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OUR FAVORITE SINSThe Sins We Commit & How You Can Quit
By TODD D. HUNTER
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Todd Hunter
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE TYRANNY OF WHAT YOU WANT
O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? —ROMANS 7:24 NKJV
Over the year that I worked on this book, I encountered friends and family members who asked what I was working on. When I told them about the content of Our Favorite Sins, they often raised an eyebrow while lowering their gaze and said things like, "Why? Are you an authority?" Or, "I always had my suspicions about you!" Or, "I didn't even know what sin was till I met you!"
Maybe, like me, you've had a long-standing fear of being exposed as less than superspiritual. One thought, one fear, has been nagging like a demon in the back of my mind while writing this book. It is this: WikiLeak of the books in heaven and now everyone knows Todd Hunter is an expert on temptation.
The truth is I do have great experience fighting temptation. I have always been radically tempted by selfishness, though I doubt many would suspect it. I am widely known among my friends and colleagues as a loving, kind, and generous person. People think of me as modest, humble, and soft-spoken. But these qualities do not come to me naturally. If I have any of these qualities, they come from decades of battling radical, deeply rooted pride. What's the disconnect between what I experience inwardly and what others observe outwardly? In a word, struggle. Fighting the good fight. An inward resistance and journey not visible to anyone but God.
I think anyone who is conscious of temptation and sin intuitively knows this. We are all familiar with not only the words but also the feeling expressed by the apostle Paul in Romans: "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (7:24 NKJV).
Before Paul there was Samson, the famous leader of Israel. Though he was given miraculous power to carry out the will of God, Samson fell headlong for Delilah. Israel's enemies immediately used their knowledge of Samson's desire to their benefit. They bribed and manipulated Delilah so that, while Samson lay in her lap, she coaxed the secret of his supernatural strength from him. It was just that easy. He was undone, captured.
You've probably had the experience of being utterly enthralled by a story. It's like you're present in the scene. You can smell the aromas. You can touch the people. The story of Samson has that effect on me. As his weakness is revealed, his bloody eye sockets oozing at the end of a Philistine spear, I can hear him saying, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"
Then there's David and Bathsheba. David, while walking on his roof, saw Bathsheba bathing. Bathsheba was the wife of another man. But when the moment was on, that little detail did not seem to bother David. Dazzled, David desired Bathsheba. Then he had her and impregnated her. To cover his sin, David called home Bathsheba's husband, one of his loyal soldiers, for a conjugal visit with Bathsheba. But the man refused to abandon his comrades. Desperate and without options, David arranged to have the man killed in battle. With her husband out of the way, David then married Bathsheba. She eventually delivered the child of their adultery, but the boy soon died; his death, as the prophet Nathan foretold, was the consequence of David's sin. I can almost hear David's anguished cry as he watched his son die: "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me ...?"
It's a Struggle
Beating temptation requires struggle because it always involves sorting out rightly ordered desires for good and godly things from our disordered desires for wrong things. We often experience these disordered desires as our most powerful and deeply rooted desires. Uprooting disordered desires involves personal, psychological, and spiritual suffering. But this death produces life, life, and more life—life more abundant. However, a journey of focused, grace-enabled struggle is required to get there. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an honored saint, explains why: "In [the parts of our bodies] there is a slumbering inclination towards desire that is both sudden and fierce. With irresistible power desire seizes mastery over the flesh. All at once a secret, smoldering fire is kindled ... [and] the lust thus aroused envelops the mind and will of man in the deepest darkness. The powers of clear discrimination and of decision are taken from us."
We've all had our particular Delilahs, our individual Bathshebas. They're not all sexual temptations, either. Not by a long shot. There are innumerable ways to gratify our desires that are contrary to God's will for our lives. We all give in to temptation, don't we? In strolls our Delilah, up charges our desire, and out comes a string of rationalizations to justify our sin. It is sad and bizarre that we indulge our flesh even for a moment, after which we're sure to feel guilty and ashamed. The Holy Spirit in us says one thing, and our conscience echoes it. But everything else in us fights and argues and rationalizes.
It goes something like this: I, in this case, with this set of facts, am the exception. Given the totality of my circumstances and experiences, this isn't really a sin, not actually, not in this way, not if you really look at it from the right angle. I can fulfill this one particular desire. It's not really a Big Sin, Major Sin, or Bad Sin.
