Boredom and the law of diminishing returns

By Gene Edward Veith *, Reprinted from TableTalk, September, 1996

January 1998 – “I’m bored.”

He has a room full of action figures, video games, cable TV, a VCR, interactive CD-ROM virtual-reality simulators, and a fully loaded computer with Internet access. But he doesn’t have anything to do.

Boredom is more than an irritation in child-raising. It has been called a major spiritual problem, one that is particularly characteristic of our time. Boredom is often the motivation for adultery and divorce, abuse of alcohol or drugs, and even suicide.

The ancient moralists associated boredom with sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, considering it a form of spiritual laziness, an ungrateful lack of interest in what God has ordained. But the ancients do not seem to have been as bored as we are. The word did not even enter the English vocabulary until the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the beginning of the modern era.

Boredom is a chronic symptom of a pleasure-obsessed age. When pleasure becomes one’s number one priority, the result, ironically, is boredom. The ceaseless attempt to rekindle pleasure in the face of boredom can lead to moral degeneration. Yet even innocent pleasures can, if we let them, lead us away from God. Like all of God’s material gifts, pleasure requires good stewardship.

The Law of Diminishing Returns
“A satisfied soul loathes the honeycomb,” observes Solomon, “but to a hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet” (Prov. 27:7). In other words, pleasant sensations when they are overdone lose their appeal, while desire can make even bad things seem attractive. “Have you found honey? Eat only as much as you need, lest you be filled with it and vomit” (Prov. 25:16). These Scriptures suggest that there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to pleasure. The more we seek pleasure for its own sake, the less we will have.

That pleasure operates under the law of diminishing returns can have catastrophic moral consequences for those who insist on indulging themselves with no restraint. What once gives pleasure will soon fail to satisfy. The experience must become more and more extreme to yield the desired sensation.

The untrammeled pursuit of pleasure can lead to moral degradation and spiritual death. Heroin addicts have to take bigger and bigger doses to achieve an ever-diminishing “high;” eventually, they take so much that it kills them. Movies that once titillated their audiences with subtle innuendoes keep getting more and more explicit to keep their audiences entertained.

Consumers of pornography, for example, soon tire of naked pictures; they want to see sex, then perverted sex. Since it is the breaking of taboos that gives them their thrill, they keep stepping over the line, and the line keeps moving: to sadistic sexual violence, then child pornography. Those who are jaded at this level sometimes take the next step of acting out their fantasies in real life.

The Puritans Were Right
When one reads the works of great Christians of the past – the Puritans, the Reformers, the early church theologians – one sees that they were not just worried about sinful pleasures. They also were concerned about even the more innocent pleasures of life. In Book 10 of The Confessions, Augustine confessed his sinfulness in enjoying his food too much and in becoming distracted by the beauties of nature. In one passage he admitted his guilt in enjoying church music too much.

Such scrupulous self-denial seems almost comical to a modern reader. There is nothing sinful about enjoying a hymn. The Ten Commandments do not require bland cooking. Surely such asceticism is too extreme, perhaps even legalistic. Certainly, those who have been redeemed by Christ have a great freedom and are liberated from regulations that say, “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle” (Col. 2:21).

And yet, while Augustine was no doubt overly influenced by the Platonism of his day with its rejection of the material world, he was no legalist; nor were the Reformers or Puritans, who sometimes talk in a similar vein. Although Christians of the past have their blind spots, so do we. And it would be presumptuous for us, with our soft lifestyles and hedonistic culture, to dismiss what these spiritual giants have to say.

Augustine was not condemning pleasure as such, any more than he was condemning church music. He said that sometimes, when the choir sang the Psalms, he got so caught up in the beautiful melody that he neglected the words of Scripture that the song meant to proclaim. The pleasure he received distracted him from the true object and purpose of worship. Augustine realized that worship is not supposed to be entertainment, the equivalent of a concert or a nightclub. Contemporary congregations and church growth consultants would do well to remember this insight.

The sin, though, resides not in the music but in himself. Augustine was not establishing legalistic rules, simply describing with remarkable honesty and accuracy his own psychological struggle with his sinful nature. After he described how he sinned in allowing himself to be distracted by the beauty of the music in church, he admitted that he also sinned in being too strict, in allowing himself to want the music to be eliminated altogether. Whether he was too lenient or too strict, too self indulgent or too self-righteous, he was a sinner, a dilemma resolved only by the all-forgiving grace of God.

Innocent pleasures could be problematic for Augustine insofar as they made him concentrate on himself, giving him an occasion to indulge his own desires instead of honoring the will of God. The flavor of good food or the beauties of nature or of the arts could cause him to focus on the material creation and, perversely, to forget about the Creator who made them beautiful.

Thus, even innocent pleasures can shut out God, insulating us into our own little self-indulgent worlds and weakening our ability to undergo the suffering and self-denial that are often demanded of Christ’s disciples. And yet a conscious recognition of God – praising Him for His works and thanking Him for His benefits – can sanctify even earthly pleasures. “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4).

Pleasure is not forbidden. We must simply be good stewards of our pleasures. By God’s design, excessive indulgence soon turns to ashes in our mouths. Boredom is a sign that nothing earthly will satisfy us. God, on the other hand, gives us access to an infinite reservoir of joy: “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).  undefined

* Gene Edward Veith, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Concordia University-Wisconsin, is author of Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Crossway).