The Sinfulness of Flesh-Pleasing
by Richard Baxter
Flesh-Pleasing is a Sin
How far flesh-pleasing is a sin, I shall distinctly open to you in these propositions:
1. The pleasing or displeasing of the sensitive appetite in itself considered, is neither sin nor duty, neither good nor evil.
2. To overvalue the pleasing of the flesh is a sin; and to prefer it before the pleasing of God, and the holy preparations for heaven, is the state of carnality and ungodliness, and the common cause of the damnation of souls. The delight of the flesh or senses is a natural good; and the natural desire of it in itself is neither vice nor virtue: but when this little natural good, is preferred before the greater spiritual, moral, or eternal good—this is the sin of carnal minds, which is threatened with death, Romans viii. 1, 5-8, 13.
3. To buy the pleasing of the flesh at too dear a rate, as the loss of time, or with care and trouble above its worth, and to be too much set on making provisions to please it—does show that it is overvalued, and is the sin forbidden, Romans xiii. 14.
4. When any desire of the flesh is inordinate, immoderate, or irregular for matter, or manner, quantity, quality, or season—it is a sin to please that inordinate desire.
5. When pleasing the flesh does too much pamper it, and nourish filthy lusts, or any other sin, and is not necessary on some other account, as doing greater good—it is a sin. But if life requires it, lust must be subdued by other means.
6. When pleasing the flesh does hurt it, by impairing health, and so making the body less fit for duty—it is a sin. And so almost all intemperance tends to breed diseases; and God commands temperance even for the body’s good.
7. When unnecessary flesh-pleasing hinders any duty of piety, justice, charity, or self-preservation, in thought, affection, word, or deed—it is sinful.
8. If any pleasing of the flesh can be imagined to have no tendency directly or indirectly to any moral good or evil, it is not the object of a moral choosing or refusing; but like the winking of the eye, is not voluntary—it is not within the compass of morality.
9. Every pleasing of the flesh, which is capable of being referred to a higher end, and is not so referred and used—is a sin. And there is scarcely anything which a man could deliberate on, but should be referred to a higher end—even to the glory of God; and to spur us up to love and thankfulness; and strengthening or fitting us some way for some duty. This is apparently a sin,
(1.) Because else flesh-pleasing is made our ultimate end, and the flesh an idol if ever we desire it only for itself (when it may be referred to a higher end). For though the sensitive appetite of itself has no intended end, yet whatever the will desires is either as an end, or as a means. That which is not desired as a means to some higher end, is desired as our ultimate end itself (in that act). But God alone is man’s lawful, ultimate end.
(2.) Because it is against an express command, I Cor. x.31, “Whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
(3.) Because else we shall take God’s creatures in vain, and cast them away in waste.
(4.) And we shall lose our own benefit to which the creature or pleasure should be improved.
(5.) And we shall silence reason, when it should direct; and we shall suspend the government of the will, and give the government (so long) to the flesh or brutish appetite: for that faculty rules, whose object is our end. These reasons clearly prove it a sin to terminate our desires in any act of flesh-pleasing as our end, and look no higher, when it is a matter of moral choice and deliberation.
10. But the sin here is not simply that the flesh is pleased, but that the duty of referring it to a higher end is omitted: so that it is a sin of omission (unless we proceed to refer better things as a means to it).
11. The intending of God’s glory or our spiritual good, cannot be distinctly and sensibly acted in every particular pleasure we take, or bit we eat, or thing we use; but a sincere, habitual intention well laid at first in the heart, will serve to the right use of many particular means. As a man purposes at his first setting out to what place he means to go, and afterward goes on, though at every step he thinks not sensibly of his end; so he who devotes himself unto God, and in general designs all to his glory, and the furtherance of his duty and salvation, will carry on small particulars to that end, by a secret, unobserved action of the soul, performed at the same time with other actions, which only are observed. He who intends but his health in eating and drinking, is not remembering his health at every bit and cup; and yet has such a habit of care and caution, as will unobservedly keep him in his way, and help him to fit the means unto the end. As the accustomed hand of a musician can play a lesson on his lute, while he thinks of something else, so can a resolved Christian faithfully do such accustomed things as eating, and drinking, and clothing him, and laboring in his calling, to the good ends which he (first actually, and still habitually) resolved on, without a distinct remembrance and observable intention of that end.
12. The body must be kept in that condition (as far as we can) that is fittest for the service of the soul: as you keep your horse, neither so pampered as to be unruly, nor yet so low as to disable him for travel; but all that health and strength which makes it not unruly, makes it the more serviceable.
