Joe Rigney has at least three knacks that always make his writing compelling to me: a knack for making things obvious in Scripture that weren’t obvious before, a knack for giving biblical-exegetical grounding to some of C. S. Lewis’s best insights, and a knack for recognizing how natural, common grace observations from God’s world illuminate God’s Word rather than somehow compromising its sufficiency. All three of these knacks are on display in his latest book, More Than a Battle: How to Experience Victory, Freedom, and Healing from Lust, making it my new go-to book in pastoral ministry on this subject.
Here are seven quotes that I hope will give you a sense of the book’s value and encourage you to read it for yourself.
- The Three Lenses
“How should we address the challenge of pornography and lust in our own day? In my experience, approaches to this struggle can basically be broken down into three categories. Think of these as three lenses for viewing the fight. 1. Sexual sin as immorality. This approach accents our culpability and wickedness in pursuing sinful pleasures, as we are willingly led astray by our sinful desires. Our aim in the struggle is to renounce evil desires, repent of shameful actions, and put to death the deeds of the body. The fundamental call is to fight a war against sinful passions. 2. Sexual sin as addiction. This approach accents the bodily and enslaving dimension of the struggle, as chemicals and hormones hijack and rewire our brains. Our aim is to unmask the lies of sexual addiction, to seek freedom from destructive patterns, and to break the habits that enslave us. The fundamental call is to struggle for liberation from sin’s mastery. 3. Sexual sin as brokenness. This approach accents the deep wounds sexual dysfunction reveals. We pursue short-term sexual pleasure as a way of coping with unmet needs, family dysfunction, trauma, and abuse. Our aim in the struggle is to pursue renewal and transformation by renarrating our stories and repairing the ruins of past pains and sorrows. The fundamental call is to heal the wounds of our sexual brokenness. Most books on this subject at least acknowledge the value of each of these lenses. However, usually one lens is taken to be more fundamental, and, as a result, the other two are neglected.” (6–7)
2. Setting Our Expectations
[But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).] “Now it’s important to be clear about what Paul is and isn’t promising. He’s not saying our fleshly desires disappear altogether. Instead, he promises that we will not carry out or gratify or
complete those desires. In other words, the desires may still be present and still at war with spiritual desires, but now, as we walk by the Spirit, we won’t indulge them. The basic idea is that all desires have a direction, a destination, a trajectory. When that destination is reached, the desire has been gratified. The itch has been scratched. But the presence of the desire doesn’t mean we have to indulge it. It’s possible to resist where our desires want to take us. For Paul, walking by the Spirit doesn’t remove all fleshly tendencies and trajectories in this life. Instead, it interrupts them. It redirects them and reorders them so that they no longer dishonor God or harm people. And it’s important to be clear on this point so that we don’t create impossible and unrealistic expectations for the Christian life. In this life the desires may still arise. But according to Paul, they don’t have to master us. We don’t have to gratify or indulge them. We can be free.” (20–21)
3. Absence of the Gospel vs. Bare Repetition of the Gospel
“This distinction [between our position in Christ and our progress in Christ] is crucial for making progress in all forms of holiness, and especially sexual purity. But in making this distinction, we need to be aware of two dangers as we seek to apply the gospel to our lives. The first danger is that we can try to detach the conduct from the gospel. We can try to walk as sons of God apart from the felt reality that we are sons of God through faith in Jesus. This is the danger of legalism, the danger of bare commands…
The other danger is more subtle, and it is especially relevant for people who are aware of the legalistic danger. It is the danger, not of pure command without the gospel, but of bare repetition of the gospel. Legalism tries to clean the corners of the bathroom without any disinfectant and just ends up smearing the grime around. Repetition has the cleaner in hand but never actually gets down to scrubbing. It never pushes the gospel into the corners. Instead, it just waves the cleaner in the general direction of the grime. It attempts to wield the gospel like a magic word, speaking it like a mantra in the vicinity of a sin or a struggle in hopes that something remarkable will happen. And because the gospel is front and center, it has the appearance of avoiding the problem of legalism, but it doesn’t actually address the sin in question. This often makes bare repetition the more subtle danger since it frequently goes undetected in churches that trumpet the good news about Jesus. Not only is it more subtle, but the long-term effects are just as destructive as legalism, since it gives the illusion of applying the gospel without actually doing so. A person who tries to wield the gospel like a mantra and finds it ineffective easily falls into despair. He thinks, If not even the gospel can deliver me from the power of sin, then I must truly be hopeless…” (25–26)
5. Applying the Gospel
“Applying the gospel begins with a growing, experiential grasp of God’s work in Christ. But applying the gospel doesn’t stop there. We must also have a deepening understanding of ourselves, our own particular temptations, our own besetting sins, our own burdens and weights, our own wounds and aches. We cannot rightly apply the gospel to ourselves until we mature in our own self-knowledge. We cannot rightly apply the gospel to others until we understand the nature of sin and temptation in general, as well as the anatomy of specific, identifiable sins for us. It does no good to say that “sin is in there somewhere” and that the gospel is the remedy for it. We must get specific, we must probe our past and present experiences, and we must examine our hearts. In short, we must learn to grow in experiential wisdom, in practical maturity.
