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The Sin of Self-Gratification: Putting off the “Old Man” (Part III)

It’s time to die.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is…Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away  (Col. 3:1, 5-8)

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There is no getting around this.  In the same way an alcoholic wanting freedom must radically reorganize his or her life, the person struggling with sexual sin must do the same.   Jesus said that if there is something in our lives that causes us to sin, to take a scalpel to it (Matt. 18:9).   Be ruthless, Jesus says, in your pursuit of purity.    Half-measures will get you nothing.

The old nature will not go without a fight.  For a time it will seem like the most unnatural thing in the world to deny yourself the thing you crave.   The enemy will whisper all sorts of lies to you, seeking to convince you that you don’t have what it takes to win this battle, that just “one more time” won’t hurt, that tomorrow is a new day to start over, or even talk you out of your conviction that this is sin.   If you are like me, these trials will seem impossible to bear, particularly if you are not used to saying no to Self.   This is a battle for your heart, and it feels so hard and strange because the Holy Spirit is calling you out of death.  Before, when you were dead in the old man, your conscious was seared.  Pleasing Self came as naturally as breathing and we had many fellow breathers, breathing the same air, telling us all is well.

Remember, Scripture promises that trial will come and we should consider them joys!

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4)

You are being fashioned and formed into the image of Christ.   God does this for His children (Heb. 12:6).  Reckon yourself dead to sin and alive to Christ, and choose to crucify the flesh.  I promise to you the struggle you feel is the dying gasps of a dead man, kicking and screaming for a right to speak.  You will either give it another breath, allowing it to grow stronger, or you will bury it for good.   It will not always be as hard as it is today.    It won’t be long before you find yourself overwhelmed by the realization that it’s been months since you last even felt the urge or desire to gratify yourself and you’ll be washed anew by a sense of God’s power and presence in your life, and the newness of it all.    There’s nothing like it, friend.   It’s freedom unlike you’ve never known before.

Do you want that?   Then you will have to take some drastic steps.

1.  Starve the Pathos

For some, a complete detox is necessary.   Sex, unlike alcohol or other drugs, is everywhere.   An alcoholic can keep drink out of the house and avoid going into bars but the man or woman controlled by lust is in danger the moment they open their eyes (and there is little reprieve in their sleep, either).    Therefore, removing oneself from all the triggers is sometimes an absolute must.   And it is worth every sacrifice.   I went away to a place called Pure Life Ministries and their Live-In program for 7 months and it saved my life, after years of trying everything else.   If this is the sort of plan God is nudging you towards, don’t ignore it.   Don’t write it off as impossible.   I’d be happy to talk privately with anyone who wants more information about this route.   If we made it with 5 kids and no money, you will too if God is calling you to this. (Pure Life also has an Over-Comers at Home program, one geared for both husbands and their wives).

In any event, it is absolutely imperative that you cut off the source of that which is causing you to stumble.    Jesus said to gouge out the eye if it causes you to sin.  Get real with yourself, the world you live in, and the things that trip you up and do something about it.

2. Kill The T.V

You just gotta.    If you are struggling with lustful thoughts and images which lead you to self-gratify now and again, kill your TV for at least 3 months.    We’ve been without one for 2 years and don’t miss it (a miracle in itself seeing as how we watched a lot of it).  We have one TV in our house in our kid’s room that they use for cartoons and games, and we have a family movie night once a week.   But that’s it.   You will be surprised by how much life you’ve been missing by just this one thing!

Watching TV in and of itself is not sin, but if you are in bondage to any sort of lust than continuing to subject yourself to the “spirit of this world” found in TV shows and advertisements is to play with fire.    Scripture says not to give the devil a foothold (Eph. 4:27).   Purity won’t come by simply desiring to be pure without making any life-changes.   I realize that for most Americans this is like asking them to give up their first-born child.   You may be thinking this is impossible because your wife and/or kids will mutiny.   And they might, at first.   But you will be surprised what God will do with a family when you determine that you are going to get your life right before God and lead the way God has prescribed.    Trust God to make a way for you and your family and count on the blessings that will follow with real quality time together, not to mention the absence of continual temptation being pumped into your home, lulling you to sleep.

3. Manage Your Music

What sort of music do you listen to?  If it is not music glorifying God then chances are good it glorifies the flesh.  The person caught up in self-gratification doesn’t need to fill their senses with others who are also self and/or lust absorbed, whether it be music or anything else.   Ask yourself this:  Does my music (and TV and reading consumption) pass the Phil 4:8 test?