It is not the life of the body, but the health and the cheerfulness, which makes it fit for duty. And so much pleasing of the flesh as tends but to its health and cheerfulness, is a duty, where it can be done without greater hurt the other way. A heavy body is but a dull and heavy servant to the mind, yes, a great impediment to the soul in duty, and a great temptation to many sins; as sickly and melancholy people, and many dull and phlegmatic people, know by sad experience. It is as great a duty to help the body to its due alacrity and fitness for service, as it is to tame it, and bring it under by fasting and sackcloth, when it is proud or lustful.
And those who think fasting on certain days, in a formal manner, is acceptable to God, when the state of the body is not helped, but rather hurt and hindered by it, as if it were a thing required for itself, do mistakenly offer a sacrifice to God, which he requires not; and take him to be an enemy to man, who desires his pain and grief, when it tends not to his good. A mower who has a good scythe will do more in a day, than another that has a bad scythe can do in two days. Every workman knows the benefit of having his tools in order; and every traveler knows the difference between a cheerful and a tired horse; and those who have had both health and sickness, know what a help it is in every work of God, to have a healthful body, and cheerful spirits, and an alacrity and promptitude to obey the mind.
When the sights of prospects and beauteous buildings, and fields, and countries, or the use of walks, or gardens, do tend to raise the soul to holy contemplation, to admire the Creator, and to think of the glory of the life to come; this delight is lawful if not a duty, where it may be had. So when music does cheer the mind, and fit it for thanks and praise to God: and when the rest of the body, and the use of your best apparel, and moderate feasting, on the Lord’s day, and other days of thanksgiving, do promote the spiritual service of the day, they are good and profitable; but to those that are more hindered by fullness, even abstinence on such days is best. So that the use of the body must be judged of as it is a means or an expression of the good or evil of the mind.
13. Sometimes the present time must be most regarded herein, and sometimes the future. For when some great sin, or judgment, or other reason calls us to a fast, when it becomes needful to the ends of that present day, we must do it, though the body were so weak that it would be somewhat the worse afterward; so be it that the good which we may expect by it that day, be greater than the good which it is likely to deprive us of afterward; otherwise the after-loss, if greater, is more to be avoided.
14. Many things do remotely fit us for our main end, which, nearly and directly, seem to have no tendency to it; as those that are only to furnish us with natural strength, and vigor, and alacrity, or to prevent impediments. As a traveler’s hood and cloak, and other carriage, seem rather to be hindrances to his speed; but yet are necessary for preventing the cold and wet, which else might hinder him more. Yes, a possible, uncertain danger or impediment, if great, may be prevented with a certain small impediment. So it is fit that our bodies be kept in that health and alacrity, which is ordinarily necessary to our duty; and in eating and drinking, and lawful recreations, it is not only the next or present duty, which we prepare for, but for the duty which may be very distant.
15. Ordinarily it is safest to be more fearful of excess of fleshly pleasure, than of defect. For ordinarily we are all very prone to an excess, and also the excess is usually more dangerous. When excess is the damnation of all, or most who ever perish, and defect is but the trouble and hindrance but never, or rarely, the damnation of any—it is easy then to see on which side we should be most fearful, cautious, and vigilant
16. Yet excessive scrupulousness maybe a greater sin, and a greater hindrance in the work of God, than some small excesses of flesh-pleasing, which are committed through ignorance or inadvertency. When an honest heart which prefers God before the flesh, and is willing to please him though it displease the flesh, shall yet mistake in some small particulars, or commit some daily errors of infirmity or heedlessness, it is a far less hindrance to the main work of religion, than if that man should daily perplex his mind with scruples about every bit he eats—whether it be not too pleasing or too much; and about every word he speaks; and every step he goes—as many poor, tempted, melancholy people do; thereby disabling themselves, not only to love, and praise, and thankfulness—but even all considerable service.
In summary—All pleasing of the senses or flesh, which is lawful, must have these qualifications:
1. God’s glory must be the ultimate end.
2. The matter must be lawful and not forbidden.
3. Therefore it must not be to the hindrance of duty.
4. Nor to the drawing of us to sin.
5. Nor to the hurt of our health.
6. Nor too highly valued, nor too dearly bought.
7. The measure must be moderate rate. Where any of these are lacking, it is sin. Where flesh-pleasing is habitually the bent of heart and life, and preferred before the pleasing of God—it proves the soul in captivity to the flesh, and in a damnable condition.
