How far is too far?
Nitpickerus: Dionysius, in our last discussion you argued that God teaches there is to be no sex except in the context of a lifelong, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman.
Dionysius: That's right. No sex outside marriage.
Nitpickerus: So how far can unmarried adults go? Come on, spell it out. How far is too far?
Dionysius: Why do you want to know?
Nitpickerus: Well I need to know when I should stop, so I don 't upset God.
Dionysius: But isn't 'how can I avoid upsetting God?' the wrong question? You make God sound like some legalistic task-master demanding appeasement. He's our loving Father who gave up his own Son for us. Isn't the question rather 'how can I best please God?' How can I put him absolutely first -before family, friends, wife - even life itself? How can I love him with all my heart, soul, mind and strength?
Nitpickerus: This is all very idealistic Dionysius, but how do we know if we are loving God?
Dionysius: If we love God we'll obey him. It's as simple as that. If we're prepared to disobey his commands in order to get what we want, then quite clearly we don't love him enough.
Nitpickerus: Yes, but that still begs the question of what his commands actually are. The Lord doesn't give us specific rules about how far we can go.
Dionysius: Perhaps not, but he gives us some very useful principles. The thing to remember is that God sees everything we do both in public and in private. With this whole question of 'going too far' perhaps we need to ask ourselves the following questions: Would I like younger Christians to follow my example in doing this? Would my brothers and sisters in Christ be happy if they knew what I was doing? If my non-Christian friends knew I was doing this would it increase the chance of them coming to Christ? Would I like news of what I'm doing or thinking to be shouted from the rooftops? If the answer to any of these questions is no then perhaps we are 'going too far' as you put it. Most importantly of all, am I treating this other person in the way I myself would like to be treated, or in the way I would like my future wife or husband to be treated by someone else? Is what I am doing protecting, building up and honouring this other person?
Thoughts and actions
Nitpickerus: You mentioned thinking. Isn't this where the whole problem starts? We begin by imagining what we'd like to do and then all of a sudden, there we are doing it.
Dionysius: Yes wrong desire ultimately leads to wrong action. But it really begins even earlier than this. To get on the slippery slope in the first place you have first to doubt that God knows best. The real root of sin is unbelief. Eve's first mistake was to doubt God's word, to think that she knew best, to put herself in the place of God. Then the wrong desire came, then the sinful action.
Nitpickerus: Didn't Jesus say that a man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her?
Dionysius: Yes, the key question is: what's going on in our minds? We all face temptation, but accepting an unclean thought and starting to imagine doing it is equivalent to actually doing it, in God's eyes.
Nitpickerus: So then it's no worse to go the whole way?
Dionysius: This is of course what some people argue. If imagination is equivalent to action, then why not be honest about it and go the whole way? But this is muddled thinking. The point is that we should view sinful thoughts as seriously as sinful actions, and abstain from both. Otherwise we'll be just like the Pharisees Jesus condemned - appearing righteous on the outside but full of hypocrisy and wickedness on the inside.
But I can't stop doing it
Nitpickerus: But this seems an impossible standard.
Dionysius: It does, and this is the very conflict that the apostle Paul struggles with in his letter to the Romans: 'I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do -this I keep on doing. . . . For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body. . . making me a prisoner. . . What a wretched man I am!'
Nitpickerus: I can identify with that. I thought the Christian life was meant to be one of victory but it's more like defeat. How do we cope with this terrible conflict? Sometimes it just pulls me apart!
Dionysius: People try to cope in different ways. Some just try to deny that what they are doing is sin. If you sin often enough eventually you'll stop feeling guilty, especially if you surround yourself with people who will agree that you're doing nothing wrong. But this is extremely dangerous. God views very seriously those who deliberately persist in sin after coming to a knowledge of the truth.
Nitpickerus: What sort of sexual sins do people attempt to justify to themselves outside of marriage?
Dionysius: Oh, anything at all: homosexual acts, pornography, pre-marital sex, lustful thoughts and a whole host of behaviour in between, masturbation... you name it.
Nitpickerus: Masturbation? There's nothing in the Bible about that!
Dionysius: There are no specific prohibitions, true. People have tried to build a case from certain scriptures, although probably not convincingly. However, isn't the real issue lust? Isn't the real question 'what's going on in the mind?' You can't separate the thoughts from the action. Ultimately we don't have a right to do what we like with our own bodies. Our bodies are not our own. They also belong to our spouses, if we are married, but more importantly they belong to God.
What's the secret of victory?
Nitpickerus: Anyway, you said some cope by simply refusing to call sin sin. What do others do?
Dionysius: Many just persist in their sin, feeling terribly guilty but apparently unable to stop.
Nitpickerus: Well is there any solution?
Dionysius: Paul asks the same question in the passage we were considering. 'Who will rescue me from this body of death?', he says, and then provides his own answer: 'Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord!'
Nitpickerus: That sounds great but how does it work out in practice?
Dionysius: As I said before all sin has its root in unbelief of some kind. We need first to have a good understanding of what God's Word teaches about who we are in Christ. When we become Christians our old self is crucified with Christ - we die to sin. This means that we are freed from the clutches of sin , in other words that we no longer have to be controlled by our sinful natures. The fundamental problem is that many Christians simply fail to recognize or believe this. They think they have no choice but to sin, that they are still slaves to it. Nothing could be further from the truth. We can still choose to sin of course. We will still be tempted to sin. We may feel at times that temptation is overwhelming and that we simply must give in, but this is simply not true. The truth is that a change has taken place in our lives. We have been born again. We have been raised to live a new life. We have received the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ within us, and we are thus able to do what God desires. By God's grace we can resist temptation, even temptation that we've never successfully resisted before. We do not have to sin, Nitpickerus. Of course if we do and confess it, Christ will forgive us, but why bother to sin? Why continue to be a slave to what we've been freed from? More importantly, why grieve the one who loves us?
Nitpickerus: So what do we have to do?
Dionysius: First, we must have the courage to be tough on wrong thoughts or actions in our own lives. We must call sin sin. Second, we must confess our sin to God asking for his forgiveness. Third, we must turn from it, that is stop doing it, asking for his help. Fourth, we must walk in obedience to him, according to his Spirit and resist further temptation. This is possible because God has promised that we will never be tempted beyond our power to resist (although it may feel like it at times) and that he who successfully resisted all temptation lives in us to help us. And if we love God, and truly seek to do his will, this is exactly what we will do. If we fall, then we just start all over again. But the best way of dealing with wrong thoughts and actions is by replacing them with thoughts and actions which please God.
Nitpickerus: What is the evidence that the whole thing is working?
Dionysius: Obedience. We will see our lives start to change in ways we didn't think possible. It may be slowly and erratically at first, but we'll begin to have victory over those sins which once mastered us. Eventually we'll begin to see the things in which we once indulged in the way that God sees them, for the terrible slavish addictions that they are. We'll no longer see them as options for us as Christians.
Nitpickerus: Of course, lust is one thing. Falling in love is quite another. How do we cope with that?
Dionysius: That, Nitpickerus, is a question which should wait for the next issue of Nucleus.