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

If Jesus were having coffee with you right now and wanted to listen to some music, what would you play?   Would Jesus be blessed by your playlist?

2 years ago I would have scoffed at such advice.   You sound like a fundamentalist! I would have sneered.   My mockery was a veiled attempt to hide my own powerlessness and bondage, as well as my own refusal to die to myself.   Forget about labels and what following this advice might sound like to others.  Your best thinking has gotten you to where you currently are.   Remember, God doesn’t want to make you better, He wants to make you new.  Freedom does not come without a price.  What is it worth to you?

4.  Interrupt the Internet

The internet has opened up a world of fantasy for the person who struggles with sexual sin.  I don’t think I need to tell you how easy it is to access things that are not going to be good for your sanctification.   If you must be on the internet for work or school then it’s essential to install a filter and/or accountability software on your computer(s) which lets someone you select to get weekly (even immediate) updates of sites you visit (see XXXChurch for some free resources.  Covenant Eyes is another good one which I’ve used in the past).

While it’s easy to point out the dangers of pornography that the internet makes readily available, there is another, and in some ways even more sinister predator lurking:

Social Media.

The sin of self-gratification is a symptom of pride.   Lust of any kind has at it’s root the sin of PRIDE, which sets the Self at center stage and insists on having what it wants, when it wants it, how it wants it.   Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc., are prime vehicles for stroking our egos and fanning the flame of pride in all of us, which doesn’t need much of a breeze to spread into a raging fire.   While these things can all be used for good, for the person ensnared in self-gratification it can be a severe stumbling block.   If you are someone who loves to debate, loves to have your opinion be heard (and thinks the world will somehow implode without it), loves to check to see how many “likes” or “retweets” your blog or idea generates, then friend, you have a battle with pride to fight.

Interrupt this madness. Unplug.   I did it for over a year and it made a world of difference.   While I use it sparingly today, I still take time to unplug completely (during Lent, for instance) to ensure my pride is kept in check.

5.  Guard Your Go’s

There are some places a person who struggles with lust doesn’t need to go.   Some places have far more visual stimuli than others and you need to take account of the sort of places you go that trigger your flesh.  Malls are one example.  Pools and beaches are another.   My family has gathered at the beach every summer for vacation since I was a young boy.   This past summer, after I had graduated from Pure Life, Amy and I opted not to join the family for vacation.  It was a wise choice for us.  And I’m convinced it spared me from losing whatever gains I had made in my spiritual growth over the previous 7 months.   My purity and my faithfulness to both God and my family are worth far more to me than a week at a beach.

This list is far from exhaustive and perhaps you have some others you’d like to add.   Please share!    But cutting corners on the above by justifying why this or that is actually OK in your life will prevent you from achieving the freedom you seek and need.   Be decisive.   Be the surgeon on sin Jesus commands.

It’s time to die.  But Jesus does amazing things through death!

In the last and final post on this series we will examine the other crucial component:  Putting on Christ  If you just take off the above you will be left naked and vulnerable.   Stay tuned for the fun, life-giving stuff.

Praying with and for you,
Chad

The Sin of Self-Gratification: Taking on the “M” Word (Part II)

Introduction: In the second part of this series I intended to outline some practical ways you can break free from the sin of self-gratification, particularly if this is a habitual problem for you.  However, as I got to writing I felt God leading me back to the issue of the heart, for that is where it all begins and ends.   Before we can even think about the “hows” of freedom we must reckon with the Why and the Way.   Both are the same:  Jesus.    Thus, the “hows” will come in part III and IV.    What follows here will sound harsh and heavy to some and salve and grace to others.   I know that when I was in the depths of my sin, which I called an addiction, I took offense to those who shot straight with me.   Looking back, I can see it was God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit drawing me.   My pride blinded me to it all, however, until I lost it all.    I don’t want you to have to lose everything before you wake up to real dangers of the fire you are playing with and the distance it has and will put between you and God.   I pray that God would use my offering here to draw us all closer to Himself.

In the first part (read HERE) I attempted to explain that this is first and foremost a matter of the heart.   If you are stuck in a cycle of self-gratification (masturbation) you won’t have real freedom until you lay down all your excuses and rationalizations for doing it and reckon it for what it is:  sin.   You must come to a similar place as King David in Psalm 51 who cried out,

Against you [God], you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment (51:4)

Without first repenting, the road towards holiness, which is God’s will for your life (1 Thess. 4:3), cannot begin.    Let me say a word here about what repentance is NOT.

