Did you know that biblical scholars sin? Holiness is not automatic for anyone. We have to learn how to not sin—just like anyone else who wants to be a follower of Jesus. And sometimes the task is much more difficult than we would like to admit.
In today’s post, I want to share with you some of the wisdom that I have gained through my own struggles to overcome sin. I do not claim to have won a decisive victory over the evil inclinations that inhabit my heart, but, by God’s grace, I have made some progress. I hope that the lessons I have learned will make your own war with sin a little easier and a lot more successful.
Avoiding the Trap of Idolatry: Distinguishing between Penultimate Values and Ultimate Values
One thing that I had to learn was that some of my problems with sin resulted from the remnants of an idolatrous way of life. No, I wasn’t bowing down to a statue of Aphrodite or offering incense to my wallet, so how did this idolatry manifest itself? In my case, it manifested itself in the confusion of penultimate values with ultimate ones.
There are a lot of very good things in our world. Some of them are tangible, like the unparalleled beauty of the female form or the pleasure that we derive from a wonderful meal. Some are less so, like justice or friendship. But all of them are gifts from God, offered to us to enrich our lives and direct our attention to Him.
The problem comes when we treat the gifts that we have received as if they are more important than the One who has given them to us. Overvaluing feminine beauty leads to inordinate and depersonalizing sexual desire. Overvaluing food leads to gluttony. Overvaluing justice leads to a vengeful, unmerciful spirit. Overvaluing friendship leads to an unwillingness to speak the truth.
What makes these and other expressions of idolatry so difficult to avoid is that, even when they are warped by sin, the goods we seek retain some of their beneficent power. Despite what many Christians (and some psychologists) say, obtaining vengeance against someone who has hurt us does produce good feelings. Otherwise, people wouldn’t do it. Fantasizing about the latest supermodel to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue does relieve some of the internal pressure that men live with on a daily basis.
Still, our pursuit of these pleasures indicates that we are not fully trusting God to provide what we really need. More to the point, it demonstrates that we value the meeting of our own physical and psychological needs more highly than the relationship that we have with our Creator. Recognizing these facts helps me discipline my mind and directs my attention back to my Savior, even in those areas of my life where I feel needy and vulnerable.
Accepting that Sacrifice Is a Necessary Part of Devotion to Jesus
Another thing that I really had to come to terms with is that sacrifice is a necessary part of devotion to Jesus. Too many of the preachers and teachers that I have sat under implied (without actually saying) that Jesus sacrificed his life in order that we do not have to sacrifice ours. Obviously, we cannot atone for our own sin; Jesus died to take upon himself the punishment that we deserve. And yet, the very symbolism of our baptism (to say nothing of the argument of Romans 5-8) illustrates that the journey to faith is a journey through death into life.
It is interesting that Jesus does not call us to sacrifice our bad behaviors or certain things that we like. Instead, he calls us to give up everything (Matthew 13:44-46), even our very lives (Matthew 16:24-26; Luke 9:23-26). To do otherwise would leave the cancer of idolatry untreated. We would still be the final authorities over our lives. We would still be the final arbitrator of any moral demands that were placed upon us—even if those demands come directly from the throne of God.
And this is precisely where Christ’s demand speaks most directly and most uncomfortably into my life. My mother will tell you that I came out of the womb wanting everything my way, and nothing in my four decades of life on the planet has diminished my desire for self-rule. The pain of living in a fallen world does not inspire trust, and it is all too easy to assume that the only way to protect ourselves from further damage is to zealously defend our right to manage our own affairs.
Self-preservation and self-determination, however, are not the goal of human existence. Self-denial, out of love for God and love for others, is. We need to remember that Jesus is not simply selling us insurance for our eternal destiny; he is calling us to a transformed way of life in the present. As such, we have to accept that new life if we are going to reach our goal of avoiding eternal punishment.
I don’t mind telling you that I still struggle with this. Every day, I worry that God will ask of me more than I can bear to give. But every day I also work on giving up the sovereignty over my life that I once thought I had and on acknowledging that pain and loss can, in fact, be the path to peace, joy, and healing (cf. Matthew 5:3-10).
