I want you to imagine a vending machine for a minute. You walk up to it, put your money in, and begin to decide on your selection. Instead of coffee and candy, this vending machine has sins as the options.
At the top, you have the big ones: theft, murder, porn, drugs—things that can destroy you. Ones that you’ve heard pastors tell you to avoid over and over. You start to move down toward the bottom (you know, where the gum is in a vending machine), and you have debt, gossip, tardiness, overworking, skipping children’s practice, gluttony, anorexia.
The sins closer to the bottom you will rarely hear about in a sermon. People won’t make many Bible studies on them—Jesus said very little about them—but they are equally sins and equally destructive.
Many people, in an effort to be holy, to appear holy, or just to make themselves feel better, choose the sins at the bottom. They rationalize that they no longer sleep around, but now they can’t trust people and enter into true community. A dad no longer looks at porn, but now he can’t control his temper with his wife and kids. You don’t work as much, but now you are struggling to find meaning and enjoy life because soccer practices and helping with homework is not as exciting as climbing the corporate ladder.
From the time I was eleven until I was twenty-one, porn was a daily struggle for me. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and I felt guilty every time I would fall into it. I tried accountability groups, accountability software, taking runs, making vows to God. Even after I got married, it never seemed to go away.
If you were to rank sins in the church, many people would put porn up at the top as one of those sins you should avoid. It is destructive and causes enormous pain to you and those around you.
When I turned twenty-one, something started to change for me. I started to look at porn less and less, but I was eating more and more. At one point, I ballooned up to almost three hundred pounds when Katie and I got married.
I chose eating too much.
At this point, I was excited. I was no longer looking at porn. The problem was I was still sinning. I still believed lies, still crowded out my life, and didn’t have breathing room.
The difference was that I felt less guilty and, interestingly, while I put on weight, no one said anything. I was congratulated by my accountability group for not looking at porn, and I felt like I was on my way to life. Sinning less does not equal life, especially when sinning less is simply trading for a sin that seems less destructive or that one no one talks about as a sin.
I still chose sin. I still chose an idol.
This is where much of the talk about freedom and addictions gets off track for many people and why they feel like failures in the end.
Yes, you have through the power of God conquered an addiction like debt, eating too much, working too much, or looking at porn, but you don’t feel whole. You don’t feel like you are living life. Something is missing.
You give up one things, but maybe you substituted something else from the vending machine of sins that so many of us find ourselves standing in front of each and every day. You have simply made another choice. Often, that choice is a sin that is less destructive, more acceptable, or less noticeable.
There is also an option in the vending machine labeled life. This causes you to stop, because you remember that Jesus said in John 10:10 that he came to give us life. That is the reason for the gospel, the hope we have. If you have traded sins, as we often do, Jesus’s words in John 10:10 about having life to the fullest seem like a far-off mirage. Instead, your life feels like the other description in that verse: killed and destroyed.
What is missing?
This is why it’s so important to understand the sin under the sin, the thing that drives you to sin.
We all want life, but few actually choose to walk down that road for this simple reason: we choose sin instead of life because we know where it leads, what the road will be like.
Life is out of control and will take us to places we know we should go to but aren’t sure we want to. If I choose anger, I know what my life will be like. I know where debt, greed, and not trusting people will get me. I know how it will feel and what I’ll be like when I get there. I am unsure of how things will go if I trust you, or if I walk away from temptation instead of giving in.
Trusting Jesus for Life
Life is a hard choice to make. The reason I know is that few people seem to make it. We are content to take the easier path and choose a sin.
When Jesus talks about coming to bring us life in John 10, he does so by using the image of a shepherd. This might be weird for you to understand; after all, you don’t look out your window and see a lot of shepherds.
In the first century, shepherds were very common. For sheep, a shepherd provided protection. The shepherd took the sheep to food and water, showed them where the grass was, where to sleep, and while the sheep slept, the shepherd kept watch and slept at the gate.
Jesus says that he is the good shepherd. “Good” carries the idea of righteous, trustworthy; a benefit to someone, and having the qualities needed for a particular role.
This is crucial to the choice between life or our idols.
The reason many people do not choose life is that they don’t see Jesus as trustworthy, as a benefit, or having the qualities needed for what he promises. They look at their life, their idols, and their desire for meaning, and choose another option in the vending machine of life. They don’t choose the way of Jesus.
I get it; trust is hard to come by. Promises have been made and broken to you. Marriage vows were not kept; a person trusted to protect you abused you instead. A promise of money and a job was taken away. A secret that was entrusted to someone was posted all over Facebook and destroyed you.
The idea of trusting anything to Jesus can be a leap for many people.
What about him being righteous? You can point to people you looked up to, respected, talked about being righteous, only to find out that they weren’t. Pastors who can’t stay pure, bosses who took advantage of you and failed to give you that bonus. It might be a spouse who failed to be faithful to you.
I think for many people, while trust and righteousness are roadblocks to choosing life in Jesus, it is the other two that trip us up: “a benefit to someone” and “having the qualities needed for a particular role.”
In the moment of temptation, in the moment of desire, we don’t see the benefit of choosing life instead of our sin. We only see what we want. As we sit at the computer late at night and the desire to look at porn comes, we don’t see the benefit to purity, only the desire we have. When we face the temptation to take a shortcut at work and not have integrity, we don’t see the benefit of integrity, only what comes from taking the shortcut and how we can get ahead.
When we face our child wanting to be on three sports teams, after-school programs, the Bible studies you signed up for, the work hours that you have to keep, we don’t see the benefit of slowing down and doing less, only the feeling that if we don’t do all this, we will miss something. What will we talk about if we have a family dinner every night? Will we sit there in silence? That doesn’t feel like a benefit, but activities do.
We have gone so long without life that we no longer know what it feels like or the benefits that come with it.
Because of all that, we are unsure if Jesus will deliver on his promise. What if Jesus does what my spouse, parent, or boss did? What if Jesus fails to deliver as my idol does? We run this over and over in our minds.
I think this is why Jesus calls himself the shepherd and those who follow him the sheep. It will take trust on our part to find life.
*This is an excerpt from my brand new book, Breathing Room: Stressing Less & Living More. Click on the link to purchase it.