We live in an intensely sexualized culture. Ads on television, even radio, school curricula and online news sites, even the folks who live next door, all seem to advocate self-expression and sensuality as the greatest good. So, you counsel people, not to mention yourself, in the fight against impurity and lust. You have no problem finding biblical passages addressing this issue, but there is one passage that stands out because of its remarkably odd prescription for purity. In a passage calling believers to rid themselves of even the hint of impurity we find this: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5.4). How strange! God seems to be saying that an important weapon against sexual temptation is thanksgiving. How can that be?
First, understand that an ungrateful heart leads to sexual impurity. At least that’s what we find in Romans 1.18-24. Ingratitude focuses on what we do not have (Numbers 11.1-6). Although having all that they needed, God’s people, because of ingratitude, focused on what they did not have rather than on God’s present bounty. Why did your friend commit adultery? One reason is because he was not thankful for the wife God gave him, desiring what he did not have rather than seeing God’s mercy in giving him the woman his Father thought he needed. Thanklessness leads to the wrong view of hardship (Exodus 14.10-11; 16.1-3). In the hardship of the wilderness, Israel complains and attributes evil intentions to God. The same thing happens to us. It is difficult to live the single life and so you might be tempted to think, “Why doesn’t God give me a wife? What a miserable existence!” With such a view of God’s providence in hardship, you will find sexual temptation hard to resist. Scripture makes it clear that sexual impurity grows in the soil of ingratitude.
On the other hand, thanksgiving is the rich, deep soil that produces the fruit of purity and so you must make the effort to promote and cultivate it. Now, where I live the soil is heavy with clay and not much good for growing things, or at least that’s what my wife Becca claims. She grew up on a farm in southwest Iowa with its rich, black, fertile topsoil. So, she works hard at changing the dirt around our place by composting leaves, grass, the “slops” (scrapings from the dinner plates), horse manure and anything organic to change the character of the soil and make it more productive. And so it is that we must promote and cultivate thanksgiving if we would stand against sexual temptation.
Where do you start? You will not be successful by merely saying to yourself, “What’s wrong, you ungrateful wretch? Count your blessings. Be thankful!” as if you can work up thanksgiving by mere willpower. If you would grow in thanksgiving, begin like the Psalmist: “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you. Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (118.28-29). The Father’s steadfast love, a love that endures forever, is guaranteed by the death of his Son; by the blood that ratified this new covenant of enduring love. Any effort to cultivate thanksgiving will fail unless firmly anchored to the cross.
Convinced of the Father’s love, what must you do? You must deal severely with all impediments to gratitude. If the farmer wants a good crop, he must deal with the everything that would prevent it. He prepares the ground for planting by discing the soil, breaking up the clods. During the summer, he must deal with the weeds and the insects. He must get rid of anything that hinders production. So, you must “break up” the illusion that thanksgiving only grows in good circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5.18; Daniel 6.10). You must deal a death blow to envy (Matthew 20.1-16). Ingratitude often starts with envy, which questions the wisdom and goodness of God. You should also be careful that while loving the gift you do not forget the Giver (Deuteronomy 8.7-20).
As you counsel people (and yourself) in the battle against impurity and immorality, never forget the essential part that thanksgiving plays. Be careful to expose ingratitude of the heart, and encourage them to cultivate thankfulness because of a Father who loves them, not because they are grateful, but because of his mercy in Jesus.
For more information about using thanksgiving to fight sexual temptation, join us for the ACBC Annual Conference, Faithfully Protestant. Tim Pasma will be teaching a breakout session on this topic and it will be an excellent resource for further understanding of thanksgiving and sexual purity.