This week on the podcast, we are talking about how to know whether a good thing has become a problem in our life. This is a fascinating discussion, because the reality that good things can become a problem or can become a difficulty for us is a key part of understanding the doctrine of human sinfulness. Our sin is so bad and is bad to such an extent that it even distorts good things.
There’s a text of Scripture that helps us to think about this. It’s James 1, and starting in verse 13 it says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” Now, this is a fascinating text because of that word “lust” there in verse 14. Different translations will translate that word differently, but the word there is the Greek word that’s just a neutral word for desire.
When that neutral word for desire is translated “lust,” that’s indicating that there’s something bad going on with that desire. That’s a sound, exegetical decision because the development of that desire, translated in my version here “lust,” leads to death. “When lust,” in verse 15, “conceives, it gives birth to sin. When sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” There is a chain of lust leading to sin leading to death. We know that, even though the word for desire there is neutral, it’s actually representing something bad.
Our desires can be good or bad. When they are bad, they can be off in two different ways. Our desires can be off in direction when we want things that we should never, ever want at all. When a person wants to commit adultery, they want to have a sexual relationship with somebody they are not married to or they want to commit adultery with a digital harem and online pornography. They’re wanting something that they should not want, and we would say that their desires are off in direction and lead to sin.
What James 1 teaches us is that our desires can also be off in degree; that there can be good things that we want too much. That’s indicated by the fact that verse 14 uses a neutral word for desire. There are desires that can be good or bad and we find out whether they’re good or bad in the development of them. We want them too much.
Let me give an example in the sexual area again. We can imagine a married couple and a man in a marriage desiring to have sexual relations with his wife and for whatever reason that’s not possible at that particular moment. It is a good desire for a man to want to be with his wife and share the marriage bed together in that way, but maybe if she’s not feeling well, maybe if there is a conflict, maybe if there’s a need in their home say with kids or something like that, and that good desire is not able to be fulfilled and then he starts to respond in an angry way. He gets frustrated with his wife. He gets frustrated with the situation and begins to sin.
That’s the development that we see in James 1:14-15, that a neutral desire, even a good desire, for sexual relations has become a lust, because it gave birth to sin and then death. This is just one illustration of the way our sin can take a good thing and twist it so that it becomes a bad thing. It’s not the case that the thing in and of itself is necessarily bad, but our desire for it has gotten off in degree. We want it too much and now we have a problem. That is a problem in the human heart. It’s not a problem in the world.
The question is, what do we call that? What do we say about it? We led the podcast with the use of the language of idolatry, and idolatry has become kind of a buzzword as Christians speak about these kinds of things. There’s a thing out there that I want or that I’m going after, and it becomes a problem in my life. There’s biblical warrant to call those things an idol. Sometimes we use the language of idol and sometimes we could use the language of an inordinate desire or a sinful desire.
Whatever we call it, we’re getting at the reality that this thing has become a problem in my life, and it could be anything. The list of the good things that can become a problem in your life is as long as the list of good things in the world. You can turn the good gift of food into a problem. You can turn the good gift of sex into a problem. You can turn the good gift of sleep into a problem. You can turn the good gift of relationship, and communication, and even church attendance into a problem. The question that we led with at the top of the podcast is how do we know that these things, whatever we call them, have become a problem?
Let me answer it in a couple of different ways. First, you can know that this good thing has become a problem in your life if you are willing to sin in order to get it. Let’s use an example of food. It’s a good thing to be thankful for food. It’s a good thing to be hungry, because it’s your physical body letting you know that it’s time to eat and to be nourished.
Yet, we can take the good gift of food, and even the good gift of hunger which reminds us to eat, and we can twist that, and it can become a bad thing. I can start to want food too much, so that I would lie to get it, so that I would be mean to you to get it, so that I would cheat you to get it, maybe I angle past you in the food line and forget about your interest and try to take the biggest piece of cake and leave you with whatever is left over. The issue is when I’m willing to sin to get it, then even a good thing has become a lust or an idol in my life.
Another indicator that a good thing has become a problem is when I’m willing to sin when I don’t get it. In the first instance, I’m talking about trying to accomplish and trying to achieve getting this thing. Now in this second example, I’m looking at how do we respond when we don’t get it? When we want the biggest piece of pie and we don’t get it, how do we respond? There’s not a thing in the world wrong with wanting to sit and have a quiet evening alone with your family, but when there is an emergency at church or when a family member calls and needs help, how do you respond to that? Are you bitter, angry, or resentful? Do you speak harshly to people? When you are willing to sin when you don’t get the good thing, it’s an indicator that it has become a lust or an idol in your life, and you need to repent.
Here’s a third indicator, and this is really important because one of the most significant hallmarks of a good thing becoming an idol in our lives is that we are blind to it. One of the most concerning and troubling things that I’ve seen in my entire life is the blindness of people to the lustful inordinate desires in their heart. What is typical for people who are even Christians is to be blinded by the goodness of the thing. They may say, “Well, I just want to have sex with my wife, or I just want to eat a good meal, or I just want to have a close relationship with you.” They’re blinded by the goodness of the thing and they can’t see the inordinate desire. They can’t see the idolatry.
This is, again, another key aspect of the doctrine of human sinfulness as we live it out in life. Our hearts are so often and so painfully blind to the sins that encumber us, and we’re eager to look for excuses, we’re eager to blame other people, we’re eager to find, again, the goodness in the desire, and we lose the fact that we’ve been willing to sin to get this thing. We have sinned in response to not getting this thing and blindness is a real problem.
I mentioned this third indicator as some effort to try to get past the blindness. You can know if a good thing has become a problem in your life by looking at the consequences in your life. We need to be careful here. There are some qualifications that I would want to make to this, but it’s an important point. It’s the nature of sin to separate. It’s the nature of sin to break relationships and create distance. It’s the nature of sin to create drama and trouble.
If you’re looking around at your life and you’re seeing relationships that had been close but are now distant, if you’re seeing relationships where there had been trust and now there’s distrust, if you’re seeing all sorts of pain and difficulty around a good thing that you’re prizing, then it could be that that is evidence of real blindness in your life, that you have begun to idolize a good thing. You need to find somebody that you’re going to listen to and get some help to see what you might not be seeing.
I want to be careful here because sometimes the consequences that we’re experiencing in our lives could be the consequence of other people’s sins. We don’t want to assume that anytime something unpleasant is happening in our life that it’s because of something that we did. Yet, we need to be honest that it is the nature of sin to separate and bring distance. If you’re noticing a pattern of sin, of distance, or of distrust in your relationships, then it could be that you’re blind as a bat to an idol in your life.