In Monday’s really theologically dense blog (I know it was a tough read!), I attempted to describe the gospel-way to turn from sin and obey Jesus. Too often our strivings—okay, my own strivings—to turn from sin are driven by fear and empowered by nothing more than mere human willpower. The gospel, though, gives us much better fuels for obedience: faith and joy. If you haven’t read that blog yet, please do so before you continue into this post. Or don’t. It’s a free country; do what you want.
Okay, let’s say you decide to step out of a fear-driven way of following Jesus and adopt the way of faith and joy. You jump into the Bible and start praying for God to strengthen your faith and fill you with his Spirit. Are you going to be floating through life on a Holy Spirit cloud of happiness on day 1? I mean, it’s possible. God is full of surprises and seems to take pleasure in doing really odd things. But that’s not usually how he works.
Something I have learned even in my short six years of following Jesus is that growing in joy, faith, and love takes time. When we were born-again, we were instantaneously changed at the very core of our being. God gave us faith to believe in his Son (Ephesians 2:8) and boom, we believed. But building ourselves up in this faith is a continual and often frustratingly slow process. Having our affection for God strengthened takes time. Having our hatred for sin deepened takes time. So as we set out to grow strong in the joy of the Spirit, we should anticipate that it probably isn’t going to happen overnight.
So what do we do in the interim? Feeling full of faith and joy in God may take time and diligence, but we need to turn from sin today. Some say we shouldn’t turn from sin until we actually feel like turning from it. They think that repenting when we don’t actually feel like repenting is somehow inauthentic or fear-driven. I strongly disagree. I believe it is totally possible for obedience to be authentic and fueled by faith, love, and joy even when we don’t feel very faithful, loving, or joyful toward God.
The key is obeying for the sake of joy—or in other words, for the hope of future joy.
When you feel totally void of Jesus as you sit alone in your room at 2am, and everything within you wants to pull up a pornographic website, you can resist temptation for the sake of your joy in God. If in that moment you have any sliver of faith that God is better than porn, and you choose to say no to sin because you believe you will gain more joy in God if you deny yourself, that is joy-based, faith-driven, Spirit-empowered repentance. Though you didn’t feel joy in God, by faith you made a decision to hope in future joy. Your obedience proceeded from your belief in the truth and was empowered by nothing less than the Spirit of God.
I have not spent decades cultivating a heart that finds joy in God, but I know many who have. They all attest to the fact that even as their joy in God has grown, and fighting sin from their joy has become an increasing reality in their lives, they still have many moments in which their desire for sin is overwhelmingly strong, and their affection for God is weak. In these times of temptation, they choose to kill sin for the sake of the future joy they know will come through their obedience. As much as we may not like it, choosing to obey Christ when we don’t feel like obeying Christ will always be a facet of fighting the flesh. But letting go of sin, even when all we want to do is cling to it, does bring joy. That joy may not come flooding in immediately (though I can’t ever remember a time I turned from sin and didn’t feel some level of happiness immediately), but as we continue to move away from sin and sow to the Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit will manifest in our lives (Galatians 6:7-8).
If you take away anything from this blog, let it be this: Spirit-fueled obedience isn’t always easy. It often feels more like swimming upstream than coasting down river. Though swimming against the current of this world and our flesh is hard, if it weren’t for the power of the Spirit, you wouldn’t be swimming at all. You’d be dead and floating lifeless down the river of life. So don’t be discouraged by the difficulty! It is normal.
With all the talking (writing) I’ve done about fighting sin lately, I want to take these last couple of paragraphs to bring us back to the basis of our hope. Over time, our joy in God will grow hotter, and we will make progress in our faith-driven fight against sin . . . but our remaining sin will always be a hindrance. Our joy in God will never be as full as it should be in this life. Our repentance will never be as good as it should be in this life. And this is why the person of Jesus—not our success in following him—must always be the basis of our hope.
Yes—real Christians wage war against their sin. Yes—those who love Jesus will strive to obey him. But our progress in the faith doesn’t save us; Jesus saves us. Without the redemption that he accomplished completely apart from anything we have done or will ever do, we are utterly hopeless. He alone is our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. No matter how high we tread in joyful obedience or how hard we fall in faithless failures, God accepts us because—and only because—Jesus became sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him. And this is why we love him. This is why we want to please him. This is why we want to pick up our crosses and follow him.