As I continue to read book 14 of the City of God, which speaks much of emotions and affections, I am beginning to see a very practical outworking of all of this. For instance, here’s another great quote from book 14, chapter 10. It refers to a hypothetical situation where Adam and Eve would have desired to eat the fruit and but abstained only because of fear of God’s punishment. “And, indeed, this is already sin, to desire those things which the law of God forbids, and to abstain from them through fear of punishment, not through love of righteousness.”
The sin, in this line of thinking, comes well ahead of the deed. With pornography, the sin would then come when you’re on the car on the way home and looking forward to your illicit pleasure. It’s hard for me to say if this is true. For instance, if you get home and your Internet is out, then have you still sinned through your desire in the car? Augustine uses “Whoever looks at a woman with lust has committed adultery already” as his reasoning that the desiring and lusting after something wrong (sexual or not) is already sin.
To me, it’s too great an effort to draw such a fine border around sin in a case like this. I’d rather just say that the looking forward to the porn and the looking at it are both parts of the same sin, rather than getting bogged down in technicalities. Personally, I’d say that deciding to look at porn is already sin. As far as desiring after it even before the decision… that’s where I think you’re just thinking too hard.
However, when it comes to strategy to fight the sin (this is where things get practical), what you really must fight is that desire. Fighting when you get home is too late. Fighting to make the right decision in the car is wiser, but it’s hit-and-miss. One day, you may decide to go to a friend’s house instead of home and avoid the tempting situation (a great tactic), but you’re not in ultimate victory if you still can’t go home after work because the temptation is so strong. Ultimate victory comes when your affections have been changed. So, to gain ultimate victory over sin, rather than fighting the actions of the sin itself, you must find a way to fight the affection that causes that sin, because when your heart realigns itself, the sin will stop.
Take another example: smoking. You can fight and fight and fight. You can even live in a program like the one where I worked recently, Alpha Academy, where your life is closely monitored and smoking is banned. But if the desire to smoke is strong enough, you’re going to wind up smoking again (which a few of our students recently did). You can gain some victory in a program like Alpha, but if you spend your entire time in that program dreaming about cigarettes, then when you go out into the real world, you’re going to find yourself smoking, again. Your victory was dependent on circumstances. You focused on fixing your actions (through being in a group living situation) while all the while dreaming of smoking.
However, if your desires change away from cigarettes, then you can find victory. It was so with me and video games. I struggled with an awful addiction, but it wasn’t until I really had a change of heart that I gained long-term victory. This began when I got a painful tendonitis in my hands from playing too many games and using the computer too much, which forced me for a season to stop entirely. But I spent my time mourning that I couldn’t play games like I used to, and if my tendonitis were healed, I would have gone back to them to some extent.
It wasn’t after my first missions trip, when God moved in my heart, showed me that I had real-life adventures to lived for, and ignited my heart for Him, that I really gained true victory. It’s no longer my hands that keep me from playing. It’s my heart: I know that I have better things to do with my life. And at times I can play in a non-addictive way without a problem. That’s victory.
Now, I still fall at times. The most dangerous place for me is being at my parent’s house without much to do. It’s the same house and the same temptation as when I was in high school, and it can be too much for me. In a sense, the addict doesn’t die completely till our earthly flesh decays. This happened a few months ago when I had a couple weeks of freedom after returning from Japan, and one day I played an old DOS game for 8 hours straight. But I repented and it’s behind me. It was an isolated incident, not a doorway into being ruled again by the addict.
How we fight sin
So, our strategy in the war against our sin is to change our affections. But what are our logistics of that strategy, the specifics?
First, you can’t just push out an affection. It must be replaced with something better. Let’s say you have a project to remove all the air from a glass cup. Try doing so by creating an airless vacuum, and at best you’ll shatter the cup. But if you pour water in the cup, mission accomplished. It’s against human nature to simply remove affections. We must replace them with a greater affection, and the ultimate answer to this is to replace them with great love for the One who authored all our affections and who is “The fountain of all our happiness. He is the end of all our desires.” I still have some desire for video games, but it’s utterly eclipsed by my desire to live out the true adventure God has authored for me.