The great evil of flesh-pleasing!
I am next to show you the evil or malignity of predominant flesh-pleasing. For if the greatness of the sin were known, it would contribute much to the cure.
1. Understand that flesh-pleasing is the sin of sins, the end of all sin, and therefore the very sum and life of all sin. All the evil which wicked men commit, is ultimately to please the flesh. The love of flesh-pleasing is the cause of all sin. Pride, and covetousness, and whoredom, and wantonness, and gluttony, and drunkenness, and all other sins—are but either the immediate works of sensuality and flesh-pleasing, or the distant service of it, by laying in provision for it. And all the malicious enmity and opposition to God and godliness is from hence, because they cross the interest and desires of the flesh: the final cause is it for which men invent and use all the means that tend to it. Therefore all other sin being nothing but the means for the pleasing of our fleshly appetites and fancies, it is evident that flesh-pleasing is the common cause of them all, and is to all other sin as the spring is to the watch, or the poise to the clock—the weight which gives them all their motion. Cure this sin and you have taken off the poise. But, indeed, nothing but the love of pleasing God, can truly cure the love of flesh-pleasing: and such a cure is the cure of every sin.
2. Flesh-pleasing is the grand idolatry of the world. The flesh is the greatest idol that ever was set up against God. Therefore Paul says of sensual worldlings, that “their belly is their God,” and thence it is that they “mind earthly things,” and “glory in their shame, and are enemies to the cross of Christ,” that is, to sufferings for Christ, and the doctrine and duties which would cause their sufferings. That is a man’s God, which he takes for his chief good, and loves best, and trusts in most, and is most desirous to please: and this is the flesh to every sensualist. He “loves pleasure more than God.” He “savors” or “minds” the “things of the flesh,” and “lives” to it, and “walks after it.” He “makes provision for it to satisfy its appetite or lusts.” He “sows to the flesh and fulfills its lusts.”
And thus, while lust or sensuality has dominion, sin is said to have dominion over them, and they are servants to it, Romans vi. 14, 20. For “to whom men yield themselves servants to obey, his servants they are whom they serve or obey,” Romans vi. 16. It is not primarily the bowing of the knee and praying to a thing, which constitutes idolatry. It is the loving, and pleasing, and obeying, and seeking, and delighting in a thing, which is idolatry. So the loving of the flesh, and pleasing it, and serving it, and obeying it, and seeking and delighting in its pleasures—is the grand idolatry—more than if you offered sacrifices to it!
And so the flesh is God’s chief enemy, because it has the chief love and service which are due to him. The flesh robs him of the hearts of all people who are carnal and unsanctified. All the Baals, and Jupiters, and Apollos, and other idols of the world put together, have not so much of the love and service due to God, as the flesh alone has. If other things be idolized by the sensualist, it is but as they subserve his flesh, and therefore they are made but inferior idols. He may idolize his wealth, and idolize men in power and worldly greatness; but it is only as they can help or hurt his flesh: this has his heart. By the interest of the flesh, he judges of his condition; by this he judges of his friends; by this he chooses his actions or refuses them, and by this he measures the words and actions of all others. He takes all for good which pleases his flesh, and all for bad that is against his pleasure.
3. The flesh is not only the common idol, but the most devouring idol in all the world. It has not, as inferior, flattered idols have—only a knee and compliment, or now and then a sacrifice or ceremony; but it has the heart, the tongue, the body to serve it! The whole estate, the service of friends, the use of wit and utmost diligence; in a word, it has all. The flesh is loved and served by the sensualist, “with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength.” They “honor it with their substance, and the first fruits of their increase.” It is as faithfully served as Christ requires to be of his disciples: men will part with father, and mother, and brother, and sister, and nearest friends—for the pleasing of their flesh. Nay, Christ required men to part with no greater matter for him than transitory earthly things, which they must shortly part with whether they will or not; but they do for the flesh ten thousand thousandfold more than ever they were required to do for Christ.
They forsake God for the flesh. They forsake Christ, and heaven, and their salvation for it. They forsake all the solid comforts of this life, and all the joys of the life to come for it. They sell all that they have, and lay down the price at its feet; yes, more than all they have, even all their hopes of what they might have to all eternity. They suffer in the flames of hell forever, for their flesh! All the pains they take is for the flesh. All the wrong they do to others, and all the stirs they make in the world, is for it. They spend all their time for their flesh—and had they a thousand years more to live, they would spend it accordingly—for their flesh.
