The world seems as if it's changed so much since I was a kid. The person who didn't go to church was the exception then. Now, a regular church attendee is less common than ever. Researchers and laypersons alike make claims on why this is, and each theory has its merits. I have my own theory, but it isn't a pleasant one.
Sinning is winning. The real reason people drop out of church, doubt their faith, or become apathetic is sin. This isn’t something a researcher can easily uncover. Most people who fall prey to the deceptiveness of sin, which spills over into unbelief or apathy (Heb. 3:12-13), don't even realize that's what's happened. Sin is so deceptive because it tricks you into thinking something or someone else is to blame for the damage caused. There are basically two categories of sin that I believe are driving people to abandon faith.
The first is the lesser of the two evils. Many people report leaving the church because they were hurt by someone in the church. That's sad, but what I hear in words like these is the sin of anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness. Often I hear, “The church is full of hypocrites.” What I hear in the accusation is gossip and even slander. This is why I say that people leave the church because of their own sin. They abandon the faith because of the deceptiveness of sin. These sins are damaging, but there is a category of sin that is more damaging still.
There is no category more destructive than sexual sin. Now, when I say sexual sin, I would guess you envisioned the unmarried sexually active, adulterers, sex addicts, maybe even the practicing homosexuals. Of course, each of those demonstrates a kind of sexual sin, but none of those are new. In fact, each of those sins have been in high demand since the near beginning of the world.
Though the sin itself is an old one, there is a new vehicle for sexual sin that has come about in my lifetime. It's become so ubiquitous it affects virtually everyone in the world. It offers a kind of sexual sin that is private and, its deceptive promises of low stakes and minimal destruction are too alluring for the average person.
I'm talking about internet pornography. I will not give you a statistics bath because you already know all that. It suffices to say, it's a global problem. When I meet a man in my age range, my default assumption is that they are into porn at some level. I assume that if a man in my age bracket is not engaged in pornography, it's because he has mounted a hard-fought battle against it. I work under the assumption that porn affects pretty much everyone.
This is true for women as well. Though the statistics are slightly lower for female porn consumption, they are high enough to assume that most of the women in my age bracket or younger are affected by porn in some direct way.
We are a country bathed in sexual sin. We also see the effects of a church covered in sexual sin. It's no wonder that, as the internet became widely available (around the time I was in high school), so too did church attendance took its historic nosedive. There have only been a few researchers who have thought to compare porn use against religiosity, and their findings support what we already know. Those who are engaged in sexual sin (in this case, porn) become less religious over time. They move away from the faith.
The effects aren’t only felt in the church. The traditional family unit is the building block of the entire society. Sexual sin, whether porn or otherwise, unglues the marriage bonds between the mother and the father of a family. This is unraveling the social fabric of nations worldwide. Sexual sin is an absolute killer for human society. The world is being strangled by it.
It isn't our job to force a country, culture, or society to be moral, especially when unbelievers comprise most of that nation. Our responsibility is to focus on how we ourselves function as the body of Christ. We have a personal responsibility to defeat sins. We need solutions that can help break us out of the stranglehold sexual sin has on us. I believe that Paul gives us just what we need in Colossians. Let's take a look.
Therefore, put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Col. 3:5)
You’ll notice the verse ends with the word: idolatry. In the ancient world, the kinds of things on this list, which all seem to be associated with sexual sin, were likewise connected to idolatry. The temples were packed with sexual activities for anyone to watch and even partake in. There is a clear progression from idolatry to sexual immorality.
In this list of sins, Paul begins with the obvious and external sin, but it's as if he's following that sin down, looking for what's underneath it. Sexual immorality grows out of impurity. Impurity comes from lust. Lust is born from evil desire. Evil desires are built upon a foundation of covetousness. Covetousness is ultimately idolatry.
In no uncertain terms, Paul commands them (and us) to put these immoral aspects to death. We are to go to war against our sin nature. We must kill the sin. Only a few verses later, Paul gives another list of sinful aspects that we must overcome.
But now you must also put away all the following: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another… (Col. 3:8-9)
Once again, Paul gives us a tall order. Notice that this list has to do with how we interact with one another. We are to put away these sinful traits. The wording gives the sense that the Colossians already knew they were to put to death the sexual sins previously mentioned (vs. 5). Now they (and we) are to do away with evil inclinations which damage our interpersonal relationships.
Before we figure out how to overcome these sins, let's list and categorize them. You may have noticed that some sins are external sins (done with the body), while others are internal sins (done with the mind). So let's arrange the list accordingly.
