Pleasure and Pain

by Peter Eng

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“Nature has placed mankind under the government of two sovereign master, pain and pleasure – they govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.”
Jeremy Bentham


The temptation a man faces with the-other-woman is intense, but the dynamics are similar to all other temptations. It doesn’t matter if your besetting sin is laziness, the love of money, lack of forgiveness, or idolatry of things and people. The devil has a pattern of attack and if we know that pattern, we can repulse that attack. Our adversary uses the pincer movement of pleasure and pain.

Think about your motive for doing something, anything. Let’s say, your motive for getting out of bed in the morning. Let’s see if your motivations are similar to mine.

I know I accept the pain of crawling out of bed each morning to start a new work day because the alternative is the far greater pain of privation and hunger. If I endure the pain of working beyond my necessities I am motivated by the pleasure of rewards I wish to enjoy, or the pleasure of security, or the pleasure of providing more for my family, etc. The simple act of getting out of bed in the morning to work is a complex mix of motivations, but they all have to do with pleasure or pain.

As a child of God, I seek to purify my motive for getting out of bed to work. Even then, I do it to have the pleasure of God’s approval, and I do it to avoid the pain of God’s displeasure. It is in our DNA. We do things for pleasure or to avoid pain.

When a man is tempted by the-other-woman, he is facing a temptation of pleasure. The proposition is simple enough. It is the proposition of the “adulteress” in Proverbs 7. It is the promise of stolen pleasures without consequences as long as the parties don’t talk about it. It is excused as actions between consenting adults, and nobody gets hurt.

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Why does a person steal? One reason is that he thinks he can get away with it. Why does a person catch AIDS through sex? Because he thinks he can get away with a certain event or lifestyle. The proposition of the “adulteress” is that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience without consequences.

When a person takes drugs, he is manipulated to think in the same way as the victim of the adulteress. Why do people indulge in substance abuse? The overwhelming reason is for its pleasurable effect. A secondary person may be peer approval – which is also pleasure. Most people do not become physically addicted with a single incident of substance abuse. But that one no-consequence of the incident leads to another, and another. The horror of drugs, like heroin, is that after a time, the dependency is so severe that getting off the drug involves a process of great pain. Now the reason to consume the substance transitions from an indulgence in pleasure to avoidance of pain.

The shared dynamic of temptation is this. The pursuit of pleasure brings us to sin, the avoidance of pain keeps us in sin.

The two faces to temptation are pleasure and pain. In modern English we use the term “temptation” to refer to things of pleasure, and not to describe the avoidance of pain. But in older English, such as found in the venerable King James Version, the word “temptation” is used for both the temptation to pleasure, and the temptation to avoid pain. One example of such a use is in the term “The Last Temptation of Christ.” By this, we mean the event in the Garden of Gethsemane. That was the place Jesus spent his last hours before he was arrested. There Jesus agonized over the looming darkness of the cross. What was the nature of that temptation? It was the temptation to avoid the pain of the cross. There was no pleasure involved, there was only pain.

The Greek word for temptation is peirasmos. We notice that the KJV consistently translates “peirasmos” as “temptation” and never as “trial.” But changes in the meaning of “temptation” have caused modern translators to use the term “trial” in place of “temptation.” Below is a comparison.

  • My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; (King James Version)
  • Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, (New American Standard Bible)
  • Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, (New International Version)
  • Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy (New Living Translation).

I had struggled with temptation and I came out bruised and beaten, notwithstanding the repeated assurances that as a child of God, I am supposed to have victory over temptation. As the Lord led me to study Scripture for myself, I was stymied that I did not even know the meaning of temptation. I cannot recall what led to my study of James 1. But it was here my understanding of temptation was challenged.

So how should I read James 1? As “temptations” or as “trials”? “Temptation” has to do with pleasure, and “trial” with pain. How can these opposite experiences in life reside in one word?

First, we note that opposites are connected. If they are simply unrelated, they will not be opposites. Temptation and trial are related as opposites. The trial/pain and temptation/pleasure contrast is connected by motivation in life. We observe there is hardly any action in the ordinary course of life that is not motivated by either pain or pleasure. On this account, the devil uses these same two motivations to entice us to sin.

Second, we note that they possess the cause-effect connection. We know from experience that when we seize pleasure that is improper, we will enjoy the pleasure but suffer pain as the consequence. Conversely, when we accept the privation of not yielding to sinful pleasure, the result is true pleasure. Yielding to sinful pleasure produces pain; and embracing righteous pain produces pleasure.

