27 Nov 2019
Ten, twenty, thirty years of consistent patterns of giving into sin are hard to overcome. Decades of sinful responses to life will produce ingrained ways of thinking and acting that are not easily changed.
At Harvest USA, I find that men who struggle the most to find consistent victory over sin are not those who have suffered significant losses as a consequence of severe sin. Instead, the men who struggle the most to gain traction in their repentance are those who consistently make small compromises with sin, which leads to minor consequences in life.
They don’t lose their jobs; they don’t lose their families. But what they are in danger of losing is hope!
When someone starts to take repentance and accountability seriously, it’s initially a very encouraging endeavor. They feel a high degree of acceptance among others who struggle in similar ways. They experience a clean conscience from confessing sin to others. They feel hope that they are not alone in their struggles, and have real avenues of support and encouragement. All of this momentum gives many people a record-breaking initial season of freedom from sinful behaviors. Victory appears to be on the horizon!
But then they fall back into old patterns. After two months of a clean record, they cross that line and indulge in pornography again, or hook up with someone again. At this point, most people are tempted to question everything that they’ve been doing so far. Was it all a sham? Have they really made any progress if they are back at this place again? To make matters worse, that initial act of sin leads to more acting out. This is when they feel like they are now in a worse place than when they began this journey.
It is not uncommon to put forth unprecedented degrees of effort and resolve into battling sexual sin and still experience regular failure in this area. If this description matches your experience or the experience of someone you are helping, how are we to interpret and understand what God is doing?
First of all, I want to dispel two opposite yet companion false expectations of repentance. These are two lies to guard your heart against:
- The first lie: No matter what you do, you are doomed to eventually act out again, it’s only a matter of time.
- The second lie: All you need is the golden key of a specific insight, technique, or experience to be completely free from this sin.
Both of these lies give false expectations for what repentance looks like. The first lie I confront quickly. I boldly tell new groups of men at Harvest USA, that in Christ, nothing is forcing them to go home that night and act out in their well-worn behaviors. Sin is no longer their master; they’ve died to sin when Christ died to sin on the cross. It is a lie from Satan to believe that you are always doomed to eventually go back to your enslaving patterns of sin. God always provides a way of escape.
Yet the opposite lie is also very tempting and prevalent. Those enslaved to addiction want complete freedom, and they want it as quickly as possible. It’s tempting to believe that this will be an easy fix when there is often powerful momentum in the beginning stages of truly fighting sin. But this expectation of a quick, simple fix, only to be discovered by some insight or a new technique, both misunderstands the power of indwelling sin and also the scope of transformation that God is truly after.
I find it common for men to flip-flop between these two false expectations. One week, they are in the pit of despair that this sin will always enslave them; another week, they feel invincible, believing they’ve crossed a threshold where they’ll never be severely tempted again. But what if God is after more in your repentance than a clean track record?
What if God is after more in your repentance than a clean track record?
It is certainly a good thing to want complete freedom from destructive behaviors. But it is not good if that is the only thing you care about in your repentance.
God is doing so much more in you than merely stopping behaviors. He’s doing a comprehensive renovation of your heart. And for many people, that transformative process involves a much longer season of prolonged failure than they initially expected.
While there are many things God may be doing in allowing people to experience slow growth, I believe there is one fundamental lesson he wants everyone to learn in their repentance.
If God gave us immediate victory over sin, so many of us would be left with immeasurable amounts of deadly pride. We would look at others with judgmental hearts and have little room for patience or compassion as they continued to struggle and fail.
C.S. Lewis captures this deadly exchange when he describes Satan’s delight over prideful law-keeping. He writes, “He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride—just as he would be quite content to see your [blister] cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. (p. 125).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
It’s important that we qualify what humility looks like in the battle against sin. Despair is a form of pride; you are looking to yourself as the answer to your problems, and when you can’t find the strength from within, your pride keeps you from looking to God.