You know how it goes. And it makes sense in the moment. But like a friend of mine used to say, "Sin makes you stupid."
Then the trouble starts. Problems at work, at school, with the kids, or with a spouse. That muted conscience raises its voice. Then you find that the guy, the gal, the substance, the experience is really not all that after all. Not too far down the path, if God is still with you, if he has not given you over to your sin (Romans 1:24–28), you realize that somewhere you really did lose coherent and good judgment, the ability to make clearheaded decisions. Sin robs us of our clarity.
Scripture says that God has given us the power of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7). The New International Version calls this sound mind "self-discipline." The idea is that God gives to those who ask and seek for it the ability to be conscious of and sensible about our desires. Any clarity we have is a foot- hold given by God to begin the fight, to begin the resistance that leads to life. Giving in to disordered desire has only one outcome: death.
That's why the apostle Paul counseled so often and so strongly that we flee from sin and temptation (see, for instance, 1 Corinthians 6:18; 10:14; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22). And James, the brother of Jesus himself, said that if we resist the devil, the tempter, he'll flee from us (James 4:7). Sin always brings struggle. But rather than struggling against the Spirit and our conscience, we need to strive with them, recruiting them as all-purpose foot soldiers in the fight against sin and temptation.
I know this battle firsthand. Any good that others see in me comes from an intense inner struggle over several decades. This is not a struggle against God but a struggle with God against my disordered desires, my default position of radical selfishness. God is with me in this struggle because he wants my transformation more than I want it. I simply cooperate with him. Together we reorder my desires.
There are a few thoughts we'll want to keep in mind as we move forward.
First, there is a condition that each of us lives with and from which we struggle to be freed. Think of it as a person's system of desires, thoughts, feelings, will, and heart in a state of disorder. We live in a posture of misalignment with the purposes of God for humanity. The Bible calls this condition spiritual death. Spiritual life, on the other hand, is most simply described as God's spirit and our spirit in alignment and in harmony, made one by the atoning, forgiving, regenerating power of God in Christ Jesus.
Second, we've seen the stories of two men who acted, behaved, and made choices from the place of spiritual death within them. But you should note: Samson and David were not merely spiritually dead. Both had a real spiritual life and walked with God. Both show up in the New Testament hall of fame. Though flawed, they are celebrated as persons of commendable faith (Hebrews 11). That is the lesson for us: we all have within us two natures, what Paul calls the old and new man. The old is the one whose desires are misaligned. These disordered desires, as we'll see, give birth to sin.
Third, temptation is always produced by desire. Samson desired something so much that he tossed aside his desire to live in obedient partnership with God. Delilah had something he wanted so badly that his desire for her caused his desire for God and God's purposes to fade into the background.
Similar observations could be made about David and his desire for Bathsheba. He crossed numerous moral, religious, spiritual, professional, and military lines in order to have what he desired. As David's life went on he discovered that, in actual surprising fact, his desires also had him. They had him in their clutches. Disordered desires are a tyrant. This is why we struggle against them, striving to overthrow them in our hearts like the little despots they are.
Unfortunately, many of us don't even know what we're up against. In researching temptation I had David Kinnaman and the Barna Group conduct a survey to help me get a gauge for how we think and act when faced with life's various enticements. I will be referring to these exclusive findings as we make our way through the book, and you can refer to the summary of this study in the appendix.
Here's one startling finding up front: 50 percent of Americans simply don't know what to do about temptation. Picture it: I'm standing in line at the store with nine other people; five of us have no idea what to do should the clerk give us too much change or verbalize an inappropriate come-on. Or I'm sitting at the movies or at a concert, nine others in my row; five of us don't have a productive, effective thought or positive design for handling what we may see or hear. Is it any wonder we find it difficult to control ourselves, to stop sinning? Our disordered desires are ruling our hearts and minds, and we don't know what to do about it.
My experience as a pastor for over thirty years tells me that most people cannot win a victory over many things that matter in their lives, whether these things are spousal relations, child rearing, dance, golf, their favorite art, their favorite hobby, or sin. My decades as a pastor and leader in various capacities in sports, at work, at schools, in nonprofits, and in churches tell me that many Christians are at their wits' end. Casting themselves on the love and forgiveness of God, but forgetting his call to discipleship, many have decided to "just keep it real" and to "just be who they are" and to "not worry about what others think or how others might judge them." "Wretched man that I am," you can almost hear them saying, and maybe you've said with them, "I give up."
