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The key to holiness is falling in love. I got married in the summer of 1972. My wife, Ann, is still with me twenty-eight years later. Although we had a beautiful wedding, our honeymoon was necessarily brief. Only three days. We both returned to work in Norman, Oklahoma, where we were preparing for our senior year at the University of Oklahoma. She worked evenings in the emergency room of a local hospital. I was headwaiter at a steak restaurant in town. My routine on Friday night was simple. After work, we employees would count our tip money, drive to the restaurant owner's home, and play poker till dawn. It never crossed my mind to tell Ann about this routine. After all, I was only twenty-one. About midnight on one of those Fridays, I called her to let her know that I would be home "soon." I assumed she would go to bed, just happy that I was considerate enough to call at all. Remember that I was only twenty-one. What I didn't count on was her taking me literally. To me, "soon" meant "after the Friday night poker game ." You know, somewhere around 5:00 or 6:00 A.M. I figured I'd slip into the apartment and into bed without her waking up. If she did, the news that I'd won would be enough to overcome any anger she might feel. But, to her, "soon" meant fifteen minutes, thirty at the outside. It's amazinghow literal newly wed women can be. Oh well.
At 4:00 A.M., I tiptoed in as quietly as I could. I was feeling fairly proud of myself for leaving my buddies as early as I did. I had told them, "I just got married, guys. I've got a responsibility to my wife, you know." Feeling gallant, I crept into the living room of our apartment only to run headlong into my bride of three weeks. Tears were streaming down her face, which was very red. "Where have you been?" she shouted in disbelief. "I've been driving all over town since 2:00 A.M. trying to find you. You promised you'd be home 'soon' (there's that word again). I hate you! I hate you!" The words hurt more than her fists, which by now were pounding against my chest.
I never played poker again. It was an easy decision. I didn't care that the guys at work snickered under their breath. Their snide, cutting remarks fell on deaf ears. Their demands that I give them a chance to win their money back had no effect. Nothing could convince me to play again. Not the prospect of winning. Not the avoidance of mockery. Nothing. I quit gambling. Why?
I can think of a lot of reasons, none of which is exactly the right one. I could have said No to gambling because we were relatively poor and the chances of losing were as high as winning. We really couldn't afford for me to lose the tips from the best paying night of the week. But that didn't factor into my decision.
I'd also heard that gambling could become an addiction. Some said it was more powerful and harder to break than dependence on drugs. I probably believed them, but I was not fazed by either this or the potential for getting too deeply involved with the wrong kind of people. There were, after all, some pretty unsavory characters who started showing up to join the game. But I never gave them a second thought. I knew that gambling was illegal. I considered myself a fairly "moral" person. But rationalizing your way around the law comes easily when you're twenty-one. So why did I quit?
I quit because I loved my wife. I quit because I had found in her a thrill and a joy that the biggest, richest pot in the world couldn't rival. Winning was a rush. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that gambling was exciting. But being with Ann was better! Being in her presence was incomparably superior. The joy I felt in feeling her delight in me and my delight in her was worth any sacrifice I might have to make. As appealing as gambling might be (even when I won), it couldn't hold a candle to Ann. The allure of her countenance. The warmth of her embrace. The sound of her voice. My heart was captivated. My mind was entranced. Being with her and she with me! Gambling didn't stand a chance. Ann was a royal flush and won hands down. In the final analysis, I found the strength to quit gambling because I had fallen in love.
That's what this book is all about. It's not like a mystery novel. You don't have to wait till the final chapter to find out if it was the butler who killed Professor Plum with a candlestick. I'm revealing the plot up front. The key to holiness is falling in love ... with Jesus.
Knowing How versus Knowing What
Few Christians wrestle or struggle to know what God wants them to do. When it comes to questions of right and wrong, good and evil, what is sin and what isn't, most Christians know their moral obligation. Even those with but a cursory knowledge of the Bible are aware that they're not supposed to drink to excess. They know that God prohibits stealing. They know that He wants them to be generous with their money and possessions. They know what it is that pleases God.
