Along with guilt-innocence, shame-honor, and fear-power, should there be a fourth category of “pain-pleasure”? This post considers the merit of this idea.
The Idea of Pain-Pleasure
Philosophers have long considered the feelings of pain and pleasure to be part of a continuum. In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle described the human inclination to move towards pleasure and away from pain, “We may lay it down that Pleasure is a movement, a movement by which the soul as a whole is consciously brought into its normal state of being; and that Pain is the opposite” (Rhetoric, book I, ch 11). Later philosophers such as Spinoza and Descrates hypothesized about nature of pain and pleasure. The moral theory of Utilitarianism based ethics on the pain or pleasure caused by an action. Modern scientists even research neurochemical realities to study the biological roots of pleasure and pain.
When referred to as a culture type, “pain-pleasure” carries a philosophical meaning. They are existential realities of the soul, not just biological realities in the brain. The pleasure people seek is a sense of delight, adventure, purpose, and deep contentment. The words “joy” and “satisfaction” explain this pleasure of the soul. The pain people dread is futility, despair, vanity, and boredom. A “pain-pleasure culture” is passionate about aesthetics, beauty, and perfection in all of life. France is a common example of this culture type. The French are known for the longing and pursuit of culinary, visual, and physical pleasure. For many people today, especially in the West, pain and pleasure are the defining factor for choosing a course of action.
Pain-Pleasure in the Bible
The pain-pleasure motif is also common in Bible. God wants people to find joy and pleasure in him. The Psalms say, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (37:4) and “May the nations be glad and sing for joy” (67:4). Nehemiah told Israel, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (10:8). Jesus endured the pain of the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb 12:2). The purpose of Jesus’ instruction and the epistle of 1 John was “to make your joy complete” (John 15:11; 1 John 1:4).
The book of Ecclesiastes reflects deeply on pain and pleasure in life. The opening and closing lines are “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc 1:2; 12:8). Solomon despairs the “futility” of life. Life is a meaningless vapor. The soul is never satisfied. Purpose feels so elusive.
I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on mankind: God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil. (Ecc 6:1-2)
In the end, Solomon exhorts readers to enjoy the life God has granted and to fear the Lord (Ecc 11:7-8,10, 12:13). While Ecclesiastics probes the problem of pain, the book of Philippians speaks about our joy in Christ. Paul rejoices in Christ even despite his suffering and imprisonment, and the Philippians are to imitate his rejoicing (cf. Phil 1:4, 18, 25; 2:2, 17-18, 28-29; 3:1; 4:1, 4, 10)
John Piper & Christian Hedonism
In contemporary times, “Christian Hedonism” frames Christian theology in pain-pleasure terms. John Piper’s book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (p 28) defines Christian Hedonism as:
- The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.
- We should nourish, not resist, this longing to be happy.
- The deepest and most enduring happiness is found in God.
- Our happiness in God reaches its consummation in worship and love.
- The pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and pleasure.
- God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in him.
Humans seek pleasure and avoid pain. This category follows the pattern of the other culture types and is a definite motif throughout the Bible. So, should it be a fourth culture type?
A 4th Culture Type?
“Pain-pleasure” could be incorporated as a fourth category. However, I have some reservations about putting the “pain-pleasure” on the same level as the other three categories.
First, “pain-pleasure” is a general reality more than a specific culture type. Besides French culture, people struggle to identify another culture aptly described as “pain-pleasure.” The category of pain-pleasure does not seem helpful for understanding certain cultures, but general human longings.
Second, how is “pain-pleasure” related to the atonement? The pleasure granted by God to overcome humanity’s existential pain seems more an application of other atoning dimensions. Procuring pleasure and alleviating pain is not a central aspect of the cross in the New Testament. Church history has not articulated an atonement theory in terms of pain-pleasure, but has for the other three culture types. Perhaps one could say Jesus takes the experience of pain as a consequence of the fall and the grants the profound delight of living with him.
The idea of pain-pleasure does illuminate some aspects of culture and Scripture. But for the reasons above, I stay with the three categories of guilt-innocence, shame-honor, and fear-power. This also ensures simplicity—a major advantage of the guilt-shame-fear model, especially for ministry training.
Read more posts in this series “Guilt-Shame-Fear: Revisited“.