Repentance is not being sorry that your life is a mess because of your mistakes.   For many years I cried out to God to help me stop doing the things I was doing but my motives were selfish.    I was sorry that I got caught or sorry over how all this made me look to others or sorry that others were upset and disappointed in me.   I was fearful that I might lose my family, my job, that someone “important” might find out, and even sorry that my work in ministry, which I took great pride in, might be hampered by my sinful choices made in secret.

I have found that many Christians, particularly those in some form of ministry (self included), want freedom from their addiction to pornography or self-gratification because they sense that it is preventing them from being all that they could be in their vocation.   This is not repentance but spiritual pride.     A great example of this is found in Acts 8 with the story of Simon the Magician.   Simon became a Christian and desired to be great in the work of the church.   When he saw the power the apostles had to impart the Holy Spirit he craved it for himself.  He wanted to be used mightily by God!   Who doesn’t, right?   But Peter’s admonition is sobering to all of us who desire to be great in our ministries:

You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you (Acts 8:21-22).

Friends, if you desire freedom from your addictions or hang-ups so that you can be a better pastor, youth leader, worship leader, Sunday school teacher, husband, wife, parent, friend – whatever – then your heart is not right before God, nor are your intentions.   Freedom comes only when we see ourselves in the pure light of God’s holiness and desire nothing more or less than to be in fellowship with him.   When we realize that without holiness we will not see the Lord (Heb. 12:14) we are on the path of godly sorrow which leads to life rather than our selfish worldly sorrow which brings only death ( 2 Cor. 7:10).

When I realized this about myself it changed the way I pray.  No longer do I pray as I once did, asking God to increase my ministry or make me useful or even great in His kingdom.   Instead, my constant heart’s cry is that I might know Him more fully, intimately and truly.   And not only that I would know Him, but that He would know me.    That I would be counted among his friends.   Jesus said his friends are those who obey him (John 15:14).   I want to be Jesus’ friend!   Do you?

God’s word declares that those who are “in Christ” have had their flesh crucified with Jesus and are raised again to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).   Paul goes on to say in that same chapter that those who have been united with Jesus in his death have been set free from sin.   Therefore, “let not sin reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (Rom. 6:6,12).   He concludes,

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (6:13-14)

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Sin will have no dominion over you!   This is GOOD NEWS!    Jesus didn’t die on the cross for you and I just to make us better, more well-adjusted people in the midst of a fallen world.   He died to destroy the works of the devil and to make you and I into NEW creations!  (2 Cor. 5:17).    The extent to which we are not walking in this newness of life and freedom from sin is not because God’s word has failed but because we refuse to die.   Our pride tells us we are just fine with God and God is just fine with us.  We sing “I Am a Friend of God,” convincing ourselves that if we sing it enough it must be true while lacking the self-control and the obedience that comes from being crucified with Christ and alive in His Spirit.

The reason I am spending so much time on this, even at the risk of coming across as harsh, is because I would still be dead in my sin if it weren’t for people speaking hard truth into my life.   I assume most of my audience here are church-going people who have convinced themselves over time that their life with God is an 8 on a scale of 1-10 but would be a 10 if they could just rid themselves of this “one little problem.”     I know this because I said the  same thing for over 20 years!   It wasn’t until God’s word pierced my heart and showed me that my so-called “righteousness” was nothing but filthy rags so long as I justified my lust as an addiction I was saddled with as opposed to sin which Christ died for.

But upon seeing it for what it truly is – sin – the remedy became a reality in my life.   Not overnight.   There is a phasing out period that many will experience.   But the bondage will be gone.  No longer will you feel as though you cannot say no when temptation strikes but you will find that you have a real choice in the matter: to obey or not.   It is the Spirit of God at work within you, causing you to will and to do His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).   As we learn how to put off the “old man” and put on the “new” we will find that there is great joy in obedience and great freedom in holiness.

I hope you’ll join me for the next post as we examine practical ways we can put off the old and put on the new.

When God Doesn’t Listen

I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I cried out to God to change me.  To take away the desire to look at pornography, to lust, to cheat, to lie.     The number of bruised palms from slamming the steering wheel after driving away from yet another indulgence I vowed just the day before I wouldn’t do.

The tortured yearnings of an addict.

