“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” ~ Hebrews 9:22
More than once in my life I have thanked God that we live on this side of the Cross of Jesus. It’s made our practice of faith so much more neat and tidy. Take our practice of the Lord’s Supper, for example.
In this ritual, we are handling elements that symbolize the tortured, bloodied, crucified body of our Savior. It’s in the words we use: The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you. Yet it comes packaged in a wafer and in wine or juice. It’s so clean and antiseptic. (Unless you’re like my nephew Josh who lost his grip on the little plastic cup and dumped a shot of grape juice square on the crotch of his khakis. Perfect bullseye. To this day he says I botched the handoff. But I’ve never laughed so hard in a worship service in my life.)
If you lived on the other side of the Cross, it would have been another story entirely. Worship in the temple was a bloody business, literally. Sacrifices were woven into every layer of the Jewish worship rituals. If you wanted to thank God, or confess a sin to God, or pray to God, or celebrate before God, you did so with an animal of one kind or another losing its life for you so you could appear before God. “It’s awful,” you say. Yes, it is. But all of it was necessary to make a point.
Thinking properly, the worshipper ought to have said to himself, “How awful must be the sin in my heart that this would be the remedy!” And all of it was necessary to serve as a pointer. Thinking properly, the observer watching Jesus cry out from the cross, “Father, forgive them!” ought to have said to himself, “O my God in heaven! At last I see! At last I understand! All those sacrifices were pointing to him!”
Though our worship today is so much tidier, the fact will remain to the end of time that holiness – the ability to find it and grow in it – is the messiest, nastiest, hardest of propositions. The evil of the human heart and the perplexity of life on this sin-encrusted planet cannot be over-exaggerated. Life is messy and we are broken.
Why Do I Need To Know This?
The reason I want to stress this idea as we come to the end of our time together is that many of you may feel discouraged by your lack of progress over this time. But the path to purity is not a 40-day project, but a lifelong journey of faith. If you’ve reached this point and still can hardly go a few days without keeping your head clear and heart clean, while it’s not OK, it’s still OK. OK?
It’s the difference between justification (you are saved if you belong to Christ), and sanctification (you are being saved.) Both are true. And will remain true throughout your life. (Warning: If anyone comes on the scene claiming to have arrived at the Station of Perfection or being close to pulling in, I’d get on another train if I were you.) The reason I am so adamant about pushing you to establish your own daily connection with Jesus is because when all is said and done, your progress will be between you and him.
For me it took roughly eighteen months to go from a place of naming my demons to being able to live life in relative freedom. For Augustine, the chains dropped off in a day (after a very long run-up period). Your story will be different. But if you continue to meet with Jesus, and allow him to speak to you through his Spirit, his Word and his people, the chains will drop off from you as well. 1 John 3:6 says, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning.” Christ in you will win the day. You in Christ, placing yourself daily in his presence, is your part.
But then, you must never stop this connecting. Because mastering the impulse to turn to porn is just getting you out the gate toward Christlikeness. You now have a race to run. Because I yielded so fully to this behavior, it became for me what some Christians call a “besetting sin”.
We all brandish Achilles heels. There are places in our heart where the levee is weak. (And don’t think sexual weakness is a “worse” sin in comparison to others. Romans 1:29-32 shows how a person who is easily overrun by worry, or who can never admit weakness, or who constantly runs down others is in just as ugly and destructive a place as the sexual prisoner.) Like a recovering alcoholic, I will never claim invulnerability to the temptation of sensual lust. Or absurdly claim that a woman’s body is no longer beautiful to my eyes.
Never Say, “I’ll Never Do That”
One of my professors in seminary said something I’ll never forget: When it comes to our besetting sins, we must never say, “I’ll never do that.” Instead we ought to say, “I must never do that.” There is a huge attitudinal difference between the two. Job didn’t say, “I’ll never look lustfully on a woman.” He said, “I’ve made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully on a woman” (Job 31:1). Job recognizes the vulnerability of his heart to temptation, as well as the lethal insanity of succumbing. He would agree with Frederick Buechner who said, “Lust is the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst.”
