Right from the beginning the Bible tells us that the problem with humanity is sin, rebellion against the purposes and designs of our Creator. Sin not only refers to trespassing the commandments of God, going beyond the boundaries that God has set in place, it also refers to the spiritual force that inspires and compels us to rebel. Sin in the later sense works through our desires.
“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” Genesis 3:6 ESV
Our human ancestors here succumbed to the temptations that the enemy of humanity still employs through the enticements of our fallen world, “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16). At the root of humanity’s problem, which according to the Bible throws the whole of creation into disharmony (i.e. the curse pronounced by God later in Genesis 3; also see Romans 8:18-30), is desires gone wild.
Our desires are not inherently bad, and sinful desires aren’t completely separate from our God-given good desires. Sin and evil do not have an existence of their own; they are only distorted and twisted forms of good. Sinful desires are good desires gone wild, twisted to ends for which they were not intended. Desires gone wild exceed and redirect the God-given intended purpose to ungodly goals, which may seem right because it feels right, but the end thereof is enslavement to ungodly desire itself, which leads to death.
The devil is a liar and sin is deceitful; although the allure is apparent freedom the result is bondage. When we give in to sin, we become its slave (see John 8:31-47 & Romans 6-7). The apostle Peter, who describes Christians as those who have “escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:4), also warns about false prophets and teachers who promise freedom while they themselves are actually “slaves of corruption” (2 Peter 2:19). In the last part of that same verse, Peter explains, “For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.”
Sin desires to master us and it does so through distorted desires, corrupt cravings that lead to our own hurt and the detriment of society. In Genesis 4, as sin continues to work to bring further degradation to God’s good creation, Cain, one of Adam and Eve’s sons, is confronted by God before his jealous rage boiled over into the murder of his brother, Abel. God warns Cain that “sin is crouching at the door” and “its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). The implication is clear; if we don’t rule over, or master, sin, then sin will master us.
Sin not only masters individuals, it also masters families, and communities, societies, and even churches. Sin also seems to produce in people something akin to “Stockholm syndrome,” where captives tend to become sympathetic to the point of defending and even identifying with their captors. Desires gone wild run amok and wreak havoc, but sometimes their victims become their biggest supporters. Today entire churches and denominations have not only been mastered by sin, in part through seeking after the glory that comes from a fallen and fading world rather than the glory that comes from God (John 5;44, 12:43, & 1 John 2:15-17), they also sympathize with sin, defend it, and even encourage sinners to identity with it. Like the false prophets in Jeremiah’s day “they say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’: and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.'” In the words of Peter, “They promise them freedom (i.e. to sin and from the consequences of sin), but they themselves are slaves of corruption” (2 Peter 2:19).
Sin working through corrupt cravings, desires gone wild mastered the human race. By God’s grace it can be overcome, but not without a fight. The decisive battle that won the war was won on the cross of Christ Jesus our Lord and when God raised him from the dead. By the grace of God in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit we can defeat sin and overcome sinful desires, but not with taking up our own cross and not without self-denial.
In order to master our desires, we must mortify, put to death those evil desires within us that seem to have taken on a life of their own. We must put off the old self by putting it down. In order to really live, allowing our God-given desires to flourish toward the goals for which they were intended, ultimately the glory of God, we must put to death those things in us which lead us to befriend the world and to be hostile to God and His word. The Holy Spirit enables us to do this (see Roman 8:1-17, especially verse 13), to put down evil desires and deeds, and the Holy Spirit also enables us to put on those virtues that lead to abundant life and our flourishing.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:5-17; see also Ephesian 4:17-5:21)
Putting to death those things that lead to death, allows the real us, who we were created to be, to flourish with the abundant and eternal life for which we were intended. And one good way to kill our sinful desires is to starve them.
Through worship and prayer and careful listening to the word of God proclaimed and prayerful study of it, God will reveal to us what in us really needs to die so we can really live. In many cases it will come down to whether we will trust our own hearts (see Jeremiah 17:9 and compare to Jeremiah 23:17 quoted above) or God’s word. If we will submit ourselves to and trust God’s word, we will confess our sin, and be in a position to honestly begin to deal with it by dealing it death. Once we have identified that which needs to die within us, we can take up our cross, deny ourselves and kill it.
One of the ways to kill that which is killing us is through fasting. One sure way to allow sin to master us is to feed it; one sure way to master it, is to starve it. Fasting helps us to subdue desires run amok by starving the cravings that exceed the natural desires that bring blessing. The natural desire for food where we eat to live can easily turn into the corrupt craving to live to eat. The natural desire for sex geared toward procreation and covenant intimacy can mutate into the mere desire for self-gratification and pleasure for its own sake outside of the design and purposes of God. The natural desire for enjoyment and recreation can lead to obsessions that distract us from the One and the ones that matter the most, in modern times even when the ones that matter the most are in the same room. The natural desire to work to meet our needs and those of our families may gravitate toward greed and the pride in riches that goes along with it. Instead of loving God and people as ends in themselves we easily end up using the idea of God and using people for lesser ends that we idolatrously magnify way beyond their own actual intrinsic worth.
As a special season of prayer and fasting, Lent, has proven to be incredibly helpful in my own life, and fasting in general has brought tremendous blessing.
Several years ago now, although I had been delivered by the grace and power of God from other major obsessions and addictions, I still found myself floundering rather than flourishing when it came to my physical health. Years and years of poor eating habits and food addictions had finally caught up with me as I was probably close to a stroke or a heart attack. I was way overweight and my blood pressure and other vitals were extremely high. I knew I needed to do something quick.
At first I changed the types of foods I was eating, which did help. In a pretty short period of time I lost about 20 pounds, but continued to struggle, and my vitals continued to suffer. During Lent that year I committed to cut out sugar and sweets altogether, except for once a week. Additionally, through the inspiration of a program called “Naturally Slim” offered through a clergy health initiative funded by the Duke Endowment called “Spirited Life,” I committed to not snack between meals, and only eat when I was actually hungry. It was definitely an exercise in self-denial and a serious wrestling match with powerful cravings that were physically killing me ensued.
By the end of Lent I hadn’t lost the battle with my cravings, but I did lose another 25 pounds. And thankfully all of my vitals, blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol, were back in the normal range. That victory was sweeter than any sweet treat I had ever had. But the battle did not end.
The corrupt cravings were only set back for a season; they have repeatedly attempted a comeback. Whenever I have experienced setbacks, giving in to those corrupt cravings for too many days in a row, I have found general fasting, going without food altogether for a day or two at a time to be incredibly helpful to get me back on track. As a matter of fact, fasting from food, has been helpful to overcome sinful desires in general, as I believe there is a connection between all sinful desire that manifests itself in various ways. Nevertheless, fasting and self-denial bring tremendous blessing as paradoxical as it may seem.
God calls his people to self-denial, not to deny us joy, but to allow us to experience the fullness of joy that can only come from Him. Sin and sinful desires are nothing to coddle and get comfortable with. Desires that are out of harmony with the will of God must not be coddled; they must be killed. And one good way to put corrupt cravings to death is to starve them.
There’s an old Cherokee proverb that says there are two wolves struggling inside of every person, one good and one evil. The Bible says within every believer, there is a struggle between an old man and a new man, the former of the world that is passing away with its corrupt desires, the later of the new world, the kingdom of God, where only God’s will is done. Which one wins? It depends on which one we feed, and which one we starve.
“So then, brothers,we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13)