Humility, on the other hand, leads to genuine hope. Humility accurately assesses the degree of helplessness we experience in our own strength to kill sin. The humble person accepts that reality and does not shake their fist at God for allowing them to experience weakness.
Humility leads to genuine hope. Humility accurately assesses the degree of helplessness we experience in our own strength to kill sin.
Instead, the humble person comes to God in trust and faith, continuing to believe that God is good, God is strong, God is mighty to save. The humble person acknowledges God’s goodness in calling them into a dependent relationship with him. That it is eternally better to be weak and experience God’s strength than to be strong in yourself and be separated from God for all of eternity.
God’s highest goal in your battle against sexual sin is growing your dependence, trust, and reliance upon him in ever-increasing intimacy and fellowship. People entrenched in sexual sin are not marked by this kind of relationship with God. This kind of relationship is not quickly grown. And thus your slow progress in fighting sexual sin is directly connected to the progress of your humble reliance upon God.
The more you give in to the temptation to despair over your lack of progress, the harder it is to find hope in a humble relationship with God.
If you are struggling today to make progress in your battle against sexual sin, focus your attention on cultivating a humble relationship of trust and reliance upon God. Fight to hope not in yourself, but in God. Fight against laziness and presumption that you can go a single day without a vital connection with him. Fight to believe that this depth of relationship with God is what you’re ultimately fighting for, and it is what God has promised to accomplish in your life.
Learn more by watching Mark Sanders’ accompanying video: Why Isn’t God Answering My Prayers for Deliverance?
Many issues need to be addressed to effectively battle against sexual sin, but perhaps the most pervasive and overarching battle is a battle to kill pride and cultivate humility.
To learn more from Mark Sanders, read his accompanying blog: Hope vs. Despair
14 Nov 2019
A middle-aged man languishes in self-conscious shame and isolation as he sits in church week after week. For over 20 years, he has struggled with sexual sin. Never has he asked for help or confessed to another person. He is convinced, not only by his own shame but also by the heated rhetoric in his church against his type of sin, that this is the worst sin to which he could confess. He must never let anyone know.
Are some sins worse than others? No, and yes. A famous instance of this qualified answer is found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. On the no side, “every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse;” on the yes side, “some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others” (Q.s 83, 84).
The Larger Catechism expands on this to give a list of examples of these “aggravations” (Q. 151). Many people automatically place sexual sins in a “worse than other sins” category. Is this a proper and helpful application of this idea of aggravations of sins?
My goal here is only to give some preliminary considerations. I start with the observation that there is a sense that “not all sins are equally heinous” is common sense and obvious. Sampling a grape from the produce aisle is not as heinous as stealing a Mercedes from the parking lot. It is common sense that some sins are worse than others, but we need to be very careful how we use this idea. Here are four perspectives that bear on how we should approach this issue.
Our Natural Spiritual Blindness
When Jesus says in Luke 6:41, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” he is calling attention to a tendency that is common to us in our fallen condition, our tendency to think less of our own sin and more of others’.
This tendency flows from our basic sinful instinct towards self-justification. Placing attention on another’s sin distracts attention from our own. Also, we find it easier to recognize and condemn any sin that we see in someone else of which we consider ourselves innocent. This extends to the question of discerning “worseness” of sins. We tend to think the worst sins are the ones with which we don’t struggle.
We tend to think the worst sins are the ones with which we don’t struggle.
What does Jesus give us as a corrective to this tendency? We should assume the opposite is true. Our own sin is worse. My brother’s sin is a speck; mine is a log. If we are alert to our own spiritual tendency to self-justify, and to the grave danger that poses, we will be wise to magnify our own sin. Indeed, “the saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).
The Nature of Our Concern
If our concern is to pass judgment, rather than to love and shepherd, we are immediately on the wrong track. This is not unrelated to the first point above, for it is our desire to confirm the relative sinfulness of others while minimizing our own that also motivates us to act as if we are a judge over them. A few verses earlier in Luke Jesus says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” James warns, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12).
