Learning to Control Our Desires
August 6, 2012
Updated May 14, 2021
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Romans 7:14 - 8:17
Confession: Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 44, Questions and Answers 113 - 115
Purpose: If we could overcome this one sin, we would begin to discover God's Kingdom fulfilled in the earth.
Sermon prepared by Rev. Rudy W. Ouwehand, Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Aesop, the writer of Greek fables, tells the story of a man to whom the gods promised anything he wished. The man could hardly believe his good fortune. There was, however, a catch: his every wish would come true only on the condition that his neighbour would get twice as much of whatever it was he wished for. The thought of his neighbour's good luck, always doing him one better, spoiled his happy mood. What good was the wish if it didn't make him better off than his neighbour? He thought and thought, and suddenly a smile crossed his face. He had it—the perfect wish! Grinning smugly, he told the gods he wished to lose the sight of one eye.**
This fable highlights the sin of the tenth commandment. "You shall not covet your neighbour's house. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour."
The story strikes a chord in us because we know people like that. And perhaps, if we would admit it to ourselves, we are a bit like that. Such people are always trying to do one better than their neighbour. If the neighbour gets a new car, they've got to have a bigger and better one. If they put up a new fence, ours has to be just a bit nicer. If their neighbour gets an above ground pool, they feel that they simply must have an in-ground pool! We even have a saying for that kind of behaviour. It's called "Keeping up with the Joneses."
What would you or I wish for if we were given the chance? Would we wish for money? Or for goods? Or for the chance to travel? What it really comes down to is the question, "What do you and I covet?" People covet things others have: ‘keeping up with the Joneses' means seeking ever more ‘things' to add to what we already have. This attitude is reflected in the slogan, "At the end of life, he who collects the most toys, wins!"
And we know this attitude is felt not only locally, but also internationally. The third world looks to the first world with hungry eyes, and the industrialized nations look to the third world with greed, coveting their natural resources and cheap labor. How many wars have been started throughout history because one nation coveted the land or resources of another!
If all coveting could be removed, at both the personal and international levels, there would be safety in our cities and homes, and peace among the nations. There would be no murder, or theft, or adultery. There would be no homelessness or hunger. It would be as if the millennial reign of Christ had already begun. As if the Kingdom of God on earth had already been fully established. And all this if only one sin could be removed!
As we look at Lord's Day 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism which deals with this commandment against coveting, we notice something unique about this commandment. The other nine commandments all deal with actions:
- the first tells us that we should not worship false gods,
- the second that we should not worship God falsely,
- the third commands us not to use God's Name in vain,
- and the fourth that we should keep the Lord's Day.
- Number five, beginning the second Table of God's law, teaches us to honour our parents,
- the sixth that we should not murder,
- the seventh that we should not commit adultery,
- the eighth that we should not steal,
- and the ninth that we should not lie.
Each of these commandments speaks of a specific action that we are either forbidden to take, or commanded to take. However, the tenth commandment does not refer to a specific act, but rather to a state of mind. Therefore, Lord's Day 44 sees this one as basic to all the rest: "that not even the slightest thought or desire contrary to any one of God's commandments should ever arise in my heart."
All sins which the ten commandments forbid are now not just sinful acts, but sinful desires! This is exactly what Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:21, 22 he said, "You have heard that it was said... ‘Do not murder...' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment." And again, in Matthew 5:27, 28 Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Here Jesus highlights that the actions forbidden by the commandments really arise out of the mind or the heart of the sinful person. Sinful desires are based on doing things and having things that God has told us we may not do and we may not have. All such desires are a rebellion against God.
The world seeks happiness in such outward actions and objects, yet it is universally true that people don't find happiness there! We admire famous actors and actresses, but if we could only look more closely at their lives we would soon discover that these people have their own problems, and they are not as happy as they appear on the outside!
