While it is more subtle in Christian circles, it’s still there. Our efforts to evangelize sometimes sound little better than secular advertisements, complete with glossy five-color ads and snappy tag lines. Everything seems to be centered on making things better for me: to give me satisfaction, to fulfill my wants, wishes and desires. And when difficulties arise, I question God’s goodness and his love. Why? Because things are not going well for me or my family and friends. I begin to feel like Galinda in the musical Wicked: “Something’s wrong—I didn’t get my way.”
Is this the attitude which really stirs our hearts and imaginations: What of the stories, movies and plays, which resonate deep within us? Movies like Saving Private Ryan, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Kingdom of Heaven, End of the Spear and stories like A Tale of Two Cities and Les Miserables: these are the stories where the hero puts aside his or her own wants and desires—sometimes at the cost of her own happiness and/or life—for a greater good. We all aspire to this don’t we? We, deep down, want to live the self-sacrificing life that lives and dies for something far greater than ourselves.
Paul appeals to the Thessalonian Christ-followers to live in such a way. In 1 Thessalonians 4:1 he writes:
Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus...
This text is the hinge of the book. The phrase “I urge” in first century personal letters usually identified the primary point of the letter. Paul is saying, This is the point: Live in order to please God! The question is: what does this look like?
Paul writes it is God’s will we should be sanctified—we should live lives set apart: holy. Living in God's will, being sanctified is what pleases God. This is another one of these pop-Christian issues: the will of God. We usually run to Jeremiah 29:11 and misapply the passage about God’s plans to prosper Judah—to bring her back from captivity. We agonize about trying to determine God’s “will for me”—something that sounds so spiritual and yet hints of self-centeredness. So what is God’s will? Here it is: be holy. For the Thessalonians this dealt directly with their cultural milieu: idolatry linked with sexual immorality. There seemed to be an obsession with sex in the pagan worldview; either a total detachment or total abandonment. Sexual rituals were associated with religion. Moral corruption was viewed either indifferently or favorably by the pagans.
There is a need to be specific here. When Paul says sexual immorality (Greek: pornea)he means all sexual relationships outside of marriage. The word is a broad word that includes anything from pre-marital sex and homosexuality to bestiality, pornography and adultery. He goes on to explain that each person should learn to control his/her own body.
While sexual misconduct is linked directly to idolatry, Paul doesn’t allow the Thessalonians to get the impression pornea is ok as long as idolatry is not connected to it. He writes in verses 4-6
each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him.
"To take advantage” means to take something that is not yours through deceptive means. Illicit sex is to take something from someone for selfish means—taking something reserved for a spouse (either present or a future spouse). The problem with Paul’s culture (and ours) is hedonism: self-centeredness and self-indulgence. I may do everything I can to mask my motives—to make me look noble or virtuous; to play a victim, or someone who deserves an exception; but Paul’s chilling words slap us in the face when we play such games:
The Lord will punish men for all such sins as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you the Holy Spirit (vv. 6-8).
This is a hard text for those of us who want to focus on God’s gentleness, graciousness, and goodness. The force of this text is clear: if you continue to live as a pagan, you will be judged as a pagan. In a later passage Paul writes something similar:
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be any obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. (Ephesians 5:3-7)
This is not a call for Christ-followers to start campaigns to legislate moral behavior. I don’t think Paul was interested in standing in a picket line protesting the sexual depravity of Roman and Greek culture. Paul is calling those who have named Jesus as their Lord to live like it. In a world obsessed with sex and self-gratification—the Christ-follower is to live by a different set of values. Protesting and legislating is not the answer: living pure is.
Ultimately, sexual immorality is merely a symptom of a much greater problem: self-centeredness. Our world says: live for yourself—seek your own needs for self-fulfillment. Indulge yourself, fight for your own way, ask for more. The way of Christ is counter-cultural. Live, not to please yourself: live to please God. It was in a garden where Jesus prayed for something bigger than his physical life on earth. He was honest enough to admit his desire to live—but he trusted God enough to say: not my will—but yours be done. It’s a good place to start and end. Whenever you are tempted to put yourself first—when you are tempted to fall into the temptation of the internet’s dark side, to be involved in illicit sexual activity, or to engage in any behavior (sexual or otherwise) that places self over God: talk with God. Be honest about the temptation and your own desire. But always end it with: not my will—but yours.
Self-fulfillment may be the American way of life, but read this carefully: it is antithetical to following Christ. So: may you live to die. May you experience the crucified life. May your fulfillment not be found in self-gratification—but in the pleasure of the Lord your God. Amen.