|The Ancient Egyptian Board Game "Senet"|
One of the marks
of a successful culture (at least by worldly standards) is the ability to enjoy
entertainment. You have enough surplus
time and resources to stop working just to survive and just enjoy life. In America, we take our entertainment for granted because we are in one of the most prosperous nations in the world. Do you realize that 99% of the people in our world today will never visit Disney World. 90% will never take a vacation to the beach or even go to an amusement park. These are luxuries most Americans can do because we can afford them while most people in the world are too busy just struggling to survive.
God wants people to be able to enjoy life. He said, "Remember to observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy…” (Exodus 20:8) And, “On that day no one in your household may do any work…” (Ex. 20:10) “For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested.” (Ex. 20:11) God didn't want HIs people to have to work all the time and never have time to rest and enjoy life.
The Pharisees in Jesus' day turned the Sabbath commands into a legalistic regulations that were a terrible burden for people. They were no fun at all. They were always upset with Jesus because he didn't follow the Sabbath commands the way they thought he should. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) The commandment to rest on the Sabbath is one of the great gifts God gave humanity. We need to time rest. And God wants us to enjoy life.
The ancient Egyptians were a very powerful and prosperous empire. They had time and wealth to enjoy board games, theater, sporting events, and other entertainment. Unfortunately, they did not appreciate God for blessing them with the resources to enjoy life. In stead, they worshiped idols. And through 10 plagues, God punished them for their idolatry.
When I was a child, I heard that strange sound in the trees in late summer. It sounded like a whinning buzzing that started soft and grew louder and louder and then was echoed in another section of trees. I asked my mom what it was and she said they were locusts. It wasn't until I was older that I learned they weren't locust, but cicadas. Cicadas are not locusts but are related. In fact, cicadas, crickets, katydids, grasshoppers, and locusts are all cousins.
I went to a Cub Scout camp once with my dad and they had us play a game. In the morning, the challenged us all to find a critter to bring to a critter race that evening. My dad and I found a frog. I thought we had the race in the bag that evening with our speedy little frog when we gathered around a big circle they had drawn on the ground that evening. We all placed our critters in the center of the circle and began yelling for our critters to go. The first one outside of the circle would be the winner. All the critters started moving and I thought my frog might win. But then a lone grasshopper leaped into the air and spread it's wings and flew off into the woods never to be seen again. In one move, the grasshopper won the race.
To put it in perspective, a typical swarm of dessert locusts could completely cover Whitfield County in Georgia where I live and nearly half of neighboring Murray County all at once. A typical swarm of locusts can eat 423 million pounds of vegetation per day! And the Scripture tells us the swarm that plagued Egypt was the worst “in the history of Egypt”.
It's no wonder Pharaoh and his officials want relief. They've already endured 7 plagues and their empire is in ruins. So Pharaoh starts bargaining with Moses. "You can go worship your Lord in the wilderness, but who is going?" Moses says, "We are all going--men, women, children, and even the animals." And Pharaoh says, "No. Only the men can go!"
Now, there's an important principle you need to understand. You cannot bargain with God for your salvation. Jesus came to make a way for you to be saved from sin and death, but you are only saved through surrender; and you must surrender, unconditionally. You can't say, "Lord, I will give you this part of my life, but I'm gonna keep that part of my life for myself." No. That will never do. You must give God your whole life. Philippians 2:9-11 says, "One day, God elevated him [Jesus] to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Egypt was an empire with thousands of idols and false gods. But YHWH (pronounced Yahweh), the God of the Hebrews, our God, the only true and living God, sent 10 plagues on Egypt to expose the impotence of all Egypt’s false gods so that all nations and generations would know that there is only one God—the Lord.
We have idols today too—even in our modern world. God designed people to worship. Trying not to worship is like trying not to breathe. People just can't do it. Even if someone doesn't believe in God they will still worship something. They will worship money or power or their country or their leaders or people they admire. They may even worship themselves. One of the idols we worship is pleasure and entertainment.
Now as I said before, God wants us to have time to rest and enjoy life and have pleasure. He commanded us to rest on the Sabbath. This was originally not some stiff religious regulation; it was God telling His children, “You got to take some time to stop and smell the roses!”