Fifteen years after his conversion, Augustine admitted in Confessions that he still struggled with the burnings of lust, especially in his sleep.
“But there still live in that memory of mine…images of the things which my habit has fixed there. These images come into my thoughts, and though when I am awake they are strengthless, in sleep they not only cause pleasure but go so far as to obtain assent and something very much like reality…
Surely Lord my God, I am myself when I am asleep? And yet there is a very great difference between myself and myself in that moment of time when I pass from being awake to being asleep or come back again from sleep to wakefulness. Where then is my reason which, when I am awake, resists such suggestions and remains unshaken if the realities themselves were presented to it? Do reason’s eyes close with the eyes of the body? Does reason go to sleep when the bodily senses sleep? (10:30)
Augustine would agree. Life is messy and we are broken.
A Question Many Are Afraid To Ask
Since Augustine intimated at the subject, what about masturbation? Is it a sin? Though it might surprise you, the Bible says nothing specifically about it. (Which doesn’t thereby make it fine. Abortion and credit card fraud aren’t mentioned either, but we can discern what to think of them by referring to dozens of related biblical principles.)
The Old Testament has a couple references to how the discharge of semen makes a male “unclean”, but the chapter in question (Leviticus 15) is focused on bodily discharges in general, and follows a section of chapters covering a variety of things that create ‘uncleanness’, from certain animals, dead carcasses, afterbirth, skin diseases, leprosy, even household mold. It’s important to note that these passages are not talking about sin.
When in Leviticus 18 a variety of sexual practices are condemned from bestiality to incest to homosexuality, the language is different. Adultery doesn’t make you merely unclean – it is perversion, it is an abomination. But having your period isn’t perverse. It’s biologically natural. As is the emission of semen, which the body is continually manufacturing.
Why then the ‘uncleanness’ language? The quick answer is to say that these chapters are in part a wonderful mercy of God, as he teaches bronze age humans, using language they would understand, antiseptic practices to protect them from infections long before they could grasp the concept of bacterium.
I think it’s rather remarkable that the Bible doesn’t condemn masturbation per se, because historically and culturally the common thought has been that it is shameful, foul, it will cause blindness, and your teeth to rot. It would have been very easy for one of the Bible writers to slip that in. But God wouldn’t let them do it.
Because masturbation is the stimulation of one of the body’s most intense pleasure centers, it makes sense that humans would be drawn to the practice. It’s because it feels good that we lift our face to the sun in early spring or reach for the brownie in a way we won’t reach for the Brussel sprout.
My wife will sometimes feign exasperation that I as a male am infatuated with her breasts. But of course I am! Not only is it biblical (cf. Proverbs 5:19, and you can bet I’ve quoted that Scripture to her a time or two), but it makes sense seeing how the breasts are tied directly in to the pleasure center of sex. If it was her knee caps that created that sort of response, then she’d have to shoo me away from them, and women would walk around wearing knee pads.
It’s not the act itself that is sinful. It’s the context in which the act is engaged in that helps us know if we’ve crossed a moral line or not. The problem inherent with masturbation is that it requires the engine of imagination to drive the car. (Not to start the car, mind you. Men typically experience three to five erections at night while sleeping which have nothing to do with erotic dreams at all. There you are in REM sleep solving algebra problems, and wham… Let’s not forget – God made the machinery. Go talk to him.)
But to drive the car forward, and to take it on the journey – that requires imagination. It’s what gets played on the theater of the mind that is a huge determining factor in whether we’ve jumped the barbed wire fence into sin country.
An argument could be made that a husband or a wife thinking only of each other, drawing on the love they have shared together, would in many instances be in safe terrain. Especially in a season where the husband and wife are forced apart, where one or the other is dispatched to serve on a military assignment, or on a business trip. When surrounded by so much loneliness and so many temptations, better to have this, than to yield to other alternatives. Or think of the widow or widower suddenly torn apart from their lover. Seeking solace in a warm memory to help soften a bitter agony would be a very human response in the weeks and months to come.
