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Fighting Pleasure With Pleasure (3:1-4)

Regardless of where I go or where I speak I can always count on at least one constant reality, one common thread that unites all Christians and all denominations and all churches: they all struggle with the temptation to sin and want to know how to defeat it and break free of its paralyzing grip.

I've said many times and written of it in my books that the church, to a large degree, has failed in its well-meant efforts to equip Christians to wage war against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Typically today (and throughout history) the approach to getting people to do what is right is by telling them in a very loud, angry, and threatening voice, "Don't do what is wrong!" We've operated under the assumption that if we portray the horrid consequences of sin in sufficiently graphic and revolting terms we will succeed in motivating the human will to turn from it.

I'm not suggesting that sin doesn't have horrid and devastating consequences. It most certainly does, now and especially in eternity. Nor am I suggesting that we cease telling people to abstain from sin or that we tone down the urgency with which we warn them concerning its deceitful and destructive ways.

But if all we bring to bear against the incredibly powerful allure of sensual self-indulgence is a "Just Say No!" campaign, we don't stand much of a chance. Any approach to resisting temptation that consists solely (or even primarily) of a teeth-gritting, fist-clenching, will-wracking resolve not to yield will ultimately fail. Or, if it does manage to succeed in the short term it will produce a joyless and mean-spirited legalism that will hardly prove attractive either to Christians or non-Christians.

What's missing in our battle with temptation? Without intending to be simplistic, it's the failure to understand the source of sin's allure. We sin because it feels good! Sin is hard to resist because it has a remarkable capacity to please. The author of Hebrews spoke of the "passing pleasures of sin" (Heb. 11:25; the ESV renders it "the fleeting pleasures of sin"). Granted, the pleasure sin brings is passing, transient, and fleeting. But it's still a pleasure! That's why we so readily yield to it.

The bottom line is this: when faced with temptation, the immediate gratification of sin will almost always triumph over the fear of its long-term consequences.

So how do we defeat the power of sin's promise of pleasure? Answer: by faith in God's promise of a superior pleasure! Paul concluded chapter two of Colossians with an indictment of any attempt to defeat the promptings of the flesh by the imposition of ascetic, legalistic, extra-biblical regulations. If they provide only an illusion of victory over fleshly impulses, what will actually work? Is there an alterative? Yes.

As I said in the previous meditation, Paul will do more than merely denounce what is ineffective in our battle with the flesh. His recommendation is found in Colossians 3:1-2 – "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth."

These two verses are simply another way of saying what I've already articulated on numerous other occasions: holiness, in this case the ability to say no to "fleshly indulgence" and the passionate desire to walk in the way of Christ (2:23b), comes not primarily from rigorous asceticism or self-restraint but from a mind captivated and controlled by the beauty and majesty of the risen Lord and all that we are in him in the heavenlies!

Yielding to fleshly urges is overcome by "seeking" the things above. Fixing our minds on "things above" leaves little time or mental energy for earthly fantasies. The heart that is entranced by the risen Christ is not easily seduced by "the things that are on earth" (v. 2b). Paul uses language that requires both the energetic orientation of our will ("keep seeking") as well as the singular devotion of our mind ("set your mind"). This is a conscious and volitionally deliberate movement of the soul to fix and ground itself on, indeed to glut itself in, if you will, the beauty of spiritual realities as opposed to the trivial and tawdry things of this world.

The reason we must seek the things above is because that is "where Christ is" (v. 1). He is the exalted center and supreme sovereign of the eternal and heavenly realm. Why would we want our lives and thoughts and actions fixed anywhere else? The appeal of heavenly things is the presence of Jesus. It is the glory and beauty and multifaceted personality and power and splendor of the risen Christ to which Paul directs our attention.

The apostle is not averse to calling us away from the earthly and transient temptations of the flesh. In fact, in Colossians 3:5-6 he grounds his appeal to abstain from immorality, impurity, and idolatry in the impending reality of divine wrath. But only after, and I believe because he has something incomparably more grand and glorious to which he has already called us, namely, Jesus and the grandeur of things above. This, I believe Paul would have us know, is of great value against fleshly indulgence!

Trusting in the expulsive power of a greater affection, Sam