Sometimes I don’t drink enough water, leaving my body in a state of dehydration. There are other drinks that I prefer so water can sometimes take a second, third, or fourth place. Certain drinks like beer and coffee are even diuretics, which cause more water to be eliminated from my body, making the issue even worse. When I get dehydrated, my skin tends to become dry, and then it gets itchy. When this happens, I naturally find myself scratching my skin even though the itch (the most immediate source of the problem) is not the fundamental problem. Why? Scratching provides temporary relief from the itch, it feels good physically – and at some less-than-rational level it seems like it will solve the problem at hand. Ultimately though, the itch is only a signal of the real issue: that I need to supply my body with water. If I ignore this signal, the situation gets worse and the signals will become more serious. If I were satisfied with the solution of scratching as the solution to my dehydration problem, it would not end well for me.
Why is it that in most cases, it is not good to scratch an itch? We know that the pull to scratch is strong, but as everyone learns through childhood, that rash, scab, burn, mosquito bite, or dried skin, should not be itched because it doesn’t help, and in fact can make things worse.. And yet our biology works in a way that makes it feel so good to give in. Everything in those glorious few seconds of scratching an itch screams “Beautiful solution!”, screams “Cure!”. The pull can be overwhelming at times, but itching even a little just increases the pull to itch it again – if you can give in and then find the zen-like strength to refrain from then on, you’re good, if you can’t, it becomes a literal mini-addiction.
So, from ages past, humanity has learned that giving in to the pull to itch does nothing to solve the root problem, and rather, what is needed is persistent restraint in the face of a persistent itch, and addressing any root problem. The counter-intuitive reality: the biological pull to gratify the signal is real, the immediate result is pleasure, pleasure is good (so we generally think), and yet the pleasure I get from scratching is superficial, it does not satisfy no matter how good it feels in the moment, so most of us have learned to avoid the deceptive pleasure of itches. Pleasure itself, doesn’t mean health. Pleasure, though good in context, doesn’t always make it safe for us to engage in just because the opportunity exists. There are of course thousands of examples of this.
So what is going on with an itch? Why the bait and switch? An itch is a signal to the brain that something is not right with your body, just like pain, only not as extreme. An itch is a sign of a subtler kind of damage, and we can be thankful that minor issues have a different signal than pain, yet are still significant enough that signals are sent. But why pleasure? Actually, an itch is not the pleasure itself – we add that by responding to the signal, but it’s only pleasure for a while – and of course, repeated giving in to the itch causes abrasion and breaking of the skin, which does lead to pain – entirely self-caused. Through this uncomfortable bodily armistice, we have learned that immediate gratification does not lead to health and fulfilment. Rather, we know we ought to apply the needed solution, and wait.
What if an itch is a symbol for a greater form of the same thing? Our desire for pleasure and satisfaction is much like that of an itch. There is nothing wrong with pleasure in and of itself – as intended, it is a God-bestowed gift. However, even good things can be used in wrong ways. For some pleasures, the critical point is amount, as with alcohol for example: use it in moderation, and you’re fine – go into excess, and it can become an insatiable force that does not add to fulfillment, but only takes away. For other pleasures there are specific boundaries: stay within them and you will maximize the pleasure, step outside the boundary and you will risk harm and an increase of the unhealthy urge that keeps pulling you to cross the boundary. Like a child needs their parent to show them what is good and what is harmful, so humanity needs God, after all, if He created humanity, only He knows what ultimately works for us and what doesn’t.
