Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Welcome back. As you know, on this podcast we cover the topic of lust from a variety of angles. We did so again on Monday. It’s probably the category of question we get asked about more than any other. You’ll see all the many ways this topic has come up on the podcast in that digest I put together on pages 309–329 in the new Ask Pastor John book.

On Monday, Pastor John, in APJ 2047, you encouraged a wife to confront her husband about erotic literature she found on his phone. And from confrontation comes conviction and repentance, we hope, which is part of the lifelong discipline of killing lust within ourselves. We must root the sin of lust from our lives. And to do that, we’d be helpless on our own. We couldn’t do it on our own. And so, we are not called to battle alone. Most notably, we have the gospel. And we need the gospel here because the only sin we can ever purge from our lives is canceled sin. Step 1: Sin is canceled by the blood of Christ; we are justified before God. Then, step 2: We purge that sin from our lives. We can’t ever get that backward. Sin canceled, then sin purged — another super important theme on the podcast over the years, as you can see in the APJ book on page 274.

So, using the gospel to purge sin is our topic today. It’s fitting because today in our Navigators Bible Reading Plan we are reading about the murder of Christ in Mark 15:33–41. Pastor John, you have talked about the role of visualizing Christ’s crucifixion in our battle against lustful thoughts. Lust is so often a visible battle. So, it makes sense that this battle is fought visually, or at least in the visuals of the imagination. For this purpose, you use an acronym. You created an acronym for this called ANTHEM. That’s important here, to fight lust, and particularly the H in ANTHEM, which you define as this: “Hold a beautiful vision of Jesus in your mind until it triumphs over the other sensual vision.” So, in the fight against lust, how important is it to have this “beautiful vision of Jesus,” and how does this work for you in the moment of temptation? What’s happening as you hold this image in your imagination?

Well, Tony, I’ve had history with really bad ways of using visualization in prayer. So, even though the question isn’t exactly that, let me start there.

Pictures can begin to displace the word of Scripture as the center of God’s saving communication. And that’s really dangerous. We can edge right up to and transgress the intention of the second commandment — “Don’t make any graven images for worship.” There’s an approach that I’ve run into — it’s pretty widespread; at least it was — to healing prayer where people are instructed to go back into their painful past and visualize a scene of, say, abuse, sexual abuse. And, for example, “Imagine Jesus, picture Jesus, walking into the room and picking you up and hugging you and caring for you.”

“One of my strategies in trying to obey Jesus is to fight nudity in my mind with Christ’s misery on the cross.”

And there are problems with that kind of counseling, it seems to me, because it’s foreign to Scripture. You don’t find any pattern quite like that in Scripture, and it’s usually slanted away from some of the aspects of the role that Jesus plays — namely, in providence portraying him only as a comforter and not as a sovereign, and not as a judge, and not as the one who’s going to handle that perpetrator with violence someday. It tends to be just soft and gentle and warm — and therefore slanted. It tends to oversimplify and over-psychologize what’s really needed.

The healing of the soul involves a profound spiritual perception not only of a tender, affectionate Jesus, but of the full meaning of the cross and the reality of the Holy Spirit and God’s ways and justice and judgments. So, there are real dangers that I’ve encountered in this whole area of visualization in prayer.

Visual Words

But let me get back to the positive side. Jesus is the eternal Word, and he became flesh (John 1:14). So, we know he had a body. People looked at him — they could see him with their physical eyes — unlike God the Father, who can’t be visualized in that way. I don’t think we should picture God the Father as a grandfather with a white beard. I think that’s a big mistake. But Jesus had flesh and bones.

And here’s another point: some words do not invoke visual realities — like love, hate, right, wrong, kind. Those are general, principial kinds of words. But other words do necessarily evoke images in our minds: cross, blood, nails, spear, side of body, hands, feet, thorns, beard, spit, rod, sun darkened, hill. You can’t say those words without seeing something, because those words are names of sights. You see a hand; you put a word on a hand; you expect people to process that word and have a kind of hand visualized in their mind — no specific hand, but the idea of hand is being visualized in their mind.

So, when you read, “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice” (Matthew 27:46), now you’ve got sounds as well. There are words that designate sounds, like loud voice. That word is supposed to conjure something in your mind concerning “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (Matthew 27:46). And it was loud. The word loud is used to make you feel and think loud. And then Jesus calls out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). The point of those very words is to get our minds hearing something, and words like beard and spit are supposed to get our minds seeing something.

“In Paul’s mind, the faith to kill sin every day in his life was strengthened by remembering the love of Christ.”

And then here’s one pointer from the apostle that inclines me to go ahead and form this image in my mind. Galatians 3:1: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” Now, what does that mean? I don’t think it means Paul got out a piece of chalk and drew Jesus, but it means, evidently, that he portrayed (with words through the gospel) the cross so vividly that he says, “It was like I was doing it before your very eyes.” He used the words eyes here. “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed.”

So, maybe he means, “I’m embodying this with my sufferings; I’m speaking it in such a way that you can see it.”

Fight Image with Image

And so, back to ANTHEM and the whole battle with lust. One of my strategies, Tony, in trying to obey Jesus — tearing out my eyes, and putting sin to death, and counting myself dead — is to fight nudity (let’s just take that as a concrete example) in my mind with Christ’s misery on the cross. So, nudity is a picture in my mind. Now, I’ve argued that Christ’s misery on the cross is a picture in my mind. Christ died to make me pure. This lustful thought is not pure. Therefore, if I willingly hold this image in my mind, I’m taking a spear and thrusting it into the side of Jesus. I picture myself about to do that. I picture him saying, “I love you. I love you. I am dying to free you from that bondage to lust.”

And I picture a battered body — and maybe I should qualify: It’s not photographic. I don’t have a particular face in view; I don’t know what Jesus looked like. I don’t pick a movie star from The Passion of the Christ or whatever. I don’t have a particular face for me. He doesn’t look like any actor. I don’t get that specific. It’s a word-created picture, not a photo-created picture.

It’s what I think Paul did when he said in Galatians 2:20, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me.” Now, he could have stopped right there, couldn’t he? But he added, “and gave himself for me.” In Paul’s mind, the faith to kill sin every day in his life was strengthened by remembering the love of Christ for him. And the love of Christ is emblazoned in Paul’s mind as he thought of him as crucified. “He gave himself for me.” And Paul saw crucified people. They were on the hills. It was horrible. And when he said, “Christ gave himself for me,” I can’t believe that he didn’t have some picture — if not photographic — in his mind of Christ suffering profoundly for his purity. And thus, his faith was empowered to defeat lust.