Of course—as is usually pointed out in any discussion of judging—this isn’t to say there is no place for discerning the sinfulness of actions or even considering the relative gravity of sins. But it does speak to our purpose in doing so. For what purpose is it helpful to discern the relative gravity of a sin?
I have already stated it above; to love and shepherd. Pastors and elders, especially, are called to give guidance and discipline to help those under their care to progress in their faith and Christian life. In doing this, they cannot treat all sins exactly alike; they must wisely discern the course of interaction with each person and situation. This includes carefully discerning, among other things, the relative gravity of any sin involved.
Let me illustrate the difference between a judgmental concern and a shepherding concern. Imagine two different scenarios. In the first, a roomful of people conducting a campaign rally for one of the presidential candidates sees a man enter the room wearing paraphernalia of the opposite party. In the second scenario, a roomful of doctors at an oncology conference sees a man enter with a prominent cancerous mole on his face. In both of these scenarios, the situation is perceived with special gravity, and the reaction is strong. But the nature of the concern is completely different.
The Complexity of the Factors
Often, when this topic is discussed, sin is compared in general categories, in the abstract. But in real life, sin doesn’t exist in the abstract. We deal with unique individuals with complicated histories and contexts. This is what the long list of possible “aggravations” in the Larger Catechism is encouraging shepherds to consider.
The context of a particular sin can be considered in multiple categories. If we isolate one category from all others, the issue may seem fairly simple. For example, if the category is “how fully acted out is the sin,” we would say it is worse to actually steal a grape than to fantasize about stealing one; or, if the category is “extent of harm,” we would say it is worse to steal a car than to steal a grape. But what if we ask if it is worse to fantasize about stealing a car or to actually steal a grape? Suddenly it is not so clear. In real life, each instance of sin is even much more complicated. Broad, generalized judgments are often not helpful.
The Common Root of All Sin
In the end, any one of the sins humanity produces is more like every other sin than it is different. This is because every sin grows from a common root. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder’” (James 2:10, 11). In other words, our rebellion against God is our root sin, and every other way we sin is another expression of that treason.
In the end, any one of the sins humanity produces is more like every other sin than it is different.
This helps us understand the other half of the Catechism’s answer: “Every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse.” It is this perspective that encourages us, rather than dwelling on the sins we think are “worse,” to give more attention to the sins we think are small and inconsequential. For behind their respectability and unremarkableness, these sins conceal a heart committed to the darkest evil.
These four points do not answer all the questions about this issue. But they give necessary perspective on the whole discussion.
07 Nov 2019
God’s pruning isn’t an indication that he is rejecting or abandoning us. Instead, his pruning indicates that he is near. And in his nearness, he is working to sanctify us. In this video, Ellen Dykas reminds us that God’s pruning is always purposeful.
To learn more, read Shalee Lehning’s accompanying blog, The Pain of Refining Squeezes.
07 Nov 2019
Have you felt maxed out beyond your capacity to handle, stretched beyond what you feel able to endure any longer? Me too! Like the women I’m discipling who need help overcoming sexual sin, it’s easy to blame my behavior and my heart’s responses on the tough circumstances I find myself in.
But Jesus reveals the source of our distress. It’s not our circumstances; it’s our heart; it’s the way we respond to our circumstances. Jesus diagnosed all of us when he confronted the Pharisees (see Matthew 12:34-35). Like toothpaste squeezed out of a tube when we press it, our hearts reveal their true nature when pressed upon or squeezed by trials and situations that threaten to undo us.
Our hearts reveal their true nature when pressed upon or squeezed by trials and situations that threaten to undo us.
I am going through a lot of transition in my life. I’ve moved to the east coast to begin full-time ministry at Harvest USA, so most everything familiar has changed: living situation, church family, and my social network. I’ve felt pressed and squeezed in this season of change!
