Winning the war against lust is by far the most common theme of all the emails we get in our inbox. Today’s question comes from an anonymous listener. “Hello, Pastor John. Thank you for taking my question! I am a female college student in Maryland, and I love listening to your podcast. Thank you for the encouragement and truth that you put out each week. My question is this: How exactly does one transform the way they think? The Bible talks about letting your mind be transformed, but I feel it’s not so cut and dry as it is laid out in Scripture. Lately, I’ve been struggling with lustful thoughts that make me feel very insecure and guilty. So how do I deal with this, especially in a sex-crazed culture? I want to fight the temptations. Every time a lustful thought occurs, I feel like I’ve let God down. How do I let my mind get transformed, as the Bible says, so that I can win this overwhelming and exhausting battle?”
“How exactly does one transform the way they think?” That’s where she starts. Let me pick up there. There are so many pieces to her words that I’m probably not going to touch on every one of them, but let me give our college-student friend in Maryland a simple two-part paradigm for transforming the way we think. Then I will try to fill it out with a few details.
Let me use the analogy of becoming physically fit or physically transformed into fitness to illustrate how we may become spiritually or mentally transformed in fitness. Almost everybody would see the common sense of saying that if you want to be physically fit, there are two aspects of the process of transformation. I think these same two are going to apply spiritually. Let’s call them resistance and reception.
By resistance I mean the kinds of exercises that put your muscle under a great deal of unnatural strain. For example, you want your biceps to be stronger so you can lift heavier packages or lift light ones more easily. You curl a weight up and down — say ten, fifteen, or twenty pounds — and you do it enough times that on the last one, you can barely do it because the resistance is so strong against your bicep.
In that process of resistance, the bicep, ironically, becomes stronger. It’s strange that you make yourself look like an idiot, trembling and pulling and unable to pull it up for the tenth or twentieth time. But out of that weakness, a few weeks later — lo and behold — your bicep is stronger.
By reception I mean you receive healthy foods and sufficient sleep and a kind of activity that is not so much pushing against something, but rather welcoming right and good things into your body.
So there’s the analogy, and you can work with it and see if I’ve got it right physically, because I don’t know much about that. But it seems to work for me.
Push Back the Darkness
Now let’s apply it to spiritual and mental fitness the way the Bible says it happens. Of course, resistance and reception are not sequential. They’re not sequential, like some days you do resistance and some days you eat. No, it’s simultaneous, at the same time.
First, there’s the biblical principle of resistance. James says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). Paul says in Romans 8:13, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” So we kill specific sins by targeting them with lethal resistance.
James 1:3 reads, “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” So the testing of faith corresponds to the resistance of the barbell by your bicep. Some temptation or some suffering comes into your life and threatens to conquer you and ruin your faith and your holiness. You have to lay hold on a promise of God and push hard against the rising doubt and unbelief with all your might, as you rely upon the promise of God.
So, push back the encroaching darkness just like you push on the floor when you do push ups. Why? Because this produces steadfastness or endurance. This means that those tests — those pressures of unbelief and temptation, those tests that have to be resisted by faith — result in two things.
1. These tests enable us to resist greater tests, greater temptations, and greater suffering in the future.
2. These tests enable us to meet all tests that used to make us stumble with relative ease so that we’re not thrown into a crisis every time we meet some sexual temptation, for example.
Now, all of this applies to lust and sexual temptation because those are thoughts and tests that we have to resist. We have to take hold of a promise of Christ, believe it, and then use it to push — actively push — the thought out of our minds.
We say, “No, no, no!” I mean, I do this. I’m not kidding here. Some lustful thought or some image comes into your mind, and you’ve got about five seconds to decide whether you’re going to let it take over or whether you’re going to push on it with “No — you’re out of here. In Jesus’s name, you’re out of here!”
You must direct your attention to some superior promise: “Jesus is better. Jesus is enough. He said this. You’re out of here.” And you keep pushing until it’s gone.
So that’s what I mean by resistance — the first half of the transformation. I want to encourage you that even though it may feel or sound exhausting at first, it really does yield a peaceful fruit of righteousness. Read Hebrews 12 and you’ll see what I mean.
Running on Empty
Now, here’s the second half. That’s only the first half, and so many Christians try to solve the problems of their temptations and their defeats only by the resistance half of sanctification. It won’t work. It just won’t work in the long run.
Let me give what I mean by the reception part. Paul says, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Notice, this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. We are receivers. This is the reception side.
We are fixing our gaze on the glory of the Lord, and we do that mainly in the word. We linger over the sweet and beautiful descriptions of the person and the work of Jesus Christ. We marinate our minds receptively by faith in the Crock-Pot of God’s word. We fix our eyes, the eyes of our hearts, on Jesus.
The more we receive into our hearts the beauty of Christ through the eyes of the heart as we read and meditate, the more we will have his desires, his preferences, and his convictions. We will be receptively transformed.
Oh, how sweet to have that receptive transformation so that the hooks of the devil don’t even lodge themselves anymore!
Here’s another passage to stir in. Colossians 3:10 reminds us that in Jesus we are new creatures, we have new selves. But we must put on the new self. That is, receive the new self. Put it on like a coat — consciously receive it.
But there’s a phrase in Colossians 3:10 that tips us off to how it happens. It says, “Put on the new self” — and here comes the phrase — “which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” So, the transformation of the mind and the desires and the thoughts of the new self happens in knowledge.
This is just like saying, “Look to Jesus more and more, and your thoughts and your feelings will be changed. You will experience your newness.”
Here’s the last passage I’ll mention that relates to newness through beholding Christ — newness through knowledge. It relates specifically to sexual temptation. Here’s what Paul says: “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor” — and here comes the key — “not in the passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3–5).
Notice where Paul lays the fault of sexual passion taking control and ruining our lives. He says that passion, that sinful passion, rules in people who do not know. Just like Colossians 3:10, they don’t know. Just like 2 Corinthians 3:18, they don’t see, don’t meditate on, don’t know, don’t absorb, don’t receive the knowledge of God.
In other words, they haven’t been renewed in knowledge. They haven’t set their minds to behold the glory of Jesus day and night so that they become like what they admire. They are at the mercy of their sinful passion because they haven’t been transformed by putting on the new self, renewed in knowledge.
That’s the biblical pattern of transforming our minds and our hearts so that we are less vulnerable to sexual temptation. It’s both resistance against unbelief and temptation and doubt and Satan, and it is the sweet and enjoyable reception, through God’s word, of the preciousness and the beauty and the greatness of Jesus. Both resistance and reception, over time, transform our hearts and our minds.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Reading the Bible Supernaturally.