An American hotel hosted a convention for evangelical pastors and the management discovered something about pastoral viewing habits. During the conference over half the TV sets spent more than five minutes tuned to the soft-porn channel on in-house video. In a new environment, with restrictions lifted and no chance (so they thought) of discovery, those who had set aside their lives to lead God’s people into godliness ran headlong into sin.
You may never have sat on the bed in a room five stories up and two hours flight from home, toying with the remote control and your conscience. However (along with every Christian), somewhere, sometime, temptation presented itself to you very obviously, and still won. It may have been lying to cover your tracks, or slipping a little extra into your wallet at work, or gleefully sharing in the local gossip, or...
What do we do to stop caving in to temptation and avoid sin? Is there a formula, or at least some hints that we can use? How can we ensure we keep going and growing?
One view (popular since the middle ages) is that developing “good habits”, or being “disciplined”, is at the heart of Christian godliness. I want to take a look at the place of discipline and habits in Christian living.
Habits are everything: Some people have thought that good habits form the essential basis for Christian growth. Medieval Catholics stressed this, as did the 16th century Puritans. The Puritans were quite clear that God accepted them because of Christ, but they also knew that they should live for God and they expected to grow in holiness.
Good habits were very important for this growth. So the Puritans lived by “method”. They carefully ordered and planned their activities to avoid sin, and ensure they could do the good works God had put before them. This encouraged deep (and potentially debilitating) introspection and often led to analysing actions in unrealistically minute detail.
Recent evangelical writers, such as Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline, have recalled us to disciplines and habits, saying they encourage inner disciplines (meditation, prayer, fasting and study) and outward and corporate disciplines. These, they say, are the paths which lead beyond superficial living to freedom.
Habits as problems: Not all modern Christians share this enthusiasm for habits. I was once in a Bible study where we were discussing legalism. One member said: “When people go to church out of a sense of duty, or from habit, that is legalism.” Many of us might agree. We regard habit as unauthentic, and think genuine obedience springs only from deep and immediate motivations.
Here are two extremes. Some see habits as the most important part of maturing as a Christian; others see them as a problem. If past generations overvalued disciplines, many of us do not value them at all. What does the Bible say? We need to think about how we change as Christians, and then ask what place habits have.
Christians are changed: God changes us! In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul reminds the Corinthians that they were sinners (and gives them an impressive list of their past faults). He concludes triumphantly “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11). This is not only a new standing with God, it also involves separation from their old ways to a new lifestyle. Being a Christian is not only about being forgiven, but also about being changed.
How does God change us and restore us? We can view God’s work in three phases.
- God works for us in Christ;
- Then He works in us by the Spirit;
- Finally He brings completion in the new creation.
The later phases are based on the first. Christ has restored humanity and dealt with sin; God now turns us to Christ, by the Spirit, so that we trust in God’s work for us in Christ. As we trust Him, we enjoy forgiveness and adoption as God’s children.
We begin a new life dedicated to God. When the kingdom comes, those who have been made part of the new creation, will be revealed as that (Romans 8:20-23).
Our question –– about fighting temptation and growing as Christians –– fits into the second phase of God’s work. Recognising this is important. It will keep us from the confusion of thinking God accepts us because of our discipline and effort; it will also protect us from the delusion that we will be able to live now as if God has completed his work.
Gospel habits: Growing as a Christian comes from knowing God’s grace to us, and grasping it by faith. The pivotal sentence in Romans 12:1 follows the fullest exposition of God’s mercy, and reads: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God –– this is your spiritual act of worship.” We do not change our lives in order to be acceptable to God. Rather, since we know we are accepted, we now live new lives. Calvin says, in very famous words:
Man is justified by faith alone, and simple pardon; nevertheless actual holiness of life ... is not separated from free imputation of righteousness ... repentance not only constantly follows faith, but is also born of faith.
All Christian living and growth is a response to the gospel, and the Christian life finds its true shape as it constantly returns to the gospel. This tells us something about the kinds of disciplines we need to develop.
When our habits take their basis and shape from the gospel they will help us to develop our understanding and love for God. John Owen (1616-1683) wrote that the main part of Christian growth is to “set faith at work on Christ to kill thy sin...”, turning to Christ, and his promises and resources, relying on his mercy, and with this acting “in endeavours of conformity to Christ”.
Scripture, prayer, preaching, Christian fellowship and the sacraments each start from the gospel, and apply it to us. Every Christian needs to return constantly to these five “means of grace”. Especially we focus on Scripture, in which we learn the gospel and see how to respond to it. The traditional stress on personal Bible reading as a basic Christian habit is right. I suppose that all Christians find that a regular time to pray means that they actually pray. Disciplines which develop character will be worse than useless, without these basic habits, which bring us back to the gospel, the well-spring of Christian living.
