Pain-Pleasure and the Seduction of the Church – Part 3
By David Williams
In this series of articles, I have argued that we are living through a radical change in the Western worldview. We are moving from being a guilt-innocence culture to becoming a pain-pleasure culture. Western societies increasingly are making their most fundamental decisions based on what brings us pleasure and avoids pain. This is the basis on which both the same-sex marriage postal vote and euthanasia debate were argued: How dare you deny me the pleasure of marrying whomever I like? How dare you impose on me a painful death that I could otherwise avoid?
Sadly parts of the church have been seduced by the pain-pleasure worldview. Prosperity teaching buys straight into the whole pain-pleasure paradigm and articulates the message of Jesus in terms antithetical to Scripture.
Pain-pleasure and prosperity
A while back, I spoke with a woman who had worked at Koorong for a number of years. She said that in every year she worked there, the best-selling authors were all prosperity teachers: Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and TD Jakes. This shouldn’t surprise us. Those living in a pain-pleasure paradigm focus on the “now” at the expense of the “not yet” and therefore have no incentive to delay gratification. Prosperity teaching speaks directly to this reality, offering “your best life now.”
In prosperity teaching, God’s work in the life of the believer is not a slow growth in holiness―redeeming suffering and anticipating glory. Rather, God’s work is to bring the believer pleasure, prosperity and fulfilment at minimal personal cost. Simply through changing the words you speak, prosperity teaching promises you an immediate material return. For a person living in a pain-pleasure worldview, this offer seems irresistible. I can receive the pleasures I desire through the simplest means imaginable. Here’s a quote from Osteen:
When you go through the day saying, “I am blessed,” blessings come looking for you. “I am talented.” Talent comes looking for you. You may not feel up to par, but when you say, “I am healthy,” health starts heading your way. “I am strong.” Strength starts tracking you down. You’re inviting those things into your life.
The prosperity gospel is an obvious example of cultural accommodation to the emerging pain-pleasure worldview.
Pain-pleasure and the “furry lion”
A more subtle illustration is evident in Tanya Luhrmann’s fascinating book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann is an American psychological anthropologist whose doctoral research is based on an ethnography of witches in London during the early 1980s, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England.
More recently, Luhrmann has written an ethnography of American charismatic Christians within a number of Vineyard churches in Illinois and California. She shows how Vineyard members learn to hear God’s voice speaking to them through their thought lives, trained through meditation on Scripture. Luhrmann’s account is warm and sympathetic.
In a remarkable conclusion she implies that she has experienced God through her research and describes herself as having a “furry lion problem”, alluding to Aslan in the Narnia stories. In her ethnographic research she faithfully records the voices of her respondents. I don’t recall anywhere in the book reading of her respondents talk about God’s wrath, sin as rebellion against God, radical holiness of life, substitutionary atonement, the cross, or suffering―such themes are barely mentioned. The voices of her respondents focus rather on experiencing a God who enters into their day-to-day struggles and makes life better for them.
I don’t for a moment deny that we follow a God who is interested in my day-to-day struggles. My point is that Luhrmann’s respondents paint a picture of Christian faith that is radically different to say, Calvin’s Institutes. It is a picture painted on the canvas of a pain-pleasure worldview.
 Joel Osteen, The Power of I Am: Two Words That Will Change Your Life Today (New York: FaithWords, 2015), 2.
Originally a medical doctor, David Williams worked in the health service in the UK for three years before training for pastoral ministry in the Church of England. David and his family served as missionaries in Nairobi for nine years where he was Principal of Carlile College, an Anglican theological college. David now leads the training ministry of CMS Australia, based at St Andrew’s Hall in Melbourne. He is married to Rachel and they have three adult sons.