What came out of my heart? Insecurity in certain friendships, anxiety as I engage the reality of being a support-raising missionary, and doubts about whether God will provide for me.
Oh, and that’s not all! I’ve also felt frustration because if I’m honest, I flat out desire an easier road to walk than the one God has chosen for me. At times, all of this squeezing has led to feeling completely overwhelmed.
Although my circumstances may be different than yours, when we get down to heart issues, we are more alike than different. I’ve recently been facing my own unbelief, and that’s the same thing that happens in the heart of a woman who keeps going back to porn to numb her pain or that guy that insists he’s just wired to have sex all the time and can’t stop.
On a heart level, we question if God will actually do what he promises. We doubt his goodness; unbelief creeps in, and fear paralyzes us as we grapple for control of our lives.
Life presses in on all of us!
How is life pressing in on you today? Did you wake up with one of the following thoughts?
I can’t kick this pornography addiction.
I can’t overcome my attraction to the same sex.
I can’t get over my fear of being single forever.
I’ll never trust my spouse again.
I can’t keep fighting my sexual temptations on top of everything else. I just can’t.
Or maybe, if you’re in ministry like me, you feel squeezed with fearful thoughts threatening to paralyze you: I don’t want to engage this cultural issue; it is too risky. I don’t want to get caught in the weeds of someone else’s sexual sin struggles; I don’t know how to help them.
Maybe you’re feeling like Moses in Exodus 4:13 when he asked God to please send someone else to do the job. Or perhaps you’re like Jonah, and you want to run away from what God’s called you to do.
These things can be painful beyond words, but the truth is, being squeezed by life can actually humble us in him. In the midst of struggles, God builds a redemptive bridge into the lives of others from our challenging circumstances. God allows these hard circumstances to tether our attention back on our need of him.
You need to hear this: being squeezed isn’t an indication that God is rejecting or abandoning you. In his sovereignty and love, God allows our character and lives to be refined. And the beauty is that in the midst of this refining squeeze, God is tender and gentle to us, even though it may not feel like it. Isaiah 42:3 says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” He loves us enough to allow hard circumstances to sanctify us and make us more like Jesus. But as he does so, he brings comfort and encouragement to our weak and oppressed hearts.
God loves us enough to allow hard circumstances to sanctify us and make us more like Jesus.
Aside from living with a heart that is surrendered to Jesus, we do have some responsibility in all this. It matters what we allow “in” to our minds and heart. I recently heard a pastor say, “Where our minds labor, our hearts will follow.” The reality is, our minds are always dwelling on and being filled with something, and what you allow in will directly impact what comes out.
So, what are you filling yourself with in your free time? What is your thought life really like? What voices have the most influence in your life? It is time we stop being so surprised and not allow ourselves to play the victim when sinful and destructive responses come out of us.
Many things in life are out of our control, but being mindful and intentional about what we fill our tube of toothpaste with is up to you. Filling yourself with anything other than the things of God will leave you cleaning up messes. If you choose to fill your mind and heart with God through obedience to his Word, meditating on his majesty, and communicating with him through prayer—then when life squeezes, you will see things coming out of you like the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
So, next time life presses in on all sides, pay attention to your responses and trace them back to the root of what you’re believing about God in those moments. Then replace any lies with truth found in God’s word (2 Corinthians 10:5). Do this over and over, and you will see your responses begin to change. This process can feel daunting, but as Jesus reminds us in Matthew 11:30, his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. As you feel hard-pressed on every side, he will give you rest for your weary and burdened heart and the strength you need to persevere.
To learn more, watch Ellen Dykas’ accompanying video, God’s Pruning Is Always Purposeful.
31 Oct 2019
All of us face the difficult task of discerning what to say yes and no to. In our ministry at Harvest USA, I have daily opportunities to engage people who need help with their sexuality or gender struggles, or to write, or to encourage a staff member, or to reach out to one of my donors.