We cry to God.   No one seems to be home.

There is a reason for this.    And the reason is not because I wasn’t working the steps hard enough or making my daily phone calls to my sponsor.   It’s not because my counselor just doesn’t understand addiction.   It’s not because I suffer from some childhood father or mother wound.    It’s not because I don’t know how to pray.

No.   The reason God seemed distant despite my emotional pleas for help is a simple yet hard truth:

I loved myself, and my sin, more than God.  

There is a passage in Psalm 66 which cuts through all the excuses and charades we as addicts are encouraged to play in our culture today.    It reads,

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened (Psalm 66:18)

God knows the heart.  He sees our innermost thoughts and motives.   God sees what and who we love and knows when our cries for deliverance stem from a selfish desire – such as restoration of a marriage or career or reputation – rather than a desire to serve and honor a holy, jealous God who demands our sole allegiance.

And so it is that God will turn a deaf ear towards us in our darkest hours until our worldly sorrow is replaced with godly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10).     Worldly sorrow, the sort of sorrow that regrets the consequences of our addiction, leads us deeper and deeper into the pit.    Godly sorrow, the sort of sorrow that reckons our addiction as sin and despises it for how it offends God, leads to true repentance, and therefore, life.

Be honest with God.   Confess the love affair you have with your sin and ask God to help you see your sin the way God sees it.     This is a prayer God is sure to hear and desires to answer.

Psalm 66 is not without hope.    Hear this great promise found within it, and may it be your testimony as well:

For you, O God, have tested us;
You have tried us as silver is tried.

You brought us into the net;

You laid a crushing burden on our backs;

You let men ride over our heads;
We went through fire and through water;

Yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.

God Wants to Make You New, Not Better

My pastor’s sermon yesterday at Riverstone UMC touched on the power of the Holy Spirit to change our lives.  One of the Scriptures he read was Acts 1:5-8, which is Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit.   Jesus said,

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you

More and more professing Christians today seem to lack power.  I know this was true in my own life for many years and as I look around at the rates of addiction, divorce, depression, suicide, relational woes, church splits, gossip, fears, anxiety and so on within the church world I am left to conclude one of two things:

1)  Jesus overstated his case, or,

2)  The Holy Spirit hasn’t come upon many of us.

I have no reason to call Jesus a liar but I think I have every reason, based on what I see in my own heart, to believe many of us approach the things of God with an attitude that says,

I’ve got all I need, thanks.

And in so doing we grieve the Holy Spirit.

The greatest news on earth is that even while we are here we can be made into new creations through Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  This is tremendous news for the addict who thinks he or she must forever identify themselves with their addiction or be chasing after the idol called recovery.     God doesn’t just want to make you better.  He desires to make you new.

And He has the power to do so.

It’s my testimony that God meets us in our deepest need and becomes that need fulfilled.    Christ truly is our “all in all.”    It’s also my testimony that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).   We must come to God as empty vessels, with nothing in our hands but our brokenness and a willingness to surrender all that was and is about us.

God can’t fill us if we already think we are full.

So how do we walk in the power Jesus promised us as Christians?

What I am about to say would have greatly offended the “me” of a year ago but I have come to see it as truth and power.

First, we must humble ourselves before a holy God and reckon our addiction not as a “hang-up” or a “struggle” or a “thorn in our flesh” but as sin which offends God and makes a mockery of grace.    Jesus did not hang on a cross for us to be saddled with an addiction for the rest of our lives but he came to “destroy the works of the devil.”   No one born of God makes a practice of sinning (1 John 3:8-9).

The beautiful thing about naming it for what it is – sin – is that sin, unlike “addiction,” has a cure.   The same power that rose Christ from the dead will make a home in the  one who truly repents and agrees with God that the reason we continue to stumble is because we love our sin more than we love God.

When I was in the pig sty of my addiction I was still convinced that God and I were OK.   Nothing could be further from the truth!  In the same way that God had departed from King Saul in his sin (1 Sam. 16:14; 18:12), God departs from the one who continues to walk in the flesh.

The second thing we must do is stay needy.    We must learn to stay at the foot of the cross, which we now see as our only hope.    As we fix our gaze upon Jesus we will find it natural and necessary to let go of the things of this world which used to fill our lives as well as find the energy and will to invest ourselves in the lives of others, extending the same mercy to others that we have been so graciously shown on the cross.

