“Everything is permissible for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything. (1 Cor. 6:12)
I get a fair amount of email from people who are seriously troubled by “low level bondage”. What I mean by that term is that they’ve taken something that most would consider a fairly minor thing and either by them selves or with some “help” from friends have become totally obsessed over it. One bites her finger nails, another is overly jealous, still another refuses to look at a woman at all for fear of having a lustful thought. Over eating, smoking, coarse language and “out of control” anger are among other common subjects.
The thing that makes these obsessions the most dangerous is that often the people afflicted by them begin to feel as though they’ve offended God by not being able to quit. This can lead to feelings of unworthiness that create problems in their Spiritual Life. They become more and more reluctant to pray about their obsessions and may even start avoiding church because they’re ashamed to be in God’s presence.
Arrogance And Fear
It’s been said that the only two possible outcomes of a life under the law are arrogance and fear. The one who becomes arrogant actually begins to think he doesn’t need a Savior. People like this are the modern day Pharisees. They murder the Messiah in their minds by denying their need for Him. The people I’m referring to above have gone to the other extreme. They have an unhealthy fear of the Lord, as if after showing His love by dying for them, He’s waiting to punish every act of disobedience now that they’re His.
In both cases their quest for obedience began with wanting to please Him by acting in the manner He desires, but somewhere along the way this healthy desire became perverted into an obsession. Their joy was stolen and their victory became a defeat. You can guess how this happens. Appealing to our need to earn our position before God is a classic ploy of the enemy, and he uses it to great advantage in getting us to defeat ourselves.
When Jesus said that anger is as bad as murder and lustful thinking is as bad as adultery in Matt. 5, He wasn’t so much condemning people who get angry or experience lust, as explaining how easy it is to break the Commandments. His point was that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, the most obsessive people in the world where the law was concerned, we will never see the Kingdom. They thought that if they avoided taking any action, no matter how small, that would violate the Law, they could be righteous enough to save themselves. But He said that just thinking about a violation was enough to condemn them. So how do we attain a righteousness that exceeds theirs? By being just as obsessive as they were? No, by having the very righteousness of God imputed to us by faith. (Romans 3:21-24)
So, by saying, “Everything is permissible for me,” Paul was telling us that we’ve been freed from the Pharisaical need to micro manage our lives in constant fear of breaking the Law. When he continued, “But I will not be mastered by anything,” he meant that no behavior would get the best of him or dominate his life. That can be viewed in two ways. If you’re totally given over to a certain behavior, then it has mastered you. But you’ve also been mastered if your life is consumed by an obsessive attempt at avoiding the behavior.
Who Did That?
Paul also spoke about this in Romans 7. He said, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Romans 7:18-20)
In his mind, Paul had a desire to live in a manner pleasing to the Lord, but in his body he couldn’t always carry it out, even though “I beat my body and make it my slave.” (1 Cor. 9:27) It ‘s because of a defect we all have that he called his sinful nature. This defect will always trip us up. As someone once put it, “We aren’t sinners because we sin, we sin because we’re sinners.” Our sin nature insures that the more we worry about doing something wrong, the more likely we are to do it.
Paul concluded with, “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” (Romans 7:21-25)
This was an incredible realization for one so thoroughly schooled in the Law. It means that Paul recognized that he was in a constant battle with himself, and as far as outward appearances are concerned he would always lose. But once he received and accepted our Lord’s death as payment for his sins, the measure of his success would be in his intent, not just his behavior.
Here’s how to tell the difference. “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” (Romans 8:5) Is our mind set on satisfying the needs of our sinful nature? Is that what we begin each day desiring? Or do we wake up in the morning with a desire to please God? It’s the dominant thought in our mind that matters, the intent of our heart, and only the Lord can determine that.
This is why Paul told the Corinthians, “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” (1 Cor. 4:5) And again with the Colossians, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” (Col. 2:16)
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly”. (John 10:10) Does walking around with your head down for fear of looking at a woman, or kicking yourself all over creation for giving in to a craving, or being ashamed to show your face in church sound like the abundant life to you?
If obsessing over a certain kind of behavior will actually increase the probability of that behavior manifesting itself, and if it’s the intent of our heart that really matters anyway, doesn’t it make sense to take the emphasis off the behavior and place it on making sure the intent of our heart is right? Doing this accomplishes two good things. It will restore our relationship with God, helping us to regain our victory, and it will make the manifestation of the behavior less likely by depriving it of its importance. Once we’ve done that, we’ll be able to see the less and less frequent behavioral slip-ups for what they are, slip-ups, not like us, departures from our norm. And like Paul learned to do, and God always has done, we’ll be able to say, “It’s no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”
That realization will place our feet back on the path to victory and restore our joy as we see that we’re neither being mastered by the behavior nor by the fear of it. Realizing that by His once for all time sacrifice, He has forgiven us for all the sins of our life, we’ll finally be able to forgive our selves as well.
As we do, that original joy of our salvation will return and we’ll long to be in His presence again. As we delight ourselves in the Lord, He’ll give us the desire of our heart, to live a life pleasing to Him. (Psalm 37:4)