Growing in God’s grace: Christian growth is not only a response to God’s grace to us in Christ, but at every point it is guided, guarded, surrounded and effected by God’s grace. Sometimes habits are presented as preparing the way for God to change us. In contrast, Calvin writes: “Let us not divide between him (God) and us what he claims wholly for himself alone ... when God converts us to zeal for the right, whatever is of our own will is effaced (and the will) is created anew.”
Our developing habits, along with all other growth, come from God.
Effort and struggle: Within God’s grace, we are called to respond with vigour (Phil. 2:13-14). We are to conform to Christ (Eph. 4:22-24; cf Rom. 13:14; 1 Tim. 6:11). All of this takes effort; some of that effort will be developing godly habits.
What type of habits will we need to develop? The Spirit will produce in us self-control (Gal. 5:23), and we are urged to display it (2 Pet. 1:6; Titus 1:8, 2:12; James 3:1 8). Self-control is the ability to direct your behaviour, to choose how you will respond and when. In particular, it is the capacity to hold yourself back from sin. It will mean that, faced with temptation, you can resist.
We each need to develop self-control as a habit in different areas, depending on our own struggles and weaknesses. A friend of mine, Matthew, grew up in a family where anger often expressed itself in bursts of outrage. He finds it very easy to repeat that pattern with his friends and workmates. For him, growing as a Christian includes learning new ways of expressing and dealing with anger. He is working to bring his life and his character into conformity with God. As he has learnt to control the way he expresses his anger, his feelings of anger have eased.
Developing character involves discipline and training. Paul urges Timothy to “train himself in godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7-10), and uses a similar image for his description of his own “self-discipline” (1 Cor. 9:24ff). Godliness will not emerge, as it were, automatically, with no effort on our part. Growth in godliness will require consistent, and planned, effort.
The New Testament also warns against false disciplines, rules which “have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility and severe treatment of the body, but ... are of no value in checking self indulgence” (Col. 2:20ff; 1 Tim. 4:2-3).
Meeting other Christians around God’s word (church!) is an example of a discipline which helps us in godly living. It is where we are encouraged and spurred on in godliness (Heb. 10:24-25). The fact that I have to face my Bible study group next week restrains me from sin. The accountability which church provides is important. We shouldn’t disregard the value of such things as regular meetings, for they help direct our lives towards godliness and away from the sinful distractions with which we might otherwise fill them. In an increasingly busy world, being regular at church is itself a discipline.
One of the habits which I continually try to develop is good listening. I can see that Christian love will often require that I listen to people and understand them before speaking, but I am often too ready to speak. So I am trying to concentrate on listening first when I am in conversations. I hope that in time, I will not have to concentrate on it –– it will become “natural”.
Fighting temptation: We need disciplines which protect us from our own specific temptations. We recognise places, times and situations in which we are easily tempted, and set up patterns to avoid them.
A few years ago, a group of friends found our conversation constantly coming round to a particular person we knew, and our comments about him were ungracious. So we had to say that we would not talk about him.
I find myself particularly vulnerable to temptation when I am tired. It is far easier to be snappy and grumpy, as well as to relax my guard in all sorts of areas. Regular sleep may not look like a profound spiritual discipline –– but it is very important if I’m going to serve the people around me.
The place of disciplines: Sin springs from the human heart in a myriad of forms, so our battle against it will take many forms. We started by seeing two options: godliness through discipline and godliness through spontaneity. Both of these have a point, but neither is the whole answer.
Christian living involves our understanding, attitudes and actions (head, hearts and hands). Conforming to Christ starts by knowing God and his ways, so we understand and believe the gospel. Our hearts also have to be in the right place. God’s word calls us to love and fear God and to rejoice in our hope. From knowing God and loving God we must obey him. So we can put self-discipline in its right place. It is part of our striving for Christian maturity, for it helps us to act obediently. But actions are not the only concern we have.
Discipline gives us ways of avoiding temptation, developing character and ensuring we are involved in activities in which we are brought back to the gospel. We also need to examine our hearts and our Christian understanding, to see if our behavioural problems stem from wrong motives or wrong beliefs.
It is said that Billy Graham will never enter a hotel room alone. Another itinerant preacher always has the television removed from his room before he goes inside. If the pastors attending the conference mentioned at the beginning had demonstrated similar discipline, and not underrated their willingness to sin, the hotel management might have had a more encouraging story to tell.