Essentially, he’s saying, about each of these sins, “Stop It!” We are to quit doing these sins. Sounds simple, right?
It kind of reminds me of an old Bob Newhart comedy sketch where he plays a psychologist. He has a client who comes in with claustrophobia, bulimia, chronic destructive relationships, and several phobias. He simply shouts, "stop it." It's funny because it really is that simple, but simple doesn't always mean easy. We know as Paul has told us that we should stop these deplorable habits, but how do we do it?
It would be natural to write a rule book to eradicate these sins. A very human approach would be to create rules that keep these sinful aspects out of our lives. So what kind of rules might allow the Colossians (and us) to avoid the kinds of things on the list?
Sexual immorality: No fornication/adultery.
Idolatry: No idolatrous rituals.
Wrath: No violence.
Slander: Don’t say mean things.
Filthy language : Don’t cuss.
Lying: Don’t lie.
How doable is our rule book so far? Well, it may be hard, but not impossible. Rules like these might actually affect behavior, external behavior, at least. A person could likely improve their external behavior by stopping their weekly trip to the temple prostitute or maybe avoiding the brothel where they get into most of their fistfights. Making body-rules might curtail some external bad behavior, but what about the other half of the list? We're halfway there. We've made rules for the external sins. Now let's finish up and take an early lunch. Let's make some rules that kill our internal sins:
Lust: … uh… well…
Impurity: … let’s see…
Evil desire: ...don’t… uh…
Covetousness: …this isn’t working…
Malice: …I give up…
Anger: …and now I’m mad…
There’s a problem. Paul tells us to put to death these sinful aspects too. The half that are external sins are going to be hard enough. Now we’re supposed to kill the internal desires as well? Oh, no! We have a problem. Don’t forget what Paul said, and pay special attention to the last line:
…the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!” …provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires. (Col. 2:20-23)
Making body-rules provides no help in conquering a person’s evil desires. Making rules will not fix lust, desire, covetousness, anger, or malice. You can’t beat lust and malice by making rules not to lust and have malicious thoughts. There has to be a different method.
I’ve seen this reality in my own life. For years I fought a losing battle against pornography. Through those years, I made all kinds of rules for myself. I tried rules like,
Don’t go to certain websites.
Don’t look at full-frontal nudity.
Don’t rent or buy NC-17 movies.
As you can see, there are all kinds of loopholes in these rules. The number of rules I'd have to make in order to wall myself off from adult content was more than I was willing to invent. Even if my rules were airtight, it wouldn't matter. At one point, I recall ripping the internet cable out of the wall. That made me unable to look at porn in my room, but it turns out there is porn in other rooms too.
The real problem was that rules don't change what's on the inside. My evil desires could remain alive and well in a rule-based economy. That's because external body-rules provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.
How then, do we beat lust, evil desires, malice, and coveting? He’s already answered that in a previous verse. He said:
Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. (Col. 3:2)
There is mind-work to do. We need to spend our mental energy focusing on Christ and things above. When we crowd our mind with Godly thoughts, it starves those evil desires.
The mind is an amazing creation. I don’t know about you, but I can only think about one thing at a time. Sure, my mind might bounce around with the greatest of ease, but I can only think about one thing. Paul is teaching us to use this to our advantage. The more time we spend with our minds set on things above, the less time we have to feed our evil desires.
Rule making method:
provides no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.
Set your mind on things above,
and you’ll put to death evil desires.
Paul gives us the consequences if we are unable to kill our sinful desires. The consequence of the sexual sins, both external and internal, is this:
Because of these, God’s wrath comes on the disobedient, and you once walked in these things when you were living in them. (Col. 3:6-7)
Those who are disobedient experience God’s wrath. Notice that this wrath is a present reality. God allows people who are living in sin to experience wrath in the here-and-now. Jesus says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” (Revelation 3:19) This is true for believers and unbelievers alike. God will allow his present temporary wrath to motivate people to move toward obedience.
I've gotten into this habit, which I think is good. When someone tells me that their life is falling apart, they can't find peace, or they are miserable, somewhere in the conversation, I'll sometimes ask, "Is it possible that you're experiencing God's discipline?" Much of the time, the difficulties we experience are just the natural outcome of living in a fallen world. Sometimes, though, our lack of peace and prevalence of struggle is God's attempt to usher us back to obedience. For those who are living in sexual sin, God’s temporary wrath is not a probability; it's a promise.