It makes a certain sort of sense. Who could or would want to argue against "keeping it real" and the amazing love and forgiveness of God? What else are we going to do? After all, the reasoning goes, we are only human. Those sentiments are popular and seemingly reasonable. But in truth, giving up and "keeping it real" versus trying and failing is actually a false dualism of the worst kind. Yet the vast majority of people who think this way are not in fact trying to live a lie. They feel defeated and they just don't see any other choice.
I've got good news: despite all our failures and shameful "moments after," we are not stuck between a life that makes us hate ourselves on the one hand and feel the love of God on the other. There is a third way. A whole new approach—which is actually old, tested, and true in practice—awaits.
Temptation Is a Fact
This book is about all of us. It is about how we struggle with desire, how we resist temptation and sin. In the pages that follow I try to leverage a long life of working with myself and others in order to shine a revealing light on temptation for contemporary readers. While the Barna data takes all Americans into account, Our Favorite Sins is lovingly written to encourage those who have decided to resist those favorite sins, those of us looking for ways to "win" against temptation. Someone who has lost the category of sin, someone who does not believe that something like sin exists, is not likely to appreciate the exploration of desire and temptation that is found in the pages ahead.
People don't slip up and, looking back, find that they were following Jesus and growing in their ability to make godly discernments and sound moral judgments. But every day hundreds of millions of people drift into choices, decisions, and habits that destroy their lives, families, social networks, classrooms, workplaces, and more. Achieving victory over temptation and sin, even with all God does and supplies to ensure our success, requires intentionality and purpose on our part. It also requires that we know what we're really fighting.
The times change, and temptation changes with them. Christians struggle with challenges today that are unique to our culture and decade. And as times change, beliefs and assumptions do as well. God's purposes don't change, but the ways we are beguiled into deviating from his purposes surely do. Because the things that tempt or test us change, followers of Jesus are often caught by surprise.
Once all the societal changes are sifted, one rock of truth is left lying on the bottom of the sieve: temptation is a fact. It just is: in all times and all places. The fact of temptation is one of the rare truths that do not change with the times. The story of Adam and Eve, who wanted more than what they had been given, is our story today, just as it was for generations in the centuries past. But the Serpent keeps up with technological change, and the apple evolves in a million different ways from one generation to the next, one decade to the next. Eve never coveted Adam's smartphone, and Adam never heard of a centerfold, let alone a downloadable digital one.
Cultures change, and the species of temptation change with them. Americans struggle with things today that are unique to our culture, time, and place. No book on temptation written fifty years ago would have dealt with possible addiction to video games. No sermon or article on temptation from ten years ago would have mentioned addiction to social media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
As times and temptations change, beliefs and assumptions about them shift as well. What one generation of Americans considers a virtue another generation considers a vice. The hard work of my generation (the baby boomers) has largely been rejected by the next generation in favor of a more balanced life that makes space for friends, family, and recreation. The same pattern holds true for churchgoers who, in the space of one generation, have come to tolerate sins that a previous generation would not have condoned. For instance, few people seem to wring their hands anymore about divorce. Except for the most notorious cases involving abuse or sexual scandal, it is for the most part accepted, even in the church.
More Like Joseph
Paul, in a moment of self-reflection, once observed that he was "a wretched man." We all know and feel his exasperation. But it need not defeat us or play out in a David-like or Samson-like way in our life. There is a better way. Once you make one major, inner move, you can find the exit door from temptation most of the time. Joseph, the son of the patriarch Jacob, shows us how. Famous for his coat of many colors, his dreams, and his jealous siblings, Joseph had something much more critical: rightly ordered desires.
Joseph's life is a picture of the good, the beautiful, and the true. Inviting readers into such a life through rightly ordered desires is the goal of this book. There is a larger discussion of Joseph in the conclusion, but for now let's trace the large outlines of his life.
Because of the calling and blessing of God, everything Joseph did prospered. His various supervisors at work respected, valued, and admired him. He was handsome and well built. When his boss's wife took notice of him and asked him to go to bed with her, he refused. Why? Here is Joseph's answer: I am doing work for God. He is prospering my work. This prosperous work is necessary for the well-being of many people. I cannot injure this relationship and thwart this task. That was Joseph's mind-set. Not that it slowed his boss's wife down.
Excerpted from OUR FAVORITE SINS by TODD D. HUNTER Copyright © 2012 by Todd Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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