When I was in my twenties, Numbers 9:22 popped off the page into my heart and became a guiding verse from Scripture for me.
“Whether it was two days or a month or a year that the cloud lingered over the tabernacle, staying above it, the sons of Israel remained camped and did not set out; but when it lifted, they set out.” (NASB)
This Old Testament version of a spiritual GPS came about in the wilderness wanderings of God’s people. God promised to guide them through manifestations of his presence hovering over the tabernacle as a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (see Numbers 9:15-23 and Psalm 78:14).
Wow, seems so great, right?! Today, this might look like praying about something from the following list, glancing outside to see where the cloud is, and following it wherever it goes.
Lord, that woman seems to need a friend; should I reach out and call her—offer to meet up for coffee, or not? Lord, should I…
- Start a blog?
- Make this purchase?
- Be a small group leader at church?
- Look for a job that pays more but will be more time-consuming?
- Talk to my pastor about a concern I have about leadership, or “just” pray?
How do we discern what to say yes to and when we need to say no? In a world of thousands of choices, how do you decide what is the best way to spend your precious, limited resources of time, emotional energy, relational capacity, finances, and physical strength? Consider how the use of your time also factors into becoming a man or woman of sexual integrity.
Our Daily Yes
Thirty years later, the principle of Numbers 9:22 continues to keep my heart oriented to the big picture of being a Christian, and this is what we need to remember when it comes to stewarding our sexuality. Our lives belong to Christ and this gives us the most foundational YES we live out: Lord, wherever you lead, however you lead, I will follow you and do what you ask of me, keeping my eyes on you and throwing off distractions (see Hebrews 12:1-3).
Christ clearly and lovingly commands his followers to a life characterized by heart commitments: to die to self, take up our cross and follow him, love him and his commands, teach the gospel to others, be holy, set our hearts on things above, throw off sin and distractions, enter into and receive his rest (Luke 9:23; John 15:1-10; Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 3:1-4; Hebrews 12:1-3; 4:9-10; 1 Peter 1:13). And that’s just for starters!
Simply put, our daily yes to these things is lived out through loving obedience and submission to our Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever promotes, encourages, helps, and nurtures that obedience, we say YES to. Whatever distracts, tempts, or weakens us from living a Christ-centered life, we say NO to. The gospel’s trajectory of transformation in our lives is a process of increasing yeses to obedience and decreasing noes to disobedience.
Wisdom for Gray Areas
But, you ask: OK, that sounds great, but what do I do about practical decisions where the Bible doesn’t give a clear-cut answer? The last time I checked, there weren’t any pillars of fire hovering over my home!
Let me unpack some biblical guidelines that help me.
- What’s the motive of your heart in the issue at hand? Will it help you resist temptation or will it lead you to give in? (Proverbs 3:5-6)
- As best you can discern, what will you reap from this decision? (Romans 8:5-8, Galatians 6:7-9)
- Consider the trajectory of God’s work in your life. Does this decision seem to be in sync with him or not? (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:13)
- What do the mature and wise-in-Christ people in your life say about it? (Proverbs 11:14, 15:22; Titus 2:1-15)
God continues to use Numbers 9:22 to orient my heart and vocational decisions as I’ve committed to going where he wants me to go, do what he wants me to do, and to leave where/when/who he calls me to leave. In a beautifully intimate way, all believers have the Spirit to guide and protect us in our desire to live faithful lives as relational and sexual beings.
The life of faith has not always been easy or comfortable, but I’m deeply thankful for God’s kindness in leading me, year after year, and for the wisdom he’s given me in decision making. My Christian life is imperfect, but the more I taste the spacious freedom of obedience and faith, the less I’m tempted to give way to an unholy or foolish YES or NO!
To learn more, watch Ellen’s accompanying video, The Importance of Saying Yes to Jesus.