If anything seems given for God, it is but the bones, or crumbs, or leavings of the flesh; or rather, it is nothing: for God has not indeed the hours which he seems to have, he has but a few fair words and compliments—when the flesh has their hearts in the midst of their hypocritical worship. They serve him but as the Indians serve the devil, that he may serve their interests, and do them no hurt.
4. How vile an idol is the flesh! If all the derision used by Elijah against the heathenish idolatry be due, is not as much due against the idolatry of all the sensual? Is it so great a madness to serve an idol of silver, or gold or stone, or wood? Is it any better to serve an idol of flesh and blood—which is full of filth and excrement within, and the skin itself, the cleanest part, is ashamed to be uncovered? We may say to the carnal worldling, as Elijah to the Baalists, and more; “Call upon your God in the hour of your distress: cry aloud, perhaps he is asleep, or he is blowing his nose, or vomiting, or purging: certainly he will be shortly rotting in the grave, more loathsome than the dirt or dung upon the earth.” Is this a god to sacrifice all that we have to? and to give all our time, and care, and labor, and our souls and all to? O judge of this idolatry, as God will make you judge at last!
5. And here next consider how impious and horrid an abasement it is of the eternal God, to prefer so vile a thing before him! And whether every ungodly, sensual man, be not a constant, practical blasphemer? You say continually by your practice, “This filthy, nasty flesh, is to be preferred before God—to be more loved, and obeyed, and served. It deserves more of my time than God. It is more worthy of my delight and love!” God will be judge, (and judge in righteousness before long,) whether this be not the daily language of your life, though your tongue now has some better manners. And whether this be blasphemy, judge yourself. Whether you judge God or the flesh more worthy to be pleased, and which you think it better to please—ask your own heart—when cards, and dice, and eating, and drinking, and amusements, and idleness, and luxury—do all seem so sweet unto you, in comparison of your thoughts of God, and his holy word and service! and when morning and night, and whenever you are alone, those thoughts can run out with unweariedness on pleasure, upon these provisions for your flesh, which you can hardly force to look up unto God, a quarter of an hour, though with unwillingness.
6. Think also what a contempt of heaven it is, to prefer the pleasing of the flesh, before it. There are but two ends which all men aim at; the pleasing of the flesh on earth—or the enjoying of God in heaven. And these two stand one against the other. And he who sets up one, does renounce (or as good as renounce) the other. “If you sow to the flesh, of the flesh you shall reap corruption; but if you sow to the Spirit, of the Spirit you shall reap everlasting life,” Gal. vi. 8. Your wealth, and honor, and sports, and pleasures, and appetites are put in the scales against heaven, and all the joys and hopes hereafter. Is not heaven most basely esteemed, by those that prefer so base a thing before it?
7. Remember that flesh-pleasing is a great contempt and treachery against the soul. It is a great contempt of an immortal soul, to prefer its corruptible flesh before it, and to make its servant to become its master, and to ride on horseback; while the soul goes, as it were, on foot. Is the flesh worthy of so much time, and cost, and care, and so much ado as is made for it in the world—and is not a never-dying soul worth more?
Nay, flesh-pleasing is a betraying of the soul: you prefer its enemy before it; and put its safety into an enemy’s hands; and you cast away all its joys and hopes for the gratifying of the flesh. Might not the soul complain of your cruelty, and say, “Must my endless happiness be sold to purchase so short a pleasure for your flesh? Must I be undone forever, and lie in hell, that the flesh may be satisfied for a little time?”
But why do I speak of the soul’s complaint? Alas! The soul must complain about itself for it is its own undoing! It has its choice: the flesh can but tempt it, and not constrain it. God has put the chief power and government into its hands, if it will sell its own eternal hopes, to pamper worm’s food, it must act accordingly. You would not think that man very wise, who would sell all his wealthy inheritance—to purchase a delicious feast and entertainment for an hour! And is he wiser or better who sells the inheritance of his soul, and betrays it to hell and devils forever—and all to purchase the fleshly pleasure of so short a life?
8. Remember what a beastly life it is to be a sensualist. It is an unmanning of yourselves. Sensual pleasures are brutish pleasures; beasts have them well as men. We have the higher faculty of reason, to subdue and rule the beastly part. And reason is the man; and has a higher kind of felicity to delight in. Do you think that man is made for no higher matters than a beast? Don’t you have a more noble object for your delight, than your swine or dog has? Certainly where sensual pleasures are preferred before the higher pleasures of the soul, the man becomes a beast, or worse, subjecting his reason to his brutish part.
