December 13, 2017

Redirecting Misdirected Passion

Bruce Meyer

Misdirected passion begins with the subtle slide of a spiritual leader away from a vibrant fellowship with God. Having drifted from God worship, he pursues idols that he foolishly believes will meet the needs of his hurting heart. The real problem, however, is not the appearance of temptation, but the individual’s willful exchange of God for heart idols.

What are the Biblical solutions, and what plan can be established for spiritual growth at each level of addiction? Biblical change must occur from the inside out, rather than simply changing externals—the kind of renewal that Paul outlines in Ephesians 4:17–32.

Life Purpose

Throughout the Scriptures, God calls believers to pursue a praise-driven life (Matt. 5:16; 1 Cor. 10:31; Eph. 1:14; et al.). Whenever a believer gives into sinful impulses, he has strayed from a Biblical life purpose to serve other purposes. Other prevalent life purposes may include control, success, prestige, satisfaction, relief from pain, ministry opportunities, acceptance/ esteem/popularity, respect, comfortable or “stress free” living, numerical church growth, and love. Even in ministry, a spiritual leader can find many noble purposes for his service, but none of those purposes is suitable to replace the Biblical mandate of glorifying God.

For instance, a man may enter the ministry searching for significance in service. He is so propelled by the need for success and acceptance that his decisions are shaped more by approval than by divine mandate. When a person pursues success purely for the sake of success, he makes an idol out of performance and acceptance. The fulfillment of his dream will prove to be both elusive and disappointing.

If, however, a person makes God’s glory his ultimate purpose, he will find Biblical success as a natural outcome of seeking God’s glory. In Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome Kent Hughes illustrates well this theological displacement: “But imperceptibly, my high Christian idealism had shifted from serving to receiving, from giving to getting. I realized that what I really wanted was a growing church and ‘success’ more than the smile of God.”[1]

Likewise, a person can dedicate himself to finding relief from pain, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. The individual quickly discovers there are numerous ways of easing pain that are effective and instantaneous. Such a drive, however, will lead to an enslaving idolatrous life, since the person’s purpose is not God-focused but rather self-focused.

The point is that one’s motives become a critical point of contact when assessing one’s heart. There are within the Christian life a number of worthy goals to pursue (service, purity, healthy relationships, commitment to devotions, to name a few). But whenever a person elevates a lesser goal to life-purpose status, a goal that should be merely another way of bringing glory to God, that goal becomes an idol that supplants God’s preeminent position.

Furthermore, all would agree that believers should pursue sexual purity. But what is one’s motive for pursuing sexual purity? If a person is seeking sexual purity simply to avoid the consequences of sexual promiscuity (disqualification, STDs, or relational pain), he will fail because he lacks the ultimate Biblical reason for purity—God’s glory. Sexual purity becomes another god that enslaves and the person becomes self-oriented. Motives of the heart are critical (Prov. 4:23).

Solving the Problem Biblically

As one begins pursuing Biblical change, it is essential for that person to remember that he must place any “steps” the Scriptures teach within the framework of relationship with Christ. “Steps” alone do not change a person’s heart, although they may change one’s behavior, albeit only temporarily at best.

It is through relationship only, however, that one experiences renewal of the heart (Eph. 4:17–24).

Acknowledge the Sin

The first step for the individual is to personally recognize and acknowledge the serious nature of his misdirected passion. If one rationalizes the problem away, he will never seek the deliverance that God offers. Acknowledging the problem means that there will be a Biblical sorrow (2 Cor. 7:9–11), brokenness, and humility about the problems the person encounters.

Because of the subtlety of one’s heart, the individual will battle with a number of rationalizations, argumentative “thought barriers” that protect his system of rebellion. These rationalizations may include “I deserve sexual gratification” or “I work hard serving Christ; I deserve a bit of pleasure.”

Both of these responses reflect a self focus.[2] The believer must dismantle such false justifications with the truth of the Scriptures (2 Cor. 10:5).

Second, the individual must acknowledge his sin in confession to God (Prov. 28:13). Solomon warns that the one who “covers” his sin will never “advance” or “move on.” The promise in the text provides the impetus for revealing and forsaking personal sin—God’s mercy.

At the root of the problem is the heart condition, that is, the orientation of the person’s heart either towards idolatry or towards genuine God-worship.

Having accepted the truth about the foolishness of idol worship, the individual must understand the positive truth about his relationship with Christ. In Philippians 3:1–11, the apostle argues convincingly against those who would seek joy (“rejoice in the Lord,” vv. 1, 3) in the flesh (vv. 3, 4). The context here argues for the sense of sinful human nature as that inclination in man to find satisfaction (joy) in human endeavor.

The solution is for the struggling individual to reacquaint himself with his Lord and to become impressed with who He is. The believer should be careful at this point to recognize the difference between ritual and relationship. The Judaizers were concerned with ritual, while Paul was concerned about relationship with Christ. A person can simply practice useful Christian discipline without engaging in genuine fellowship with Jesus. Spiritual disciplines must be about knowing Him rather than routinely doing certain obligatory tasks.

