Earlier this year on a Christian university campus, a student approached me with a question about fighting sin. He belonged to a group of young men committed to conquering the temptation of pornography. He explained how these guys sought to hold each other accountable, and he asked for some additional strategies and tactics they might employ in their war on sin.
My initial reaction was to encourage the student to stay in the group and benefit from the circle of repentance and accountability. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once pointed out how sin loves to isolate us and keep us alone in the fight. At her best, the church offers strength through grace-filled brothers and sisters who experience a sense of camaraderie as they pursue holiness together.
But it’s easy for accountability groups built on the desire to conquer a particular sin to become more focused on the sin being resisted than the righteousness being pursued. Over time, if the method of accountability is to go around the room and ask each individual if they sinned in a particular way since the previous meeting, “success” gets defined as sin-resistance rather than character-cultivation. Sin gets the spotlight; holiness stays in the shadows.
Shifting Focus Away from Sin
Imagine a group of people trying to lose weight. What if their meetings focused on all the foods they resisted during the week? Rachel resisted the juicy cheeseburger craving she had on Thursday; Aaron mustered the self-control to put down the big bag of M&M’s on Friday; John got a salad instead of his usual fish and chips when going out with friends on Saturday.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating small victories of willpower or cheering on one another in making better choices. But notice how much these conversations are focused on food! The temptation gets all the attention.
There’s a better way to pursue victory over sin, and it’s by shifting focus away from the sins we want to avoid and toward the people we want to become. Too often our attention is on sins in the past (which we feel guilty for) or temptations in the present (which we are actively seeking to resist). What we need is a greater focus on the future. Who are we becoming? Who has God called us to be? Victory over temptation comes not because we’ve got our eyes on the sin that would trip us up, but on the Savior in whose image we are being remade. We need our future selves to aid us in the battle.
Your Future Self
Consider this excerpt from a TED talk from Daniel Goldstein on why temptation is hard to resist:
It’s an unequal battle between the present self and the future self. I mean, let’s face it, the present self is present. It’s in control. It’s in power right now. It has these strong, heroic arms that can lift doughnuts into your mouth. And the future self is not even around. It’s off in the future. It’s weak. It doesn’t even have a lawyer present. There’s nobody to stick up for the future self. And so the present self can trounce all over its dreams. So there’s this battle between the two selves that’s being fought, and we need commitment devices to level the playing field between the two.
Commenting on this talk, Matthew Lee Anderson writes:
Thinking about ourselves in terms of our future being either weakly or dimly present to us generates helpful strategies for resisting temptation. . . . If we have a thicker, more robust understanding of our future lives, we will have more internal resources to do what we need to do.
This is one of the key points I make in Eschatological Discipleship. The apostle Paul’s eschatological hope motivated and shaped his ethical reflection. He frequently relied on explicit eschatological statements as he exhorted the early Christians to faithful obedience to Jesus. In other words, he called for their obedience in the present based on the promise of their future.
So it’s not enough to ask, “What sin must I conquer?” We must also ask, “What kind of person am I to become?”
Path to the Future Self
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis explains the significant, lifetime effect of small, seemingly insignificant choices. He paints a picture of every human being on a trajectory, with victories and setbacks as part of our formation.
Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.
Fighting Lust with the Vision of Your Future Self
So let’s return now to the question a student asked me about strategies for fighting lust. Many in our society who have fallen for the myth of “casual sex” believe also in “casual pornography”—the idea that porn is an occasional indulgence that can be justified or minimized or explained away without any long-term effects on your soul. Thankfully, a group of students holding each other accountable know better and have taken up the battle.
But in the lifelong fight against lust, we need more than accountability groups that focus primarily on a particular sin being resisted. We need the whole church—victorious and struggling, united not by specific sins and temptations but by love for Jesus, and blessedly starving for righteousness because we trust we will be forever satisfied. We need more than accountability for the struggle of the present moment; we need a glorious vision of the future selves we are becoming.
What if you embraced pornography your entire life without ever being found out? Fast forward 10 or 20 or 30 years. What would be the state of your future self? In cherishing this fleshly desire, you will have hollowed yourself out from the inside. You will find it harder to be joyful about the things of God. Your senses to God’s Word will become deadened.
Now imagine the other trajectory. With steps forward and back, with a strong sense of God’s forgiveness and grace, with ruthless intensity in relying on the Spirit as you seek deliverance from sinful lusts, you grow into more and more of a warrior committed to the blazing purity of righteousness. You embrace the new identity God has given you, and even if you fall, as the righteous man does (seven times even), you get back up and the battle goes on. Your eyes are not on the sins you’ve stumbled over in the past, but the Savior who cheers you on in the race. Your future self is not a shriveled soul limping through the last years of life, but a spiritually robust, shining force for righteousness, filled with the grace and courage you need to fight sin with every last ounce of your Spirit-given energy.
Which future self do you want to be? The next time you’re tempted, look beyond the sin. Remember who you are in Christ right now. Then look in the time machine of God’s Word, see your future self, and pick up the sword.