24 Oct 2019
What makes someone act out sexually in a sinful way? What compels a believer, who wants to follow Christ, to embrace specific actions or a life that he knows to be wrong?
When I am trying to help a man discern why sexual sin has a grip on his life, I ask a lot of questions: “What were you thinking and feeling in the events and interactions leading up to your season of acting out?” There is always something that is a trigger for behavior.
Here is what I hear quite often, a common category of responses: “I was exhausted,” “I felt empty,” “I’d been working so hard; I figured I deserved this pleasure,” “I felt worn out, numb,” and “I felt like there are so many demands on me—I feel no joy.”
More often than not, these experiences do not immediately lead to sexual sin. This feeling of exhaustion, however, marks the beginning of a process. Initially, these men respond “innocently,” going to any number of “recreational” activities—watching TV, surfing the internet, checking Facebook, app surfing on the phone, and playing video games. Seems innocent enough.
Whatever the activity, what seems common is that it is, for the most part, not an actual activity; it’s passive—physically, mentally, and emotionally passive. These things represent the opposite of whatever has the men exhausted. They are tired from doing, doing, doing, and this is their way to stop, to rest. Unfortunately, these “restful” activities almost always morph into sexual sin.
There seems to be an unbroken line from seemingly harmless pastimes to the sinful habit that is destroying these men. Why? Could it be that these things are a counterfeit Sabbath?
I don’t want to focus here on arguments about what one may or may not do on Sunday; my concern is about what the heart of Sabbath means. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It was given to give us rest, but not just rest, rest in God. Sabbath is a ceasing from our efforts, striving, and anxiety at meeting our needs and desires; it is a refreshment in and celebration of our dependence on God and his faithful provision for us.
In other words, when we are exhausted, God wants us to be refreshed in him. When we are anxious, God wants us to find peace in him. When we are weary, God wants us to find rest in him.
When we are weary, God wants us to find rest in him.
Why is this so hard for us to do? I think it is because we have given ourselves for so long to counterfeit Sabbaths—passive entertainment and easy, self-focused pleasures. Our patterns of recreation are predictable and reliable; we are in control. However, receiving refreshment from God when we are weary requires something we can’t do—God must show up.
This means Sabbath is an act of faith. It is a basic exercise of trust—trust first that God himself is faithful to forgive us and give us eternal life in Christ, but also trust that he will sustain us and meet our needs in the here and now.
In the first biblical story of Sabbath observance, in Exodus 16, God sets up a test of trust around his giving of the Manna. On each of the first five days, the Israelites were to limit their gathering to one day’s provision—any more than that spoiled. But on the sixth day, they were to gather two days’ worth, then rest completely on the seventh day, trusting that what had already been given would not spoil. This was not easy for them to learn.
If for six days the Israelites were striving in their own strength, meeting their needs on their own, dependent on their own ability to gather enough bread to sustain themselves, then resting on the seventh day was completely foreign to them. And that is, in fact, the way it went. On day seven, many just continued as if they had to meet their own needs without God’s help or direction.
“But,” you may be thinking, “what does one day of the week have to do with a sin I struggle with 24/7?” In other words, “Isn’t Sabbath a Sunday concern? How does that help me on Friday night?”
Well, Sabbath is not really about one day out of seven. Consider again the Sabbath experience God designed for the Israelites in Exodus 16. Didn’t the faith exercise on day seven change the way they experienced days 1-6? Of course, the point was not just one day, but regular, daily life.
So much of our sin is the fruit of seeking refuge in false gods—activities or people—that give us an immediate payback of what feels like rest. At Harvest USA, we call that “autonomy,” the most basic sinful orientation of the heart, where you determine what you need to meet the problems you face in life, apart from God and his instruction.
So much of our sin is the fruit of seeking refuge in false gods—activities or people—that give us an immediate payback of what feels like rest.
