As a young man, I often spent time around older men so I could receive their wisdom and counsel. I wanted to hear about their experience of living as Christians, and especially their experience of growing in holiness. I wanted their assurance that they had seen significant success in the battle against sin—not just that they had made hesitant little tip-toes toward holiness, but that they had become far more holy than they ever would have thought possible.
Sadly, few things were as alarming and discouraging as hearing older men talk about their sin. This was especially true of sexual sin. Not once did I hear men testify to pronounced, significant success in this area. Rather, I heard them speak of it as a constant trial and as an area of very little progress. Most often it was said not with brokenness but with a kind of wink-wink nudge-nudge. “I’m only human, you know.” “I may be fifty, but I’m still a man.” These men had given up the most blatant outward expressions of sexual immorality, but still had eyes that wandered and they still lived with fantasies playing in their minds.
What I kept hearing was, “Give it your best shot. Get rid of the most blatant sins. Don’t look at porn or commit adultery, but be realistic as well.” It’s like these men had reached a grudging, reluctant point of obedience that had smoothed out the roughest edges. And then they had determined that this was far enough. They thought it was unrealistic to expect much more of themselves. I was devastated when I heard an older friend I admired more than just about anyone else say, “I don’t think it matters where I get my appetite, as long as I eat at home.” Was that really the best I could hope for, that I’d be outwardly faithful to a wife but inwardly I would wander? Could I expect that I’d never really progress much beyond where I was as a young man? Did I have to resign myself to living forever with a mind that wandered and dreamed of all I didn’t have?
All the while I was reading the Bible and heard God say “[Treat] older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all [or absolute] purity” (1 Timothy 5:2) and “but among you, as is proper among the saints, there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality or impurity” (Ephesians 5:3). I read about Job and the covenant he made that he would never look with lust upon a young woman. What I longed to hear from an exemplary older man was, “Yes, you can be far holier than you ever thought possible. I know, because I am far holier than I ever would have thought possible.”
It took many years and a lot of pondering God’s Word before I realized that God really can make his people far holier than they thought possible. The change began with a simple but life-changing realization: God would not tell me to do something I could not actually do. I read, “[Treat] older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2) and understood that God was saying, “You actually can treat older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. You actually can be far purer than you ever thought possible.” I read, “there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality or impurity” and understood God was saying, “You actually can live without the constant sin and guilt of wandering eyes and a daydreaming mind. You can when you’re walking with me.”
I came to understand that God’s commands are not suggestions. They are not vague notions of propriety. They are not tasks or to-dos. Not to the Christian, that is. To the Christian, God’s commands are promises. They are promises that you really can be this, you really can have this, you really can do this if you take hold of what he offers. God does not merely give the command and then leave you to your own devices. That would be impossible. No, God gives the command and offers the means to obey and fulfill the command. He gives you the desire to put that sin to death, he gives you the desire to come alive to righteousness, and he gives you the Holy Spirit to make it all possible. When he gives you all this, there is nothing more to need! God commands so you can take hold of his promise and see him prove himself faithful. You actually can obey him all the way. You actually can be free from the sin, and not just in its broadest, most blatant forms.
To young men I want to say this (and young women and older men and older women): You can be far holier, far purer than you ever thought possible. You really can. You may not see your sin so completely and utterly vanquished that it never raises its ugly head again. But you can see massive, unbelievable success against that sin. You can, because God gives you a command. And where he gives a command, he also gives the means to obey.
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