This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Galations 5:16-26
Confession: Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 44
Main Idea: The desires of our hearts reveal the nature of our struggle.
Purpose: To help people see how Christ works to transform the deepest levels of sin's damage.
Sermon prepared by Rev. Bill Sytsma, Highland, Indiana
There is an inner conflict that is present in every person. This conflict is not unique to those who are followers of Christ, but Christians have access to teaching that helps us understand the nature of this conflict.
The conflict, or battle, is the tension that exists between what is good, and what I want. We find that we regularly want things that are not good. Our desires and our values do not always match.
I can admit that it is GOOD to exercise. But I WANT to eat pizza, sit on the couch, and watch a movie on TV. I acknowledge that it is GOOD to save money for the future. But I WANT to buy that new cell phone with the latest features. I realize that it would be GOOD to help out my next-door neighbor who has been recently hospitalized. I could easily take a few moments to mow her lawn, or even prepare a meal for her as she recovers. But I WANT to go to the game and out to a restaurant for dinner.
On the surface, this inner conflict may seem like nothing more than a slight annoyance. It can be easily dismissed as a personal quirk or a minor inconsistency in our character. This struggle can lead to some humorous situations. You may tell your children that it is not good to eat junk food late at night, but in that same evening, they will see you enjoying a bowl of ice cream after the usual dining hours. You might be able to dismiss that incident or similar demonstrations of your inner struggle with a laugh, but as time passes, we find that this annoying inner conflict reveals something deeply troubling about ourselves. We tend to trade what is best for cheap imitations of true satisfaction. We settle for temporary thrills when eternal value is available.
How do we reconcile this inner struggle?
In our text for today, the Apostle Paul helps us understand that this struggle is not a struggle that is unique to our contemporary culture. He explains that there is a battle within each person that is spiritual in nature. He calls it the battle between the Spirit and the sinful nature.
Today, we want to explore what the Bible has to say to us about this inconsistency in human nature that causes us to trade what is truly good for cheap treasures that offer nothing more than temporary gratification.
THE TENTH COMMANDMENT PROHIBITS COVETING
The tenth commandment tells us that we should not covet. This is a difficult commandment to understand, and an even more difficult commandment to keep.
If you take a quick survey of the Ten Commandments, you find that most of the commandments offer clear instructions for how you should live in God's presence. You know that if you are sexually unfaithful to your spouse, you have violated the seventh commandments, (which tells us we should not commit adultery). You can be certain that if you walk into a store and take something from the display at the end of the aisle and walk out of the store without paying for that item, you have broken the eighth commandment, "you shall not steal."
The tenth commandment has a different nature. It is almost impossible to observe when someone else has violated this commandment, and it is not easy to realize when our desires have crossed the line that moves us into the territory of coveting.
The other nine commandments that are recorded in Exodus 20 can be kept by a sheer act of will. We can compel ourselves to avoid bowing down to a false idol. We can force ourselves to control our tongues and only use God's name with respect. Even though it might be tempting to share a piece of juicy gossip that may not be completely accurate, it is possible for us to come to our senses, remember to act with decency, and close our mouths. However, it is almost impossible to control what we want.
I am not trying to argue that any of us are accomplished at keeping the first nine of God's commandments. I do want to point out, however, that there is something particularly difficult about keeping the tenth commandment. Even though we might be able to muster up enough self control to avoid sinning in a moment of temptation, it is almost impossible to control our desires. We do not intend to covet our neighbor's house, but we frequently find ourselves wishing that we lived in that house,
It is difficult to identify when we have violated the tenth commandment. We cannot always be sure when we are merely admiring our neighbor's house or when we have crossed admiration into coveting. We could argue that it might be wrong to covet, but we question whether there is anything sinful about admiring. If we believe it is permissible to admire a neighbor's house, we may begin to wonder whether it is permissible to make plans to design a house that is very similar to our neighbor's. Once we start making plans to acquire a similar house, we find that we are very close to coveting our neighbor's house, and we don't know where we overstepped our boundaries.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO COVET?
Perhaps the confusion over coveting lies in the confusion over the meaning of the word, "covet." Let's face it; "covet" is not a word that permeates our every-day language. The word is usually reserved for church services and discussions about Christian morality. Many people may even wonder why it is commanded that we should not covet.
The word, "covet," is not easily defined. We often mingle the word "covet" with the word, "envy." When we are envious, we long to possess something that belongs to someone else. Often, we find that envy can lead to a disdain for the person who possesses the object of our desires. I might want to fall in love with someone so badly, that I begin to belittle the people who do fall in love; even though I wish the exact same occurrence in my life.