It is more than possible, as we’ve discussed earlier, to train the mind to call forward certain images and keep others locked away. However, be forewarned that sexual images are all stored in the same section of the brain’s warehouse. Once you begin allowing some to stretch their legs, the others will stir to life also.
On the other hand, in 1 Corinthians 7:5, when Paul describes married couples observing times of abstinence for the purpose of prayer, he quickly adds, “But then come together again (i.e. have sex), so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” A few verses later, he counsels those who are single that the alternative to “burning with passion” is not pornography and masturbation, but is marriage (1 Corinthians 7:9).
If ever there was an opportunity to recommend self-stimulation as a stop-gap measure, this would be it. Yet again, if ever there was an opportunity to condemn self-stimulation, this would be it. Paul is silent. Either because in his mind a) it is sinful in some degree, or b) it is such a pale substitute to the real thing, that there is no point in even comparing them.
And to be honest, there is an empty hollowness to masturbation, however enjoyable that burst of pleasure might be. While a married person has a mental collection of actual sexual memories with his or her partner, the bed is still empty in the end. Meanwhile, the single person can only rely on fantasy. Curling up with a good novel or getting lost in a movie is one thing. Plunging into an imaginary sexual playhouse is quite another. Deadly fairies are often waiting there. Deadly fairies who would love nothing more than to draw you further away from reality into an ever-deepening labyrinth of illusion. Which is far from harmless – many men conditioned by pornography discover that they struggle with a peculiar form of erectile dysfunction which makes it difficult to relate to their wives sexually.
These deadly fairies also do not like to let go once they begin dancing with you. Another concern with masturbation that makes it so problematic is that it is highly addictive. While we may tell ourselves that we need this to “take the edge off”, why is it then that the next night there’s a knock at the door and guess who’s back, asking for a hand-out. (Yes, I know. There’s a pun there.) Just once more, then I’ll go away. Promise.
My Lord has shown lenience with me in this area since the day the circus first came to town with puberty, but there has always been the sense of, “Let’s reel this in. Let’s keep this in check.” (Which would be my advice to parents as they talk to their children about this part of growing up. Please do not leave them to figure this out on their own!)
Paul teaches in Romans that when we have doubts about something, and we proceed anyway, we are no longer operating from faith. Which creates a dilemma for a believer, “for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 15:23). Just the fact that most of the time, masturbation leads to sense of “uncleanness” which goes beyond biology should be a sign of sorts.
What do we do when is life is messy and we are broken? We pray. As Augustine did when confronted by his weakness:
Almighty God, surely your hand is powerful enough to cure all the sicknesses of my soul and, with a more abundant measure of your grace, to quench even the lustful impulses of my sleep. Lord, you will increase your gifts in me more and more, so that my soul… may not be in revolt against itself and may not, even in dreams, succumb to or even give the slightest assent to those degrading corruptions which by means of sensual images actually disturb and pollute the flesh… But now I have explained to my good Lord what is still my state in this kind of evil, rejoicing with trembling in your gifts and grieving for my imperfections and hoping that you will perfect your mercies in me till I reached that fullness of peace which both my inward and my outer self will have with you when death shall be swallowed up in victory. (10:30)
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
When it comes to temptation, why is it better to say, “I must never do this” as opposed to saying, “I’ll never do this”?
Has masturbation been a problem in your life? While this is not necessarily sin, it can easily lead there – why?
What might be some strategies for reeling this behavior in?
Prayer and Worship
“Father, I thank you for…”
“Father, please help me with…”
“Father, please be with…”
“In the name of Jesus, who died for my sins, who rose from the dead and who is with me now through the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Today’s Worship Suggestion: “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone”) – (John Newton; added chorus by Chris Tomlin, Louie Giglio)
This Week’s Memory Verses
“For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” ~ Titus 2:11-12
“Take every thought captive to obey Christ.” ~ 2 Corinthians 10:5