and kids to enjoy together.
  • Join your local YMCA so the kids can get fun PE time, and you can relieve stress by working out and getting in shape -- our family gets a 50% scholarship so ask about one if you can't afford it otherwise!
  • Take advantage of outdoor fun & freedom, such as taking a picnic lunch outside to the yard or a local park or letting your kids take a book up into your tree to read while you take pictures!
We also need to remember that it is God who saves and sanctifies our children (and the rest of us, too), not our own effort. We can do our part and point the way, but he must bring about the fruit through the dynamic indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is one thing to give up outward forms of legalism (picky rules) yet cling to an inward, and sometimes more devastating, bondage of trying to hack out the sin in our lives by sheer will power. As Galatians 3:1-3 says, "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" And in Galatians 5:22-25 it says, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit." Any admonition to "mortify sin" MUST be accompanied by this means: the power of the Holy Spirit to walk in our precious identity in Christ. A believer in Christ is no longer a dirty rotten sinner or a morally depraved worm who is controlled by sinful pride, but a new creation, a dearly loved saint who can be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. As we yield to God's guidance (say "YES, LORD!" and then DO IT!) , and worship him for who he is and what he has done, our minds are renewed by truth, which sets us free (John 8:32). I have been coming to this realization bit by bit over the past few years and especially recent months. I finally see the fruit of it. I still have a long way to go in God's grace! Now if I want to see this worked out in my children's lives too, then I need to give them a solid foundation of who they are (or can be) in Christ, and how they need the filling of the Holy Spirit for themselves. It's not enough to tag along on a parent's faith. They must own it in their own hearts. This is the heart of discipling our children! Do you feel stuck by ongoing failure to live victoriously as a Christian mom? Take comfort in this quote by Francis Fenelon, which applies not only to individuals, but to parents hoping for lasting change in their children:
"Bear with yourself in your involuntary frailties as God bears, wait patiently for His appointed time of complete deliverance, and meanwhile go on quietly and according to your strength in the path before you, without losing time in looking back; always "reaching forth unto those things which are before," not dwelling unprofitably upon depressing falls and hindrances; sorrowing over them, indeed, with humility, but putting them aside to press onwards; not looking upon God as a spy watching to surprise you, or an enemy laying snares for you, but as a Father who loves, and would fain save you; full of trust in His goodness, continually invoking His mercy, and perfectly free from all vain dependence upon yourself or any other creature. Such you will find to be the path towards true liberty."
And another from Francis De Sales: "As to these smaller temptations… as it is impossible to be altogether freed from them, the best defense that we can make is not to give ourselves much trouble about them; for although they may tease us, yet they can never hurt us, so long as we continue firmly resolved to dedicate ourselves in earnest to the service of God…. Content yourself with quietly removing them, not by contending or disputing with them, but by performing some actions of a contrary nature to the temptation, especially acts of the love of God… This grand remedy is so terrible to the enemy of our souls, that as soon as he perceives that his temptation incites us to form acts of divine love he ceases to tempt us… He who would wish to contend with them in particular would give himself much trouble to little or no purpose.” (Quoted by Gary Thomas on page 76-77 of Seeking the Face of God.)
Are you exhausted or stressed out as a mom? Is there ever anything leftover for you after all the demands of mothering, disciplining, housecleaning, organizing, chauffeuring, not to mention the challenges of being either a wife or a single mom?  And, if you are home schooling, add in teaching, lesson planning and grading!  Do you feel guilty trying to get away for a little bit for some happy time, even to your bedroom for a little peace and quiet? STOP IT! Dear ladies, you must fill your pitcher to the brim with life or you won't have anything to pour out for your family! I used to have a T-shirt that read, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy!" And that's the truth! You set the tone in your family. Is it going to be grumpy? Lifeless? Joyless? If you can't work this out for yourself, or there are family crises that complicate your story, don't hesitate to go for professional Christian counseling. If you feel that your pastor is not equipped for giving the kind of help you need, many counseling centers offer services for a sliding scale fee. I know that some of you are in dark places in life. I'm not suggesting that you shrug it off and pretend that life is jolly, but that you deal with it head on so you can move on with confidence. Your identity is not determined by how other people (husband, children, relatives, friends) assess your worth. You are a precious treasure to God in Christ Jesus. Whatever you do, remember that the joy of the Lord is your strength (Nehemiah 8:10) and that he rejoices over you with gladness and singing (Zephaniah 3:17). Don't accept second best. Yes, you will sometimes be tired and discouraged. Jesus came to give you abundant life (John 10:10)! You might find some extra encouragement and refreshment on my blog, Come Weary Moms, especially the post called Help for Hurting Marriages which contains excerpts from Gary Thomas's books Sacred Influence: How God Uses Wives to Shape the Souls of Their Husbands and Sacred Marriage. I also invite you do download a free PDF copy of my 176 page book The Real Life Home School Mom, which primarily focuses on the emotional, logistical and spiritual challenges of home schooling rather than just academics.

I hope that this extra commentary has been helpful to you!  I would love your feedback!

Virginia Knowles

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