Is holiness the fight against sin, or is it the fight for joy in God? It’s a question from a listener named Kendall. “Hello, Pastor John! A group of guys and myself have been reading your book Desiring God. Awesome book, thank you for it!
“My question: In overcoming sin and temptation, the strategy most of us attempt to employ is to fight it, overcome it, out-power it, and out-will it. But after reading the first few chapters, I am wondering if our job as Christians is not to fight against something but to fight for something — namely, joy and pleasure in God. My heart was created to be pleased, so when I fight against sin am I unwittingly fighting against my own nature to find pleasure.
“I understand that sin offers a certain level of satisfaction and pleasure, so to fight against it, with no better satisfaction in view, is to deny my own humanity. But to fight for pleasure in God, as a means of overcoming sin and temptation, affirms my desire to be pleased and reorients my desire to its proper place. So, should we fight against sin? Or, instead, should we fight for pleasure in God, which will in turn kill our sin?”
Maybe the most important thing to say to Kendall is this: put every question like that through the sieve of the Bible. When you pose an either-or question, be sure to ask, “Does the Bible treat these as either-or?” The last way he asked the question was: “Should we fight against sin? Or, instead, should we fight for pleasure in God, which will in turn kill our sin?”
“The Bible does not say we should choose between fighting against sin and fighting for pleasure in God.”
If you walk into a question assuming an either-or like that, when it’s a both-and, you will force the Bible to say what it doesn’t want to say.
In this sense, I want to say as clearly as I can that the Bible does not say we should choose between fighting against sin and fighting for pleasure in God. What it says loud, clear, and scary forcefully is that we should fight against sin with all our might — like cut off your hands and gouge out your eyes if you have to in order that we might kill the very thing that prevents us from having pleasure in God.
So instead of asking “Should we fight against sin, or should we fight for pleasure in God?” I think we should ask “How do we go about fighting against sin so that the outcome is a deep and lasting pleasure in God that then avoids sin without such a battle?”
Just to make clear from the Bible my strong emphasis on the negative side of fighting against sin, consider these texts.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13)
So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:26–27)
Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires. (Ephesians 4:22)
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions. (Titus 2:11–12)
Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness. (Romans 6:13)
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. (Matthew 5:29)
There’s no question that we should fight against sin. This is surely part of what Jesus meant when he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Playing with Mud Pies
Kendall is absolutely right, though, in pointing out that this negative battle will never suffice in the pursuit of holiness and godliness and Christlikeness and a life of sacrificial love. Jesus pointed out that if you drive out a demon and leave the house swept and cleaned, seven more demons are going to come home (Matthew 12:43–45).
“We say no to sin because we’ve tasted the superior value of Jesus, and because we want more of Jesus.”
Negative struggles never suffice to provide power for godliness. C.S. Lewis threw this door open for me fifty years ago with this quote. It should be very familiar for anybody who’s read Desiring God.
The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We’re told to deny ourselves and take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ, and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find when we do so contains an appeal to desire. . . . Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward, and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum when he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (The Weight of Glory, 25–26)
In other words, telling ourselves “No” when tempted by sin is simply one strategy of making it possible for our souls to feel what a holiday at the sea is like spiritually. If Jesus offers himself to us as an all-satisfying treasure, and between us and Jesus the devil is presenting himself to us as an angel of all-satisfying light, we need to run him through with the sword of the Spirit and kill the temptation, not as an end in itself, but so that we have access to Jesus, who is all-satisfying.
Loss Is Gain
Here’s the way Paul put it in Philippians 3:7–8: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Here’s the way Jesus put it when he talked about self-denial in relationship to the kingdom: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).
Now, that’s self-denial, right? You sell all that you have and buy that field. In the end, it is such a deal, right? You sell all that you have, which looks like self-denial to the world, and you gain the kingdom of heaven and everlasting, eternal, supreme joy. Such a transaction! We can joyfully sell everything because of the value of Christ.
Let me give one more example based on what love really is, as described in Hebrews 10:34: “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”
“Negative struggles never suffice to provide power for godliness.”
The reason they could joyfully accept the plundering of their property — that’s self-denial, that’s loss, that’s a willingness to sacrifice — is because they felt a superior value of what they had in Christ. Which means the main battle for love is a battle, like Kendall says, for falling in love with the treasure given by God and which is God.
So yes, many times we will meet the enemy of temptation with a resounding “No, get out of my life! You can’t have me.” And we will do that first because we’ve tasted the superior value of Jesus, and because we want more of Jesus.