In the Bible, David experienced this kind of coveting. He found himself desiring Bathsheba, who was the wife of one of his faithful soldiers, Uriah. His desire led to adultery, and adultery led to pregnancy. In the treacherous attempt to cover up his indiscretion, David conspired to have one of his faithful soldiers abandoned in the midst of a battle, resulting in death. His desire to have Bathsheba for himself led to the murder of Bathsheba's husband.
Envy is not the only word we mix with the concept of coveting. In the Greek language, the word for "covet" is the same word we translate into "lust." If we think of coveting as a desire that has gone out of control, we can understand that the word "lust" could be thought of as a type of coveting. We usually think of lust with a sexual connotation. And far too many know the damage that can be done when the desire for sexual gratification is not kept in check.
The words "envy" and "lust" can help us understand the nature of coveting, and they certainly fit the description of the kind of coveting that is mentioned in the tenth commandment. However, we have to be careful that we don't paint the concept of coveting so narrowly that we miss the human flaw that this commandment exposes.
Because it is mentioned in the Ten Commandments, we would like to understand the offensive nature of coveting. If we describe it with sexual overtones or demonstrate how coveting can lead to other sins, we might be able to understand why it is offensive to covet. However, if we identify "covet" as desire, we may not understand why it is so offensive that it warrants a commandment.
The tenth commandment may be difficult to understand and even more difficult to keep, but it forces us to see the depth of the damage that sin has done to our walk with God. While we may recognize that our desires can be in conflict with what is truly good, we may miss that these same desires can drive a wedge between us and God. Sin has distorted our desires so that we do not truly value what is best.
Have you ever noticed that some of our greatest disappointments come when we get exactly what we want? Let me share a few examples of what I mean.
Bob has been saving money for years by doing odd jobs. He has cleaned garages, washed cars, delivered newspapers, shoveled driveways, and picked blueberries. He finally gets his driver's license, and he is ready to buy his first car. Each one of his paychecks has been placed in a special account, and he finally gets to acquire what his heart has desired for years. He considered the day he bought his first car as one of the memorable moments of his life. However, within weeks of that day, the elation that Bob experienced turned to disillusion and disappointment as he realized the costs associated with purchasing gas, paying for oil changes, and acquiring insurance. Furthermore, he is starting to suspect that the car of his dreams is not what he expected, as he visits mechanic after mechanic, trying to find a solution to the electrical problem.
Bob received exactly what he wanted, but he was disappointed.
Natalie knew the dancing doll was the toy of her dreams. The first time she saw it during a television commercial, she ran to her parents and declared that it must be on her wish list for Christmas. She envisioned herself dancing with the doll and laughing, just like the little girl on television who had that doll. On Christmas morning, she was thrilled to discover she received exactly what she wanted. She asked her dad to get the doll out of the box and put in the appropriate batteries. She set the doll on the ground, and she started dancing with it.
But the thrill of the doll only lasted for a few hours, and Natalie realized that her new doll did nothing more than a simple twirl. The laughter seemed so much more pleasant on television than it did in real life. Natalie became disappointed with her new toy. She was not disappointed because the doll was defective, nor because it had been falsely advertised. She had received exactly what she wanted. She was disappointed because she had wanted something that could not deliver the kind of joy she had expected. Even though her desires had been fulfilled, she realized that her desires had not led her to a great source of happiness.
The tenth commandment reveals the struggle that is within each person. That struggle can be identified in our desires. They have a stronghold of our hearts, but they are not reliable for guidance. Even when we get what we want, we find that we are not satisfied.
Once sin entered the world, even human desires were corrupted, and our desires can now separate us from God. The problem of sin is something that runs deeper than bad behavior. Sin is not just evident in our actions; it is a problem that lives within us. The commandment that tells us we should not covet forces us to confront the nature of sin.
Even when we are not pining for blatantly "sinful" possessions, we find that we can be drawn away from God. God created a world full of good things. At the end of His creative time, God even took time to notice that all He had made was very good.
When we admire aspects of His creation, we are not intentionally walking away from God. Yet the strength and direction of our desires can end up being a wedge between us and God, and not because we want "bad stuff."
Many of the things we desire might be perfectly acceptable. I like cell phones, computers, sports, television programs, coffee, and playing games. By themselves, these items are not inherently sinful. However, when my desire for computers or television programs begins to consume me, God is slowly pushed off of the throne of my heart.
