Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pleasure Central

Today happens to be a unique occurrence where the calendar resembles a slot machine in any of a large number of Las Vegas casinos. When written numerically, today’s date appears as 10-10-10. JACKPOT!! Right? Well, even if the numbers line up for someone on a slot machine, I’m not sure that is the best indicator of whether or not they are winning where it counts. It may be a small moment of achievement for the winner when certain bells ka-ching and lights bling, but what do these signals really mean?

Friends who have been in a casino when someone has won a jackpot have described what they saw. Not being an eye-witness, I’ll have to take their word for it. Perhaps you can correct me if your experience has been different. What I have been told is that casino representatives were quickly on the scene when a slot machine announced a winner. The machine was secured and checked to make sure that the person who supplied the winning coin didn’t win by deceptive means. There was even a level of doubt about the character of the winner, as if they had committed a crime by winning. Whether or not you like to gamble is not my focus today. However, I find it fascinating that a casino representative might be more concerned about validity of a small moment of pleasure than the one who is the supposed beneficiary.

We are surrounded by an endless number of voices that labor to persuade our attentions. Some of them ka-ching and bling, and others come as sharp warnings. The same voice may be pleasing on one occasion, and painful to hear on another. To me, this suggests an important principle about discernment. How good I feel about a particular voice may not be the best indicator of whether it is right or not.

A week ago in General Conference, I heard Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles talk about lures, addictions, and pleasure. This topic has been on my mind since, especially as it relates to voices. As he spoke of addictions he said, “According to the dictionary, addiction of any kind means to surrender to something, thus relinquishing agency and becoming dependent on some life-destroying substance or behavior.” This intrigues me – the fact that certain behaviors can cause us to relinquish our ability to choose, and perhaps even recognize.

He continues, “Researchers tell us there is a mechanism in our brain called the pleasure center. When activated by certain drugs or behaviors, it overpowers the part of our brain that governs our willpower, judgment, logic, and morality. This leads the addict to abandon what he or she knows is right.”

So I wonder, “How is it that the human body can be such a divine gift and yet have inclinations that can be so self-destructive? How is it that our own internal voice can be so difficult as to discern whether it is right or not?” I believe the answer was given by King Benjamin in a discourse to his people.

“For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, … willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19)

Though they appear as opposites, I don’t think it is a coincidence that the actions described by Elder Ballard are so similar to those taught by King Benjamin. Elder Ballard cautioned against surrendering to something that requires us to relinquish agency. King Benjamin encouraged his people to yield and surrender, even submit their will to God. It is not the act of surrender or submission that is good or bad. It is what we accomplish by doing so. Surrendering our will so we can make fewer choices is a damning principle. It stops our progression. Surrendering our will so we can make better choices, returns our will to us in better condition than when we gave it away. In this, the Lord is able to purify our hearts so that we have less desire to sin until, eventually, the desire to sin is gone altogether.

King Benjamin also described an important part about the voice of our souls that comes from within. It is in our natures, particularly because of the needs of the human body, that our desires make us enemies to God. It’s not that we desire to fight him, but our bodies have divinely given desires that must be controlled. And, unless we listen to God, we can easily become pleasure-centric.

In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul warned “that in the last days perilous times shall come,” and that men would be “lovers of their own selves” and “lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.” (2 Timothy 3:1-4) In this sense, pleasure becomes a more inconspicuous form of idolatry where we choose something else to have greater priority in our lives than the true and living God. When desire is shrouded in the secrecy of our hearts, pleasure becomes the invisible focus of our worship. In that moment, pleasure becomes our God.

The researchers that Elder Ballard quoted further describe the important role of pleasure in our lives. Addressing the pleasure center in the brain, the researchers indicated that our “brains are wired to ensure that we will repeat life-sustaining activities by associating those activities with pleasure or reward. Whenever this reward circuit is activated, the brain notes that something important is happening that needs to be remembered, and teaches us to do it again and again, without thinking about it.” (Drugs, Brains, and Behavior – The Science of Addiction, NIDA, p. 18) If what these researchers have indicated is true, pleasure can be a powerful influence, regardless of whether good or bad.

References in scripture seem to indicate that pleasure is neither evidence of right nor wrong. It is merely a condition. Instead, pleasure is associated with both. “The Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear him….” (Psalms 147:11) When we are willing to put God first and temporarily give up the things that our bodies may need, then we will find pleasure in the day of our fasting. (Isaiah 58:3) This suggests that we may find greater pleasure by occasionally abstaining. The opposite is also true. “He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man,” (Proverbs 21:17) and, “she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.” (1 Timothy 5:6) The prophet Jacob taught, “Remember, to be carnally-minded is death, and to be spiritually-minded is life eternal.” (2 Nephi 9:39)

The body alone is not capable of distinguishing between right and wrong. It does not recognize methods the way it does results. If a person is hungry, the body knows when it is fed and the need is met, but it does not care how the need was met. The body does not know if the food was a gift or if it was stolen. It does, however, acknowledge pleasure. When a need is met, the body experiences feelings of pleasure which teach us to repeat the action again and again. Herein lays a potential danger. Unless we understand what pleasure is and how it can help us, we can set ourselves up for unpleasurable experiences later on.

Too often, we allow ourselves to be deceived with regard to pleasure. If we do something we either know is wrong, or at least acknowledge that there is a possibility of being wrong, and then feel pleasure because a need was met, the body attempts to reinforce that behavior. Most often, this feeling of pleasure makes us feel very good. Bells ka-ching and lights start to bling, indicating that we have won the jackpot. At least that is what the carnally-centered body thinks. The best defense to being deceived is to be spiritually-centered instead. Deceiving ourselves with positive reinforcement for behavior that is not good makes it harder and harder to recognize and accept truth. It also makes it more difficult to repent, having convinced ourselves that we are not in error.

Because the body doesn’t acknowledge the methods by which our needs are met, pleasure alone is not a good indicator if something is right or not. It may indicate that the result is right, but it doesn’t justify intent. That requires the spirit. It is by the Spirit that we are justified. (Moses 6:60) When our bodies tell us that an action or decision is right and our spirits tell us the opposite, we are left feeling conflicted. Internally we experience chaos which remains until we can resolve our feelings and make them feel at one.

If we listen to our bodies and ignore our spirits, then the Holy Spirit will withdraw His help and influence, leaving us to our own persuasions. When this happens, we truly become an enemy to God. If instead we listen to our spirits when we receive spiritual promptings and we override the potential temptations of pleasure, we learn restraint and we keep ourselves from being deceived.

Because the soul is comprised of the spirit and the body, we can’t find true happiness by only listening to half of the story. Pleasure is only half of the equation that equals lasting happiness. If you can find pleasure and keep the influence of the Holy Spirit as a constant companion, then you will find the peace that comes by living a life that is consistent with truth. When we master our bodies, and our spirits and our bodies work together, it is then that we become more like God. We shouldn’t confuse the joy of the spirit with the pleasure of the body. It is important to learn the difference. They can be congruent, but are often not.

There is too much at stake to gamble with our salvation by trusting in pleasure alone. Pleasure can lead us to lasting happiness if it reinforces good behavior. When it reinforces bad behavior, it will lead us in the wrong direction. The numbers might line up if we are lucky, but that only works well in a casino. If our bodies truly are temples, then we need to make sure that they remain a place where our spirits can choose freely without deception. We need to be able to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. Instead of reducing pleasure, this will allow us to experience more pleasure without the guilt. With a dose of restraint, we can learn to choose the will of God over a pleasure-centric life.

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