9. Think what a trifling, pitiful felicity it is, which fleshly people choose; how small a gain, as well as sordid. Oh how quickly will the game be ended, and the delights of boiling lust be gone! How quickly will the drink be past the throats; and their delicate dishes be turned into excrement! How short is the sport and laughter of the fool! And how quickly will that face be the index of a pained body, or a grieved, self-tormenting mind! It is but a few days until all their most adorned, pampered flesh will be turned into worms’ food! A few days will turn their pleasure into anguish, their jollity into groans, their ostentation into lamentation, all their pride into shame.
As every moment puts an end to all the pleasures of their lives that are past, and they are now to them as if they had never been; so the last moment is at hand, which will end the little that remains. And then the sinner will with groans confess, that he has made a miserable choice, and that he might have had a more durable pleasure if he had been wise. When the skull is cast up with the spade, to make room for a successor—you may see the hole where all the food and drink went in; but you will see no signs of mirth or pleasure.
10. Lastly, consider that there is scarcely a sin in the world more inexcusable than this. The flesh-pleaser sees the end of all his sensual delights, in the faces of the sick, and in the corpses which are daily carried to the earth, and in the graves, and bones, and dust of those who once had as merry a life as he. His reason can say, “All this is gone with them, and is as if it had never been; and so it will shortly be with me!” He knows that all the pleasure of his life past, is now of no value to himself. His warnings are constant, close, and sensible; and therefore he has the greater sin.
Objection #1. What hurt is it to God, or any one else—that I please my flesh? I will not believe that a thing so harmless will displease him.
Merely as it is pleasure, it has no hurt in it. But as it is inordinate or immoderate pleasure; or as it is over-loved, and preferred before God and your salvation; or as it is greater than your delight in God; or as it lacks its proper end, and is loved merely for itself, and not used as a means to higher things, and as it is made a hindrance to the soul, and to spiritual pleasure, and the service of God; and as it is the brutish delight of an ungoverned, rebellious appetite, which masters reason, and is not under obedience to God.
Though sin can do God no hurt, it can do you hurt, and it can do him wrong. I think I have showed you what hurt and poison is in it already. It is the very rebellion of corrupted nature; the turning of all things upside down; the taking down God, and heaven, and reason, and destroying the use of all the creatures, and setting up flesh-pleasing instead of all, and making a brute your God and governor. And do you ask what harm there is in this? So will your child do, when he desires any play, or pleasure; and the sick, when they desire to please their appetite. But your father, and physician, and reason, and not brutish appetite, must be judge.
Objection #2. It’s my nature to be this way. I feel it is natural to me, and therefore can be no sin.
1. The inordinate violent, unruly appetite is as natural to you—as a leprosy is to a leprous family. And will you love your disease, because it is natural? It is just as natural, as it is to be malicious, and revengeful, and to disobey your governors, and abuse your neighbors; and yet I think they will not judge you innocent, for rebellion or abuse, because it is natural to you.
2. Though the appetite be natural, is not reason to rule it, as natural to you? And is not the subjection of the appetite to reason natural? If it is not, you have lost the nature of man, and are changed into the nature of a beast. God gave you a higher nature to govern your appetite and lower nature: and though reason cannot take away your appetite, it can rule it, and keep you from fulfilling it, in anything or measure that is unfitting.
Objection #3. God made my desires, so they cannot be sinful. It appears by the case of Eve, that the appetite was the same in innocency, therefore it is no sin.
Answer: You must not forget the difference between, 1. The appetite itself. 2. The violence and unruly disposition of the appetite. 3. And the actual obeying and pleasing of the appetite. The first (the appetite itself) was in innocency, and is yet no sin. But the other two (the violence of it, and the obeying it) were not in innocency, and are both sinful.
Objection #4. God made me this way, so why shouldn’t I follow my desires? Why would God give innocent man an appetite that must be crossed by reason? and which desired, that which reason must forbid?
Answer: The sensitive nature is in order of generation before the rational: and reason and God’s laws do not make sense to be no sense. You may as well ask, why God would make beasts, which must be restrained and ruled by men; and therefore have a desire to that which man must restrain them from? You do but ask, Why God made us men and not angels? Or why did he place our souls in flesh? He owes you no account of his creation. But you may see it is fit that obedience should have some trial by difficulties and opposition, before it has its commendation and reward. He gave you a body that was subject to the soul, as the horse unto the rider—and you should admire his wisdom, and thank him for the governing power of reason; and not murmur at him, because the horse will not go as well without the guidance of the rider, or because he makes you not able to go as fast and as well on foot. So much for the sensualist’s objections.