In one of Paul's letters to Timothy, the Bible tells us that "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." Notice that the Bible does not say that money is evil, but rather it warns that the disposition of our hearts can be changed when we love money. Money is not evil; in fact it can be a very helpful tool. We use money to buy food and clothes. We can use money to advance God's Kingdom as we support missionaries or efforts to bring relief to those who have been wounded in our world. But even though money can be a useful tool, our hearts can still be led astray by this gift.
The problem is not that money is bad, but that our hearts can be so easily corrupted. We can begin to love the good gifts that God has given more than we love God Himself. The object of our desires might be material possessions, a good reputation, relaxing on vacation, or one of a thousand other pleasures and good gifts that God has created. The problem of coveting reveals the disposition of our hearts and can expose the rift that exists between us and our Maker.
THE CONFLICT BETWEEN SPIRIT AND FLESH
In verses 16 through 18 of our text, we find a picture that is drawn of a person who struggles with two natures. It is a familiar picture to many of us. The Bible describes the battle as a struggle between Spirit and flesh. The battle is not unlike the often-used contemporary image of a person who has a small angel on one shoulder whispering encouragement to make good choices, while a small demon sits on the other shoulder offering guidance to make selfish decisions without any concern for the consequences.
This struggle shows us that the problem of sin runs deeper than acts of disobedience. The damage of sin can be observed in the internal struggles that we have to practice self-control and self-denial. The fact that we sometimes choose to satisfy our desires, despite the fact that we do not desire what is best, is evidence of the damage sin does to us.
I suppose you could argue, "What's the big deal? Is it really that bad if we have trouble making decisions? Why can't we just allow that everyone has different tastes? What's the problem if our desires are really corrupted?"
The damage of sin is not merely that we have a difficult time making good decisions; it is that our relationship with God has been ruptured. The brokenness of that relationship can be observed in the desires we have that draw us away from God.
Have you ever known a couple, whether dating or married, that had relationship problems? Todd and Shelly were a wonderful couple. Everyone who saw them together could see that they enjoyed being together. They had their priorities straight, and they were looking forward to a long life together as they approached their wedding day. As they began to talk about their life together, they began to discover that even though they genuinely enjoyed each other's presence, they wanted different things in life.
Todd wanted to live in the activity of a big city, while Shelly wanted a quiet suburban home. Todd wanted to take luxurious vacations and travel the world, while Shelly was content to go camping in a tent near her home. Shelly dreamed of a house full of children, while Todd wanted to pursue advancement in a career before considering the possibility of being a parent.
Couples who have these kinds of differing desires might be compatible in many different ways. They might be wonderful people who want to do admirable things with their lives. They might be very nice people and they even wish each other well. But there will be an underlying tension in their relationship if they don't find a way to resolve the differences in what they want in life.
I share this illustration to help us understand that the nature of our desires can become something more than a personal quirk. Our desires can cause friction in our relationships with others. When our goals, ambitions, and desires differ from God's Kingdom plans, the nature of sin is on display. We might be able to say that we want nice and valuable things, but God wants nothing to interfere with our walk with Him.
When Jesus called His disciples, He told them that they should leave all of the things that were important to them in order to follow Him. Jesus was not saying that there was no value in family or work or taking care of others. He needed to make it clear to those who would follow Him that their desires, ambitions, and values would be reconfigured as they put their trust in Him. As we follow Christ in our day, we must understand that our natural desires may be a point that keeps us from knowing God, and God may call us to let go of the objects we desire.
THE HOLY SPIRIT WORKS TO TRANSFORM OUR HEARTS
Despite the way that sin separates us from God, we have a hope of being renewed. Whenever we gather to worship, we are gathering out of the hope that Jesus has made it possible for us to approach God. Despite our disobedience, and despite the corrupt nature of our desires, God still loves us. He wants us to enjoy peace in His presence.
When Jesus died on the cross, He paid the penalty for our disobedience. We can be assured that when we belong to Jesus, the sins we have committed are no longer counted against us. We are saved by the grace of Jesus.
Yet, in this sermon, we have recognized that sin is not just a problem that is evident in the way we behave. It is also seen in the condition of our corrupted hearts. Whenever we find ourselves wallowing in envy or lust, we recognize that we want things that are different than God's desires. And this difference in our desires becomes a barrier in our ability to grow nearer to Him.
The good news for us today is that God is not yet done working in our lives. He not only sent Jesus to pay the penalty for our sins, He also sends His Holy Spirit to make us new. The Holy Spirit works to transform the condition of our hearts. We need this renewing work of the Spirit, because the natural condition of our hearts makes it very difficult, even impossible, for us to walk in step with God. Even when we know what is best, we often set our desires on something else; even though God wants what is best.
