22 Oct 2020
Empathetic groans chorused through the group as each person confessed the week’s struggles. “It’s just too difficult,” one complains. “It seems like I get to a point in my lust where I am powerless to resist acting out.” “Yeah,” the man next to him chimes in. “I know exactly how that feels! But the Bible says Jesus does too. He had the same temptations we do!” Everyone knows he is referring to Hebrews 4:15, but a few silently wonder, “Is that what that verse means?”
It is vital that we know Jesus as a sympathetic high priest who “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” This is surely a source of great comfort and encouragement. But there is also confusion over these words. Does it mean that Jesus experienced every temptation that I experience? We must deal carefully here in order to confidently claim the encouragement this verse promises. Here are some thoughts:
1. There are senses in which Jesus’ temptation experiences differed from yours.
Difference in particulars. First, let us nuance our understanding by pointing out that there is some difference between Jesus’ experience of temptation and ours. He did not experience the exact same specific temptations that you have. It’s easy to think of particular temptations he did not experience. Jesus was not tempted to wipe his phone to hide his porn from his employer. Jesus never struggled with a compulsion to open an incognito browser on his phone to look at pornography. The point is that Jesus did not share your exact circumstances and, in that sense, did not experience the exact same temptations that you do. This is obvious. So this verse is saying something other than that. In the same way, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” He does not mean everyone has shared the exact same temptation events. Have you ever been tempted to melt your jewelry into a golden calf to worship? I didn’t think so.
No, the sympathy that this verse says Jesus has for you does not depend on his sharing your exact circumstances of temptation. You need not imagine him facing your exact temptations—in fact, you ought not do so. This is because of another major difference in his temptations…
Difference in heart inclination. Jesus did not have a sinful nature; we do. We are born with hearts inclined toward sin. And the sinful patterns of thought and feeling generated by our hearts are themselves a major source of temptation for us. Yes, the inclinations and desires of our hearts are both sin and temptation. Do you need a clear example of how something can be both sin and temptation? Consider someone breaking the tenth commandment in his heart, coveting something God has not given. That person is sinning, breaking the tenth commandment. Yet that very sin constitutes the experience of temptation to commit further sin, to steal or commit adultery. Some theologians have found it helpful to describe temptations as being either external to us or internal. The internal temptations are those that are caused by the sinful momentum of our wayward hearts. This momentum meets any temptation coming from outside of us with a willingness by which we both give in to and even pursue sin. Jesus did not have this. His heart was always rightly ordered and steadfast in love of God. He never added his own sinful desires to the temptations that came at him externally, for he had no sinful desires. Remember, he was “yet without sin.”
2. How then do we rightly understand “in every respect tempted as we are?”
In regard to the deepest dynamic. Jesus understands the dynamic of every possible temptation. This is true even though he hasn’t experienced all of the particulars. This is because all sin is an expression of deeper issues of the heart. Every sin, at its deepest level, entails turning from loving, trusting, and worshiping God. This is why Jesus can call loving God the first and greatest commandment. And every sin with reference to other people is a failure to love people as a fitting response to knowing the love of God. Every temptation we experience boils down to these two issues, and every temptation Jesus experienced was the same. He understands the deepest dynamic that characterizes your every temptation.
In regard to the suffering entailed in resisting temptation. But the main point in Jesus’ sympathetic identification with us has reference to the suffering that obedience and resistance to temptation entails. “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), and, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18), and, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Temptation is a “test” of our willingness to pay the cost of suffering for obedience. Jesus fully experienced just how painful and difficult obedience in the face of temptation can be.
In this regard, the fact that Jesus’ heart was not inclined toward sin makes his experience of the cost of obedience more complete than any of ours. When temptation comes, our inclination is to give in quickly rather than to fully accept the cost of obedience. Not so with Jesus. He was willing to follow through against sin to the fullest extent. He knows how difficult your temptation is, how much it hurts to obey. You can be sure of this because it hurt him more than it has ever hurt any of us. This is why the author can apply this to the encouragement of his readers, saying, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews 12:4). You have not yet felt the full weight, but Jesus has. Even if you are called to bleed and die in order to resist sin, he has been there and is a sympathetic high priest for you.
Jesus is exactly the savior, and the brother, you need in your fight. He does know how difficult this is—and he is able to save because he never sinned.
