Fighting Sin With a Better Pleasure
Article by Matt Bradner in Desiring God.
The northeast portion of the United States went eerily dark on the evening of August 14, 2003. When lights should have been on, there were none to be seen. Instead, all was dark, and movement was at a standstill. There was no power.
What became known as the “Northeast blackout of 2003” resulted in nearly a sixth of the United States without power. In the days that followed, a satellite image began circulating due to its shocking appearance. Whether the photo is real or manufactured has little relevance for the point here. The image makes me think of another power outage — a spiritual one — that few would question in significant measure.
Are the Lights On?
What if it were possible to show a satellite image of the spiritual power of those who claim to be Christians in today’s world? As the image spanned the globe, what kind of picture would we see? Would it be bright and burning, or dark and dim?
After engaging with Christians around the world for over 25 years, I wonder how many of those who profess to follow Jesus would sadly look like New York did on that August evening in 2003. How many who claim the name of Jesus live day in and day out with little or no spiritual power? When I say no power, I’m referring to people who lack consistent and authentic joy in God, display minimal hunger to know God and his word, experience little, if any, victory over recurring temptations, and appear to have very little spiritual impact among their peers.
“Christian power comes from the Yes we pursue, not the No we avoid.”
I wish I could say that those who experience such powerlessness are the rare exception among professing Christians, but sadly this seems to be more prevalent in our day than many of us would hope. The potential for Christian impact and influence in this world is phenomenal, but the reality often seems underwhelming.
One of the primary causes of the spiritual condition described above comes, surprisingly, from the word no. One way to say it is that no power comes from “no” power.
“No” power is when saying no is the main source of your spiritual power. It’s when you look to negativity as the source of your vitality. When the Christian life is mainly a conception of what not to do. When “successful” Christian living, in any area of your life, is reduced to not doing something. Not doing this. Not saying that. Not looking here. Not thinking about that.
Friends, if this is your focus in the Christian life, welcome to the world of struggle — to the world of no power.
The World of ‘No’
We could go to many places in Scripture to demonstrate the limited power of no, but let’s allow the apostle Paul to show us his approach halfway through his letter to the church at Colossae, where he decides to wage war against powerless Christian living. At the end of the second chapter, Paul gets explicit on the cause behind their condition:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20–23)
A list of “do nots” may appear wise and self-sacrificing, but in reality, it is worthless and self-centered. Our list of things to avoid is all bark, no bite. I don’t think it’s a stretch to summarize Paul’s words with the following: no power comes from “no” power.
The Power of ‘Yes’
Thankfully, Paul doesn’t stop at merely identifying the cause underneath our powerless condition. He then lays out a vision that leads to robust Christian vitality.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:1–2)
After pointing out that their list of “do nots” has no value in stopping the flesh, Paul immediately directs the church to what does: Pursue Jesus. Seek after Jesus by setting your mind on who he is to you and for you, and who you are in him. Set your mind on the things of God and his good purposes in this world.
Here is what God, through Paul, is desiring to teach us: Christian power comes from the Yes we pursue, not the No we avoid. What is the Christian’s Yes? It is Christ himself, seated at God’s right hand. It is everything connected to the privilege that we now have to know him, become like him, and make him known.
Happy to Leave It Behind
As a campus ministry leader, I would regularly ask the student leaders, “Are there any girls that you have an interest in dating?” Although I had heard many responses over the years, nothing compared to the one I heard one summer afternoon in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“To be honest,” he replied, “I don’t think marriage is for me. It seems like marriage is all about saying no to stuff. ‘No’ to spontaneous decisions with the guys and midnight runs to Waffle House. ‘No’ to no-shave November or dressing however you want. ‘No’ to this; ‘no’ to that. I just don’t think it’s for me.”
After pausing for a second so he would know I heard him, I calmly replied, “You obviously haven’t met your yes.”
“What we seek to avoid doesn’t really matter if we are not clear on whom we are pursuing.”
Over the next couple of years, I had the privilege of walking alongside this young Christian leader as he fell in love with an amazing woman. I’ll never forget the day he told me he was ready to propose. I suddenly put on a serious face and said in a somber tone, “Wait, are you sure about this? Think about all you are saying ‘no’ to. Midnight runs to Waffle House, no-shave November, untucked and unwashed T-shirts — are you sure you want to do this?” We both erupted in laughter. The no’s that once felt so daunting now seemed so insignificant in light of his yes.
Flipping the Switch
Yet how many of us, even those of us who claim the name of Christ, are living like we haven’t yet met our yes? How many of us are scuffling and struggling with all of these “Christian restrictions” and things we “have to avoid”? Friends, living without Jesus clearly in view as your Yes is like having a foot on the brake pedal and expecting to accelerate. It’s just not going to happen. It’s time to flip the switch on the generator of your heart.
What does it look like to live with Jesus as your Yes? It’s fixing your eyes on what you gain in Christ, not what you lose in this world (Matthew 13:44). It’s fighting the pleasure of sin by filling your mind with the great and precious promises from God (2 Peter 1:4). It’s begging the Spirit of God to bring to mind all that God has freely given you (1 Corinthians 2:12). The heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, though he was talking about boxing, very well could have been describing Christianity when he said, “The best defense is a good offense.”
What About the No?
Before you toss out your time-worn list of “do nots,” the apostle Paul wants to put them in proper perspective. After directing us to set our minds on Jesus as our Yes, it may seem at first like Paul contradicts himself. He says, “Put to death” (Colossians 3:5), “Put . . . away” (Colossians 3:8), and then “do not” (Colossians 3:9). Wait a second, Paul, I thought you said such “do nots” were of “no value.”
But Paul is not contradicting himself. He is teaching us how to live with Christian power and vitality. What we seek to avoid doesn’t really matter if we are not clear on whom we are pursuing. Our power problem comes when we focus only on avoiding doing bad and not on pursuing Jesus as our greatest good. When we know and enjoy Jesus as our highest treasure, then the “no’s” and “do nots” begin to fall into their rightful place.
There is no greater Yes in all the world than the thrill of a relationship with Jesus. Pursue him with everything you have, and watch the light of your heart begin to turn on.