Our desires and ties to this sinful world can even make it hard for us to understand the kind of Kingdom God has planned for us. When we hear words like paradise and treasures, it is very difficult for us to think of anything other than vacation spots and dollar signs. God is trying to lift our vision beyond what He has already given us in this world, so that we can see what is best. But once our hearts have become accustomed to longing for this world, we cannot envision what God is trying to describe.
Let me demonstrate what I am talking about.
I would like all of you to close your eyes. While you are closing your eyes, I want you to imagine an elephant. Think of its' trunk hanging down and the white tusks protruding from the face. Try to picture its large ears, round body, and wispy tail. Imagine the elephant walking in the tall grass, moving toward a small lake, and getting a drink of water.
You now have a picture in your mind, and I would like to change that picture. I want you to be able to imagine something other than an elephant, even though it can be described like an elephant. While your eyes are still closed, try to picture something different than an elephant. It has a trunk, but it is not an elephant. It has a tail, but it is not an elephant. It does not have tusks, but there are two large extensions protruding from the middle of the trunk. It does not have ears like an elephant, or legs like an elephant, and it does not move like an elephant.
You can open your eyes now.
Based on my description, many of you probably have an image in your mind right now of a strange looking animal without ears. Would you be surprised to find out I was trying to describe an airplane. It was hard to describe by merely comparing it to the picture that was already in your mind. When I said it had a trunk, it was hard to picture the fuselage or main body of an airplane, because the word had been associated with an elephant. As I tried to describe the tail and wings, you may have had difficulty breaking away from the image of the elephant and seeing something like an airplane.
When our minds have focused on something, it is not easy to picture a new image.
Similarly, when our heart's desires have been set on something, it is hard to imagine something that could satisfy us that differs from our desires. When we hear God promising paradise, treasures, prosperity, success, and peace; it can be almost impossible for us to imagine those realities apart from the ways we have seen them in this world. We naturally desire the things of this world. We are corrupted by hearts that covet.
In order to draw our attention away from this world, God draws a new picture for us in this text. He allows that this world may be filled with drunkenness, orgies, jealousy, rage, and selfish ambitions; yet He wants our eyes to be lifted to something greater.
His Kingdom is not characterized by what our text calls "acts of the sinful nature." Those acts are like the image of the elephant that has been fixed in our mind. It is hard to imagine a world where those kinds of acts are not present. Instead of dwelling on those acts, God calls us to consider a new kind of fruit that will be evident in His Kingdom. He calls us to set our desires on place, a Kingdom, which is characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That kind of Kingdom differs from our world as an airplane differs from an elephant.
What does God desire for us? He wants us to enjoy His presence. He wants us to walk in step with Him. He wants us to know the joy of His holiness.
It is hard for us to even want that kind of joy while our desires are tied to the things of this world.
God knows our nature, and He is working today to make you new. He calls us to follow Christ, and as we follow, to set new priorities for our lives. Rather than acquiring the pleasures of this world and attempting to avoid temptations, He calls us to pursue Christ by demonstrating the kind of characteristics that are called the fruit of the Spirit.
Set your heart on becoming a new person in Christ. Set your heart on bearing fruit that demonstrates joy and peace, love and gentleness. Experience how lifting your focus from the things of this world can change your life.
Order of Worship
Welcome and Announcements
God's greeting: "May the grace, mercy, and peace of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen."
Songs of Praise: "To God Be the Glory" PsH # 473, and "Majesty."
Call to Confession (Responsive Reading from Psalter Hymnal, page 1016)
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon (based on: 1 John 1:9): "When we look into God's law, we see our need for Christ's grace, because our sin is exposed by His Word. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive us all unrighteousness."
Song: "In the Cross of Christ I Glory" PsH # 474, or "Rock of Ages."
Song: "Take My Life and Let It Be" PsH # 288 or 289.
Confessional Reading: Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 44 (Read Responsively)
Scripture Reading: Galatians 5:16-21
Sermon: "Evidence of Corruption"
Prayer of Application: "Lord Jesus, send your Holy Spirit into our lives, so that we may forsake the things of this world that divert our attention from you. Transform us so that we embrace the priorities of Your Kingdom. Amen."
Song: "My Jesus, I Love Thee" PsH # 557
Parting Blessing: "May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen."
Closing Song: "Father, We Love You" PsH # 634 or "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You"