You can also watch the video, “How Does a Sinless Savior Help Us Sympathetically?,” which corresponds to this blog.
The book of Hebrews assures us that Jesus is our sympathetic high priest. But how can those who battle with persistent sin struggles make real spiritual use of these assurances? Learn more in this new video from Jim Weidenaar.
To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing one of our resources, such as Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God About Sex by John Freeman and How to Say No When Your Body Says Yes by Dan Wilson. When you buy these books from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
You can also read the blog, “Jesus Understands Your Temptations,” which corresponds to this video.
God created us as sexual beings, so it makes sense that our sexual desires would be a primary target for attack. Thankfully, God did not leave us helpless. He gave us his word, and he gave us Ephesians 6—a very well known passage addressing spiritual warfare. In this video, Shalee Lehning explains how we can pray the armor of God (as outlined in Ephesians 6:10-20) into our sexual struggles and temptations.
To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing one of our resources, such as Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God About Sex by John Freeman and Sexual Sanity for Women: Healing from Sexual and Relational Brokenness by Ellen Mary Dykas. When you buy these books from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
You can also read the blog, When an Unseen Enemy Assaults You, which corresponds to this video.
15 Oct 2020
We have an enemy, and he doesn’t play fair. He is a cunning schemer who lurks behind confusion and chaos, seeking to accuse and destroy. His name is Satan, and his job is to undermine God’s redemptive plan in any way he can, particularly by harassing God’s people.
Many believers fail to realize that we are in a war over competing desires that arise from two opposing kingdoms. The kingdom of the beloved Son, Jesus, has conquered the kingdom of darkness, yet the unholy trinity—the world, the flesh, and the devil—will continue to wreak havoc until all things are made new.
Satan is obviously having a heyday in the battle field of sexuality. Our adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). What better place for our enemy to attack than the fertile ground of sexual desires? Here, the fallout is widespread, and the devastation cuts deep. We know that we cannot blame our sin on the devil, and yet we have become desensitized to his influence.
Christian, don’t fear the devil, but don’t ignore his existence.
In and through Christ, God has given us the power to withstand the enemy’s schemes and personal temptations. Sexual temptation may leave us feeling handcuffed, broken, doubtful, and weary—but we have hope!
We are already clothed with Christ and have everything we need to engage this battle. On the heels of warning us to be sober-minded and watchful against Satan, 1 Peter 5:10 tells us that the God of all grace will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish us through the power of his Word and the presence of Jesus, who dwells within.
Put on Christ, who is all the armor you need for spiritual warfare.
Ephesians 6:10–18 provides helpful wisdom for us. As he’s done throughout chapters 1–5, Paul exhorts the Ephesians to know who they are in Christ and how that should make a difference in the way they live. He says to put on the whole armor of God, our precious resource as we abide in Jesus. Does your pornography addiction feel like the drug you can’t go a day without? Put on the armor of God. Are you exhausted from fighting your attraction to the same sex? Put on the armor of God. Is your mind flooded with sexual images you wish you never saw, but, even if you try, you can’t stop thinking about them? Put on the armor of God. Is someone who isn’t your spouse leading you to fantasize about another, easier life? Once again, put on the armor of God.
Let’s look at the pieces of armor that Ephesians 6:13–17 lists.
Put on the belt of truth (verse 14). God’s Word is our truth, and with it, we stand prepared and ready.
How? We are forgetful people, so we need to daily feast on God’s Word through reading and meditating on his truths. It isn’t enough to just read the Bible; we must knead God’s truths into our hearts.
Put on the breastplate of righteousness (verse 14). When we feel unworthy or incapable of righteous emotions and passions, Christ’s righteousness defends us, guarding our beliefs and hearts from pursuing fleeting feelings.
How? We keep our hearts with all vigilance and safeguard what we allow “in.” Pay attention to everyday things that illicit jealousy, resentment, frustration, discontentment, or arousal. As you become aware of what triggers you—music, movies, social media, specific people—make changes to limit the access that those things have to your heart.
Put on the shoes of peace (verse 15). We must stand firm through the assurance that we are firmly rooted in our relationship with Christ. Our feet are the foundation for the good news of the gospel, which brings salvation from sin.