We could also expand this to a corporate level. We know what God wants of us as a church, as the body of Christ. We know He wants us to touch the poor and to evangelize the lost and to provide for the study of His Word and times for worship.
But knowing what isn't the problem. Our problem is in knowing how. Certainly there are grey areas on which the Bible does not speak and where moral ambiguity exists. But, aside from that, our principal struggle is how. How do I give generously when my heart is held captive to greed and materialism? What, if anything, can sever the root of joy in money and release my soul from a sinful reliance on what I mistakenly believe money can do for me? How do I love irritating people when I can't stand the sight of them? How do I walk in sexual purity when my flesh rages with lust and sinful passion? How do I serve in children's ministry when I don't want to be bothered? How do I resist when tempted to lie, especially when being less than truthful will win a promotion or enhance my reputation?
The apostle Paul articulated a frustration we all share when he said, "that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.... For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish" (Romans 7:15,19). We know what Paul means. There are times when we feel like spiritual schizophrenics, as if we lived in two minds, desperately wanting one thing while doing yet another. The bewilderment can be overwhelming.
But worse than the confusion is the crippling weight of guilt as we repeat over and again the same sinful mistakes. Before long, we're convinced that living even a moderately successful Christian life is hopeless. Frustration gives way to despair. "Will it ever change? Will I ever change?" This agonizing cry is what leads me to focus on the internal spiritual drive, the energy, if you will, that enables us to do what we know all too well God wants us to do. My focus is on how we as Christians might find the strength to refuse what our flesh finds so appealing.
Not only do I live among and minister to people who are crying for change, I am one of those people. All of us ache for change. We are desperate to be different. Life as it is will never suffice for those who long to walk as Jesus walked and talk as Jesus talked. We agonize to displace from our hearts the tyrannous reign of sin, to dislodge from our souls the crippling grip of lust and anger and jealousy and petty rivalry and pride. Yet we feel so helpless-and eventually hopeless. Must we resign ourselves to the monotony of failure, hanging on by our spiritual fingernails until Jesus returns and delivers us from the mess we've made of our lives? Or can something be done now?
A Superior Pleasure
I've already said it once: the key to holiness is falling in love. My agenda in this book is to explain what that means and why it works. However, if I'm not careful, I run the risk of losing some of you before you escape chapter one. Love is a slippery term. Sometimes it gets a bit mushy and loses its punch. So I want to be clear about what I mean.
I don't believe (as I once did) that the power to turn from "the passing pleasures of sin" (Hebrews 11:25) is the result of a religious Just-Say-No campaign. I'm not mocking well-meant efforts to motivate people to choose righteousness. We must educate ourselves to identify sinful behavior and beliefs. No less important is exhorting one another to flee youthful lusts. But, let's be honest. Drawing up a list of proscribed activities, gritting our moral teeth, clenching our legal fists, and together shouting "No!" at sin has minimal long-term impact. If that's the extent of our enabling, sin will win in the end. Appeals to shame, threats of divine reprisal, as well as the tactics of fear, won't do it. I'm all for saying No to sin. But if we just say No, that is to say, if volitional restraint is the most that we bring to bear against temptation, our chances of more than a fleeting victory are slim. So what's the answer?
You may remember the award-winning epic film Ben Hur. There are numerous reasons why it won the Oscar for best picture, not least of which was a spectacular chariot race. But one scene stands out in my mind. It came early in the movie. Massala, childhood friend of Judah Ben Hur (played by Charlton Heston) and newly appointed commander of the Roman troops in Jerusalem, is speaking with the man he is replacing. The latter is clearly weary from waging a relentless battle with the Jewish people. "Religion is everywhere," he bemoans. "And now there is word of a coming deliverer, the 'Messiah,' they call him." Massala isn't impressed. His solution is simple: crush the leaders, weed out all religious seditionists. "It may seem easy to you," comes the reply. "But how do you fight an idea?" After a moment's pause, Massala, though cruel, wisely responds: "You ask me, 'How do you fight an idea?' I'll tell you: with another idea!"
