But he gives us some of these “guidelines” as commandments for a reason. First, they’re really nonnegotiable from his perspective. Second, we may not take them seriously if we feel they are only suggestions. Third, they are intended to groom us to be the very individuals God designed us to be—humble, repentant, obedient, holy and destined for heaven.
Although many of his lessons are given to us in the form of parables, letters, personal accounts and observations, they too are part of the Word we are commanded to obey. “This is love for God: to obey his commands” (1 John 5:3).
When we hold up his firm expectations against the morality of our present culture, they seem tight and restrictive. So we sometimes stiffen and rebel and determine to do things our own way. But what we may see as rules and restrictions are actually the deep wisdom of a loving parent. A perfect Father, in fact. Think about it. A mother constantly directs a child: “Don’t touch that oven door—it’s hot!” “Stop! There’s a car coming!” Is she doing that to be hard or mean? No. She’s protecting her child. She wants her son to avoid a bad burn. She prevents her daughter from being hit by a car.
God does the same thing with us as his adored children. “Don’t covet! It will fill you with discontent.” “Forgive that person who hurt you so badly. If you don’t, the anger will eat you up inside.”
Have you ever watched a little three-year-old so exhausted she is in hyperdrive? What is likely to happen when her daddy tells her it’s time to take a nap? She kicks and screams. She doesn’t want to go. Yet the dad knows what’s best for her. And after her nap she is a happier, more contented child.
God is like that father. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He is the Master Designer, so he knows what makes each of us tick. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalms 139:13). He has watched us from our birth and knows everything we’ve been through. And the Master Designer has a Master Plan, as well. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Anything he asks of us is for our best good. When we try to do it on our own, we get battered by the world. When we stick with him and his Word, it’s much easier. “And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:3-4). He gives us his laws because he knows that’s the only way we’ll ever be truly happy. Happy in spite of our outward circumstances.
You’ve probably heard the story about the frog in hot water. It depicts a frightening truth for us. Imagine what happens if we drop a frog into a pot of hot water—he immediately senses the heat and leaps out of the pot before he is hurt. However, if you put that same frog into a pot of cold water, turn the heat on, and let the water temperature rise gradually, he adapts to the increasing temperature and, rather than sensing the danger, will boil to death. Scary thought, huh?
You can see where I’m going with this. This is only my observation, but it seems to me that often we as Christians focus on keeping a comfortable gap between ourselves and what the rest of the world is doing. That way we can look at people in “the world” and feel confident and smug that we are not nearly as bad as they are. But the world with its culture is going downhill. And as it gradually slides down into the dark abyss, we are staying just an appropriate level above it and apart from it, but we are nevertheless sliding in right behind it.
Think for just a moment about the images we see on TV and the lyrics we hear in music. Compare the content with just ten years ago. Or twenty. The decline in moral standards is astounding. Yet most of us continue to watch and listen.
Instead of comparing ourselves to God’s purity and striving to do everything possible to narrow the gap between him and us, often we are content to be not quite as bad as the world. In I Saw the Lord, Anne Graham Lotz states, “Under ordinary lighting, as we set our own standards, compare ourselves with others, do what feels good and what we think is right in our own eyes, we can be deluded into thinking we’re okay. In fact, we can even think we are better than others, confident that God must be pleased with us.”
God’s Standard for Purity
In his well-known Christian classic My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers says this about purity: “God has only one intended destiny for mankind—holiness … Holiness means absolute purity of your walk before God, the words coming from your mouth, and every thought in your minds—placing every detail of your life under the scrutiny of God Himself.”
Wow. Absolute purity. That’s a tall order.
What things have I been thinking about today? Have all my thoughts been pure? What about my reading material, my choices on TV? Where have they been leading my mind? God doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to his standards. Let’s look further at what he says in 1 Peter 1:15-16: “But be holy now in everything you do, just as the Lord is holy, who invited you to be his child. He himself has said, ‘You must be holy, for I am holy.’”