This is the beginning of walking in the Spirit, which is power and life, versus walking in our flesh, which is death.   I know that in my own life, the extent to which I denied these truths is the same extent to which I lived a defeated Christian existence.    I had no power.   I had no self-control.    I had no will to please God or serve others.

But all that has changed, praise be to God, and I know the same can be true for you, too.

God doesn’t desire to make you better.  He wants to make you new!

The Lie about Lying

Addicts are masters at lying.   They are better at it than people who are not addicts not because non-addicts don’t lie (they do) but because addicts get more opportunities to practice their craft.   And as the old adage goes, practice makes perfect.

 
Why do we lie?   Yesterday I read a post hosted by our friends at Castimonia, a Christian site dedicated to helping men find sexual purity, which sought to answer that question.    It’s written by a PhD, A. Michael Johnson, and he argues that addicts lie because they learned as children, like all of us, that lying protects us.   We crave love and compassion and acceptance and we learn early on that lying can meet these felt-needs.

This signal to lie to protect ourselves becomes automatic over time and is signaled by fear and bolstered by a “fabrication system” which helps us recall lies that worked while also inventing new ones.   The good news, Johnson argues, is that with some “effort and help” we can learn to detect the signal of fear and choose a more healthy alternative as well as overwrite the “fabrication system” with more mature, truthful responses.

He concludes by writing,

Understanding how you came to be a liar is important because it helps to strengthen your compassion for yourself. You did not learn to lie because you were a bad person. You learned to lie because you were a frightened child protecting himself. That understanding is not a justification for continuing to lie. The understanding helps to remove obstacles to living in the truth. And living in the truth is a central thread in the fabric of recovery.

With all due respect to the folks at Castimonia, I believe this article is a beautiful lie.    The only thing I agree with is the last sentence -that living in the truth is central to recovery – but this article obscures the truth and prevents anyone who is truly seeking freedom from finding it.

Back when I was seeking “recovery” as opposed to “freedom” (there is a difference) I longed to find some point in my past which would help explain me to myself and the world.    I wanted so desperately to find some sort of traumatic event, abuse, organic deficiency – anything! – that would explain why I was such a mess.    Surely I can’t be this bad of a person, can I?  Surely there is some reason behind it all, right?

This quest to pacify ourselves  is the project of modern, secular psychology and 12 step programs.   It’s captured beautifully in Johnson’s concluding remarks where he writes, “Understanding how you came to be a liar is important because it helps to strengthen your compassion for yourself.”

This is the beautiful lie:  First, that the goal is to understand ourselves, and second, that the reason we want to better understand ourselves is so we can be more compassionate to ourselves.

The person who follows this logic is no better than a dog chasing his own tail.   The addict is an addict because he is fixated on himself – he is selfish to the core – and deliverance will not come by understanding himself better or being more compassionate to himself.   When I was in the pit of my sexual addiction and doing exactly what I wanted when I wanted I assure you I was being very compassionate to myself!

So why do people lie?   Here is truth:

Your tongue plots destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit.   You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking what is right  (Psalm 52:2-3).

Jesus said that  out of the abundance of what is in the heart, the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45) and his brother, James, says the tongue is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison,” and contrary to Johnson’s optimism that a bit of “effort and help” can make a person more truthful, Scripture says no human being can tame the tongue (James 3:8).

The goal of understanding ourselves is to bring us to the end of ourselves.   Victory for me did not come by finding something to blame in my childhood but by recognizing that I was a sinner and that I loved lying more than I loved telling the truth.  I loved my sin and the comforts it afforded me more than I loved God and others.   Rather than being gentler and more compassionate on myself I needed to see my lying for what it really was:  a sin that offended a holy God.   I had to cry with David, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4).

And in that terrifying moment I discovered an amazing truth.  I discovered amazing grace!   I discovered that whatever compassion I was seeking to show myself pales in comparison to the compassion God in Christ showed me on the cross.   The cross both indicted and liberated me, causing me to see the truth about myself and the evil of which I’m capable while simultaneously revealing an indescribable love so infinitely attractive I was willing to surrender everything and live no longer for myself (and my own protection) but for Jesus who became my all in all.

If you find yourself addicted to lying please know you don’t have to dig up the past to better understand why you do what you do.   God has already told you.  And God has already graciously provided a way out.  Freedom will come not when you learn to be more compassionate to yourself but when you learn to die to yourself.

And what God raises to new life in the process is sweeter than any comforts our lies seek to protect.