For thousands of years God’s men have been asking the same question, “How can a young man keep his way pure?” (Psalm 119:9a). The answer the Bible gives is a searching one: “By guarding it according to Your word” (v.9b). When the pattern of our thoughts, motives, actions, and words conform to a path marked out for us by divine revelation, then we will walk the path of purity.
But how does this really happen in the day-to-day? How do we overcome unholy lusts? When our bodies and habits of thinking seem to pull away from God’s will every moment, how do we fight such urges?
The Bible’s answer: Fight Lust with Lust.
– – – –
The Spirit’s Longings
Paul writes in Galatians 5:16-17, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
The words translated “desire” in this text are epithymeō (ἐπιθυμέω) and epithymia (ἐπιθυμία). The terms indicate a strong craving, a longing. Notice, Paul identifies both holy and unholy desires: the flesh and the Spirit are both sources of strong yet conflicting longings. So Paul’s long-sought answer to the question about how one avoids gratifying the flesh is this: follow the desires of the Spirit of God, and let those cravings win out.
– – – –
How does the Spirit of God transform us? He does this by sharing with our hearts His own longings, His yearnings, His vision. What are these holy, Spirit-inspired longings?
Most of the time, when the Bible uses the terms epithymia and epithymeō, it uses them in a negative way—speaking of the lusts of our flesh. But every once in a while the terms are used to describe a holy desire.
- In Matthew 13:16-17 Jesus says, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed [epithymeō] to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” There was a longing, a deep yearning, in the Old Testament saints to see the days of the Messiah.
- In Luke 17:22-24 Jesus states, “The days are coming when you will desire [epithymeō] to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” The disciples would be hit with a deep longing to see and be with Jesus again after he left, a longing for him to return.
- Jesus says in Luke 22:15-16, “I have earnestly desired [epithymeō] to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Jesus craved this sacred meal with his disciples—it would be the last time he would have such a meal with them before the consummation of the kingdom of God when he returns.
- In Philippians 1:21-24, Paul writes, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire [epithymia] is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Even though Paul knew he had more fruitful labor for himself in the church, his strongest desire was to be with Christ after his death.
- In 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18, Paul writes, “But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire [epithymia] to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.” Paul longed to see the Thessalonian Christians again so he could encourage them in their faith amidst their sufferings.
- 1 Timothy 3:1 states, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires [epithymeō] a noble task.” Some in the church have a deep desire to shepherd the people of God and are called to teach and rule the body of Christ.
- Hebrews 6:11-12 says, “And we desire [epithymeō] each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” The author’s deep yearning was for these believers to be assured of their final salvation by manifesting the perseverance of trust and obedience.
- In 1 Peter 1:10-12, Peter writes, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long [epithymeō] to look.” The angels themselves yearn to look into the amazing message about Christ’s sufferings and resurrection glory, how it was predicted by prophets, fulfilled in history, proclaimed by apostles, and brought divine grace to many.
Notice that “holy lust” falls into two general categories:
(1) a longing to deeply know and be with Jesus the Messiah, and
(2) a longing to see others grow in grace and and to persevere in faith so they might love Jesus and be with Him in His kingdom.
It is a longing to know Christ and make Him known.
– – – –
The Spirit Exalts Christ
This is why Christ poured out His Spirit: to magnify Himself. In the world the Spirit comes and blows over the cold, dead hearts of men, to call them to repent of sin, to propel them towards belief in the living Christ who sits in the position of highest authority, victorious over the prince of darkness (John 16:8-11). The Spirit comes to indwell God’s children so they would no longer feel like orphans without their Rabbi (14:16-18). Within our hearts the Spirit continually reminds us of the rich, gracious words of Jesus (14:26), guiding us in all truth about Him (16:13), and testifying about Jesus and all of His glory, authority, and honor (15:26; 16:13-15).
Notice what the Bible regards as the abiding mark of being “filled with the Spirit“: not merely speaking in tongues, prophesying, or performing miracles, but effectively, passionately, and boldly proclaiming the greatness of Jesus and the wonders of God (Acts 2:4,11; 4:8-13,31; 6:5,10; 9:17-22; 11:24; Ephesians 5:18-20). An articulation of Jesus’ greatness can only happen if the Spirit has filled our minds and hearts with an all-consuming vision of His glory.
– – – –
The Power of New Affections
The Scottish minister, Thomas Chalmers, articulated similar thoughts in his famous sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” In this message Chalmers seeks to answer the question: How do we remove a love of the world from our hearts?
Chalmers vividly describes our capacity for desire: how we feel urged toward a path that promises gratification, how are minds become engrossed, how our physical energy becomes focused, and how all other ambitions are crowded out.
Chalmers argues that if we simply focus on the vanity of worldly desires, if we simply try to convince ourselves that the world is not worthy of our affections, we would be like empty machines left with all our propensity to act, but “in a state of most painful and unnatural abandonment.” A vacancy of desire is as painful to the heart as hunger is to the stomach. The heart “revolts” against emptiness. “Such is the grasping tendency of the human heart, that it must have a something to lay hold of,” Chalmers says.
Chalmers speaks of the moralist who, in the effort to rid his heart of the love of the world, looks with distaste to everything and in doing so creates an “asylum” in the mind to where he has “nothing but his own consciousness to feed upon, dead to all that is without him, and alive to nothing but to the load of his own torpid and useless existence.”
Chalmers even levels Sunday morning preachers with criticism. Talented preachers have an ability to make the world’s pleasures seem vain and fleeting, temporarily freezing delight and desire. But as soon as the weekdays come “the machinery of the heart” begins to move and we find the world full of churched men and women who do not look at all like new creatures. This sort of preaching only turns hearers into solemnly sensible people. “[T]he church, instead of being to him a school of obedience, has been a mere sauntering place for the luxury of a passing and theatrical emotion.”
Instead, we need a greater affection to take control of our hearts, we need “another object still more alluring.” What is this object? What is this affection? It is beholding with our “mental eye” the worth and excellence of God as seen in the Gospel. It is in seeing the love of God in the sending of His Son to die for unworthy men and women. It is in seeing “the blended holiness and compassion of the Godhead” in the mysterious act of atonement on the cross. “We know of no other way by which to keep the love of the world out of our heart, than to keep in our hearts the love of God.”
The way the Holy Spirit overcomes unholy lust is by planting godly “lust” deep into our inner being. These new longings move our hearts toward worship and an all-consuming satisfaction with the Lord Jesus. The Spirit shows us Christ, and moves our souls to crave Him and crave that He might be known. These godly cravings trump the lust of the flesh.
The Holy Spirit plants in our hearts a vision of God that empowers us to reject unholy lust: as Pastor John Piper states, “a power of soul, and an energy, and an engagement with something so great, so glorious, so pure, so divine, that it would create a ruggedness, and a power, and a zeal, and a firmness, and a depth in you, you could say NO!”