Ten Marks of A Flesh-Pleaser
The signs of a flesh-pleaser or sensualist are these (which may be gathered from what is said already):
1. When a man in desire to please his appetite, refers it not (actually or habitually) to a higher end, namely, the fitting himself to the service of God; but sticks only in the delight.
2. When he looks more desirously and industriously after the prosperity of his body than of his soul.
3. When he will not part with or forbear his pleasures, when God forbids them, or when they hurt his soul, or when the necessities of his soul do call him more loudly another way, but he must have his delight whatever it cost him, and is so set upon it, that he cannot deny it to himself.
4. When the pleasures of his flesh exceed his delights in God, and his holy word and ways, and the forethoughts of endless pleasure; and this not only in the passion, but in the estimation, choice, and prosecution. When he had rather be at a play, or feast, or gaming, or getting good bargains or profits in the world—than to live in the life of faith, and love, a holy and heavenly conversation.
5. When men set their minds to contrive and study to make provision for the pleasures of the flesh; and this is first and sweetest in their thoughts.
6. When they had rather talk, or hear, or read of fleshly pleasures—rather than of spiritual and heavenly delights.
7. When they love the company of merry sensualists, better than the communion of saints, in which they may be exercised in the praises of their Maker.
8. When they account that the best calling, and condition and place for them to live in, where they have the pleasure of the flesh, where they have ease, and dine well, and lack nothing for the body—rather than that where they have far better help and provision for the soul, though the flesh be pinched for it.
9. When he will be at more cost to please his flesh, than to please God.
10. When he will believe or like no doctrine but libertinism, and hates mortification as too strict preciseness. By these, and such other signs, sensuality may easily be known; yes, by the main bent of the life.
Five Ways People Delude Themselves
Many flesh-pleasers flatter themselves with better titles, being deceived by such means as these:
1. Because they are against the doctrine of libertinism, and hold as strict opinions as any. But flesh-pleasing may stand with the doctrine of mortification, and the strictest opinions—as long as they are not put in practice.
2. Because they live not in any gross, disgraced vice. They go not to stage-plays, or unseasonably to alehouses or taverns; they are not drunken, nor gamesters, nor spend their hours in unnecessary recreations or pastimes; they are no fornicators, nor wallow in wealth. But the flesh may be pleased and served in a way that has no disgrace accompanying it in the world.
May not a man make his ease, or his prosperity, or the pleasing of his appetite, without any infamous excesses, to be as much his felicity and highest end, and that which practically he takes for his best—as well as if he did it in a shameful way? Is not many a man a gluttonous flesh-pleaser, who makes his delight the highest end of all his eating and drinking; and pleases his appetite without any restraint, but what his health and reputation put upon him—though he eats not until he vomits or is sick? Even the flesh itself may forbid a sensualist to be drunk, or to eat until he becomes sick; for sickness and shame are displeasing to the flesh. Many a man covers a life of sensuality, not only with a seeming temperance, unreproved of men, but also with a seeming strictness and austerity. But conscience might tell them, where they have their good things, Luke xvi. 25.
3. Some think they are no sensual flesh-pleasers, because they live in constant misery, in poverty and want, laboring hard for their daily bread; and therefore they hope that they are the Lazaruses, who have their sufferings here on earth. But is not all this against your will? Would you not fare as well as the rich, and live as idly, and take your pleasure, if you had as much money as they? What you would do—that you are, in God’s account. It is your will that you shall be judged by. A thief does not become an honest man when the prison or stocks hinder him from stealing, but when a changed heart hinders him.
4. Others think that they are no flesh-pleasers, because their wealth and places, and degrees of honor allow them to live high in diet and delights. It is like the rich man, Luke xvi. who was “clothed with purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day” did live upon his own, and as he thought agreeably to his rank and place; and the fool, Luke xii. 19, 20, that said, “Soul, take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry,” did intend to please himself but with his own, which God had given him as a blessing on his land and labor. But no man’s riches allow him to be voluptuous. The commands of taming and mortifying the flesh—and not living after it, nor making provision for it, to satisfy its lusts—belong as much to the rich as to the poor. Though you are not to live in the same garb with the poor, you are as much bound to mortification and self-denial as the poorest. If you are richer than others, you have more to serve God with—but not more than others to serve the flesh with. If poverty denies the poor anything which might better enable their bodies or minds to serve God, you may so far go beyond them, and use with thankfulness the mercies given you; but you must no more be flesh-pleasers than they.
