“Lord, please kill me before I cheat on my wife.”
This is a prayer that I prayed many times when I was first married. I’m not saying that it was mature or biblical, but it gives you a glimpse into my mind. I did not ever want to bring shame to the church, and I knew that this potential for evil was in me.
I spent my single years battling for purity and often failing. At times the battle was all-consuming. Days were filled with a paralyzing guilt that kept me from effective ministry and enjoying Jesus. I tried many things to discipline myself. At one point, I even decided that if I gave into lust, I would spend the next day fasting. This forced me to spend days in prayer, asking for more strength and self-control. I’ve found that when you refrain from eating, it makes refraining from sin easier. While it didn’t work perfectly, it was helpful. (And I did lose a few pounds.)
The Bible is clear and simple when it comes to impurity: Run! “Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22). Run away from temptation, and run towards righteousness. How we each pursue this may look different, but here are some pillars that have helped me in my journey.
Fear Can Be Good
The Scriptures teach, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). I am grateful that by his grace, God has gifted me with a deep-seated fear of him.
Many years ago, I remember reading an article about a man who had a fatal heart attack while having sex with a prostitute. I imagined how terrifying it must have been for that man to enter into the presence of a holy God at that moment. If nothing else keeps you from adultery, maybe the fact that Almighty God could take your life amidst the very act would terrify you enough to repent.
It was years later that a friend of mine, a fellow pastor, committed adultery with his assistant. I didn’t see him for months after it happened. When he came into my office, he looked awful. He proceeded to tell me the whole story. He explained how one thing led to another, and before he knew it he had committed the act he preached against for years.
What impacted me most was when he explained his thoughts and feelings after sinning. He told me of how he kept looking at his revolver, tempted to pull the trigger. He reasoned that everyone would be happier if he was dead. The other woman’s husband would be happier. His own wife and kids would be happier. His church would be happier. It was only by the grace of God that he was still alive.
Of course, taking his own life in the aftermath of adultery would only be multiplying the sin. But I was struck by the misery he felt. He seriously thought it would be better to be dead than to have done this and to live with the consequences! His misery was both a wake-up call and a warning to me. Fear can be a great grace.
My pursuit of sexual purity has been a discipline. I have said with the apostle Paul, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
Early in our marriage, my wife asked me, “Can you promise that you will never cheat on me?” After thinking about it for a few seconds, I told her that even though I loved her deeply, I could not promise her. I explained that if I promised her, then I would act like I’m invincible, rather than guarding myself daily. I think it would be wiser to live each day knowing that it could happen, so I stay guarded. It wasn’t what she hoped to hear, but she understood my point.
Even to this day, though the struggle has subsided and my love for her has grown immensely, I still have not promised her. Instead, I continue to live each day with severe caution. I see it as a an act of love toward my wife. I rarely counsel women, and never alone. I won’t go anywhere with a woman alone. In 23 years, I have never even been in a car alone with another woman (aside from relatives). It has felt silly at times to inconveniently tell women they had to drive separately even though we are going to the same location, but I believe it’s been worth it. My wife has access to all of my email accounts, phone records, and I don’t have a Facebook profile. There are no secrets between us.
I have alcoholic friends who were supernaturally delivered from any desire for alcohol. I have other friends who pray for deliverance, but are tempted daily. They refuse to have any alcohol in their homes, and stay away from tempting situations. After reading John Piper’s letter to a would-be adulterer, it sounds like his story has been one of supernatural deliverance, while mine has been one of discipline and daily strength. I believe God is glorified by both.
Early on in my Christian journey, I focused only on running away from sin. I believe it was good and right, but not complete. It was later that I discovered the truth of Galatians 5:16, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
God calls us not only to run away from temptation, but to run toward him. He promises that when we are walking by the Spirit, we will not gratify the flesh. As I have followed God’s Spirit into meaningful ministry, it has been amazing to see the craving for sin diminish. The thrill of the Holy Spirit manifesting himself through me to bless others fills me thoroughly, crowding out sinful desires that might otherwise have had room to grow (1 Corinthians 12:7).
It’s like playing in an intense basketball game. I get tunnel vision. Winning is all I think about. My mind does not wander one bit. In the same way, when my wife and I are intensely pursuing God’s cause and kingdom, our minds don’t wander toward sin. Soldiers stay focused when they are in battle. “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Timothy 2:4). It’s when we relax, when we forget we are actually on a mission, that trouble comes.
More of Jesus
Just this morning, I read in Psalm 73,
I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. (Psalm 73:23–25)
I pictured God holding my right hand, guiding me, receiving me into glory. The longer I imagined that, the more I understood why the next verse says, “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). Take time to meditate on these truths. If you’re anything like me, you tend to take God’s commands more seriously than his promises. He wants us to have faith in both, and to find enjoyment in both.
While I am fifty years old, and have been walking with Jesus since high school, it has really been over the past few years that I have grown significantly in my enjoyment of him. A few months ago, I told a friend that I didn’t want to have any sin in my life because I am enjoying such close fellowship with Jesus. That was a new experience for me.
Fear, discipline, and mission are all biblical motivations — and have all helped me in my pursuit of holiness. But now that I have been enjoying deeper connection with Jesus, I feel like I’ve missed out.
I hesitated in writing this letter after reading Piper’s. I have been praying the five prayers he suggests there, and it has been life-changing. It has opened my eyes to the shallowness of my prayers, and it brought a new satisfaction into my life. It makes me wonder if the struggle could have been lesser, and the journey sweeter, if I had read and followed his letter years ago.
Or maybe the path to righteousness will look different for each of us, so long as we arrive in a place of deeper enjoyment of Jesus.