We’re thinking on these summer mornings about Today’s Challenges, and my title today is ‘Purity in an Impure World’. I want us to think about this under the four headings that you can see on the outline on the back of the service sheet. And let’s get straight to it, so:
First, LIVING IN AN IMPURE WORLD
Purity and impurity are wide-ranging categories, of course. But the issue of sexual purity and impurity is a key one, certainly in our culture but in all cultures, and that’s where my focus is this morning.
Vivienne told me the other week about an article she’d read. It was from the Sunday Times. It said, I quote:
36% of internet content is pornography, with one in four queries to search engines being porn-related…
These days, young teens venture online for sexual information – and find a smorgasbord of unimaginable depravity at their fingertips.
Even if that is overstated – and I have no reason to think it is – this situation is profoundly disturbing. It’s eating away at the heart of our society, and it’s symptomatic of a wider impurity that pervades our culture and threatens our souls.
There’s a very striking passage in John Lanchester’s best selling novel about contemporary London life called ‘Capital’. It depicts the experience of a young Muslim man called Usman, who is leaning towards radical Islamism, as he travels through London to his mosque on a Friday evening. It describes the lurid posters that he sees, the immodest dress, the advertising, the pictures in newspapers on open display. The alcohol being consumed on the street. Much of it is too graphic for me to repeat here. And it goes on, I quote:
The imam at Usman’s mosque was an angry man, but he was not stupid, and society had given him one overwhelmingly powerful advantage: the first thing he said on most subjects was true. He railed against capitalism and the cheapening of sex and the degradation of women through the pornographic imagery which was, in this country at this time, now, everywhere. He spoke about things that had become so taken for granted it was as if people literally did not see them any more. But Usman, who had after all grown up in this country, who was no alien – he saw them.
Usman had come to believe that the imam was right: these were symptoms of decadence. Sex being used to sell things, the corruption of the fundamental human impulse to love…
… And why did this society have such a deep need for intoxification? Because it knew it was lost, it was on the wrong path, and it had to blot out that knowledge with all means at its disposal.
That this isn’t new is made clear by 1 Peter 4.3-4:
For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (1 Peter 4.3-4)
This is a tough world in which to live. How can we live pure lives in an impure world? And what can we do when we don’t live pure lives?
Well, to begin with, we need to get some key principles straight. So:
Secondly, BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS FOR PURE LIVING
I’m going to keep these short and to the point.
One. There is no need for impurity in our lives. 1 Corinthians 10.13:
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (1 Corinthians 10.13)
With the help of the Holy Spirit, we are always stronger than the temptation to sexual sin. And you’ll never find yourself in a situation where there’s no way out and you have no choice but impurity. God always provides a way out.
Two. There should not be any impurity in our lives. 1 John 2.1:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin… (1 John 2.1)
… sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints… (Ephesians 5.3)
There cannot be the slightest place for compromise with sin and impurity in our lives.
Three. This side of heaven, there will be impurity in our lives. 1 John 1.8:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1.8)
It’s not the way it should be, but it’s the way it is. There are no exceptions. None of us lives a pure life.
Four. If we turn from our impurity to Jesus, there is forgiveness through the cross of Christ. 1 John 1.9:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1.9)
I John 2.1-2:
But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2.1-2)
Jesus pays off our debt. He rescues us from the coming wrath. He suffers our punishment. He washes us clean of our impurity. He removes our filthy rags and clothes us in pure white. His purity becomes ours. That is life-transforming good news for us sinners.
Now, what I want to do next is to see how these Biblical foundations play out in the lives of two Bible characters – Joseph and King David. So:
Thirdly, JOSEPH: RESISTING THE PRESSURE TO IMPURITY
This is in Genesis 39. It’s a familiar story – even in our culture beyond the church thanks to the musical that seems to have been touring permanently for 40 years.