How? Preach the gospel to yourself daily. Isaiah 26:3 says, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you.” As we think about the personal implications of Christ’s death and resurrection, we become anchored in those realities, rather than the lies that steal our peace.
Put on the shield of faith (verse 16). When under attack by temptations, we put up our shields of belief in God’s Word and the truths we have heard.
How? We ask for God’s help to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). We look upward to God and outward to others instead of inward to self. Then we choose obedience even when we don’t feel like it.
Put on the helmet of salvation (verse 17). The helmet protects our minds and thoughts in the heat of battle. We do this by thinking about what is true, our eternal hope, and our destiny.
How? Literally redirect your thoughts to what is true, noble, pure, lovely, and admirable (Philippians 4:8). Repeat truth to yourself: I am loved. I am saved. I am not my sin. Through Christ, my victory has already been won (1 Corinthians 15:57). This affliction is preparing for me an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Put on the sword of the Spirit (verse 17). The Word of God is our sword. It effectively cuts down distorted messages from the kingdom of darkness. Jesus used Scripture to resist the tempter, and so must we.
How? Our weapon is reciting God’s truth and speaking it into our situation: I am a child of God, and my sexual sin doesn’t define me (1 John 3:1). God is with me; he is mighty to save, and he will quiet me by his love (Zephaniah 3:17). This requires us to know his Word enough to deploy it.
Lastly, Paul elaborates in Ephesians 6:18 on the importance of prayer. Just as soldiers would be unsuccessful in battle if lines of communication were broken, communication with our loving Father is our lifeline amid spiritual battle. Take heart, resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7).
You can also watch the video, “Pray the Armor of God Into Your Sexual Temptations,” which corresponds to this blog.
18 Jun 2020
Pain is deafening. Whether physical or emotional, pain not only has the ability to hurt deeply but also to smother our faith and hope in Christ. Pain of betrayal. Rejection. Broken relationships. Loss. Loneliness. Uncertainty. Ongoing sexual struggles. Deferred hopes. Or simply the consequences of living in a broken world with our sinful choices. The sad reality is that, regardless of what triggers our pain, the aftermath can be just as disorienting.
Many Christians have been taught that prayer is a wise response to painful life circumstances. However, one of the things I hear the most from women amidst their suffering and heartache is that they struggle to know what to pray. In the throes of emotional turmoil, many people find that words evade them, or they don’t think they are allowed to say what they truly feel to a holy God. Sexual strugglers can mistakenly believe that their temptations and sins cannot be voiced at the throne of grace. Shame keeps them silent and stuck in an internal dialogue of unbelief: “Can God really handle my truth?!”
God is holy and deserves our reverence, but he also desires to be in relationship with us. For relationship to thrive, there must be communication. But what do you do when the pain of life cuts so deep that you can’t think, let alone find the vocabulary to pray?
Well, you can pray God’s Word. Let his Word come up with what to say for you. Scripture shows us examples of God’s people crying out gut-raw, honest prayers in the midst of their pain and suffering. The Psalms are a great example of this appropriate honesty. When life hurts most, we have a guide!
Here are some ways you can pray when pain is disorienting.
When you feel weak and weary, pray…
“Lord, I am so tired; I don’t feel like I can do this. Your Word says you give power to the weak, and you increase their strength when they have none. Please give me strength to get through this day” (Isaiah 40:29).
When you feel ashamed, pray…
“Father, I am so ashamed; I just keep failing. Please remove my shame because, in Christ, I am your beloved one. Thank you that as I look to you, my face is never covered with shame, regardless of what my emotions tell me” (Psalm 34:5).
When you feel alone and afraid, pray…
“Father, I feel all alone. I’m so scared that this pain is never going to go away. Your Word says not to fear because you are with me, but it is so hard to believe that you are near. Please help me believe. Strengthen me, help me, and uphold me with your righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
When you feel grief, pray…
“Father, my hopes and dreams are caving in. As Proverbs 13:12 says, a deferred hope makes the heart sick, and that’s all I feel right now. Thank you that a day is coming when you will wipe away every tear from my eyes; when there will be no more death, sorrow, or crying; when there will be no more pain as the former things pass away” (Revelation 21:4).
When you doubt God, pray…
“Lord, I just don’t understand! The pain of this ongoing struggle is making me question so many things. Please help me trust in you and not lean on my own understanding. I acknowledge you as God. Help me believe that you will make straight my path” (Proverbs 3:5–6).