The biblical concept of sin is much like an itch and scratch scenario. God states certain actions are wrong – anything that causes harm within creation and dishonor to Himself so, far more activity is actually sin than tends to be acknowledged (if you don’t believe that dishonour should be part of what God counts as sin, remind yourself of that, the next time someone cuts in front of you in line!) Biblically, sin operates in all sorts of areas: from how we handle money, to how we speak about others, to how we desire certain things in our heart, and much more – and yet something deep within our human make-up causes a pull towards these actions.. just like an itch. Giving in, promises, and provides, immediate pleasure and never ultimately fulfills.. And yet, apart from the most apparent vices, we have not learned to ask why we keep pursuing these things that only offer superficial satisfaction and over time, cause damage, pain, and emptiness. Following such pleasures without restraint, may lead to numbing and subtle damage we are oblivious to, or it may land us in an obvious mire that is not at all what we wanted, and nothing what the pleasure seemingly promised us. We failed to recognize that, like an itch, such pulls are a false form of pleasure. These sins may have an element of truth and goodness, but it is distorted. Even more disturbing is that sin, being essentially defined in relation to God – and knowledge of God being something we choose how much or little we seek out – means these are things we may not even recognize as sins until we are shown – much like a child with a mosquito bite or dry skin, who must be taught not to itch it. Left in their natural state, a child will scratch away until the damage is maximized. Among other things, the outlining of what actions and dispositions are sin to God is what Jesus Christ has provided mankind. This is part of His grace and truth that He offers a humanity plagued with sin. If we rely on our own wisdom to define sin, we may avoid some pitfalls but we will stay bound to much of the preoccupation with the surface pleasures that life provides. In this place, we are not only damaging ourselves emotionally, physically, and interpersonally but further hindered by being distracted from the deeper, more authentic and sustainable fulfilment from God that we have not yet taken hold of.
Why can’t fulfilment come from pleasure? Why can’t these earthly fountains of seemingly good things, satisfy? So many pleasures don’t harm anyone else, right? Why would God give us desires and have them turn out to be damaging and empty? Learning from Christ, the answer, though it plumbs the depths of the human make-up, can be summed up in a basic truth: life is not about pleasure. Pleasure is icing – created as a gift from God. Icing is food but consuming icing wrongly will make you sick, some people it could even kill. Rather, life is about returning to peace with our Creator – and it is only our grip on sin (these actions that we may not even realize dishonor Him) that keeps us away (Isaiah 59:2). In fact the Bible summarizes our primary problem of sin, saying we are all already dead, spiritually, because of it (Ephesians 2:1-2) – also calling it a form of sin “enslavement” (John 8:34) – stressing why we cannot simply choose to overcome our deeply rooted connection to sin. Yet, in all of this, God’s attitude is still one of goodness and love towards us – just like the father in the story Jesus tells of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). This revelation of the heart of God shows the way to the deeper, most authentic satisfaction that exists in life, and it is truly good news that it is still intended for us. How is it achieved? By first acknowledging God’s view of right and wrong and then accepting His offer of a return to Himself.. the state of renewed spiritual health then accompanies this. But if this is possible, there must be many ways to get there? Perhaps through self-help? Meditation? Picking a religion and following it as closely as possible? If anything is demonstrably clear in life, it is that all of these things give only minor help. The unique claim of Jesus Christ is that He is the one person who has “defeated sin” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57) and also made this victory available to anyone who wants to accept His real presence in their life.. But wait – if He is God then He is the one we have offended by our sin – isn’t facing Him a cause for worry? It would be if it wasn’t for His clear demonstration that He is fully motivated towards reconciliation with us (just read any of the gospels!). The ball is in our court as to whether we will take him up on it. (Provision has been made for God to welcome us back – the only thing necessary is a sincere effort to keep trusting Jesus is there and that He promises to be reliable to anyone who comes to Him (John 6:37) and sticks with Him (Matthew 24:13)). But rather than trying to align to the rules of Christianity on your own strength (which doesn’t work), It actually just requires hearing him out and putting your trust in Him with the appropriate steps.. and letting Him do an internal work in you so you can exclaim along with the Psalmist “I delight to do your will oh my God, your law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:8).
This life is still not always a walk in the park.. but those who realize He’s calling them, and who respond, find that He’s there, with power in hand to live as we should. (I myself have experienced Jesus’ power in this miraculous way, though I, like most Christians, don’t always apply it every time since I still have my free will and my faulty earthly body). The power to resist sin and over time, evict it from our lives, comes as a gift, obtained through accepting Christ, and it is continually worked out in our lives as we continue to walk with him. (Romans 8:13, Hebrews 10:14). With power to resist sin, I have the freedom to set up healthy patterns of living. Jesus claims to be able to put “springs of living water” inside us (John 7:38) (this refers to internal satisfaction from God), and with drinking ample amounts from these waters, comes much less of the itch – the pull to the superficial gratification of sin. Temptations don’t always go away, so it is still something to be careful to avoid even after starting a life with God, but the promise (and my experience testifies to this as well) is one of increase of strength in the long term – the actual, supernatural power to consistently avoid otherwise dominating sinful pulls. But even more than this, it includes finding pleasure that satisfies – life with Jesus, God’s ultimate gift, who is the real, living water that fulfills our deepest thirst.