5. And some deceive themselves be interposing sometimes a formal fast, as the fleshly Pharisee, who “fasted twice a week,” Luke xviii. 12, and then they think that they are no sensualists. I speak not of the popish fasting with fish and delicacies (this is not so much as a show of mortification). But what if you really fast as often as the Pharisees did—and quarrel with Christ’s disciples for not fasting? Matt. ix. 14, 15. Will not a sensualist do as much as this—if his physician requires it for his health? If the scope of your lives is fleshly, it is not the interruption of a formal fast which will acquit you; which perhaps does but quicken your appetite to the next meal.
Examples of people mistakenly accused of flesh-pleasing
Yet many are wrongfully taken by others (if not by themselves) to be sensual, by such mistakes as these:
1. Because they live not as scantily as the poor, who lack things necessary or helpful to their duty. But by that rule I must not be well, because other men are sick; or I must not walk fast, because the lame can go but slowly!
If poor men have bad horses; I may ride on the best I can get, to despatch my business, and redeem my time. So I prefer not costly, useless ostentation, before true serviceableness.
2. Others are accused as sensual, because the weakness of their bodies requires a more tender usage, and diet, than healthful men’s: some bodies are unfit for duty if they fast; and some are useless through sickness and infirmities, if they be not treated with very great care. And it is as truly a duty to nourish a weak body to enable it for God’s service—as to tame an unruly, lustful body, and keep it from offending him.
3. Some melancholy, conscientious people are still accusing themselves, through mere scrupulosity; questioning almost all they eat, or drink, or wear, or do—whether it be not too much or too pleasing. But it is a cheerful sobriety that God requires, which neither pampers the body, nor yet disables or hinders it from its duty; and not an unprofitable, wrangling scrupulosity.
Practical directions and helps
Direction #1. Keep your mind on heavenly things
The first and grand direction against flesh-pleasing is, that you be sure, by a serious, living faith, to see the better things with God, and to be heartily taken up in minding, loving, seeking, and securing them. All the other directions are but subservient to this. For certainly man’s soul will not be idle, being a living, active principle: and it is as certain, that it will not act but upon some end, or for some end. And there are no other ends to take us up—but either the things temporal or eternal. And therefore there is no true cure for a sensual love of temporal things—but to turn the heart to eternal things.
Believingly think first of the certainty, greatness, and eternity of heavenly joys; and then think that these may more certainly be yours, than any worldly riches or delights, if you do not contemptuously reject them. And then think that this is the time in which you must make sure of them, and win them, if ever you will possess them; and that you are sent into the world on purpose on this business. And then think with yourselves, how fleshly pleasures are the only competitors with the everlasting pleasures; and that, if ever you lose them, it will be by over-loving these transitory things; and that one half of your work for your salvation lies in killing your affections to all below, that they may be alive to God alone.
And lastly, think how much higher and sweeter pleasures, even in this life, the godly do enjoy than you; and you are losing them while you prefer these sordid pleasures. Do you think that a true believer has not a more excellent delight in his forethoughts of his immortal blessedness with Christ and in the assurance of the love of God, and communion with him in his holy service—than you, or any sensualist, has in fleshly pleasures? Sober and serious meditation on these things, will turn the mind to the true delights.
Direction #2: Know Yourself
Be acquainted with the range of sensual desires, and pay attention to them, and watch them in all their extravagances. Otherwise, while you are stopping one gap, they will be running out at many more. I have given you many instances in my “Treatise of Self-denial.” I will here briefly set some before your eyes.
1. Watch your appetites as to food and drink—both quantity and quality. Gluttony is a common, unobserved sin. The flesh no way enslaves men more, than by the appetite; as we see in drunkards and gluttons, who can no more refrain, than one that thirsts in a burning fever.
2. Take heed of the lust of uncleanness, and all degrees of it, and approaches to it; especially immodest embraces and behavior.
3. Take heed of ribald, filthy talk, and love songs, and of such sensuous snares.
4. Take heed of too much sleep and idleness.
5. Take heed of taking too much delight in your riches, and lands, your buildings, and delectable conveniences.
6. Take heed lest honors, or worldly greatness, or men’s applause—become too great a pleasure to you.
7. And lest you grow to make it your delight, to think on such things when you are alone, or talk idly of them in company with others.
