Idols are cruel masters that are bent on your misery. But they don’t present themselves that way. First, they convince you that your life is summed up in the attainment of a specific desire. It might be success, comfort, control, affirmation, or intimacy. Then, this idol promises you that it can meet this desire in your life. It even gives you displays of its power and invites you to taste of its delicacies. So you sign on the dotted line and agree to give your heart to this idol in exchange for its services.

The Problem with Your Idol

In the beginning, the idol seems to be fulfilling every single promise it made. It delivers quickly and efficiently. It’s there for you in the good times and the bad. It’s there to comfort you, weep with you, celebrate with you, and offer to spend the lonely nights with you.

Your love for this idol is growing quickly. The more you feed it, the more it draws you in. Over time, your life becomes consumed by it. Other things in life become distractions and obstacles in the way of going back to this idol again and again. Going one day without it feels unbearable, making your inevitable return that much more intoxicating.

This is when you start to question your agreement with this idol. The cost of this pleasure wasn’t spelled out for you in the initial contract. You start to notice that other things in life have lost their value. You don’t enjoy them the way you used to. Your relationships with others may have become awkward, transactional, and strained. Over time, you’ve become more and more isolated, and, eventually, you’re left alone—just you and your idol.

The Struggle with Your Idol

Upon realizing that you have made a terrible mistake, you try to get out of this contract. But this idol has already sealed and notarized it. You beg and plead with it to let you go, but it shouts all the more that it will never leave you. It even threatens you and those you love. It tells you that if you try to get help from others, you’ll be endangering your family and even your own life. Right after threatening you, it woos you back with smooth and enticing words.

Finally, one day, you think you’ve found a way to escape this idol’s grip. If this idol offered you such powerful fulfillment in life, maybe Jesus can do the same for you. So you pray that Jesus will meet you in the same way this idol did, maybe even better. That Jesus will give you comfort, intimacy, control, and affirmation. But Jesus doesn’t answer you the way this idol did. The idol said, “You can walk by sight and feel good whenever you want.” Jesus says, “Walk by faith, and trust me when trials come your way.” After a while, you grow frustrated with Jesus, that he’s not helping you the way you want. He seems distant and unable to give you what makes you happy. In anger and unbelief, you willingly return to your idol, hopeless for anything better in your life.

As you stay with your idol, one thing is very clear to you: This idol hasn’t satisfied you. It’s just filled you with junk that tasted sweet but left you bitter. It promised real life but only delivered powerful counterfeits. Your life is now marked by unsatisfied longings that are temporarily mitigated by your idol.

You feel stuck, and it seems that Jesus is either unwilling or unable to free you from your misery.

Freedom from Your Idol

But then Jesus comes to you and offers you a pathway out of your despair. He tells you there is a way to be freed from the tyranny of this idol and its false promises. He exposes the lie that brought you in to begin with: That life can be found outside of the Life-giver. It is the hook of believing that life can be found in living for comfort, intimacy, control, security, and affirmation.

As long as you continue to believe that lie, your hope of escaping this cruel master is vain.

Jesus tells you to repent of coming to him merely to use him as a means of giving you your idolatrous desires. He reminds you of the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” You had put your desires for other things before desiring him. You thought that in them was found the wellspring of life.

Jesus reminds you,

“Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love” (Jonah 2:8).

Your heart is pierced by his words. You see clearly how you’ve been spurning his offer of himself in order to cling to your idols. And you hear his invitation as a real way forward out of your misery, but your idol retorts with a strong counterargument. It says, “If you give your heart to Jesus, he’s calling you to give up good things and desire him only. Do you really want to give up your comfort, your security, your control?”

Jesus knows your weak faith and the ease at which your idol is able to convince you of its lies. And so, tenderly, with a heart of compassion, he tells you, “You’re not giving up your desires; you’re giving them over to me. You’re giving your whole life to me. In so doing, I will give you myself. And when I give you myself, all of your desires with which I created you find their ultimate satisfaction in me. When you are satisfied in me, you are truly free.”

In tears, you cry out, “Lord, I want to be satisfied in you, but that’s not happening in my life. I’ve tried, and you haven’t shown up for me.”

“My beloved child,” Jesus says, “You’ve been coming to me on the basis of your feelings, your experience, and your doubts. You haven’t been coming to me in faith in my promises to you. You’ve been coming to me demanding that I meet you on your terms. You haven’t been coming to me in trust, submitting to my perfect will for your life. You’ve wanted me to serve you so that you can be lord of your life. I want you to know a peace that comes from offering yourself to me daily as a living sacrifice, because you trust that I am sufficient for every need you have, and I will be faithful to every promise I have ever made to you. You thought that I existed for you. But you exist for me. You exist to glorify my name.”

With these words, your shackles come undone and fall to the floor as you see the path of joy and freedom set before you. Freedom is not in having your desires met in your timing and your ways. Freedom comes from repenting of your idolatry and entrusting your whole life to your first love, to the one for whom you were created.

The Death of Your Idol

Your idol has been dealt a death blow, but with its dying breath, it lunges at you with a sword of doubt saying, “You might want this freedom, you might even desire to worship Jesus alone, but you’ll fail, and you’ll come crawling back to me. Your repentance won’t be perfect.”

With confident humility you respond, “You’re right. I won’t be perfect. Even in my best moments, my love for Jesus will fall short of his supreme value. But my hope is not in my righteousness. My hope rests in being united to my Savior, who bore my sin of idolatry on the cross and has given me his perfect righteousness, so that I can come to him freely and ask for help from his infinite storehouse of grace.”

