Gospel Motivations: Rejecting Temptation - Is "Just Say No" Enough?

Monday, February 20, 2006


I really dislike the bumper stickers, t-shirts, and anti-drug paraphernalia with the slogan, "Just Say No." It's not enough. It doesn't tell the whole story. It says "Say no to drugs" but it doesn't tell us what to say "yes" to.

If we stop to consider for a moment why we say "no" to sin, we may find some surprising observations. Do we say "no" because we were raised by our parents to do this? Or is it because our church, pastor, or denominational tradition has instilled a culture of "no" in our hearts? Or could our "no" be a result of some uncomfortable feeling we get when we encounter something that runs contrary to our personal culture of comfort?

I remember for the longest time, ever since conversion around age 11 or 12, I would find myself around other friends, neighbors, or acquaintances who, for some reason or another, would make me feel uncomfortable. When I was a teenager, sometimes it was their rock music. Or it might have been because they watched rated "R" movies. Later in life, it might have been the presence of alcohol that made me feel uncomfortable enough to say "no" to sin and temptation. There have been other issues throughout my life.

But the bottom line is that my rejection of temptation and sin was never properly rooted in and motivated by the gospel. And as such, it was merely a behavioral modification. I was saying "no" without the right motivation. Thus, I have an explanation as to why there has been such a lack of joy for so many years as a believer. How can there be joy when the gospel is not present?

Consider two incredibly massive problems with trying to reject temptation and sin without being rooted in the gospel.

First, an absence of gospel-motivation cannot identify the temptation correctly to begin with. When the gospel is not the lens through which we view sin and temptation, we will wrongly associate unrighteousness or wickedness with something which may or may not be inherently sinful. This is how self-righteousness, legalism, and Pharisaism begins and breeds. Alcohol, for example, is not inherently sinful. But being controlled by it is. However, when the gospel is not the root of our heart's desire to reject sin and temptation, it cannot help but distort alcohol into something that is inherently evil and sinful.

The point here is that the heart cannot discern properly because the proper motivation is not present. Perhaps a local illustration will be helpful. Down here in the south we have a plant called kudzu. With leaves growing upwards to the size of an adult hand, it functions as ground cover and a very effective weed control. But there's a downside. If left untended and unpruned it will grow out of control and envelop everything....until it is cut back. Our rejection of temptation and sin is much the same. Like kudzu, rejecting temptation has a purpose. If the purpose is forgotten or ignored, our hearts, like the kudzu, will eventually run wild and overtake anything and everything. Though a trifle of an illustration, I trust it helps elucidate my point so I can lead into the second problem.

The second problem is that an absence of gospel-motivation does not root the rejection of temptation in a desire to not lose joy in Jesus. Herein lies the essential issue. The reason Christians say "no" to temptation and sin because they will do anything not to sacrifice or lose an ounce of their joy in Jesus Christ. The gospel-motivated Christian fights to keep that joy.

This is where the rub comes in for the Christian, for as he or she is around unbelievers, they will mildly persecute him. To the unbeliever, the Christian is a "fuddy-dud" and a "party-pooper." The Christian is a hater of all that is fun. He despises all that represents happiness. And how the Christian responds to such accusations will be very telling about his motivation. The only answer that will stand the test of the gospel is something like this: "I love fun and happiness more than you think, because I am unwilling to do anything that will interrupt it or bring it to an end. And what you're suggesting will do just that!"

In order to illustrate this issue, use the following illustration for yourself and those who persecute you. Undoubtedly you've probably heard of many an unfortunate scam involving senior citizens who've been "scammed" out of their retirement money only to live the rest of their natural lives broke. Imagine sitting across from the older couple and persecuting them with the same sarcasm: "You old farts are just a couple of fuddy-duds who don't want to have any fun! Just listen to the guy's pitch, give him your money, and have some fun, for goodness sake!"

How cruel! What a shameful thing to say! And the unbeliever would feel just as shameful if he knew the reality of what he was suggesting. Sin is a scam! Let's say it again. SIN IS A SCAM! Tell yourself that. Tell the lost person that. Tell that to whoever or whatever tempts you to sin. To give in to temptation to sin is just as stupid as to knowingly give in to a financial scam in which you know you will lose your money!

It's all about the joy! Joy! Joy! Joy! Joy in Jesus who died to save us from sin! Joy in the Father who for some strange reason elected us to experience His eternal and unfathomable love! Joy in the Spirit who strangely determined to open our eyes and awaken our minds to reality. If God and joy in Him is not the primary motivation behind saying "no" to temptation to sin, then our negative responses to sin are not holy. They are merely modified behavior responses.

Such modifications keep us from sin, to be sure. But only temporarily. One of two things will happen if joy in God is not at the root of saying "no" to sin and temptation. First, the child who is trained this way will (like I did!) grow into an adult who cannot bring himself to take part in (some) sins while also not able to have any deep and genuine joy. Second, eventually the soul will wonder just why it is saying "no" to start with. And when it can no longer find a reasonable explanation it will not be able to help but experiment with sin...and the degradation begins.

Both results are what we often observe in the lives of those who are or were raised under fundamentalism and more particularly, it's more legalistic reflections. But as sad as it is, the medicine...no, the cure is the real gospel. Not the one that gets people out of hell and into the pew. Not the one that is preached evangelistically to get people down an aisle. Not the one that is printed in a tract and handed out to people on an inner city street.

No, the gospel that must be injected into the soul of unbeliever and believer alike is the one that infuses us with real and lasting joy...and joy that would rather have the body suffer and even die than lose even the most microscopic particle of happiness in and blessing from God....a joy that would rather gouge out an eye or cut off a hand than give in to something that deceptively presents itself as happiness yet promises its undoing with absolute certainty.

In the end, if joy in Jesus and a desire for His presence and His glory in our lives is not at the root of all our rejections of sin, then we will be left as nothing more than a powerless person with no ability to affect real and lasting change in our heart and no experience of real and lasting joy.

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