Fighting Sin at the Level of the Heart
In my last post, I left Tom, my Christian brother who struggles with same-sex attraction, with the encouragement that if we are united to the crucified and risen Christ, the struggles and sins we continually battle do not define us anymore. And I said that living out of our identity in Christ was, in fact, the only way to make true progress against sin. Because fighting sin needs to happen at the level of the heart.
What does this mean? What does it look like in real life?
First, we must recognize that this is the way the New Testament presents the Christian life. This is especially true in the writings of the apostle Paul. As many have noticed, his letters are consistently structured in what theologians call an indicative-imperative order. He reminds his readers of what is true for them in Jesus, the indicative of gospel truth. In other words, “This is the new you!”
Then Paul tells them to strive to live out of that truth, the imperative that leads to life change. In other words, “Now, work in God’s strength to live out the truth of the new you!”
My big point to Tom was this: The truth of God’s promises to you in Christ comes first in how you view and understand your life. One particularly clear instance of this is in Colossians 3. The beginning of chapter 3 marks the transition in Colossians from indicative to imperative. It is one of the clearest statements of the truth that understanding your identity as being in Christ is the key to how you live your life from now on:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Remember, the indicative (Colossians 3:1-5) establishes the foundation of all and any progress in your Christian life. It provides confidence, motivation, and direction: confidence, because you know you are considered righteous because of Christ and your eternal future is sure and glorious; motivation, because you have been given eyes to perceive the beauty and glory of Jesus, into whose image you are being transformed, and you want to bring as much as possible of that promised future glory into your present life; direction, because Jesus himself is the pattern to which you are being formed, so his love and obedience is the mark toward which you eagerly aim.
The imperative (Colossians 3:6-17) builds upon this foundation. This involves a continual “put to death” and “put on” flow to one’s Christian life.
So, how does this help you in your struggle with growing in Christ, and how does it help my friend, Tom? Three things here.
There is no kind of struggle or sin that this gospel truth does not apply to
This may seem obvious but needs to be stated. There is not any class of sins that are dealt with differently, nor Christians that experience Christ and the Christian life differently than described here in this chapter. The dynamic of gospel identity and change is the same for all of us. Tom and others who live with same-sex attraction and struggle with all the issues it brings—temptation to sin, discouragement with feeling different than others, loneliness, misunderstanding by others in the church, etc.—need to grasp this truth and be encouraged by it.
Repentance links outward actions and inward thoughts
By outward actions I mean the sins we commit by conscious decision—an angry insult spoken, a lie told, a harmful bit of gossip shared, immoral sexual desires indulged. By inner workings I mean the things you think and feel. Recognize that these inward thoughts and feelings can occur without conscious thought or deliberation. All throughout the day thoughts and feelings automatically pop up.
But I am not suggesting that outward actions are sin and what is inner is not. We sin both at the level of conscious decision and at the constant background level of the inner workings of the heart. Jesus established the principle that the inner working of the heart connects—in ways we may not fully understand—to outward behavior (see Matthew 12:34; 15:19).
The inner workings of your heart, however, are oblique, complicated, less accessible. Why are you so easily angered, for example? What are the deep beliefs that lodge in your heart about yourself, life, and God that feed your compulsion to be anxious, depressed, or lie or gossip or feel pulled by sexual desires?
These questions of inner motives, affections, fears, assumptions, etc., are especially difficult in the area of sexuality. Sexuality has the power to bring into focus many of our deepest desires and fears. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”
But how does this understanding help us in our progress against sin and our striving to grow in Christ?
It helps us to be patient and gracious with the process of repentance. In your life, and the life of my friend, Tom. It is essential to recognize that repentance in Christ includes both outward actions and the inner workings of the heart. The list in Colossians 3 includes both. If you have fought a sin, like anger perhaps, at the level of your heart, you know how slight the progress often seems; you come to expect a lifetime of the Holy Spirit pushing the “front lines” of the battle deeper into your heart. We must expect no different for Tom. So we do not burden Tom with the expectation that he “just stop” his feelings; we help him see, increasingly over time, how the inner workings of his heart can lead either to faithful living or continued falling into sin.
But to do this, those like Tom—and you and me—need one more thing.
Worship is at the core of all gospel change
At all points in the fight against sin, we must focus on Christ, loving him, learning him, hoping in him. We do not make progress against any sin by simply focusing on the sin; we make progress by focusing on Christ, “who is our life.” That is why the list of new-self things to “put on” culminates in “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, …singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
For Tom, this means his Christian life is much bigger than his struggle with sexual attractions. He needs to increase in the joy of worshipping and pursuing Jesus. But let’s be honest. There is a big challenge here for the church. Too often worship is painful for Tom, because he feels different and unwelcome, even like an enemy, because of the feelings that persist in him.
The church needs to pursue authentic fellowship with Tom and those among us who feel weak and despised. That means we must be open and transparent about our struggles to grow in Christ. United to me and you and the rest of “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” we need to help Tom grow with us as we all grow in mutual compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness as we rejoice together in how Jesus is all of that perfectly. This is what we all need.