There is Joseph in the heart of Egypt, which is the symbol in the Bible of the world without the true God. But without compromise, he makes good. Genesis 39.2:
The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man. (Genesis 39.2)
His master Potiphar realised he was on to a good thing. This man was an asset. The world is often offended by the Christian’s message. But ironically the world often values the Christian’s character. Loyalty, hard work and integrity without backstabbing and manoeuvring can be hard to come by. So Christians often go up in the world. But that brings with it its own dangers.
Times of prosperity and blessing are often times of great spiritual vulnerability. It’s easy for us when things are going well to take our eyes off Jesus. We begin to think we can go solo. And at such times Satan sees the armour of God slipping and he sees an opportunity to inflict wounds on the body of Christ. He looks for the weakest point in our defences and goes for it unrelentingly.
Perhaps Joseph was vulnerable to sexual temptation, and perhaps especially in these circumstances. It was unexpected, so he was off guard. He was a good looking man, and maybe his vanity was flattered. He was lonely and away from home. The pressure from Potiphar’s wife was powerful and it was persistent – it went on day after day. There were times when he found himself alone in the house with her, so the opportunity was easily there.
Joseph by the grace of God said “no”. He was shocked at this planned immorality. Such things were no doubt going on all around him, but he had not become hardened to them. His conscience remained sensitive.
So often our sense of the evil of impurity is dulled by quiet compromise in our lives. Do we condone sin in the lives of others? Do we entertain impurity in our thought lives, so that our resistance to it is reduced – perhaps beyond recovery?
Joseph saw immediately what was going on and didn’t allow himself to rationalise it into something that would be OK. This would not only be a terrible betrayal of trust. It would be sin against God, because it would be a deliberate act of unfaithfulness to him. God had not called him to be a curse-carrier, but a blessing-bearer. He fled the scene of temptation. He kept away from the source of temptation.
And what happens if we withstand the pressures of the world, and stand up for Christ? Is our integrity immediately vindicated? Does our boss hear about it and offer us instant promotion? Does the man or woman of our dreams suddenly appear on the scene for us to marry? Do our friends all rally round in support?
We can’t expect that. Joseph was bitterly and falsely accused. The accusation was believed. And Joseph was thrown in to prison.
There are really two approaches that Satan can take to destroy the witness of a Christian. He can tempt him into a moral transgression. Or he can tempt him into unbelief. Unbelief can lead to discouragement. It can lead to giving up discipleship.
Having overcome the pressure to impurity, Joseph, back where he started, imprisoned and hopeless, could so easily have succumbed to this temptation to unbelief. But he didn’t. He held fast to God, and though it may not have felt like it, God held fast to him. Genesis 39.21:
But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favour… (Genesis 39.21)
When things went well, and when things went badly, Joseph stuck with the Lord, resisted pressures to live an impure life, and carried on carrying the promise of blessing. We are to do likewise.
So how can we resist the pressure to impurity? This is something we very easily overcomplicate. If we say to ourselves that it’s complicated and difficult, then that helps us to excuse ourselves when we don’t do it. But really it’s simple. Not easy, but simple. How can we avoid sexual sin? Flee from it. And flee from it immediately. Flee fast. Don’t toy with it. Don’t humour it. Don’t try and get in a fight with it like two heavyweights slugging it out. Just flee from it. Get out of there. Now. The longer you leave it, the harder it gets because the weaker is your resolve. Flee now. Flee from the scene of temptation. Keep clear of the source of temptation.
And one thing that helps us to flee fast is if we’ve already made up our minds long before that that’s what we’ll do when we find ourselves faced with temptation. Then we don’t have to hang around while we debate with ourselves about what to do. Decide now to flee fast, and when the temptation arises, run.
But what if we don’t? Well then we need to learn from the experience of King David. So:
Fourthly, KING DAVID: FINDING FORGIVENESS FOLLOWING A FALL
So now let’s think about that occasion in the life of King David when he falls into the impurity of adultery with Bathsheba. This is 2 Samuel 11.
Like Joseph, King David is very vulnerable to the sin of impurity here. Why? He’s a young, tired, man, neglecting his responsibilities. Not that we are ever immune, whatever our age, energy level, gender or state of activity. But be aware, and be on guard against times of vulnerability.
