There are no shortcuts to true godliness.
One of the features of modern American life over the last fifty years or so has been the gradually increasing disconnect between sex and marriage. The big watershed event in that disconnect was the birth control pill. With the coming of the pill, the most fearsome consequences of sex outside of marriage, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, could be largely avoided (or so it seemed). The result was the sexual revolution. The acceptance of gay marriage today is simply the inevitable consequence of the shift in attitudes that happened so many years ago.
One of the reactions that social conservatives have had to this event is to decry the birth control pill. Roman Catholics actually forbid its use in any circumstances, and many Christians view it with extreme suspicion. There are some interesting arguments about the pill that have to do with its possible role as an abortifacient, but many times the argument is simply to point to all the negative effects on society that came with the widespread use of birth control; the increase in divorce, the increase in promiscuity, the increase in sexually transmitted disease and the like. It is undoubtedly the case that a great many ills in society increased dramatically in the time period following the introduction of the pill.
It is also the case that the use of pornography has increased dramatically since the introduction of the Internet. The rate of obesity has also increased quite a bit in the last several decades, corresponding to the increase in food choices and the decrease in food costs.
Many of the solutions I have heard to the problem of pornography addiction have had to do with imposing external constraints as well. Content filters on your computer (which can be evaded), computer positioning, passwords and the like. But we ought to know that the Internet did not truly create any new problems. It used to be that if a man wished to use pornography, he would have to get in his car and drive to one of those stores in the bad part of town, risk being seen, and purchase material which could then be found by his wife or kids. When magazines like Playboy came along, then a man could get it delivered to his house in a nondescript brown wrapper, but it was still there in his house where people could find it. The Internet just made it possible for the man to use pornography easily and anonymously, and to destroy all evidence of it afterward.
Similarly, people worrying about the bad health effects of overeating call for the regulation of certain kinds of food, changes in school lunches, educational programs and the like. These arguments aren’t as often made by Christians, but Christians often make the same kinds of arguments about other kinds of problems. Young men wouldn’t lust so much if only the girls dressed more modestly. But again, immodest dress doesn’t create lust any more than bacon creates gluttony. Men used to get excited over an exposed ankle. Now that a great deal more than ankles is commonly exposed, men have a great more opportunities to lust.
Again, people in society used to be more commonly hardworking than they are today. Sometimes we think that means people used to be more moral. But consider- in the old days, if you were not hardworking, you starved. Did that mean people worked hard because it was right and honorable before God to do so, or just because the consequences of not being hardworking were so terrible?
That is to say, external constraints have been removed. Celebrities and rich athletes are a great illustration of this principle with their often famously immoral lives. Are they worse people than the rest of us, or do they just illustrate what happens when the normal financial and legal constraints of life are removed? Similarly, I do not believe that people who live with the reality of the Internet, of cheap and abundant food, of government welfare programs are therefore truly more lustful, gluttonous or lazy than people have ever been. There are just fewer external constraints restraining our sin.
But external constraints do not make us righteous people. The goal of the New Covenant was and is the transformation of the hearts of God’s people, to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. No amount of change of our external environment can make us either good or bad; they merely reveal what is in the heart already. God desires truth in the inward parts.
Jesus said, It’s not what goes into a man that corrupts him. It’s what comes out. And yet we Christians continually try to restrict external environments in order to accomplish moral change. We blame Facebook for the failure of marriages or the loss of productivity; we blame the Internet for lust and immorality; we blame food choices for obesity; we (and here I really mean we, including me) blame government welfare programs for dependency and sloth. And so a great many churches forbid things like alcohol, tobacco or dancing, or have similar things, because of the potential for abuse.
Everything can be abused, and when the sinful heart of man is involved, everything will be abused. And so there are no shortcuts. The solution to overcome sin, to overcome our problems, always and only is the same thing- to throw ourselves on the mercy of God for our rebellion, accept the forgiveness of sins in Christ and submit ourselves to His rule. The kingdom of God exists in the hearts and minds of men. The Spirit of God goes into the hearts of the converted, of those who put their trust in Him, and changes it. And the change that we expect to see comes through the ordinary means of grace, the normal way that God dispenses His transforming power in the hearts and minds of the elect- through the Word of God, through the Sacraments and through prayer. As we lay hold of God’s means of grace, and by those means cultivate a relationship with the Lord, our hearts will change, and our environments will change along with it.
Mankind is created in the image of God, and was called to be in dominion over creation. And we are in dominion. If our hearts are corrupt, we will create corrupt environments, distorting, misusing and abusing the creation. As we are converted to Christ, we will exercise a different kind of dominion over creation. But spirit always dominates over substance. Our environment never causes us to be what we are; the opposite is always the case. Environment may give our sin particular shapes; a man whose father is a drunk will have a particular set of temptations that other men might not have. But environment never causes us to be what we are. Environment doesn’t create sin in us, and therefore changing environments can’t cure the sin. At best, changing environment will only change the appearance of your sin.
So there are no shortcuts. Dieting is not going to cure the gluttony in your heart. Getting off Facebook or getting rid of your video games will not make you hardworking and productive. Canceling your Internet will not cure your lust, because the Internet didn’t create your lust in the first place. These may be good things to do for other reasons, but they won’t do anything to decrease the sin in your heart. The solution always comes from within, from the dying of the old man and the making alive of the new. And that change always comes by the power of the Holy Spirit and through the means of grace, beginning with the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. As the heart and mind of man is changed, is transformed, then outward habits will follow suit.
And all of this means that ironically, for the spiritual strength and health of the elect, the removal of these external constraints may actually be a very good thing. Before, a man could perhaps congratulate himself for staying married and not being immoral, simply because the external consequences for his doing so were so high. That does not make the man moral, however- it just makes him a coward. Now, the only thing that will keep us from using pornography, or make us hardworking or moderate in the use of food or other substances is what is in our own hearts, since so many of the obvious consequences are reduced. The heart of the Christian in this society must grow strong, must grow battle-hardened. We must create our own internal constraints on our behavior, since society will impose almost none. But that has always been God’s real goal- not people who behaved because they had to, but people who truly loved God, who had God’s Spirit within them and who had God’s law written on their minds and hearts, who are truly God’s own people.
2 thoughts on “No Shortcuts”
But doesn't the Bible say that we should flee temptation, not run towards it so that we can become battle-hardened?
Yes, we should flee temptation. If we know our own sinful tendencies, then we will need to avoid habits and behaviors that encourage those sins. But even there we should recognize where our sin really comes from. If I have a sinful desire within me, and I don't have an opportunity to exercise that desire, I still haven't really done anything to make myself holier. A thief is still a thief after you put him in jail. So while external measures may be helpful in the short term to restrain my sin (getting rid of all my alcohol if I'm a drunk, for example), I must not confuse that with real change. And I shouldn't blame things or environments for the sin that's in my heart.
I'm not advocating knowingly putting ourselves in situations where we are likely to sin. Paul said, "You who think you stand, take heed lest you fall." So don't run toward temptation. But I'm talking about how we go about trying to change, trying to repent of sin in our lives. External changes, changes of environment, can only at best restrain sin temporarily. The drunk can always go buy more. Real change happens only when we address our hearts.