8. And take heed lest the success and prosperity of your affairs does too much please you, as him: “And I’ll say to myself—You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” Luke 12:19
9. Take not up any inordinate pleasure in your children, relations, or nearest friends.
10. Take heed of a delight in vain, unprofitable, sinful company.
11. Take heed of fineness of apparel, to set you out to the eyes of others.
12. Take heed of a delight in romances, novels, feigned stories, useless news—which corrupt the mind, and waste your time.
13. Take heed of a delight in any recreations which are excessive, needless, devouring time, discomposing the mind, enticing to further sin, hindering any duty—especially our delight in God. They are miserable souls who can delight themselves in no more safe or profitable things, than cards, and dice, and stage plays, and immodest dancing.
Direction #3. Know what you need to do to avoid temptation
Next to the universal remedy mentioned in the first direction, see that you have the particular remedies still at hand, which your own particular way of flesh-pleasing does most require. And let not the love of your vanity prejudice you—but impartially consider of the disease and the remedy. Of the particulars afterwards.
Direction #4. God wants you to have more pleasure, not less
Remember still that God would give you more pleasure, and not less, and that he will give you as much of the delights of sense as is truly good for you—just so that you take them in their place, in subordination to your heavenly delights. And is not this to increase and multiply your pleasure? Are not health, and friends, and food, and convenient habitation, much sweeter as the fruit of the love of God, and the foretastes of everlasting mercies, and as our helps to heaven, and as the means to spiritual comfort—than of themselves alone? All your mercies are from God. He would take none from you, but sanctify them, and give you more.
Direction #5. Think before you gratify your appetites
See that reason keep up its authority, as the governor of sense and appetite. And so take an account, whatever the appetite would have, of the ends and reasons of the thing—and to what it does conduce. Take nothing and do nothing merely because the sense or appetite would have it; but because you have reason so to do, and to gratify the appetite. If reason is laid aside—you will act as brutes.
Direction #6. Remember your death
Go to the grave, and see there the end of fleshly pleasure, and what is all that it will do for you at the last. One would think this would cure the mad desire of plenty and pleasure—to see where all our wealth, and mirth, and sport, and pleasure must be buried at last!
Direction #7. Remember your enemy
Lastly, remember that flesh is the grand enemy of your souls, and flesh-pleasing the greatest hindrance of your salvation. The devil’s enmity and the world’s are both but subordinate to this of the flesh. For its pleasure is the end—and the world’s and Satan’s temptations are both but the means to attain it.
Besides the malignity opened before, consider,
1. How contrary a voluptuous life is to the blessed example of our Lord, and of his servant Paul, and all the apostles! Paul tamed his body and brought it into subjection, lest, having preached to others, himself should be a cast-away. And all who are Christ’s, have crucified the flesh, with the affections and lusts thereof. This was signified in the mode of baptizing, when they went down under the water and then rose out of it—to signify that they were dead and buried with Christ, Romans vi. 3, 4, and rose with him to newness of life.
2. Sensuality shows that there is no true belief of the life to come and proves, so far as it prevails, the absence of all grace.
3. Flesh-pleasing is a home-bred, continual traitor to the soul; a continual tempter, and nurse of all sin; the great withdrawer of the heart from God; and the common cause of apostasy itself: it still fights against the Spirit, Gal. v. 17; and is seeking advantage from all our liberties, Gal. v. 13; 2 Pet. ii. 10.
4. Flesh-pleasing turns all our outward mercies into sin, and strengthens itself against God by his own benefits.
5. Flesh-pleasing is the great cause of our afflictions; for God will not spare that idol which is set up against him. Flesh rebels—and flesh shall suffer!
6. And when the flesh has brought affliction, it is most impatient under it, and makes it seem intolerable. A flesh-pleaser thinks he is undone, when affliction deprives him of his pleasure.
7. Lastly, flesh-pleasing exceedingly unfits men for death; for then flesh must be cast into the dust, and all its pleasure be at an end. Oh doleful day to those that had their good things here, and their portion in this life! when all is gone that ever they valued and sought; and all the true felicity lost, which they brutishly despised!
If you would joyfully then bear the dissolution and ruin of your flesh, oh master it, and mortify it now! Seek not the ease and pleasure of your little walking, breathing clay—when you should be seeking and foretasting the everlasting pleasure. Here lies your danger and your work. Strive more against your own flesh, than against all your enemies in earth and hell. If you are saved from this, you are saved from them all. Christ suffered in the flesh, to tell you that it is not pampering, but suffering, that your flesh must expect, if you will reign with him.