Sin and the Question of Pleasure: A Reflection on James 3.13-4.3, 7-8

As I write this, the news here in Canada is dominated by two major stories: tomorrow’s federal election and protests by a small but very loud contingent of people opposed to ongoing public health measures to help our society withstand the COVID-19 pandemic, especially proof-of-vaccination measures for accessing non-essential services. The theme of both of these stories is frustration and anger. It’s been a long two years, and it was a long haul before that too. (I was recently listening to some podcast episodes recorded in 2019 and the hosts were commenting on how exhausted they were by the state of the world! If they only knew!) This season of the world’s history has left us all tired and a little (or a lot) traumatized. None of us are functioning at our best. In light of this, today’s Epistle reading, from the letter of James, is a helpful reminder that this is a recipe for bad behaviour and we should take extra care about how we express ourselves and engage the world right now.

The apostle begins by asking his readers, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” His answer is immediate: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (James 3.13). This is reminiscent of Jesus’ claim that truth is best discerned, not by adherence to tradition or Scripture or Law, but by the fruit something bears (see Matthew 7.15-19 and 12.33): Wisdom reveals itself in action.

The text continues with a familiar Biblical trope, offering two diverging paths for human life, a path of wisdom and understanding, and a path of folly and falsehood (see, for example Psalm 1 and Galatians 4, among others). Those who follow the path of folly are marked by such things as zeal, sharpness, and ambition. They are ‘of this world’ (instead of the Kingdom of God), stuck in their own heads. They sow uncertainty and doubt, and are concerned about trifling and insignificant matters. By comparison, those who follow the true path of wisdom are “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Instead of sowing uncertainty and disorder, they sow justice and peace.

Then comes the most controversial part of this passage. The apostle asks, “Where do those conflicts and disputes among you come from?” (James 4.1). His answer is pretty counter-cultural for us today:

Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

The problem, according to James, is the pursuit of pleasure. Now, we are in the contemporary West are a very pro-pleasure society, perhaps the most so in history. Much of this likely has to do with our general societal wealth, but a lot is also a reaction against the very anti-pleasure stance of a lot of Western, and that is to say Christian, history — a stance that was certainly fed by passages like this one. But, if we understand the passage through the lens of the general philosophical trends of the Ancient Mediterranean world, we see that it isn’t quite as extreme as it sounds to us. Ancient Greek philosophy was practical philosophy; as much as it tackled big questions of the universe, it was mostly concerned with questions of what makes a life ‘good’ and worth living. And even before the moralizing impulse of the Roman Empire took hold, pleasure was never really taken seriously as an option. The only school of thought most of us today would recognize as advocating the pursuit of pleasure, the Cyrenaics, were widely ridiculed and never popular in the ancient world; and the only other school that was technically hedonistic (i.e., pleasure-seeking), the Epicureans, was more concerned with avoiding the negative consequences of indulgence than with seeking pleasure full-throttle; a pleasurable life according to Epicureans was about simple meals and the company of a good friend than feasting and letting loose. My point here is that even if we might rightly think that much of Christian history went too far in demonizing pleasure, there was already a pre-Christian consensus that pleasure is an unreliable, elusive, and futile pursuit in and of itself. This might give us cause to wonder what they knew that we don’t.

Today, this ancient understanding is supported by the psychological study of pleasure; specifically what we’ve learned about ‘hedonic adaptation,’ a process through which our bodies adjust to certain amounts of a pleasurable stimulus and so it takes more and more of that stimulus to evoke the same pleasurable feelings. In other words, having pleasure as a primary motivation in life is going to be a losing battle: more effort for less gain as time goes on. So, even as people who don’t want to vilify pleasure, we might do well to reconsider our cultural hedonism.

So James offers his readers, including us, a choice: to be motivated by pleasure and appetites, which is a losing battle that leaves us with less and causes all sorts of problems for our relationships and the world, or to be motivated by wisdom and grace, which are a sort of divine perpetual motion machine, engines that produce more energy than they consume, and produce bountiful good fruit in our lives and relationships. I don’t think this is at all a dour or restrictive message. It’s a reminder that there is life, good life, beyond the narrow perspectives of immediate self-gratification.

And so, as we all attempt in our exhaustion to manage our feelings in the midst of political clashes and ongoing pandemic restrictions, I hope we can all take a deep breath and remember to act out of wisdom and goodness instead of our tiredness and desire for the pleasures we once took for granted. For that is how we can avoid the bruising of relationships that we call ‘sin‘ and live out our life of faith, showing up for one another in Jesus’ name.

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