A few mornings ago, my son queued up Handel’s Messiah on his iPod and began playing it through the stereo. It was a day of cancelled school, so I sat, coffee in hand, with all four kids - some of us working, some of us reading the paper, all of us periodically humming or singing the parts we loved best - for the full two hours and 47 minutes of the recording. Hard to believe, since two years ago I couldn’t get them to suffer through a single track.
What had changed? How had they grown to take pleasure in something they once found boring and pointless?
The answer is one that is common to all humans, according to Paul Bloom, a Yale professor with a PhD in Cognitive Psychology. Dr. Bloom’s area of specialty is in pleasure research – how we as humans develop the ability to derive pleasure from people, experiences and things. He has discovered through his research that pleasure does not simply occur, it develops. And how it develops is a point worth noting:
"People ask me, 'How do you get more pleasure out of life?' And my answer is extremely pedantic: Study more….the key to enjoying wine isn’t just to guzzle a lot of expensive wine, it’s to learn about wine.”1
knowledge yields pleasure
Bloom has found that pleasure results from gaining knowledge about the object of our pleasure, not, as we might assume, from merely experiencing it over and over. Specifically, our pleasure increases in something when we learn its history, origin and deeper nature.2 Christians, in particular, should take note of this connection. We are called to be a people who delight ourselves in the Lord, who can say with conviction that “at your right hand are pleasures forevermore”. Many of us identify readily with the call to Christian hedonism. Yet, we fight daily to live as those whose greatest pleasure is found in God. If Bloom is right, finding greater pleasure in God will not result from pursuing more experiences of him, but from knowing him better. It will result from making a study of the Godhead.
Think about the relationship, possession or interest you derive the most pleasure from. How did you develop that delight? Whether you are passionate about modern art, your car, conservation, your spouse, nutrition, education or baseball, my guess is that you became that way by learning about the object of your passion. And that your pleasure in it grew as your knowledge grew.
My kids love Handel’s Messiah because two years ago on a long car drive we told them its history. We printed out all of the lyrics (scriptures) in random order and offered a prize if they could match each set of lyrics to the correct track. They did not initially respond with enthusiasm, and the complaining continued throughout the listening exercise. But in the end, making a study of the Messiah enabled them to derive pleasure from it. As they learned about it, they began to experience it in a fuller and richer way – a way that they would not have if we had simply asked them to listen to it over and over again. Because they made a study of it, it gives them pleasure.
The same is true of our enjoyment of God. When we go through spiritual dry periods, we often try to increase our pleasure in God by seeking repeated experiences of him. But if Paul Bloom is right, and I believe he is, our delight in the Lord will increase not through chasing experiences, but through making a study of him – his history, origin and deeper nature - a practice that would actually allow us to experience him in a fuller and richer way. If we want to feel deeply about God, we must learn to think deeply about God.
to know him is to love him
What Bloom’s research has uncovered bears witness to the truth that the heart cannot love what the mind does not know. The more we know God, the more we will love him. Our pleasure in him will increase as our knowledge does. We must make earnest study of him as he has revealed himself in his Word.
Consider your pattern of spiritual disciplines. How much of it is given to study? The more time you devote to discovering the revealed knowledge and will of God, the greater your pleasure will be in him. The Westminster Catechism teaches us that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But don’t pursue enjoyment. Pursue the knowledge of God himself, and watch as your pleasure in him multiplies.
“May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.” – 2 Peter 1:2
1 What Do We Value Most? NPR Radio TED Radio Hour, May 25, 2012, 14:00 mark
2 Paul Bloom: The Origins of Pleasure TED Talk, July 2011