Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Two
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.
In my first post on this amazing passage by Paul, I pointed out how God places a high value on how we live before him in these bodies we have. You can read that first post here.
Again, Paul’s intent in this passage is to make it very clear that those who name themselves as followers of Christ could not engage in whatever sexual behavior they wish like the behavior that the surrounding culture promoted and permitted. But he also understood the struggle they were having in reining in attractions, desires, and behaviors which were socially OK for them.
So, after he tells them that what we do with our bodies matters to God, he gives them another compelling reason for fighting sexual sin:
How we deal with our sexuality will lead us to freedom or slavery
There are two powerful cultural forces in play regarding sexuality in our world today.
The first one is that we no longer agree on what is right and wrong. The old rules and boundaries regarding sexual behavior are now considered repressive, confining, antiquated. What matters is love, however it is expressed. As long as there is agreement between consenting adults and no one gets hurt, everything is OK.
The second cultural force is that since there is no standard of truth, we all make our own truth. Personal stories are how we discover “truth” today. The individual—me—is the primary point of meaning and fulfillment. We won’t look outside of ourselves to God or some sort of external standard to find truth or meaning. We look inside, to our own feelings and experiences. I discover truth; this is “my truth.” No one has the right to say that my truth is wrong. My story, the way I experience life, validates what is true.
The combination of these two cultural forces—that there is no right or wrong other than what I say is right or wrong—is reshaping sexuality today. Sexual expression, sexual attraction, sexual desires, sexual identity, sexual rights—it’s an “anything goes” sexuality culture. This is what is called sexual freedom.
But Paul—and indeed the entire Bible—calls this kind of life, not freedom, but slavery.
Look at verses 4 and 5, where Paul says, “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.”
What is Paul saying here? He is making clear that believers must not live lives of uncontrolled sexuality the way unbelievers do. Now, Paul is making a worldview statement here. He is not saying that all unbelievers live licentious sexual lives. Rather, he is saying that the world outside of God’s influence promotes living according to one’s passions.
He is saying to the young believers in this new church community, that though this is the world you came out of, and though you may still struggle with your sexuality, don’t give in to those desires as if it doesn’t matter what you do with your bodies.
Because it does matter.
Why? Because when you give your body over to your desires, you will find out what slavery is.
Now where do we see this? It’s understanding the key word that Paul uses: “lust.” Verse 5 reads, “Not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”
Lust is an interesting word. It’s typically a word used in a sexual context, but it’s not limited to that. The Greek word that we translate lust, epithumia, simply means “over-desire” or “strong desire.” The general meaning in the NT when it is used in a sexual context is that of a “ruling desire” or an “inordinate desire.” A “controlling desire.” A desire that enslaves.
In other words, our desires, which arise from what entices us and what we ourselves want, eventually come to enslave us. And Paul is pleading: Don’t go there! Don’t give in to those over-desires. Don’t let yourself be a slave, controlled by something that brings destruction to your life. Don’t live as if God doesn’t matter to you.
We see this idea of behavior and slavery in another passage, James 1:13-15, which says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Now what is James saying here?
James is answering the question, “What causes us to sin?” His answer is that everyone is tempted from within—“by his own desire”—and that our desires, when we cultivate them and focus on them, they eventually give birth to sin.
The word that is translated as desire is the same word Paul uses, epithumia. And James is clearly using this word in a sexual context, also. In fact, James uses a sexual term that is translated as “lured and enticed.”
Now what does this all mean?
It means that we want what we desire—all behavior is based on my free will. I choose it. But at the same time, our desires rule us. The NIV translates this passage in a vivid way: “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (v. 14).
Do you see? Behavior always has this ongoing dynamic of being my free choice while, at the same time, I’m being dragged toward it or controlled by it. A modern interpretation of this was penned best by Bob Dylan: “You’ve got to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’ve got to serve somebody.”
You are free to do what you want—but you will be serving somebody. And if you are not serving God, living for him, you will be a slave to desires you will not be able to control. And if that is what is happening in your life, if you are living sexually any way you want, what you think is sexual freedom is, in God’s economy, slavery.
You will be living as if God doesn’t matter to you at all.
(Looking ahead: What effect does living in slavery to my ruling desires have on me and others?)