I remember being a teenager and struggling with the temptation of looking at pornography on the internet. I knew it was wrong. It wasn't a very nuanced view back then; I didn't think about they way that it objectified women or anything like that. I just knew it was a sin. In fact, for a lifelong church kid it was perhaps the worst sin short of having sex before you were married. You could steal money from a homeless person while kicking a puppy and still be considered a better human being than someone that lost their virginity before marriage. This viewpoint obviously says quite a bit about the church's preoccupation with sex, but that's another topic for another time and I have digressed quite a bit.
I knew that I wasn't supposed to look at pornography. I didn't want to. I knew that people that followed God didn't do that kind of thing. Yet there were times that I caved. I gave into the temptation and typically felt miserable afterwards. I recall thinking that I had transformed into some other kind of person in those moments of weakness; like my church kid Dr. Jekyll had become the nefarious Mr. Hyde.
But next time, I told myself, next time it would not happen. And it wouldn't for a while until it did. Three or four times a year, I went through this. The passage in which Paul writes about doing the things that he does not want to do was all too real to me. Why couldn't I get over this? Why did I keep screwing up?
Many years later, I read a quote from Dallas Willard about "sin management." I do not remember the exact quote, but the idea of sin management is how people often view the main point of their faith as trying to stay as far away from evil as possible: it's Adventures in Don't Be Bad. Of course, the problem with this viewpoint is that it puts someone's entire focus on the sin in their life that they are dodging rather than God that offers life.
Jesus did not say the greatest commandment was "Don't sin." Now he speaks frequently about sin and how it is not supposed to be a part of our lives. Yet the greatest commandment is to love God with all our being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The focus and intentionality of our beings is supposed to be centered upon loving God and others.
To love someone is to seek someone out, to pursue that individual. Sin management takes God out of the equation or, at most, makes Jesus the necessary component to cover those sins that we cannot manage (Jesus does save us from our sins, don't get me wrong; he's just more than that ticket to heaven). When we live our lives in sin management mode, we find ourselves constantly trying to dodge our personally-crafted minefields. Or we may compare ourselves to other seemingly more sinful people to make ourselves feel better. Regardless, sin is the axis on which our religion spins. It is little wonder that we find ourselves failing again and again.
I found and I still find that seeking God is the way to live the life that God desires of me. Though the context is different, what God says to Israel in Jeremiah 29:13 still rings true: when I seek God with all of my heart, that is when I find God. When I find God and am focused on God, I often do not do the things that I do not want to do. Do I still mess up? Yes. But again, the point is to follow God, to love God, and to love other people. That focus transforms the way I live.
I need to remind myself of that constantly because I think sin management is our default. It is not that managing our sin is easier because we fail at it all the time. But sin management gives us the illusion of control, which is something that we like. It is also less demanding. When we seek God, God asks us to be agents of change in a world that needs it badly. Many times, I think we'd rather keep all of our moral ducks in a row rather than enter into the vulnerable, but highly rewarding space of helping others. I include myself on that list.
Like I said, I have to remind myself of this often. Whether it is staving off the temptation of looking at pornography (because despite the progress I make, the temptation never completely vanishes) or feeling better about myself because I am not as "bad" as others, I too often let sin be the narrative that drives my story. That is not the way that it is meant to be. It is meant to be a story about the God that loves us, seeks us, and saves us.