In The Fellowship of the Ring, under the title “Shadows from the Past”, Gandalf explains to Frodo the power of the ring and what it does to Gollum:
“But if he hated it, why didn’t he get rid of it, or go away and leave it?”
“You ought to begin to understand, Frodo, after all you have heard”, said Gandalf. “He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter.”
Hold that snapshot of a wonderful story in your mind.
I am incredibly grateful to God for something. My little brother (who is taller, faster, fitter and generally better looking than me) has a wheat intolerance. He can’t eat gold bars. Or real bread. He is, quite simply, gluten free. I’m not. I can, within reason, eat what I like. The fact that I’m gluten+ and he is gluten- is, as far as I know, down to God’s unknowable sovereignty, something out of our control.
He is a lot better at sports than I am.
Anyway, the upshot is, that when he comes to visit, we head to a bit of sainsburys which proudly says ‘free from’, to get food that he can eat. We know, in a sense that is legally and (hopefully) scientifically backed up, that what we buy from there will be safe for my brother to eat, ‘free from’ gluten.
And that is quite a helpful image.
Hold it in your mind. Free from.
The Bridge ran a load of really helpful blogs recently on the whole thorny topic of masturbation, porn, and lust (find them here). There were some real gems, and I’d encourage you to check them out.
But, often, the way that we as Christians go about approaching these sorts of problems is all backwards. Or worse than backwards. We start with what we should do (legalism) rather than what Jesus has done (Grace). Sometimes this starts, or is linked with, a broken and limited appeal to Romans 12:2, a verse so often ripped out of context to justify guilt-inducing legalism:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
That’s the NIV version. And I’ve sat through quite a few seminars where this one verse is ripped out of a beautiful passage, and we’ve been told to work out the patterns of this world, and then think about ways to stop them having such control in our lives. You know the drill: late night internet use, home alone, couple of beers, music channels, on holiday, on business, etc, etc. Of course, identifying these ‘patterns’ is a good thing. But its not good enough. It is not going to stop you from sinning.
Which is hardly surprising, given that the word ‘pattern’ appears only in this translation, the NIV, and not in the NLT, ESV, NASB, KJV, HCSB, ISV, NET, ASV, ERV,WEB, YLT, and so on. Isn’t it rather dangerous to base a whole theology of legalistic sin-busting on one word which appears in one translation, and doesn’t, to my knowledge, appear in the Greek text? In fact, the word for ‘pattern’ (ish) in the New Testament might be seen to be ‘tupos’. And the majority of uses of that word refer to the example set for us by Christ. The thing(s) that he has done, not anything that we can do.
In his brilliant book on Romans, ‘God is For Us’, Simon Ponsonby notes three powerful things that those who go on Alcoholics Anonymous must admit:
- We admit we are powerless over alcohol.
- We believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us.
- We decide to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
This is a radically different pattern to freedom from sin than one that, deliberately or not, decides to focus on what we can do.
I think this is more like what Romans 12 is actually getting at. Verses 1-3 are peppered with beautiful Gospel-phrases like ‘the mercies of God’, ‘worship’, ‘be transformed’, ‘grace given’, ‘as God has allotted’. This passage, let alone verse 2, is not about us and what we do, it is what a life lived in worship of God is meant to look like, based on what Christ has done. The starting place is different. The starting place is, similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous plan, admitting that we are powerless, believing in the one who is powerful, and deciding to live in the light of that.
But what does that life look like?
It looks like a heart transplant. It looks like being a completely different person - because, in light of the cross, you are a different person. It looks like being part of a church (Romans 12:3-8) with an awareness of your own limitations and reliance on others, even as you all rely on Christ. Paul moves on, in Romans 12:19, to talk about the kind of life the individual lives in order to look like Christ. To demonstrate, ultimately, that they are free from sin. And thought pattern identification is nowhere to be found. This is because such ways of thinking are part of being conformed to this world, rather than being conformed to Christ.
We humans love to do it our way. To try to add to what Jesus has done. When we come to Christ, we are children finding our family. Refugees finding a new nation. Human beings coming fully alive. But, all too often, our desire to sort things out ourselves leads us to become legalists, and as Simon Ponsonby puts it; “Legalists are refugees from grace”. Is there anything more terrible than to be away from what saves us? to be apart from our true, saving identity in Christ? Don’t be like Gollum. Gollum couldn’t do anything. He had nothing, no-one to draw on. But Christ is different. He is real, and ours, and present and active by the Holy Spirit.
Don’t give up on carefully, prayerfully, full-of-the-Spirit-ly fighting sin. But don’t make it about you. Do not concentrate on what you can do - concentrate on what Jesus has done. And the fact that you were bought at a price to live a better life. And that whenever you fall, whatever mistakes you make, our Big Brother Jesus grabs us by the shoulders, shakes us, and sets us back on the way. Don’t make it about you. You will fail. Make it about him. Because his work, as he said through dry, cracked lips 2000 years ago on the cross, is different. “It is finished”.