This is the fourth post in a series addressing the question of the relationship between a person’s behavior, his desires, and his perception of reality according to a Christian worldview. Find previous posts here: “Oh, Those Things I Do”, “Perception, Desires, Behavior In That Order”, and “The Result of Our Perceived Treasures”. These articles will be especially helpful in understanding how I’m using the terms behavior, desires, and perception throughout this post.
The more I’ve thought about the interplay between perception, desire, and behavior, the better I’ve come to understand my own personal Christian experience and the normal Christian experience in general. The struggle between the new perception that a Christian has been granted and the old, sinful desires of the human heart seems to be normal Christianity as Paul described it in Romans 7. Paul said that he did (behavior) what he didn’t want to do (desire) and didn’t do (behavior) what he wanted to do (desire). It’s true that he already had a new perception of life. And that new perception had begun to work in him to where the longings of his heart were being transformed. Yet to Paul’s frustration, his behavior was not on board. In fact, his behavior flew in the face of what he longed to do.
How can that be? At some level Paul wanted to do what he did, or he wouldn’t have done it. As James 4:1 makes clear, I’m operating on the premise that you do because you want. So on some level Paul continued to sin as a result of the sinful desires that remained in him. Those sinful desires, however, weren’t all that resided in Paul’s heart, however. Fighting against sinful desires (resulting in sinful behavior) were righteous desires (resulting in righteous behavior).
Doesn’t this perfectly describe the typical Christian experience? In fact, doesn’t this describe how much of life works when it comes to our longings, our behavior, and how we perceive reality? For example, when we’re little, we don’t realize how bad eating candy all the time is for us. By the time we do come to perceive this truth, we’ve developed a taste for sweets that can be hard to overcome, even in light of our new perception. We know so much isn’t good for us. We believe it. We’re not living in denial. We see the value of eating broccoli. We don’t doubt in the slightest that it’s the better choice. We even want to eat more broccoli because we know that the road lined with sugar only leads to obesity and diabetes. Yet, at the exact same time we’re torn by our old desires that stemmed from our old perceptions. Our old desires have to be subjected to our new perceptions. Old habits, as they say, die hard.
So one reason that Paul, you, and I aren’t perfect, dear Christian, is that the old sinful desires that for so long were all we knew are in conflict with the new sight that we have of Jesus and his gospel. But there’s more. Another reason he, you, and I aren’t perfect is that our perception isn’t perfect. Remember this graphic:
Perception → Desires → Behavior
(And just in case they don’t show up on your computer for some reason, those are right-pointing arrows between each word.)
So right to the right of my perceptions I’ve got my desires fighting against me, and worse yet, my newfound perceptions aren’t perfect in and of themselves. This, too, hinders true change in my behavior.
Question: When will our behavior be perfect? Another way to ask that question is to ask, When will our sanctification be complete? Answer: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2, emphasis mine). The Bible says that we will be like Jesus when we see him. Dwell on that for a moment. We will be perfect when we see Jesus perfectly. Something about rightly perceiving Jesus in all his glory will alter us to our very core. I would say that when we see Jesus, we’ll be freed from every other lesser desire in this universe and will want only him forever. As a result, then, we will in our behavior move toward him only and ever away from sin. In that moment, our sanctification (our being made holy like God is holy) will be complete, and that moment will be when we “see him as he is.” Incredible.
However, we don’t see Jesus perfectly yet. Our perception is distorted. It’s not complete. Paul says that “now we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). And the mirror is dirty and scratched and needs desperately to be polished. Yes, we as Christians have seen the light, but we have not yet seen the Light—Jesus—completely as he really is. It’s like lighting a match at midnight during a new moon. The match helps, but more light—like, say, from the sun—would help a lot more. One day we’ll see the Son! But not yet. Therefore we desire Jesus and we desire the things of this world. Therefore, our behavior is good and it’s sinful. What’s the fight now, then? To see Jesus more and more clearly.
Here’s another “graphic” representation the normal Christian experience:
imperfect perception of Jesus → mixed desires (some driving us toward the world, some driving us toward Jesus) → imperfect behavior (both sinful and godly)
So what do we do? Sit on our butts in helpless apathy and wait for Jesus to come back so that we can see him fully and as a result be completely sanctified as we so long for? Not on your life. We’ve got the weapons to fight this fight for sight right now. But what are they? If our fight as Christians is to see Jesus more, how are we going to do that? He’s not physically here! How I wish he were! But he’s left us something even more sure than audible voices from heaven and mountaintop visions of heavenly beings (1 Peter 1:18-19). We can see and come to know Jesus and see him through his written word. There we can see how Jesus walked and talked and interacted with those around him. We can see what he valued. In the record of this man we can gain new perception of how he thought and what was going on inside his heart. And right there the transformation begins.
I can remember particular instances of vividly coming to “see” Jesus more clearly. For example, one time I was listening to a sermon about the time when Jesus was preaching in the temple. There, looking into the eyes of probably some of the very men who would not too soon afterward have him beaten, mocked, and then hung on a cross, he proclaimed, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38). What an incredible offer of love to people who hated his guts. And in that moment, I saw Jesus. I came to perceive him more clearly. And I was changed. Not completely, no, but I am different today because of that vision of Jesus. And so I continue to fight. And my fight is a fight to see him.
Psalm 119:18 is the prayer of my heart, and may it be yours: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” And beholding wondrous things, may we be changed.