The word “holy” occurs several times in this passage, so what exactly does that mean? The NIV Study Bible states it this way: “Holiness means being totally devoted or dedicated to God, set apart and different, not blending in with the crowd…Our focus and priorities must be his.”
Again, I need to ask myself some questions. How am I different? Are his qualities showing up in my life? When I’m feeling “needy,” is my focus on him and his Word? Am I more interested in his priorities than my own emotional feelings?
Here’s another challenging comment. In The Practice of Godliness, Jerry Bridges writes: “John said he wrote his first letter so that his readers would not sin (1 John 2:1). Most Christians seem content not to sin very much, but John’s goal was that we not sin at all. Every sin, no matter how small it may seem to us, is an affront to God’s authority, a disregard for His law, a spurning of His love. Because of this, sin cannot be tolerated in any form, to any degree. That ‘inconsequential’ lie, that ‘just a little bit’ of dishonesty, that fleeting lustful look, offends our holy God and wages war against our own souls.”
Wow. This one pulls me up short. I know I miss the mark in many ways. Am I content with that? Do I rationalize? Do I find myself saying, “Just this once” about things I want to do or see or think about, instead of laying my desires before the Lord? Am I overlooking or ignoring the small sins in my life?
What is “sin,” anyway? Is it an official list of “don’ts” or a collection of offenses mentioned in the Bible? Certainly God makes many sins plain in his Word. But what about the things that are not specifically addressed in the Bible? For example, we won’t find anything that talks about romance novels, will we? Or drugs. Or pornography.
What about the gray areas? For example, behavior on a date, what we watch on TV or what we read, interactions with men who are not our husbands, Internet chat room relationships. Where do we draw the line between what’s okay for us and what’s not healthy? What is sinful and what is not?
I personally like the definition of sin provided by Cynthia Heald in her book, Becoming a Woman of Excellence: “Sin—Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off the relish of spiritual things, that thing is sin for you, however innocent it may be in itself.”
This makes it personal. It begins by assuming I’m keeping my heart tender toward God. If I shut him out, I won’t even be aware of my standard. It’s not about where I draw the line with what I can and cannot do; it insists that I’m looking to him to show me what’s best for me. Because he loves me.
We have to practice good judgment and discernment. The bottom-line question for the committed Christian is, “How will this influence my thought life and my walk with God?” If we earnestly seek him, and if we’re willing to delve into the Word and honestly look for God’s intentions, we’ll find answers to our questions.
His Strength Not Mine
Let’s stop here for a moment. We’ve just looked at some pretty high expectations and that can feel daunting.
No matter how hard we try, we cannot walk in purity without his strength. He admonishes us to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10). He also says to us, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). It helps to fill our minds with these promises, and then take him at his Word. We must lean on him—put all our hope for victory in his hands.
Purity is one area where we should NOT set “realistic expectation” for ourselves. We need to expect from ourselves what God expects, and we cannot accomplish those expectations without his supernatural power. We can’t be determined enough, tough enough or committed enough to do it on our own. He tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in [your] weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Jesus was fully God and fully man, and in his humanness on earth he encountered everything we experience today. He understands. He also knows we are only human; it’s not a matter of if we will fail, because we will fail. But he sees our hearts.
His Word demonstrates that he is gentle with those who have hearts for him. Speaking about God’s grace toward the many godly men in the Old Testament who stumbled, A.W. Tozer tells us in his classic, The Pursuit of God: “The man of God sets his heart to exalt God above all; God accepted his intention as fact and acted accordingly. Not perfection, but holy intention made the difference.”
Our job is to set our hearts and our wills for him and to then trust him to be our strength because we know that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26).
As we choose to turn our backs on impurity to embrace holiness, we will discover the pure happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment only he can give. We will discover that Father truly does know best.
Excerpt taken from The Divine Romance: Going to God with the Longings Only He Can Fulfill. Copyright © 2008 by Dee Bright
Published by Revell Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version.
Dee Bright is a writer, conference speaker and consultant. She was previously an associate professor at George Fox University and the director of leadership development at the 9,000-member Bayside Covenant Church. She now runs her own consulting company in Granite Bay, California.