Here's my point. How do you fight the pleasure of sin? I'll tell you: with another pleasure. Holiness is not attained, at least not in any lasting, life-changing way, merely through prohibitions, threats, fear, or shame-based appeals. Holiness is attained by believing in, trusting, banking on, resting in, savoring, and cherishing God's promise of a superior happiness that comes only by falling in love with Jesus. The power that the pleasures of sin exert on the human soul will ultimately be overcome only by the superior power of the pleasures of knowing and being known, loving and being loved by God in Christ. Or again, the only way to conquer one pleasure is with another, superior, more pleasing pleasure!
A dear friend is dealing with a family member who has turned her back on the Lord. The family member is living a life of open and defiant sin and evidently loving every minute of it. We met recently to determine the best way to approach the problem. "What do I say to her?" she asked. "How do I get through?" My response was immediate and pointed: "It won't happen by indicting her with a superior morality but by inviting her to a superior joy!"
Make no mistake about it, my friend does have a far superior morality. It is infinitely better. It is biblical. I told her: "Your moral principles are right and hers are wrong. Period. But telling her that will probably get you nowhere. In fact, she will become more entrenched in her lifestyle and will dig in her heels. In all likelihood, the only thing she will think is: 'Oh, you just want me to be miserable. You're probably jealous of my success. You and God want me to forsake all these pleasures and the happiness I've found so I can live like a monk and punish my body and suppress my desires and walk around with some sour, austere look on my face.' No matter how well you say it, she will probably interpret you as the enemy of her pleasure and happiness. You will invariably be portrayed as advocating a stiff, stoical, boring life."
I continued: "Instead, look at her wealth and drugs and sexual promiscuity and self-absorbed lifestyle and fancy clothes and whatever else it is that she is convinced is essential to her happiness and say: 'You've got to be kidding. I can't believe you've settled for so little. I can't believe that you would deprive yourself this way. What pathetic little pleasures you have. My goodness, you have no idea what you're missing!'"
My point was simply that the way to get someone to do what is right is not by telling him or her, "Don't do what is wrong." The reason for this is that "wrong," to his or her way of thinking, is enticing and pleasing and fun and a lot more enjoyable than "right." The answer is to give him or her a taste of the superior sweetness of God, of the surpassing peace of Christ, of the satisfying pleasure of intimacy with the Holy Spirit. C. S. Lewis put it this way:
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 [to] us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
If all we eat for lunch is rancid ground beef, in time we will learn to ignore its odor and will adjust to its taste. We will even learn to tolerate the physical nausea it provokes. We are a hungry people who will settle for whatever brings immediate satisfaction to the cravings of our stomachs. But once we are fed with filet mignon, saying No to spoiled hamburger will come quite easily. The point is this: There is no way to triumph over sin long-term unless we develop a distaste for it because of a superior satisfaction in God. The only way to find sin distasteful is to eat and savor the sweetness of all that God is for us in Jesus. The solution isn't to stop eating. The answer isn't found in ignoring our hunger pangs. The key is ingesting the joys of Jesus and the grace, mercy, kindness, love, forgiveness, power, and peace that He alone can bring to the famished soul.
Tried and Found Wanting
I'm convinced that the traditional "religious" approach to dissuading people from sinning is seriously flawed. For centuries our strategy has been negative in thrust. I don't mean it's evil. Rather, it focuses primarily on either prohibitions or threats.
We often begin by creating a list of proscribed activities, people, places, and events. After we've exhausted those mentioned in the Bible, we throw in a few of our own making. You know what I mean. All of us have a private list of taboos, dont's, and off-limit issues that we believe are the mark of true spirituality. It doesn't matter if the Bible is silent on these issues. We've "heard from God" and can't believe that anyone else wouldn't recognize and accept our image of what it means to be godly.
I'm baffled continually at how easily Christian people treat as moral law those things that God has neither forbidden nor required. Some feel an irresistible urge to speak loudly whenever the Bible is silent. They find the ethical stipulations of Scripture inadequate for living the Christian life and feel compelled to supplement the Word of God with countless little do's and dont's that they are persuaded are essential to winning God's favor and blessing.
Excerpted from Pleasures Evermore by Sam Storms Copyright © 2000 by Sam Storms . Excerpted by permission.
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