Practically speaking, this means that when we apply the gospel, we will probably spend the bulk of our time talking about something other than the gospel. For example, after unpacking the glorious gospel of God’s grace for three chapters in Ephesians, Paul does not seek to apply the gospel by simply repeating himself for three more. Instead, in Ephesians 4–6, he offers exhortations to godly behavior, commands to avoid sin, and experiential wisdom, interspersed with brief grounding statements that hearken back to gospel realities unpacked in earlier chapters. In other words, when Paul applies the gospel, he mostly talks about things besides the gospel. Or more accurately, he talks about other things through the lens of the gospel.
When he talks about these other things—whether pride or lust or envy or fear or singleness or marriage—the gospel’s weighty presence is felt everywhere. The gospel is not what he is looking at; it’s what he is looking through. This is what we must learn to do. We must be able to assume the gospel and talk about other things in such a way that the reality of the gospel is brought to bear on the problems and sins, even as it explicitly comes to the surface at key moment.” (27–28)
6. Restoring Control of You to You
“…the Bible commends self-control to all of us. Elders are to be self-controlled (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8). Older men are to be self-controlled (Titus 2:2). Older women are teaching young women to be self-controlled (Titus 2:5). In these cases Paul’s exhortation to self-control
is embedded in a list of other virtues.
But when it comes to Paul’s exhortation to young men, there’s only one thing on the list. “Encourage the young men to be self-controlled” (Titus 2:6). This is the chief challenge for young men, especially for the unmarried. In fact, if a single man is unable to exercise self-control, Paul urges him to marry so he doesn’t burn with passion (1 Cor. 7:9).
If you’re a young man reading this book, then the fundamental thing you need to learn is self-control. You must learn to control yourself, to master yourself, to rule yourself. And as a Christian, you must do so in reliance on the grace of God in the gospel. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). When the Spirit begins to work in your life, God will restore control of you to you…
Practically speaking, what do self-control and self-mastery mean? Controlling self means I tell my eyes where to look. I tell my mind what to think about. I control what plays on the screen of my imagination. I am in control of my members because I’m walking by the Spirit, and he is graciously restoring control of me to me.” (154–155)
7. Men and Women in Community
“When it comes to cultivating healthy community with members of the opposite sex, it’s important to recognize the complexity of such relationships and to maintain the right kind of boundaries. For example, while the Bible does encourage Christians to view one another in familial terms (as brother, sister, father, and mother), it’s important to note that these relationships are not merely familial. A sister in Christ is not identical to a biological sister. In the most obvious sense, one cannot righteously marry his biological sister. But he can (and ought) to marry a sister in Christ. In normal circumstances a biological brother and sister have decades of lived experience together that makes any kind of romantic relationship impossible to imagine. This is not the case for brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul’s exhortations to the church to treat one another like family means we ought to cultivate and seek to approximate the kind of nonromantic, nonerotic relations that exist naturally among members of a biological family. However, the fact that Paul has to exhort us to do so reminds us that it takes wise and concerted effort and that maintaining appropriate boundaries with members of the opposite sex is essential. We should treat young women “as sisters with all purity” (1 Tim. 5:2). At its best, this is what things like the “Billy Graham Rule” (“Never be alone with a woman who is not your wife”) are designed to protect.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize the dangers of such protections. Over time they can fundamentally distort relationships among men and women, preventing them from relating to one another as the family of God. As a leader in your church, you ought to attempt to cultivate healthy community, in which men and women can treat each other with respect and dignity as image bearers of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. Small groups, social gatherings, mingling after church—all of these are opportunities to foster godly and healthy relationships in your church. These kinds of ordinary interactions are an important weapon in the fight against sexual sin. As noted in an earlier chapter, C. S. Lewis said ordinary female society was an important element in learning to flee sexual immorality for him. It helps men to stop seeing women as objects for sexual gratification, and instead to see them as human beings.” (184–185)