If we want to escape God’s temporary wrath and discipline, then we need to put to death and put away our sinful practices. The way we do that is to keep our minds fixed on Christ and things above. You should stop these things:
…since you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self. (Col. 3:9)
We’ve put off the old self and put on the new self. That essentially means the same thing as something he said earlier. He explained that Christ has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. (Col. 2:20-21) We (believers) can overcome sin. We can beat our dark nature. We have the power to live a growing and maturing lifestyle. However, that doesn't mean we do it automatically.
There is a distance between the perfectly sinless new self and the fleshly old self. The old you is still hanging around.
Imagine this: You get a loan to buy your first house. The title contract comes with a strange clause. The former owner of the house must be allowed to remain in the house until he passes away.
You buy the house and move in. It's weird and uncomfortable. The former owner is a grizzled old grump. He has his way of doing things, and any time you try to do things differently, he shouts and threatens you. Much of the time, it's easier to just let him run the house, even though you own it.
Our old self and new self are like this. When you got saved, a born again spirit took up residence in you, but the old fleshly self hasn’t been evicted yet. That won’t happen until the resurrection. There is a constant battle between the old self and the new self. You can give control to God and allow your new self to live free from sins, but the battle constantly rages between the flesh - the old self - and the spirit - the new self.
We’ve already put on the new self when we got saved but, how do we actively live in accordance with the ways of the new self? How do we live out a new-self lifestyle? Paul told us: Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. (Col. 3:2) That’s how we do it. Now when we follow Paul’s instructions, something incredible happens. Notice how he puts it:
You are being renewed in knowledge according to the image of your Creator… (Col. 3:10)
This is such a powerful statement. When we set our minds on Christ and heavenly things, God transforms us. But notice where the transformation begins. The renewing begins in the same place that stores knowledge: The Mind! The change begins in the mind. When we set our minds on Christ and things above, we are renewed; we are transformed to be more like him. We look a little more like the image of our Creator when we set our minds on Him. When our minds go to God, his transforming power comes to us one thought at a time.
Now, this comes with a caveat. If there is no Godly knowledge in your mind, then there is no fuel for your transformation. Setting your mind on Christ and things above implies that you will have spent some time in God's word, Christ-centered fellowship, and prayer. There has to be Godly knowledge for your mind to have something to feed on.
This concept is like the knowledge pantry. If you stock the pantry with junk food, then that's all you'll eat, and you won't transform. If you stock your pantry with wholesome food, then it will transform your body when you eat it. Your knowledge pantry is the same way. When you stock your mind with Godly knowledge (gained from His word), then you have something wholesome to feast on. When you set your focus on that Godly knowledge, it has the same effect as wholesome food has on your body. It brings about transformation.
What does that look like practically? When you set your mind on Christ and things above, it crowds out the evil desires in your mind. Focusing on Jesus and heavenly things brings about a change. From that new mindset, all kinds of behavioral renewal will flow. Now let’s try to put this into practice. Let’s go back to our internal sins-list.
How might we handle these kinds of internal sins with the mindset method? I can tell you what’s working for me. My goal is to keep my mind focused on Christ and heavenly things. When my mind wanders toward my evil desires, I lean on those familiar helpful habits: prayer, Bible study, and fellowship.
The helpful habit of prayer: If I’m tempted to lust, the first thing I do is call out to the Lord (aloud if I’m alone) for deliverance from the temptation. In addition to this, I pray daily for help in overcoming my known temptations.
The helpful habit of Bible study: If the temptation comes back, I'll continue to pray, but I'll also spend some extra time in Scripture to get my mind back in the right place. I have a friend that told me when he's tempted, he turns on a favorite Bible study podcast. In addition to this, I try to spend a little time regularly reading some Scripture, usually in the mornings.
The helpful habit of fellowship: If the temptation persists, I’ll usually talk about my temptation with a wise and trustworthy believer. I seek counsel and wisdom through trusted avenues of fellowship.
These habits help me set my mind where it ought to be. Rather than trying to make rigid rules and follow them in my flesh-powered strength, I lean on the methods God has provided to keep our minds stayed on him. This mindset method works for any of the internal sins.
As we drown out the evil desires with Christ-centered thoughts, we are able to starve the sin. Our transformation happens one thought at a time when we set our minds on God.
So, how do we remove sins? We kill sin indirectly. We set our minds where they are supposed to be, and God changes our desires as we do so. God gives power to our new self to overcome the sins one Godly thought at a time. To kill your earthly sins, set your mind on things above.