The False Promise of Pleasure

Statue of writer and playright Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square in Dublin, Ireland.

“Meaninglessness does not come from weariness with pain. Meaningless comes from weariness with pleasure….  No one is more fed up with life than one who has exhausted pleasure. Some of the loneliest people in the world are those who have lived indulgent lives and emotionally and physically drive themselves to impotence.”

This is a quotation from Ravi Zacharias in a talk he gave titled, the Problem of Pleasure.* If you listen to Ravi Zacharias much, you will note that he returns to this theme often, and he often mentions Oscar Wilde, the famous Irish poet and playwright. Wilde, of course, was a brilliant writer and thinker who was an outspoken atheist and lived a hedonistic lifestyle.

Wilde is described as “the supreme individualist”. His book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is described as a “novel of vice hidden beneath art” tinged with “self-conscious decadence”. The Importance of Being Earnest, commonly believed to be his best work written at the height of his career, is more subtle and nuanced, but continues the same theme, as do all of the works of Oscar Wilde. (See Wikipedia)

We know much of Wilde’s private life. Many of his secrets were paraded before the world to see in a much publicized court case, ironically, when Oscar Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.

Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, was the person who introduced Wilde to “the Victorian underground of gay prostitution”. Queensberry’s defense to the libel charges was to prove his statements true by hiring private investigators to uncover the “salacious details of Wilde’s private life”. The trial that Wilde brought against Queensberry left him bankrupt and exposed.

Wilde, the “colourful agent provocateur in Victorian society”, spared himself no pleasure. He also wasn’t shy about his lifestyle. He championed licentiousness in his art and in his life.

Like Solomon, though, he retained a sort of wisdom borne of experience. Having been baptized as a child, he often used biblical imagery in his writing, though it’s use would have likely been considered sacrilegious.

During a two year prison sentence for homosexual actions, he requested copies of the Bible in multiple, languages, Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works with Christian themes. When he was released from prison, the Catholic Church turned down his request to spend six months at a monastery, and Wilde wept at the news.

As I sit here thinking of these things, I am also thinking of the unfolding story of a friend, a very enthusiastic and committed believer in God. He is a lover of the stage, a former Shakespearean performer. In that sense, he shares something in common with the playwright, Wilde.

My friend is in a hospital ICU as I write, having suffered a series of strokes that could leave him uncommunicative and paralyzed. Even in his desperate physical situation, he and his family have experienced the presence of God sustaining them in faith. They exhibit a transcendent joy and peace in the middle of the difficulties they face.

We are naturally attracted to pleasure and pull back from pain. Sometimes, however, the pleasures we seek cause us pain. We tend to think that pleasure is good and pain is bad, if not in a moral sense, then certainly in an experiential sense. God gives us the ability to experience pleasure and pain. In that sense, God gives us both pleasure and pain.

Neither one is intrinsically good or bad. CS Lewis implies this when he says that God whispers to us in our pleasures, but He shouts to us in our pain. Though pain can be the result of our own reckless indiscretions, it isn’t always so. My friend in the hospital is proof of that.

Oscar Wilde proclaimed himself an atheist, and that pledge to atheism, no doubt, helped him loosen the constraints of common morality to embrace the pleasures he recklessly sought. But those pleasures ultimately brought him to a place of great pain. Perhaps, it was the pain that influenced him to seek God in prison and to commit himself to God when he hung on the precipice of death.

After brief visits with his lovers, Robbie Ross and Lord Alfred when he was released from prison, Wilde spent most of the last three years of his life “in impoverished exile”. He wrote of his experience in prison and became something of a prison reformer, but he “lost the joy of writing” and wrote very little after gaining his freedom. Mostly, “he wandered the boulevards alone, and spent what little money he had on alcohol”.

His last act was to call for a Catholic Priest who baptized him into the Catholic Church and read him his last rites. Wilde died at the age of 46.

Wilde was charming by all accounts. He “lived life to the fullest” (as people say), abandoning himself to his appetites, living in the moment.  He loved art and beauty for their own sake, but he also used them as mediums to challenge Victorian conventions and push boundaries. He was ahead of this time in that regard and might be regarded as a pioneer for the modern, progressive values that permeate and largely define our 21st Century western culture.

The “self conscious decadence” of his writings was mirrored in his lifestyle. Did Wilde’s art imitate his life? Or did Wilde’s art overcome and subsume his life?

The Apostle, Peter, says,

“[W]hatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.”

2 Peter 2:19

When I was first introduced to Oscar Wilde, I saw him as great writer with a flamboyantly decadent lust for life. I didn’t know about his fall from grace. I didn’t know that he spent the last three years of his life wandering lonely streets, numbed by alcohol and emptied of all the exuberant passion for life that he once flaunted.

Wilde was a paradoxical man. He pushed the boundaries of convention and sensibility, becoming a model that many have followed, but (remarkably) he didn’t lose sight of God.

At the end of his life, his last act was confession, contrition and penance. He publicly pronounced his atheism like a wild bird set free, but he was enslaved to those passions for which he declared his freedom. In his dissipation, emptiness and loneliness, he turned back privately to Christianity and to God.

We don’t know if Oscar Wilde found what he was looking for at the very end of his life. We don’t know whether God accepted the dissolute man into His heaven, broken, contrite and repentant, like the thief on the cross. His fate is in God’s hands, as is the fate of each one of us.

The Apostle, John, says:

“If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

1 John 1:9

I believe that Oscar Wilde was accepted by God if he was genuine and true in his confession of sin, humble and sincere in his repentance, offering himself to the mercy and grace of God.

Jesus didn’t come for the righteous; He came for the unrighteous. He didn’t come for the healthy; he came for the sick. (Luke 5:27-32)

I believe that Oscar Wilde realized at some point that his passions betrayed him. Maybe the public challenge of Queensberry for defamatory statements Wilde knew were true was the act of a desperate man, trapped in his sin, seeking redemption. Maybe he wanted to be exposed. Maybe it was a last desperate attempt to break those chains of self-destruction.

Wilde paid dearly for the folly of unbridled freedom that he publicly declared and promoted in his rakish youth. The promise of pleasure dissipates even as we grasp hold of it. The harder we pursue it, the less satisfying it is. It leaves us empty in the end.

Pleasure is God-given, but pleasure is a sorry substitute for God. It doesn’t last. Pleasure has no substance in itself. Uncoupled from a worthy object, pleasure is a mirage. Pleasure is like water that turns to dust in the mouth when we seek it for it’s own sake.

Ravi Zacharias said, and I believe this is true:

“The closer you get to pure pleasures, the closer you get to the heart of God. The closer you get to impure pleasures, the farther you get from the heart of God.”

When we seek our pleasure in God, we find that He is a river of Life. The pleasure of knowing God is not fleeting. The pleasure we experience in God is not a thing we seek for its own sake, but a thing God gives us for seeking Him for His sake. It is the purest of pleasures that is more satisfying than any other pleasure.

* Ironically, and very sadly, Ravi Zacharias ventured too close to those impure pleasures, himself. Following his death, reports of inappropriate contacts and relationships with various woman surfaced. RZIM, the organization founded by Zacharias, launched an investigation and have been transparent in allowing the truth to be told. RZIM issued an official statement on February 11, 2021, and released the report of the investigation. He obviously felt the pull and allure of those pleasures, himself, and succumbed to them, even as he knew that those pleasures are fleeting. Such is the power of sin when left unchecked in our lives.

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