One of the simplest ways to fight lust is often the most overlooked. In Ephesians 5:3–5 Paul gives us a strategy to combat sexual sin:
Ephesians 5:3–5 (ESV) — 3 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. 5 For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
What is the weapon Paul gives us here in the war against lust? Thankfulness. Paul balances his two negative commands prohibiting sexual immorality and obscene speech with a positive exhortation: “Let there be thanksgiving” (Eph 5:4). Thanksgiving is not only the opposite of dirty, foolish, obscene talk; it is a weapon we can employ in the fight for purity. How does this work?
Twice in Ephesians 5:3–5, Paul lumps in the sin of covetousness in his discussion of sexual immorality.
Ephesians 5:3 (ESV) — 3 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Ephesians 5:5 (ESV) — 5 For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
It appears that Paul is hinting at the fact that sexual immorality is symptomatic of a deeper problem, namely covetousness or greed. covetousness is idolatry (Eph 5:5). It is a craving for something or someone other than God to make you happy. A greedy, covetous heart is never satisfied. It always wants more. We typically think about greed in the context of money and materialism. Greedy people horde their money and possessions and are never satisfied with what they have.
But the object of one’s greed does not have to be material; it might also be sexual. A greedy single person without contentment in his or her singleness will not wait until marriage for sexual intimacy. A greedy husband without contentment in his wife will look to pornography or someone else to gratify his selfish sexual desires. The point is that what is lurking behind sexual immorality is often the root problem of covetousness, greed, and discontentment. Which means a solution to sexual temptation is found in Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:4
Ephesians 5:4 (ESV) — 4 . . . but instead, let there be thanksgiving.
To fight sexual sin in a sexually saturated culture does not mean you have to live in a cave. Neither do you have to live in a bubble nor cut yourself off from technology (though some may need to take this drastic step for the sake of their soul! cf. Matthew 5:27–30). Instead, cultivate a spirit of thankfulness in your fight for purity. Thankfulness has the power to overcome greed and suffocate lustful desires. Gratitude is the response of a heart that is satisfied with God’s provision, and thankfulness simultaneously helps our hearts find satisfaction in God’s provision. It works both ways. Expressing thankfulness is to greed and discontentment what water is to fire. The flames of lust cannot burn in an ocean of gratitude. Or to use a different analogy, Sexual sin is a like a weed that grows in soil starving for nutrients. But when the soil is saturated with the nutrients of gratitude, greed cannot grow, and where greed is absent, sexual sin fails to thrive. A glad heart does not need the rush of the forbidden woman to find satisfaction, whether she is on the screen or across the hall at work. A heart happy in God has what it wants and what it needs.
The overflow of a heart happy in God is thankfulness. But we must not assume thankfulness; we must express it. Thank God frequently, specifically, and sincerely and you will find gratitude fueling contentment and contentment suffocating selfish lusts. Here are a few suggestions of things to thank God for on a regular basis:
1) Thank God for saving your wicked soul.
Paul’s knew his audience when he wrote Ephesians. He wrote to Christians who had been saved by grace through faith and that not of themselves but by the gift of God so that none of them might boast (Eph. 2:8–10). He wrote to those who were at one time dead in their trespasses and sins, following the course of this world, following Satan, following the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath. But God because of the great love with which he loved them made them alive together with Christ (Eph 2:1–5). He wrote to Gentiles who were at one time without hope and without God in the world, but in Christ had been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph 2:11–13).
If you are in Christ, God’s saving, sustaining, and purifying grace is yours! So cultivate a spirit of gratitude for the amazing salvation you have been given in Christ. Thank God! • Thank him that he delivered you from dead works and lifeless, soul-sucking, happiness-robbing idols to bring you into the delight of knowing an eternal, infinite, glorious, God. • Thank him that even in the midst of your pain, your ailments, your injuries, that he will raise your body from the grave incorruptible, never to suffer affliction again. • Thank him that he loves you with an everlasting love that makes your love for your children look like glowing lump of charcoal in the grill compared to the volcanic mountain of molten lava of God’s love for you. • Thank him that his mercies are new every morning. • Thank him that he is your good shepherd. • Thank him that he makes you lie down in green pastures. • Thank him that he sets a table before you in the presence of your enemies. • Thank him that even though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he is right there carrying you every step of the way so that you need not fear any evil. • Thank him that he pursues you with goodness and mercy all the days of your life. • Thank him that he will cause you to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. • Thank him for the gifts he has given you to serve his people and glorify his name. • Thank him for every affliction you have ever endured knowing that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5: 3–5). • Thank him that even if you drop dead this afternoon, you will wake in the presence of Jesus, the myriad of angels, the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.
Oh, that we would cultivate a spirit of thankfulness for our salvation, and for the God who has saved us so that little greedy lusts for idols would be consumed by the blazing fire of gratitude for the true and living God.
2) If you are single, thank God for your singleness.
Single people who struggle with lust might think that getting married will solve the problem of lust or sexual sin. It’s a lie from hell. No person, no spouse, no partner, can give you the happiness and the fulfillment your heart craves. If your heart is discontent now, your heart will be discontent married. Just give it a year. The only place you can find real and lasting joy is in God.
So cultivate a spirit of thankfulness in Jesus, your savior. Thank him that he is a friend closer than a brother. Thank him that he has called you to remain unmarried for this season of life. Thank him for the opportunity to serve others and build up the body of Christ without the responsibilities that come with marriage.
3) If you are married, thank God for your spouse.
Maybe you don’t need to hear this if you have been married for three days. But if you have been married for four days or longer, you probably need to listen to this! Express thankfulness to God for your spouse. Your husband or wife is a good and precious gift from God. Proverbs 5:18 says, “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth” (ESV). It does not say, “rejoice in your wife in your youth.” It says, “Rejoice in the wife of your youth.” Rejoice in the woman who has remained faithful to you since you were a know-nothing teenager or twenty-something. Rejoice in the woman who has stuck by your side through all of your failures, through all of your dumb decisions, through all of your ups and downs, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer.
Rejoice in the wife of your youth for the rest of your life. The forbidden woman is not better. The grass is not greener on the other side. Turning 40 and running off with a woman ten years younger is not better than faithfulness to the wife of your youth. Faithfulness is always better. Thank God for your spouse. God has sovereignly placed you and your spouse together for his purposes and your good.
Let us all cultivate a spirit of thankfulness in our fight for sexual purity. And remember, gratitude does not arise in the heart by self-will. Telling yourself to “just be thankful” is not going to work. Instead, utilize the resources you have been given in the gospel. God’s grace in Christ is where you must turn to cultivate gratitude in the heart. God’s grace in Christ is an endless supply of gratitude-enabling power available to you. Ask him for grace, think about his grace, meditate on grace, sing of his grace, and grace will supply you with everything you need to win the war against sexual sin.