David is not. And unlike Joseph, he goes down a series of steps to disaster. What are they? 2 Samuel 11.2:
It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. (2 Samuel 11.2)
The first step is temptation. He had that in common with Joseph. But be clear that to be tempted is not a sin. David wasn’t expecting to see this woman. He just saw her. And that’s not a sin. We need to be realistic about this. We live in a culture in which we’re constantly surrounded by sexual imagery. And of course we don’t segregate the sexes. Nor should we.
But there’s something else important here before we move on. Verse 2 says…
… the woman was very beautiful… (2 Samuel 11.2)
Why was she beautiful? Because God made her beautiful. Physical beauty and sexual desire are God’s invention.
Burning coal in the fireplace warms the whole room. But throw that same coal into someone’s lap and it’s deadly. Water running between river banks is life-giving. But when the river bursts its banks it can destroy family homes.
Women are beautiful, and thank God for that. In fact when we thank God for it, we’re on the right track. It’s when what we’re thinking requires us to shut God out that we’re in trouble. The ideal is not a humanity with its sexual desires surgically removed; nor is it burqa type clothing that hides us away from one another – though the Bible urges appropriate modesty. The ideal is a healthy and Godly mutual appreciation. Men and women would then not be sex-objects to be lusted after, but brothers and sisters to be loved in the family of God.
So temptation is not sin. But the easiest way to deal with temptation is to give in to it, and that is what David does. Verses 2-3:
… he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and enquired about the woman. (2 Samuel 11.2-3)
The second step is to start playing with fire. Why does David want to know more about this woman? This is no longer innocent – although he could be telling himself he’s just curious. But it rapidly gets worse. The account continues:
And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers … (1 Samuel 11.3-4)
The third step is to cross the line from temptation to mental sin. He had no business sending for her. This is a very slippery slope. And in no time David escalates things. Verse 4:
So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (2 Samuel 11.4)
So the fourth step is to move from mental sin to physical sexual sin. Now irretrievably other people are directly involved in the sin. The adulterer David has sucked Bathsheba into committing adultery herself against her husband.
Then the fifth step is that the physical sexual sin leads to other forms of sin. So David abuses his God-given power to murder Bathsheba’s husband by proxy. Sin leads to more sin. And deeper and deeper we go, until we’re drowning in a sordid sea of lethal lies and deceit.
Those are the slippery steps to impurity. There is no need for us to go down those steps. God always gives us a way out. We should never go down those steps. But what if we do go down them? What if we fall?
That’s what the Lord forced King David to face up to. How do we find forgiveness and start afresh on Joseph’s path of purity? Those Biblical foundations for pure living are straightforward enough. There’s no big secret.
We have to admit to ourselves and to God what we’ve done; confess it to him; put our trust in the sin-bearing and substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross for us; receive forgiveness by faith; and face the continuing consequences of what we’ve done. We cannot undo what we’ve done. But we can be forgiven. Our guilt can be wiped away once and for all. We can be free from condemnation. That is what our gracious, merciful and loving God has done for us in Jesus. That is what he applies to our hearts by his Holy Spirit.
If you’re struggling to grasp the reality of that forgiveness, think about finding someone you trust – someone who understands the grace of God and the reality of forgiveness, someone who can keep a confidence – and think about confessing your sin to them. It’s a wonderful thing when you know that another person knows the worst about you and still loves you. That experience helps us to realise how God deals with us.
If you’d like to talk to someone on the pastoral staff here, then please do so. Give Celebrate Recovery a try if you think that could be of help to you. You’re welcome to go along just to get a feel for it. Ian’s going to convene a men’s book group for discussion of Tim Chester’s ‘Captured by a Better Vision: Living Porn Free’. If that’s of interest, then drop Ian an email and he’ll let you know the details.
God is a holy God who cannot tolerate impurity. And he is a merciful God who pays the price of our sin himself. So let the prayer of the repentant King David in Psalm 51 be our prayer as we close.