Admit that Pleasure Cannot Heal What Is Broken in the Human Heart
A third thing that I had to do was admit that pleasure cannot heal what is broken in me (or in anyone else). Contrary to how some read Scripture, I do not think that pleasure is an unmitigated evil. Rather, it is a good gift from God, designed to reinforce behaviors that are necessary to the survival of our species. Nevertheless, pleasure is not—as many in our culture believe—an unmitigated good. Rather, it can become a profound obstacle to genuine faith.
The truth is that we all have pain. Very often, we are tempted to compensate for the pain we feel with an equal or greater amount of pleasure. Unfortunately, when we use pleasure in this way, it becomes a maladaptive coping mechanism. While we are experiencing the pleasure, we forget about our pain. But as soon as the pleasure is over, the pain returns, and sometimes with increased intensity. Pretty soon, we find ourselves mired in a quest for ever-increasing pleasure, while the true causes of our pain are left to fester and create more pain.
Once I recognized that I was medicating my pain with sinful pleasure, I was able to look to God for other sources of healing. My sinful thinking did not stop immediately. After all, I had spent years relying on pleasure to dull the pain in my heart; I wasn’t able to quit my toxic medicine “cold turkey.” But, over time, God worked (and continues to work) to heal the brokenness that I carry with me and to show me better ways to cope with the pain that it causes. In so doing, God has provided me with the resources that I need to ween myself off of the unwholesome pursuit of pleasure.
Acknowledging God’s Goodness
If all of this sounds like really hard work with not much payoff, please know that I understand where you are coming from. It is a process that I could not endure if God had not been simultaneously working to help me believe in His goodness. Perhaps the cross ought to be enough evidence for anyone that God is good, but most of us need to see God’s goodness at work in our own experience.
My wife often reminds me that God’s goodness can be seen in the fact that what He is offering us in Christ is infinitely better than what sin is offering us. It may not look like like God’s way is best, especially when we evaluate it in the short term and in light of what brings us the most pleasure. When we look, however, at what God is trying to accomplish in us over the long term, we can see more clearly how His way is best. Even if it is hard right now, God’s way offers us a life that even the best of our poets and sages find it hard to imagine. And, for this reason, we can say with confidence that God is good.
As I saw my wife’s wisdom played out in my own experience with God, I began to trust that God really does want the best for me. In the context of that renewed trust, I discovered a new way that God’s goodness is manifest. God knows—and, I believe, empathizes—with the difficulties that we have in obeying Him. Think about it like this. Jesus was a man, just like me. Luke’s Gospel, in particular, bears witness to the fact that a lot of women hung around Jesus’ ministry. Some of them were likely among his closest friends and disciples. Don’t you think that he got lonely? Don’t you think that he wondered what it would be like to have the physical intimacy and emotional support that a romantic relationship could provide?
Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus was tempted just like we are, and yet he did not sin. God knows the sacrifices that he is calling us to make, and He knows firsthand how hard it is to make those sacrifices. Do we really think that God would ask us to make those sacrifices if they were not absolutely necessary?
A War of the Mind and the Heart
You might be wondering what is “practical” about the advice shared in this blog. After all, so much of what we have talked about has been rather cerebral. I would submit to you, however, that the war against sin is a war, first of all, of the mind. The seemingly “practical” steps that we take to avoid sin are not nearly as important as the ways that we think about God, ourselves, and the world. It is our mind that so often leads us into sin, and it is often the mind that God will use to lead us out.
Still, as our discussion of God’s goodness illustrates, the war against sin is also a war of the heart. I did not really begin to make progress in that war until I began to really believe that God is good. Once I began to trust God’s goodness, I began to recognize that God understands not only my attraction to sinful pleasure but also—and more importantly—the underlying brokenness that so often buttresses that attraction. And when I began to see that I could trust God with my brokenness and with the longings that it inspires, I was able to talk openly with Him about my struggles and receive from Him the love that is the only real cure for all that ailed me.