Work can become and idol, but so can the pursuit of pleasure. Many in our time bow down to the idol of Hedonism. Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure and sensual self-indulgence.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying life. God wants us to enjoy life. But any time we take something that’s good and treat it like a god—treating it as more important to you than God, letting it absorb your heart and imagination more than God, and expecting it to give you what only God can give—we are worshiping an idol. And idols always fail us and hurt us.
We all want to be happy and enjoy life. Ironically, the one thing that guarantees you will not be happy and enjoy life is if you spend all your time in the pursuit of pleasure. You may find some fabricated, false sense of happiness. Others may even look at you from the outside and envy your “happiness”, but that’s only because they can’t see how unhappy you are on the inside. With hedonism, all your “happiness” is as empty and false as the impotent idols of Egypt.
In contrast to hedonism, the two most effective ways to find the greatest real pleasure in life are to 1) be thankful, and 2) help others.
Being grateful is not just the polite thing to do. When we give thanks, it actually increases our capacity to enjoy our blessings. You see, when we are unhappy, we often think the solution is to get more things or more experiences that will make us happy. However, that is rarely the real solution. Most often after we get the things or experiences we wanted, the satisfaction they give goes away so quickly and all we can think about is the next thing or experience we have to have.
The solution is to learn to be truly thankful for what we have. Our thankfulness magnifies the pleasure we receive from the things and experiences. Amy Harris issued a challenge in her Youth Moment last week—to name one thing for which you are thankful each day. That is a great habit—especially this month. But don’t stop in November. Be thankful every day. Get a journal and each day write down some of the things for which ayou are thankful. Another idea is to get a jar and some slips of paper and each day write down some things for which you are grateful and put them in the jar. Form time to time--especially when you may be feeling down--take out your journal and read from your gratitude list. Or dump out the slips of paper from your "gratitude jar" and read them. You will find it cheers you up and brings your new joy. (My family does a gratitude jar all year long and we read the slips together on New Years Day after dinner.)
Another great way to experience true and lasting pleasure—a pleasure that soaks down deep into your soul—is to help others. Nothing brings joy like helping someone. As Christmas draws nearer, we remember the old cliché--it is better to give than receive. It's a cliché, but it's true.
Scientific studies show that helping others boosts happiness.[i] It increases life satisfaction, provides a sense of meaning, increases feelings of competence, improves our mood and reduced stress. It can help to take our minds off our own troubles too.[ii]
Don’t look at
helping others as a burden you have to bear.
Carrying a heavy load doesn’t sound like fun and it won't bring you much joy either. So help others with a cheerful heart. It’s not some religious duty you must
fulfill in order for God to love you.
God already loves you! Think
about just how much He loves you.
Now, turn around and help somebody else and you may find it is the most
fun you’ve ever had.
Jesus gave us a special meal to remind us how much God loves us. The last meal Jesus shared with His disciples--what Christians call Holy Communion or the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist. At the meal, Jesus took bread and gave it to his disciples and said, "This is my body, which is given for you." After the meal, he took a cup of wine and said, "Drink from this all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. And as often as you do this, do it in remembrance of me." That meal symbolized the way Jesus would die on the cross for our sins. And every time we celebrate Holy Communion, it does three things that can help us experience true joy in this life and for all eternity.
First, it reminds us how God helped us. Jesus left the glorious perfection of Heaven to come down to our broken world. Doesn't feel good to know God loved you so much He gave his one and only son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life?
Second, Holy Communion offers us the opportunity to be truly thankful. Holy Communion is sometimes called "The Great Thanksgiving," for in it we give thanks for what Christ has done. This is not just being polite. It is an act that increases our capacity to experience joy as we the depth of God's love that prompted Him to leave the glory of Heaven for our sakes.
Third, Holy Communion is a sacred ceremony, that God uses to empower us to help others just like Christ helped us. His Spirit fills us and enables us to love people like God loves them. And we can help people. And helping people brings us joy.
So, I pray today you will stop trying to find joy through hedonism--a relentless pursuit of pleasure. Instead, turn to God and find true and lasting joy as you learn to be thankful and seek to help others the way God helped you through Jesus Christ.
[i]  Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It's Good to Be Good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2), 66-77.
[ii] Midlarsky, E. (1991). Helping as coping. Prosocial Behavior: Review of Personality and Social Psychology, 12, 238-264