We are all self-indulgers. The whole lot of us. Let’s just admit it upfront and help each other fight.
Biblical self-indulgence is feeding “the passions of the flesh” (1 Peter 2:11). It’s indulging ourselves in any pleasure that is harmful to our souls, that does not spring from faith (Romans 14:23).
Recognize the Danger
Self-indulgence is spiritually dangerous to us because it’s a form of idolatry. It’s something we turn to instead of God for happiness. It dulls our spiritual tastes and curbs our spiritual appetites (Proverbs 27:7). If we don’t take it seriously, it can, like Solomon’s wives (1 Kings 11:1–3), turn our hearts away from God.
“Self-indulgence is spiritually dangerous to us because it’s a form of idolatry.”
Self-indulgence comes in all shapes and sizes. We can all name obvious or “gross” kinds (like those listed in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10). But perhaps for most of us the more dangerous indulgences are those that appear outwardly respectable. These are insidious because it is not the actions themselves that are sinful but our heart motives in doing them. So, we may appear to do good while secretly indulging in pride (pursuing self-glory), greed or gluttony (too much of a good thing), negligence (should be doing something else), or lack of love (failing to serve someone else). This is what Jesus was talking about when he said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matthew 23:25)
Feel the Weight
But whether gross or “respectable,” self-indulgence is a hard sin for us to fight because it’s hard for us to want to fight it.
At the moment of indulging, it doesn’t feel like an enemy. It feels like a reward that makes us happy. And it feels like a relief from a craving that insistently begs for satisfaction. But after indulging, defeat hangs like a heavy yoke around the neck of our souls. This makes running our race of faith difficult (Hebrews 12:1).
If an indulgence has become a habit, then we live with this heavy weight of defeat. And though we may repent and confess our sin each time and know that the Father forgives us in Christ (1 John 1:9), the demoralizing effect of repeat defeat is still heavy.
Jesus doesn’t want us to live with this weight of defeat, but in the freedom he purchased for us (Galatians 5:1). He wants us to lay it aside (Hebrews 12:1). It’s a matter of obedience — and joy!
What Fuels Self-Indulgence
To fight self-indulgence, we need to know that what fuels it is a promise we believe.
If you ask yourself what promise you’re believing that’s fueling your indulgent behavior, you might not be able to articulate it right away. In fact, you might be tempted to think, “It’s not about believing a promise. It’s not rational at all. It’s an instinct, a craving. It’s about just saying ‘no.’” Well, just saying “no” has a place in the fight. But it will never get to the heart of indulgence. Often our governing beliefs are so much a part of us that we aren’t consciously aware of them. They reside at a deeper heart (or subconscious) level and it can take some probing to bring them to light.
Not only that, but our adversary doesn’t want us to consciously experience temptation as a process of promise — belief — action. Too much thinking on our part might tip his hand. He wants us to experience it simply as a pleasurable invitation to happiness.
And that’s what fuels self-indulgence: the promise of happiness, however brief. And though we typically experience this promise as a strong, visceral craving, it’s the promise that gives the craving its power.
The Real Power for Change
So, wherever we have a persistent pattern of self-indulgence that we just can’t seem to conquer, what we are dealing with is our own unwillingness to let go of a promised happiness. If we simply try to address our craving we likely won’t see long-term change. Because it’s not our craving that’s so strong. What’s strong is our belief that we will be less happy if we pass up the indulgence. Belief governs cravings.
Let me illustrate.
What enables a 25-year smoker to finally give up smoking? Or what enables someone who has indulged bad eating habits and has been overweight for 30 years to finally change those habits and lose the weight? It isn’t that they finally found the magic program (though some programs may be more effective than others). What happened is that their beliefs finally changed. They went from believing one promise of happiness to believing another. That belief fueled their behavioral change and they went from self-indulgence to self-denial — but a denial for the sake of a better happiness.
Replace the Paltry Promise
The power to change self-indulgent behavior is in believing a different promise for happiness. That’s what Jesus meant in Luke 9:23–25:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”
“The power to change self-indulgent behavior is in believing a different promise for happiness.”
Jesus never requires you to deny yourself happiness. He only requires you to deny pursuing happiness in paltry, idol pleasures in order that you may have a better happiness.
The way we lay aside the weight of self-indulgence is through believing a better promise. The new belief will conquer the old craving.
What promise is that? Ah, that’s part of the race training. You must mine the promise jewels from the Bible yourself (2 Peter 1:4). Self-indulgence takes as many forms as there are people and pleasures. But there is a promise that will help you escape any temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13) and lay aside every sin-weight (Hebrews 12:1).
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Because there is a great prize awaiting you (Philippians 3:14).