26 Aug 2021
It’s happened to me more times than I can count. I’m sitting with a man who has given in to sexual sin for the majority of his life. He’s tried many things to stop, but he keeps failing to say “no” to temptation. He’s fighting to believe that victory is possible, but he feels weary and scared. Teetering on the edge of hope and despair, he asks me a simple question: “Does the battle ever get any easier?”
While simple questions rarely have simple answers, David Powlison was fond of saying, “[There is a] simplicity on the far side of every complexity.”¹ So the simple answer to this question is, “Yes, the battle does get easier.” However, in order to understand what that really looks like, we need to wade through the complex depths of the human experience.
The battle has a context
In humility, we always need to treat each person as a unique individual, and that requires great attention to the details of their lives. I always want err on being slow to speak and quick to listen. I want to assume that I don’t know what this person needs unless I first get to know them. I want a holy curiosity about his or her life. I don’t just want to know about his sexual sin. I want to know about his family, his childhood, his hopes, his disappointments, his suffering, and his understanding of the world, God, and himself.
As I get to know someone more intimately, I begin to understand in greater ways the functionality of sexual sin in his life. I see more and more the specific false promises that sin has tailor-made to fit someone’s particular desires and weaknesses. Consider the complex algorithms employed by modern social media giants. How is it that Facebook knows exactly what advertisement will hook you? It’s because Facebook has studied you. Facebook knows your heart based on what you click on and how long you stay. Sin operates in the same way. The battle is so difficult partly because you have an enemy who knows exactly where you are weak. Sin preys on its knowledge of your life, your sufferings, your heart, and your desires, and it exploits them.
Growth in the battle against sexual sin requires an increasing self-awareness of your own life experiences and how they have shaped you. Your enemy knows your weaknesses. Do you?
The battle has a past
If we’re honest, we often live our lives thinking only about the present, and sin capitalizes on this short-sightedness. If I only think of life in 24-hour chunks, then what’s the big deal about eating one or two donuts? No problem, right? But what if I eat two donuts every day for a whole week? That’s 14 donuts. What if I eat that same amount for an entire month? Now you’re looking at close to 60 donuts! It’s not hard to see that this kind of lifestyle will lead to major health problems down the road. The problem is that you can’t simply stop eating donuts one day and then pretend like you didn’t eat donuts every day for the past 10 years. The effects of those 10 years will linger and perhaps have lasting, lifelong consequences.
We reap what we sow. In Galatians 6, Paul doesn’t sugarcoat the impact of years of sowing into fleshly desires. He writes, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption” (Galatians 6:7–8). Sin has a corrupting impact on our hearts and minds. Every time you give in to sexual temptation, you are sowing seeds of corruption. Think of it like an investment. Sexual sin isn’t just an isolated event. Giving into temptation today makes it harder to resist tomorrow. And science has now definitively shown how habitual pornography use in particular actually rewires your brain to make you that much more prone to return again and again to your sin.
Someone who has sown into sexual sin for decades has a difficult battle ahead of him because he has invested into corruption. Even if in the present he does all the right things to avoid temptation, he will still be reaping the consequences of sowing into a corrupt mind for so long. This is why it’s so difficult to not automatically lust after others. This is why people feel like they lose all self-control when triggered by specific circumstances that lead them right back to their well-worn paths of sin.
That’s the bad news. Most people wait far too long to stop investing into sin and corruption. Just like you can’t erase years of unhealthy eating, you can’t erase years of sinful seed sowing either.
The battle has a future
But the good news of the gospel is far better than being given a do-over. Jesus is greater than our sin, he’s greater than our pasts, and he’s promised us a future that is bright with biblical hope.
First, we must acknowledge that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is more powerful than decades of sinful sowing to the flesh. Jesus, by the Spirit, raises the dead to life. There is no one who is too far gone from the free offer of the gospel. Our hope is not simply in being cleaned up; our hope is that we have been made new creations who are definitively alive to God in Christ.
But while the new birth does a definitive, eternity-shifting work in our lives, the working out of our sanctification is a much slower and more painful process—and here is where we return to the idea of investing.
The principle of sowing and reaping works both ways. Not only does sowing to the flesh reap corruption, but Paul also goes onto say, “…but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us no grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:8–9).
When you turn from sin to Jesus, you are not only repenting today, but you are also investing into repentance for tomorrow, and next week, and a year from now. Saying “no” to sin today makes it easier to say “no” to sin tomorrow.
But, as Paul warns, we can grow weary of saying “no.” We can feel like giving up at times because we aren’t reaping as much as we expected in the short-term. This is why the battle must be fought through faith in the promises of God that are all “yes” and “amen” in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20).
If you have just started investing in your retirement fund, you know how futile it feels to make such a slow crawl towards your retirement goals. You faithfully sow paycheck after paycheck into this fund, expecting to see a great return on your investment. In those beginning years, checking your balance might tempt you to cut back on your monthly payments or stop all together and instead save up for a nice vacation next summer. You look at other people who have been investing faithfully for 10 years longer than you have, and you think it’s impossible to ever get to their level—but that is short-sighted thinking. Just as you are called to trust in the promises of your financial advisor (promises that have less-than-perfect guarantees), so we are called all the more to trust in the promises of our heavenly Father!
So when someone asks me, “Does the battle ever get any easier?,” my response is, “Are you ready to invest for the long haul?” While I can’t go into everything that investing entails, I want to highlight a few simple, God-ordained means by which we can sow to the Spirit.
Negatively speaking, we sow to the Spirit by removing all hindrances and sin that weaken our endurance in the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1). The battle won’t get easier if we continue to keep temptation close at hand. No one struggling with alcohol hangs out at the bars, and yet we often do very little to truly cut off access to sexual temptation, especially through technology.
We also sow to the Spirit by acknowledging our weaknesses and making wise arrangements that will helps us in those areas. A weakness may be a time, a place, a circumstance, or an experience. You need to know where you’re weak and plan accordingly. So often we lose the battle because we fail to plan, and we don’t take our failures as opportunities to learn.
Positively, we sow to the Spirit through the ordinary means of grace, including, but not limited to, prayer, the reading of Scripture, hearing the Word preached, and genuine fellowship with believers. It is rare to meet a man ensnared in sexual sin who also has vibrant fellowship with God through daily prayer and Bible reading.
You may have never thought about it this way, but I’m convinced that fighting sexual sin is a “good work.” In fact, I would go so far as to say it is Kingdom work. And when no one else in the world sees or cares about your resistance to temptation, God sees you, along with innumerable angels who fall down in worship before him who is worthy of your obedience, even when it requires great pain and endurance.
If you will faithfully sow into this Kingdom work, not giving Satan a foothold, you will find that the battle gets easier. As my former colleague David White liked to say, “Faithfully sowing to the Spirit makes temptation go from being a lion that will devour you every time to becoming a mosquito in your life. Mosquitos can be annoying and pesky, but they don’t devour you. But if you continue to sow to the flesh, you are feeding the lion.”
Where will you invest your heart and time today? What you do in the present is an investment into your future.
¹David Powlison, “Answers for the Human Condition: Why I Chose Seminary for Training in Counseling,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Fall 2001: 49.