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The Holiness Instinct (and the Unexpected Temptation)

Though I didn’t know it when I began, this article would come to hang on a single moment, a single moment of temptation. On Saturday I found myself musing on personal holiness and the joyful reality that you can be far holier than you ever would have thought possible. On Sunday I began scribbling thoughts about the fact that God is able to transform you to such a degree that you develop entirely new instincts toward sin so that what was once alluring is now appalling. On Monday I had the unexpected opportunity to see if this was true.

God is wholly and relentlessly committed to our holiness. He is committed to our purity, to putting our sin to death. He is so committed to this that he will create within us a whole new relationship to sin, and even to our favorite pet sins. See, each of us enters the Christian life with sins that are so appealing, patterns of sin that are so deeply entrenched. We wonder if we can ever have freedom from these sins. We wonder if we will ever be able to resist these temptations, if we can ever see deep and lasting change.

As we grow in the Christian life we are challenged to fight such sin. The person who struggles with anger hears a sermon that teaches and applies “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). He sees his sin with new clarity, he calls out to God for help, and he goes toe-to-toe with the devil to put this sin to death. The person who skims a little off the top or takes it easy at work encounters these words in his personal devotions: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (4:28). He is cut to the heart, asks God for forgiveness, and searches God’s Word for what it says about a life of righteous honesty. The person who loves to gossip suddenly has these words come to mind during a time of corporate confession: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (4:29). She understands that God himself is challenging her and she repents and commits herself to speaking only what edifies and heals.

Over time these people find that the battle grows easier. A day comes when she realizes it has been weeks since she has gossiped, a day comes when he realizes it has been months since he has had an angry outburst. But it gets even better than that. One day she is faced with the temptation to gossip and her first instinct is to reject the opportunity and instead to speak words that give grace to those who hear. One day he is presented with a golden opportunity to enrich himself at someone else’s expense, and without even thinking about it, he turns away, choosing instead to do his work well and to give with generosity. Both understand that this is a profound evidence of God’s grace—he has given them entirely new instincts toward sin. Where their old instinct was to indulge, their new instinct is to refrain. Where their old instinct was toward sin, their new instinct is toward holiness. They now delight to do what is right in an area that was once the source of so much sin and so much temptation.

All of this was on my mind over the weekend. And then on Monday I went to search for something on Twitter. It was an innocent and well-intentioned search meant to help me find and respond to important information. But there at the top of the results, in high definition and impossible to miss, was a pornographic picture of a woman displaying what she offered and inviting me to just click for more. There was a time when that image would have been a sore temptation. There was a time when that image would have been an excuse for indulgence: “Satan tempted me and I barely stood a chance,” I could have said. But not this time. Within the smallest fraction of a second my heart, my eyes, my hand had reacted. My heart had said “no,” my eyes had turned away, and my hand had shut down the app. It was instantaneous. It was amazing. It was instinct. It was a gift of God, transforming and overwhelming a temptation of the devil. It was a moment to give thanks and praise to God. In this area, at least, God has transformed me. He has given me a new desire with a matching new instinct. And I give him the glory.


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