Those who have much already, in terms of material possessions, only seek to gather more & more! There never seems to be enough to satisfy them. Indeed, they act as if ‘winning the game' depends on ending up with the most ‘toys' at the end!
But, in God's Kingdom, things work just the opposite way from the way things work in the world. True happiness and joy are not found by amassing wealth and possessions! They are found in living by the principles of God's Kingdom – seeking joy and peace in our relationship with God and with our neighbours.
There are a couple of stories which highlight how different the principles of God's Kingdom are from the principles by which people live in the world.
The first is the fable of a melancholy king. He was told that he could only find peace and contentment when he was wearing the shirt of a perfectly happy man. So he sent his couriers throughout his kingdom on the quest to find such a man. However, when they finally found such a man, he owned no shirt!
The second story tells of an old legend about a company of horse riders who travelled through a mysterious land in the dark of night. As they crossed a dry river bed, they heard a voice: "Take a handful of the pebbles from the river bed and you will be both glad and sad." Each rider did as the voice commanded; then they continued their journey in the dark. When the morning finally came and they were bathed in the light of the sun, one of the travellers remembered the strange command. The riders reached into their pockets and pulled out the pebbles. To their amazement they saw that the stones were in fact diamonds and rubies and sapphires. Then they were both glad and sad — glad that they had taken some pebbles and sad that they had not taken more.*** This story shows how things on which we might place little value gain great worth when they are exposed to God's light!
Christians know that true contentment does not lie in the possession of 'things,' but in "seeking first the Kingdom of God." When we do that, Jesus teaches us that God will supply all that we need. The 'things' we own become our currency to show love to others. We no longer covet what we don't have, but rather, we learn to share what we do have.
In seeking the Kingdom of God, we find contentment. That Kingdom is present now, but it is presently realized more in our relationships with God and with our neighbour, than in 'things' and places. In this present kingdom our 'desire' is changed so that we learn "to hate sin and take pleasure in whatever is right" (Question and Answer 113).
To understand what this answer of the catechism means, let's take a closer look at God's law. We want to see how it leads us from an awareness of our sin and short comings, and from our tendency to covet and desire what others have, to a changed life in Jesus Christ. A life in which we seek to honour God and seek the welfare of our neighbour. A life that is based on obedience to God's law.
God's Law tells us which desires are sinful: "I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, 'Do not covet'." (Romans 7:7). The law shows that we are not content because our relationships are broken with God (as reflected by the first four commandments) and with our neighbour (as reflected in commandments five through nine) and even with ourselves (as shown by the tenth commandment). As Paul said, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24)
But Paul does not stop with these words in Romans 7. He goes on to say, "Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:25) And in Romans 8:1 he reminds us,"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." And again, in Romans 8:6, he reminds us that "the mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace."
That is why our text today is Romans 8:5, "Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires." In other words, if we are ruled by the sinful nature, we will always covet that which is not ours and that which we cannot have. But, if the Spirit of Christ rules in our hearts and minds, we will desire that which the Spirit Himself desires, that is, to seek the presence of the Kingdom of God here upon earth in all that we do. The presence of this Kingdom will be made real to us and through us in so far as we begin to live according to all, and not just some, of the commandments of our God.
But, how can we sinful human beings, who daily continue to struggle with our sinful nature, do so? The Heidelberg Catechism, in Question and Answer 114 points out that, though "no one can obey these commands perfectly," and "even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God's commandments."
This suggests that God's law is also His promise of how He will help us to live. We can't keep the law by ourselves, therefore He promises His Holy Spirit to enable us to begin to live according to His law. By myself, I would never measure up, but with the help of the Holy Spirit, I am able to "begin to live according to all, not only some, of God's commandments." What a wonderful promise to us in our daily struggle with sin!
What happens to this "small beginning" in our lives? The Catechism goes on, in Question and Answer 115, to urge that God's law be preached pointedly! Why is this so important? Because, through the preaching of God's law, "we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness." As we learn to know our sinful nature and desires, we learn to desire Christ and His righteousness and we desire more and more to be cleansed from our sin!