When you feel tempted, pray…
“Father, help! I don’t feel like I can say no to this. I know this temptation that is trying to overtake me is common to mankind, and your Word says you are faithful—you will not let me be tempted beyond what I can bear. This feels like too much to bear, so help me see the way out that you provide for me to endure this” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
When you need hope, pray…
“Lord, I feel hopeless. But thank you that I have more to hope in than my present circumstances. Thank you that, according to your great mercy, you have caused me to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for me. By your power, I am guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last days” (1 Peter 1:3–5).
Are you struggling to know what to pray? Be honest with God about how you feel. When we are crushed in spirit, God doesn’t expect us to package all of our emotions into neat, little gift boxes. He doesn’t say, “Child, don’t speak until you have something eloquent to say.”
Instead, he meets us in our honesty with mercy and compassion. He speaks tenderly to us with peace, love, and forgiveness (Hosea 2:14). He does what only he can do by taking the pain meant to destroy us and using it to make us more like Jesus, the person who is most able to sympathize with our weakness (Hebrews 4:15).
The next time that life hurts so bad you can’t think of words to pray, or when circumstances make despair seem like the only feasible option, let God’s Word be your guide. Our loving Father already knows exactly what you’re feeling, so accept his invitation to tell him about it.
You can also watch the video, “Praying with Someone in Pain,” which corresponds to this blog.
19 Mar 2020
Friends, we’ve prayed for you as a staff. We recognize that along with so many unexpected upheavals to schedules, responsibilities, and life dynamics, the unknown future may tempt you to find a particular solution for your anxieties. You won’t find it mentioned in the mainstream media. It’s the temptation to run toward our idols.
Fear, uncertainty, and unwanted change trigger most of us to crave and seek out immediate comfort and relief. Our hearts can go into an inward spin cycle that sends us toward familiar but false saviors that may give temporary relief, yet they will only bruise our souls and enslave our desires. When forced into circumstances in which we feel out of control (and we are!), grabbing for some form of autonomous power seems life-giving. But it isn’t.
RESIST! Remember that Jesus is still the same loving, holy, delivering Lord who is your refuge in the midst of COVID-19-prompted temptations. You may be working from home now without online filters, or hindered in reaching out to your accountability partners, or tempted to reach back out to people who are dangerous to you… to your soul, friendships, marriage, thought-life, and more.
Remember, dear sisters and brothers…
Jesus is still your Rock and Refuge to whom you can cry out today, right now. “Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the ends of the earth; I cry out to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to yourself, Lord, for you alone are the rock that is higher than I, for you have been and are my refuge, a strong tower against my enemies.” (Psalm 61:1–2)
Jesus is still your way of escape when temptations are either fierce or soft and seductive. “Lord God, you are faithful…you won’t allow any temptation to come near to me (even when a pandemic is happening) that isn’t common and for which you won’t be my escape! Help me to cry out to you and trusted others, Lord, and to persevere through these cravings to seek comfort in sinful ways!” (1 Corinthians 10:13–14)
Jesus is still your constant companion in the midst of quarantines and isolation. “Lord, this house, my apartment, my room feels extra lonely; help me, Lord, to believe and know that you are God and that you are with me. God, use this forced retreat from being with people to create an intimate sanctuary for you and me. Help me to abide in you, Lord, to go to your Word and to be nourished with the Bread of Life!” (John 14:23–15:11)
Jesus is still your merciful, compassionate God when fear overwhelms or sin has been pursued. “Jesus, I’m afraid, really scared with what is happening. Help me hear you saying, ‘Take heart dear one, it is I! I’ve not forsaken you. Come to me and find rest for your soul.’ Yes, Lord, help me rest in your compassion. I did pursue sin, Lord; you saw me when I turned from you to sin, back to porn, back to him/her, back to food or alcohol or ______. I name it, Lord, and ask for your strength to stand up, engage the battle again, and walk as your loved son, your loved daughter. Thank you for receiving me with love and grace.” (Mark 6:45–51; Matthew 11:28–30; 1 John 1:5–10; Colossians 3:1–17; Hebrews 4:16–18)
Jesus is with you, friend, and he loves you. He is for you and will not abandon you. Ever.
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.
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?