Deal with Sinful Responses

Once a person has redirected his own worship from idols to God, through God’s grace and repentance, he must begin responding to circumstances and the resulting pain he may feel with Biblical responses rather than unbiblical methods. This work includes continuing to turn to God for care instead of idols. Ephesians 4:17–32 provides the necessary instruction for this step. First, Paul instructs that this methodology is not a man-made therapy but a Godprescribed theology of Biblical change (v. 17).[3]

In verses 17c–19, Paul outlines the specific dangers associated with unbiblical, dysfunctional lifestyles. He depicts the Gentiles as having an emptiness of the mind, a darkened reasoning (cf. Rom. 1:21) and as excluded from the life of God through ignorance and hardening of their hearts. In addition, they are past feeling and working all filthy greediness having given themselves over to unrestrained living.

Paul demonstrates through these statements the connection between unbiblical thinking and unbiblical behavior.

Third, Paul reminds his readers of the necessity of regeneration as the prerequisite to change (vv. 20, 21). For the believer, this statement highlights the necessity of grace in producing spiritual change, for the same grace that saved the sinner is the same grace that will renew him.

These two verses stress the essentials of discipleship, since Paul uses the words “learned,” “heard,” and “been taught” by Christ. The pastor who has struggled with declining spiritual interest due to increased ministry pressure must return to the basics of relational development through fellowship with the Savior.

The apostle describes the nature of spiritual renewal in verses 22–24. Believers are to “put off” those responses that are unbiblical while “putting on” those responses that are Biblical (v. 22, 24). As the believer actively obeys these instructions, God performs an essential work in the believer’s heart—renewal. For the person who has repeatedly “repented,” “laid his sin on the altar,” or sincerely “promised” to forsake a particular sin, only to engage in the same behavior again, here is the solution. Change comes only through fellowship with Christ, who produces genuine renewal of heart.

Finally, in verses 25–32, Paul lists a series of behaviors that illustrate how one should put off sinful responses and put on righteous behaviors. The replacement principle permeates the Scriptures, and it answers what a person should do when confronted with painful feelings. In going to God with those feelings, the hurting believer can experience the healing touch of God through comforting fellowship with Him.

For example, Paul teaches that believers should put off anger, replacing it with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness (vv. 31, 32). Therefore, a person may experience bitterness and endeavor to ease the bitterness through forays into immorality. Rather than choosing the good feelings the idol produces, Paul commands the believer to put off that practice and replace the bitterness with forgiveness. Such a practice calls for an active dependence upon God (worship), for the person cannot practice replacement without the renewing grace of Christ and his resulting empowerment.

Deal with Temptation

The renewal of the mind through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit forms the basis for victory over external temptations (Rom. 12:1, 2; Eph. 4:17ff). Without that work, the temptation possesses too much appeal for the addict to resist. Temptation feels like a five-thousand-pound gorilla in the corner when a person is not worshiping God. In the power of relationship, however, the menacing beast feels more like an annoying cockroach. A person who is walking in the Spirit, however, now possesses both the desire and the ability to please God (Phil. 2:12, 13). It is important, therefore, for the individual to continue pursuing a relationship with God. But what should the person do concerning external solicitations to sin when his mind seeks to betray him through acquiescence?

The pattern Jesus established in using the Scriptures is certainly essential, for no one has enough inherent power to resist or expel temptation (Matt. 4:1–11).

Philippians 4:8 provides a functional model. In the context, Paul is addressing the worrisome thoughts a person can experience in the midst of hardship (vv. 4–7). Paul’s example, however, encompasses any thought that would lead a believer astray from Christian virtue, resulting in a loss of God’s peace.4

The apostle establishes one of the most overlooked but critical principles in defeating satanic disobedience. In similar fashion to Ephesians 4:22–24, here Paul advocates replacing one’s sinful thoughts with those that are righteous (cf. Matt. 12:43–45; Luke 11:24–26). Paul issues a command to think on those things that are true (displaces sinful rationalizations), honorable or noble (displaces the detestable), right (displaces the immoral), pure (displaces impurity), lovely or pleasing (displaces that which is hideous), admirable or of good repute (displaces the shameful), virtuous (displaces the debauched), and worthy of praise (displaces the despicable). Paul commands the believer to be habitually thinking these kinds of thoughts.

The believer who is battling with lustful thoughts can replace those thoughts with a variety of righteous ones. For instance, meditating upon Scriptures refocuses one’s mind upon worshiping God. The person may also plan a romantic evening with his spouse, culminating in physical intimacy.

This text provides strong validation of the connection between Biblical thinking and beliefs producing virtuous living. The believer who has developed unbiblical patterns of living must experience God’s renewing work in his mind (heart) so that his actions change. Reversing this order will prove unfruitful.


The tragedy of ministerial failure does not have to continue to be a grim reality. The Scriptures provide truth that renews even the most stubborn of life-dominating problems, including sexual immorality. When a person understands the multilevel approach to renewal, he can experience permanent change from the inside out, beginning with worship, responses to circumstances, and finally, in handling temptation.

Dr. Bruce K. Meyer is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Maranatha Baptist University in Watertown, Wisconsin.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Kent Hughes, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1988), 30. []
  2. A. C. Thiselton, “Flesh,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), 1:680. []
  3. Peter O’Brien, The Letters to the Ephesians, from The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1999). []

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