Jesus welcomes you into his arms and declares with amazing love, “You are my portion, and I am yours!” Jesus is not a genie or a powerful new way to get what you really want in the way you want it. Jesus Christ is the one who bore all the guilt of your sinful humanity and gives you nothing less than his own indestructible life—he himself is our reward. He doesn’t serve our desires; he reshapes them by his death and resurrection and guarantees them to us by joining us eternally to himself.

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part One

“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (ESV).

What Paul is saying here is not terribly popular today. Not in the culture we live in, and increasingly not even in the church. We live in an age that many describe as one of sexual freedom and self-discovery (my sexuality reveals my true identity), and we hear that the Bible is a sexually repressive book, stuck in its ancient cultural time-period, so we need to just move on.

But what Paul says here is not only counter-cultural to us; it was also counter-cultural to those who heard him 2000 years ago. It wasn’t very popular then either! Biblical sexuality has never been something people are naturally or instinctually drawn to—but throughout the Scriptures, God’s message to us has been consistently clear:

What we do with our bodies matters. Our sexuality matters to God.

I’m struck by two things in this passage.

One, the force of Paul’s argument for why it matters that we live in accordance to God’s will for our lives sexually. Notice how many times and ways that Paul speaks about obeying the will of God regarding how to live with our sexuality.

V2: “you know what instructions we gave you through the the Lord Jesus.”

V3: For “this is the will of God, your sanctification . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality”

V4: “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness”

V5: that you not live like those outside of Christ (“not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles”)

V6: “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things…”

V 7: “For God has called us…to holiness”

V8: “whoever disregards this, disregards God”

Seven times Paul says that God places a high value on how we live with our sexuality. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live in our body is a barometer of our faith.

We live in a culture that proclaims that sex equals life. We hear that a life lived without sex is a tragedy, and our self-identities are increasingly defined by our sexual preferences or attractions. We are bombarded 24/7 with images, media, and cultural expressions that say that the meaning of life is about sex. No wonder this passage is being dismissed as out-of-sync with what is current.

But, two, I’m also struck by something else in this compact passage: that, in the face of cultural opposition (and probably even the opposition from and struggles of those who were new to the faith), Paul doesn’t water down the gospel on this matter. He doesn’t flinch in saying how important this is.

What Paul says here is difficult to follow, given the culture we live in, and taking into account how powerful our sexuality is.

Would it encourage you if I said that it was difficult for first-century Christians, also?

God knows that this is difficult for his people

Do you notice how Paul hints at this in verse 1? He mentions, first of all, that he was clear in his instruction on how to live as redeemed people: “that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing”—and then he adds, “and that you do so more and more.”

In other words, the Christians at Thessaloniki knew what to do, and they seemed to be moving in the right direction, but it appears they also struggled doing so. They didn’t have it down pat; they hadn’t mastered the subject, or else Paul would not have said, “. . . we ask and urge you. . . in the Lord Jesus” that they continue in that direction. I think this double appeal speaks volumes about their struggles here.

What’s happening in the church at Thessaloniki mirrors what we read in the letter of 1 Corinthians.

Almost the entire letter is a question and answer session between Paul and the church on all the problems the church had. Let me list them:

  • There were divisions and factions fighting over leadership.
  • Paul had to defend his apostolic ministry, because many thought Paul was an inferior apostle—there were better preachers out there than Paul.
  • They had relational and business conflicts, and they were taking each other to court.
  • They had marriage problems, divorces, struggles by those who were single.
  • They had fights over worship, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, etc.
  • They had people in the church who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead.

And, you will notice this thread throughout the entire letter—they really struggled with sex and sexuality. Big time. Paul addressed matters of incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, distorted views of sex within marriage, and homosexuality. Sexuality was a big topic and a big problem in the church at Corinth. In fact, throughout all the new churches!

It looks like the first century church looks a lot like ours, doesn’t it? Is that discouraging to you? Does it make you wonder if anybody really follows Jesus, if obedience to Christ is even possible, especially in this area of life?

It shouldn’t. Remember the kind of person Jesus is; remember how he was described. In Luke 15:2, he was derisively referred to as the man who receives sinners. And eats with them, too! That’s us!

There is no ideal, pure church. As long as the church is following Christ, it will remain messy, because God saves messy people.

A healthy church is not one without problems, it’s one where problems are addressed with grace and truth (that’s the gospel—the good news of how God has rescued us). And if the gospel of grace and truth is being taught, then we will see people changing, but it’s God who does the changing in us. He knows that change—and the speed and quality of it—is unique to each person.

Today, the ever-present sexual struggles in the church are evidence by some that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. In spite of the struggles of the early church, the message never wavered.

God is still calling his people to live with their sexuality in holiness, according to his design. And we are to do so even when we struggle. Especially as we struggle.

Christian spirituality has everything to do with our bodies. And that is why, after six times mentioning how important this is, on the seventh time Paul nails home the final point: Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

Our sexuality reveals our spirituality. How we live with our sexuality reveals the allegiance of our hearts. As Paul also wrote: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).

(Looking ahead: more reasons Paul gives on following God faithfully with our sexuality and how to do it. )

Click to read Part 2Part 3.  Part 4.  Part 5.

Updated 5.12.2017, 5.31.2018

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