Of course, that is a delusion. In the end, the false gods we turn to for relief eventually lead us into dark places that trap us and hold us in bondage. Before we know it, the relief we find in sexual sin brings despair and hopelessness.
But Jesus still says to us, “Come to me, all you who are weary…” (Matthew 11:28). He gives us a better way.
How do we make Jesus our refuge from our weariness? Start by making some choices to rest in specific ways on Sunday that require you to trust in him rather than in your own efforts.
The example of the Israelites is ours, too. If we don’t have this posture on Sunday, this understanding about the heart of Sabbath rest, then we won’t have it any other day. You will continue to “rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127:2), and in your weariness you will continue to go to your own resources, to the sin that speaks its own promise of rest.
If the Israelites rested in God on the Sabbath, it would be an act of faith in the idea that God was truly with them and committed to meeting their every need. This would change even the way they gathered bread on every other day. They would, in the words of Deuteronomy 8:3, “not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
At a heart level, where they received their rest determined how they worked.
This principle applies to the men I talk to who habitually end up using porn as they “rest” after hard labor. The goal is not adherence to a set of religious rules about one day of the week. It is a comprehensive change in posture toward both work and rest, from a posture of independent self-rule to one of grateful dependence on God.
16 Oct 2019
“How do I know whether I’ve crossed the line in my mind between temptation and sin?”
This is a frequent question I get asked at our Harvest USA groups. While there could be mixed motivations for asking such a question, I believe the most common reason Christians ask this stems from a very legitimate desire to please their heavenly Father. At the core of our identity as adopted sons and daughters of God in Christ, we have been given hearts that long to hear our Father say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
We know that sin displeases our Father. So how does God look upon us, when we wrestle daily, and frequently throughout the day, with desires, thoughts, and temptations that we know are not pure, good, or pleasing to God? Is God, at all times, frustrated and dishonored by our lives?
This is an extremely important question for the believer who wants to repent well of ongoing patterns of sin. Believing that God is pleased with our repentance is a powerful motivation to continue repenting.
Believing that God is pleased with our repentance is a powerful motivation to continue repenting.
But if we think that all of our sincere efforts are only met with perpetual disappointment from our Father, then it will only be a matter of time before despair sets in. And eventually, we give up.
This is an especially significant question for men and women wrestling with same-sex attraction. They can struggle with great discouragement if every experience of same-sex attraction is classified as sin. But no matter what form temptation presents itself, these deep questions concern everyone.
We all know the pain of never measuring up to someone’s standards. It may be a child whose parents aren’t pleased with any grade below an A+, or an employee whose boss never gives them a compliment, or someone who never experiences their spouse’s delight in them. This hurts, and over time, it can be a crushing experience. So too, brothers and sisters wrestling with ongoing temptation want to know that God is pleased by their sincere efforts.
In light of these good desires to please God, how should we understand the nature of temptation and sin? This is the topic of much current discussion. My purpose here is not to throw my two cents into the conversation, since I believe a historic, reformed anthropology adequately reflects the biblical teaching on sin and temptation. My concern is more with the pastoral implications of this anthropology.
So, I will briefly summarize my understanding of sin and temptation, and then explain how this does not lead to despair in the Christian’s life, but hope!
It’s helpful to consider three categories when conceptualizing sin and temptation. This is our starting point to get to the place in answering the question I raised.
Temptation from without
This is temptation to sin that comes at you that has no genesis in sinful desires. Adam and Eve were tempted from without by the serpent. Jesus was tempted from without by the devil. When someone entices you to engage in sinful activity, this is temptation from without. It does not come from your heart but is seeking to tempt your heart to sin.
Temptation from within (indwelling sin)
This is temptation that arises from corrupt desires in your heart. James says that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). How are we to understand the moral quality of these desires? Are they neutral?