In my experience, this often happens in major ways when people are anointed/baptized/filled with the Holy Spirit. I speak of a post-salvation experience where the Spirit (who already is living in you) moves in your heart powerfully and fills you, and your life is never the same. This happened to me the morning after I got back from that mission trip. It’s different from a mere emotional experience for God, because though it is greatly emotional, it also changes the course of your life.
The frustrating part is this: we can’t make it happen. It is a gift that God chooses to bestow at will. In other words, it is a grace. All we can do is to passionately cry out for the anointing of the Spirit and to follow God as best we can, realizing that He is the One who ultimately produces serious sanctification.
Second, realize who you really are in Christ. Read and analyze Romans 7, which tells us that though there is a fleshy nature that still lives in us, at heart we are people renewed in the inner man, and that inner man longs after God. Straighten out your thinking: your identity is such that you already long for Jesus and want to get rid of sin. You sin, yes, but the war has already been won at the cross. In a sense, you must align your affections to who you have already been made in Jesus: a new man.
Third, remember the spiritual element. Satan can manipulate our affections and enslave us to sin, and he has a lot of power in our lives when there are sinful habits of many years. So, gather people around you to join in strong, spiritual-warfare prayer. Remember that there is an enemy outside as well as inside.
Forth, as much as possible, don’t do those sins. Often, pleasurable sinning reinforces the love of that sin (i.e. when you smoke, you enjoy it, so you want to do it again). So, minimize the habit. But of course, if it were in your power to do this and avoid the sin, you wouldn’t be reading this, so don’t sweat it if there’s not instant victory. Rather, try this next idea.
Do things that will make you hate your sin. This is still a bit of a theory for me, so let me know how it works. Say you’re addicted to smoking. Smoke in such a way that it’s not enjoyable. Put negative associations in your mind with that smoking. For instance, rather than doing it around other people, go out by yourself in the cold without a jacket and smoke. Associate it with loneliness and cold, and see if your affections change at all. That’s part of what freed me from video games: they became associated with pain. If you look at porn and masturbate, don’t try to maximize your pleasure in doing so, do whatever it takes to minimize your pleasure (i.e. if you’re going to masturbate, go to the bathroom and do it, away from the images, to minimize the pleasure). Make sin less enjoyable, not because pleasure inherently is evil, but because doing so makes your heart long after sin less. It’s a step towards ultimate victory.
But remember: guilt does not produce freedom. It produces deeper slavery. When you feel guilty because you’ve sinned, what do you do to cope with that guilt? Well, there’s a good chance that sooner or later, you will turn to your sinful habit. That’s why guilt gives sin even more power over you.
To break this guilt-sin cycle, God’s grace must step in, and this is the ultimate thing that produces true holiness in us. Primarily, it does so through the blood that Jesus shed for us at the cross. When our hearts truly absorb the fact that all our sin was tortured into his mutilated body on the cross, the power of sin is broken. When we realize that “There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), we’re halfway to freedom. Satan’s power is broken and our guilt is gone and the temptation is that much weaker. That mercy is the ultimate grace.
As an aside, grace is other things as well. If we call grace “an unmerited gift,” then grace can take a thousand forms. The anointing of the Spirit is a grace. It’s a gift (given at God’s choice). And it’s unmerited (we don’t deserve it). When our affections change in any way, it’s a grace. Even if we work for it, we do so realizing that we don’t deserve it and can’t make it happen. Victory over the devil is also a grace – God’s power makes it happen, not ours. These specific manifestations of grace are often called “means of grace.”
But it’s hard to keep our forgiveness at heart on our own. We need other grace-focused individuals around us to do to so. It’s like having a bad night of sleep then trying to stay awake through a boring lecture: almost impossible. But if you say to your friend next to you, “poke me if I nod off,” then you’ll stay awake. We need those pokes of “God loves you; remember your righteousness at the cross; as far as the east is from the west…” And those pokes need to come from someone outside us, because if we are down, we need someone who’s feeling good to help us. This is what a good accountability group is: not one where you go and tell everyone what you have done wrong, but one where everyone reminds you of your blood-bought innocence and purity when you sin.
The advice could go on and on: stay away from tempting situations (i.e. don’t go home from work when you’re tempted with porn). Make major lifestyle sacrifices to stay away from sin (like going without Internet). And so forth and so on. But ultimately, I would leave you with the importance of grace over all things. Remember God’s forgiveness at the cross.