In a sense, those of us in wealthy societies are especially familiar with the futility of worldly pursuits. Boredom is more prevalent in a first world country, where amusements are in abundance, than it is in a third world country, where entertainment is scarce. In the climate of our modern Western culture, the very multitude of our enjoyments has extinguished our power of enjoyment. Due to the sheer number and variety of distractions available, we reach a point of fatigue, unable to find any lasting satisfaction. With amusements and technology always at our fingertips, we eventually grow to see our colorful surroundings in black and white. Like King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, we discover that all our pleasures leave an aftertaste of futility and frustration.
It isn’t necessary for a man to experience pain in order to be miserable. All he needs is to look on everything with indifference. His unhappiness comes from his numbness: He is dead to all around him, and alive to nothing within him but the weight of his own useless existence.
Even when we acknowledge that worldly pleasures don’t satisfy, we still often pursue them. Why? Because desire is a universal and unchangeable human condition. Under the impulse of desire, we pursue an object to receive gratification.
Our habits of choice may be something openly sinful, such as sexual immorality. They may be focused on alcohol, video games, movies, or the approval of others. They may even be related to inherently good things, like work or leisure.
Whatever it is, our chosen interests are so captivating to us that we aren’t easily distracted from them. We develop strong habits in pursuing them. They may fail to satisfy us at times, but we refuse to give them up—even if the pleasure they provide is accompanied by negative consequences (nagging guilt, sexually transmitted diseases, poverty, loss of friendships, or even the coming vengeance of God).
If a pursuit brings only fleeting pleasure, such as pornography or illicit sex, your heart will still not let go of it any easier than it would submit to torture. Such is the grasping tendency of the human heart: it must have something to lay hold of. And if that object is stripped away without being replaced, the heart will experience a void as painful as starvation feels to the stomach.
Therefore, it isn’t enough to acknowledge how empty your pursuit is. You must direct your mind’s eye to another object—something powerful enough to free you from the grip of the first. In other words, a present desire cannot be gotten rid of simply by being destroyed. It must be replaced.
Human experience demonstrates this truth. Think, for example, of the last time you indulged a sinful desire that you had grieved over just the day before. Why wasn’t your sorrow enough to keep you from falling back into the same sin again? Because your sinful addiction wasn’t replaced by a superior desire. Until you experience the satisfaction of a greater pleasure, your sin patterns will take you in a never-ending cycle of desire, sin, and regret (James 1:14-15).
A Sunday morning sermon may help you see the emptiness of earthly pleasures. As you are reminded of how short life is and how death swallows all the joys and interests of the world, you may find yourself emotionally affected. You may even feel that a life-changing experience has taken place and that you will finally be free from your sinful cravings.
But then Monday morning comes along, accompanied by all the distractions of the world. And the machinery of the heart demands that you fill the void left by the vacant worldly pleasures. Before you know it, you are once again pursuing the sin you thought you had learned to hate. When you have no new affections to replace your old ones, the church can easily become a playground for fleeting emotions instead of a school for obedience.
It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. Well, so does the human heart: the room inside it may change one occupant for another, but it cannot be left empty without experiencing intolerable suffering.
Imagine telling a person to set fire to his own property. He might obey, painfully and reluctantly, if he saw that his life depended on it. But he would gladly burn his property to the ground if he saw that a new property worth ten times as much would instantly spring up from the ashes. In a situation like this, something more is going on than just displacing an affection; one treasure is being traded in for another.