And, this Question and Answer also points out to us that the more we become aware of our sin, the more we will "pray for the grace of God's Holy Spirit," and, we will "never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God's image, until we reach our goal, perfection."
Yet, how can the Catechism encourage us to strive for the goal of perfection while at the same time teaching that, in this life, "even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience"? Certainly we will be perfect when we get to heaven, but to set this as our goal on earth seems only to set us up for frustration and failure.
Paul himself talks about his frustration in Romans 7:15, 17, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do... As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me." How does Paul overcome this conflict? Once again we come to the well known verses at the end of this chapter, Romans 7:24,25: "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God— through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Both the Catechism and the Scriptures on which it is based lead us to see not what we have done ourselves, but what our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has done for us.
In writing to the Ephesians, Paul speaks of the work of apostles, prophets, pastors and teachers, "to prepare God's people... until we all... become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." (Ephesians 4:11-13) This is the work of God's law: to make us aware of our sinfulness, and thus to drive us to Christ, our only hope, to be set free from our slavery to sin. Our goal then, in this life, is to become more and more like Christ as He lives in us. It is to become mature Christians who reflect the light of Christ, and His fullness in every aspect of life. Not an unattainable goal of perfection in this life, but, rather, an attainable goal of Christian maturity!
Thus the Law drives us to God and His Spirit for grace, and turns our desires away from ourselves to serve God and others.
Covetousness drives us apart from God and from each other and makes us discontent. If we could remove this one sin (that is, if we could change our ‘state of mind'), we would be able to keep all the other commandments, and experience the reality of God's Kingdom here already today.
Can we do this? By grace, through God's Holy Spirit, we can already make "a small beginning!" Let us pray that God will give us minds that are "set on the Spirit," so that we may also "live according to the Spirit of God."
** (Roeda: Decisions, p.66)
*** (From New Eyes for Invisibles by Rufus Jones, as told by Jack Roeda in Decisions, p.26)
Father in heaven, we thank you for giving us your law. Thank you, Lord, that you gave it not to leave us in despair because we fall short of living according to it, but as a promise of what you are beginning to do in us and for us.
It is our desire, Lord, to begin to live according to all of your commandments. We thank you that by your Holy Spirit you enable us to see, even within ourselves, a small beginning of the fulfilment of this desire.
Lord, we pray that your Kingdom may come on this earth, even today already. We pray that it may be revealed as we learn to live in contentment and peace with you and with our neighbours. We pray that we may learn to live at peace with ourselves, desiring only your will in our lives and not coveting that which we see that others have.
May you receive honour and glory through our lives as we live to love and to serve you in all that we do. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
Order of Worship
*Call to Worship: "O come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker; for He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care."
*Silent Prayer, concluded by: "Hear Our Prayer, O Lord" PsH # 624
*The Lord's Greeting: "Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord who made heaven and earth. People loved by God, may grace, mercy and peace be with us all, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father's Son, and from the Holy Spirit, three-in-one." Amen.
*Hymn of Praise: "The Heavens Declare Your Glory" PsH # 429
Congregational Prayer (requests)
*Hymn: "O God, My Faithful God" PsH # 574
Scripture Reading: Romans 7:14 - 8:17
Text: Romans 8:5 & LD 44
Catechism Reading: Lord's Day 44
Sermon: "Learning to Control Our Desires"
*Hymn of Response: "May the Mind of Christ, My Saviour" PsH # 291
*Benediction: "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. And we pray that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, may keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of God, and of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. And may the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be upon us, and remain with us always. Amen."
*Closing Hymn: "Lord, Dismiss Us with Your Blessing" PsH # 320
*Moment of Silent Prayer & Meditation
(*indicates: Please stand if you are able)
Topics: coveting, sinful desires, contentment, Lord's Day 44
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