So when the Bible uses the same word “peirasmos” for both pain-temptation and pleasure-temptation, it calls us to recognize there is a cause-effect of pleasure-pain in temptation. The indulgence in pleasure produces pain, and the acceptance of pain produces pleasure.

When we are tempted, we are tempted to indulge in a sinful pleasure, or we are tempted to avoid a necessary pain. When we indulge in a sinful pleasure such as a tryst with the little dragon maiden, or an addictive drug, we seize the pleasure, confident there is no pain at the other end. The same dynamic applies for all sins, like the sin of gluttony. We delude ourselves into thinking that we can indulge and not bulge. We think we can be lazy without poverty. We think we can overwork without breakdown. We think we can ignore the spiritual disciplines and still be spiritually strong.

We live in an age when we think pain is the greatest evil. I recall Saddam Hussein broadcasting the confessions of a captured pilot, who denounced his own country. It is apparent the pilot was roughed up with a swollen face. Many people say it didn’t matter what he said because he was tortured. The temptation he faced was pain avoidance or staying true to his country. Many US pilots captured by North Vietnam suffered similar temptations, but most refused to give in. The temptation to avoid pain can be very compelling. And it is right for us to accept a pilot’s betrayal as having mitigating factors. But it does not change the reality that the act itself is motivated by pain avoidance.

Coercion is possible only when we fear pain or the ultimate pain, the pain of death. Once we no longer fear pain or death, we are liberated from this temptation. This is the victory of the early church when they faced persecution. They accepted pain and death for loving Jesus supremely, and Rome lost its power over them. We witness the same victory that overcomes the temptation to deny Christ among the persecuted Christians in China and India today. They have the victory because they are prepared to accept the pain.

Most of us do not suffer the pain of persecution. We just suffer ordinary pains in the course of life. For instance, we avoid the pain of developing a career and think that we can somehow escape poverty through our wit. We think that if we avoid the pain of living within our means, and just keep borrowing, things will somehow work out, and there is no day of reckoning. We think we can avoid the pain of rehabilitation from substance abuse, but discover that our addiction has led us to terrible things.

We are naturally driven by either the avoidance of pain or the pursuit of pleasure. The use of peirasmos for temptation and trial (pleasure and pain) returns us to what motivates our actions. Together, they provide the push and pull motivations of life. They also become the bases for sin. When the Bible uses the word peirasmos (temptation/trial) it covers both the sinful indulgence in pleasure and the sinful avoidance of pain.

I will avoid using the term “trial” for peirasmos because it causes us to think of the event differently. Instead, I will use the term pain-temptation and pleasure-temptation as the need may arise.

I think it is important for me to jump to a topic we will cover later, and note that all true pleasure comes from God. There is nothing wrong with pleasure. God gave us the capacity for pleasure. And it gives God pleasure when we enjoy our life with thanksgiving. The devil perverts the pleasure that God gives us for our proper enjoyment. The devil corrupts true pleasure into something selfish, excessive, or abusive; thus turning holy pleasure into temptation to sin.

This is easily observable. Food is good, but food in excess is sinful towards God and harmful for us. Rest is good, but laziness is a repudiation of the productivity God expects of us, and such indolence is harmful to us. Work is good, but when work defines our value or we become workaholics, we depart from God’s purpose for work by neglecting our loved ones. Temptation as sinful pleasure is a perversion of God’s blessing of pleasure.

When we see that the sinful indulgence of pleasure and the sinful avoidance of pain naturally result in the exact opposite, we begin to appreciate the true nature of temptation. To yield to immediate pleasure of sinful indulgence is to choose long-term pain. To accept temporary pain that we are called to bear, is to choose long-term pleasure.

When the Bible uses one word (peirasmos) for both pleasure-temptation and pain-temptation, we see two nuances driving the meaning of the word. First, we become aware of the motivation for our actions. Left to our own devices, we are almost always driven by our anticipation of pleasure or pain. These two opposite motivations are what the devil use to lead us away from God. Next we accept the cause and effect of pleasure and pain. This sensitizes us to the real results of sinful pleasure or the rejection of just pain.

Once I understood how the devil uses both pleasure and pain to induce me to commit sin and remain in sin, I understood how and when to call upon the Holy Spirit to empower me in my weakness. This was a seminal moment for me because it placed everything in perspective.


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