I don’t believe the Bible allows that interpretation. These desires are sinful desires, arising from the fallen, corrupted, sinful nature that we have all inherited from Adam. Another term for temptation from within is “indwelling sin.” A very important feature of indwelling sin is that it is not something consciously chosen or something that we willfully summon. And yet, it is still sin.
Voluntary (willful) sin
If temptation from within is not something we consciously choose, then voluntary sin is what we willingly engage in. This is what most people think of when they think of sin. They think of something that is willfully chosen. And indeed, much sin is of this variety.
We are presented an opportunity to sin that our hearts desire. Now we are left with a choice. Will we turn to Christ, or give in to our sinful desires? This is what James means when he says, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin” (James 1:15). James is not saying the desire itself was not sin, but that sinful desires, often unbidden, give birth to willful sin.
At first, this might sound crushing to someone wrestling with sinful desires on a daily basis. Indeed, it should sober us to think of the overwhelming weight and pervasiveness of our sin. That sin is not just something we occasionally do, but sin impacts every willing act in our lives. Consider the call of Christ to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). I don’t believe there is a single moment of my life where I can say this was perfectly true of me. Pride and selfishness always infect even the purest motivations of my heart.
Sin is not just something we occasionally do, but sin impacts every willing act in our lives.
This must mean God is constantly disappointed in you, right? Wrong! It is for these very reasons that Christ came not only to die in my place for the sins that I continue to commit, but also to live the perfect life that I never could. We can never merit favor with God by our own righteousness—our own good intentions or efforts. This is why Christ’s active and passive obedience are required to earn our full salvation. Because no one will be accepted into God’s presence unless they have a record of proven, perfect righteousness. Christ alone has accomplished this, and by Spirit-wrought faith we are united to Christ in all of his benefits, including his justification becoming our own.
So, instead of crushing the believer’s heart, it should first of all greatly deepen our appreciation of the gospel—the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for us! The more we come to grips with how bad the bad news really is, the more we come to worship, delight in, and love our Savior.
This understanding of Jesus-for-us is the answer to our concern that we can never please God even though we are saved, because indwelling sin stains everything we do. But the Bible gives us so many declarations that God delights in his people and is pleased by their obedience (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:4). Is it perfect, sinless obedience, worthy of salvation? No. But every Christian can and does obey in ways that delight our heavenly Father.
The Westminster Confession of Faith explains this possibility of pleasing God so well in section 16.6:
Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
This is so crucial to understand! How are our sincere efforts to please God acceptable in his sight if they are not perfect? They are accepted by God “through Christ,” as God looks upon our imperfect works “in His Son.”
Here’s the answer, then, to the question: How do I know if I’ve crossed the line between temptation and sin? We are always crossing over the line between temptation and sin because we are fallen. We don’t just need the gospel to save us from God’s wrath, we need the gospel in order to do anything that pleases the Father.
This means, when you are wrestling with indwelling sin, temptations from within, you have the opportunity to please God! When you turn from corrupt desires that rise up from within your own heart, and you make war with your flesh, and submit to the Spirit leading you into the throne room of grace, you are met there by your high priest with sympathy and with delight!
Every Christian will battle with indwelling sin until they see Jesus face to face. This will be a daily, moment by moment battle. God’s not disappointed in you because you are fighting against indwelling sin. The very opposite: He calls you to never give up fighting sin. The ones who meet God and hear the words “well done, good and faithful servant,” are those who endured to the end. Who didn’t make peace with their sin, but continued to take up their weapons of warfare that we see so beautifully outlined in Ephesians 6.
God’s not disappointed in you because you are fighting against indwelling sin. The very opposite: He calls you to never give up fighting sin.
Brothers and sisters, you aren’t laboring in vain. Not only are your sincere, Spirit-dependent efforts accepted and rewarded in Christ, but they are also sowing seeds into greater and greater righteousness. You don’t “box as one beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26), but instead, you are being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).
To learn more, watch Mark Sanders’ accompanying video, Can I Please God When I’m Not Perfect?