According to one study, 64% of Christian men and 15% of Christian women look at porn at least once a month. Those numbers aren’t all that different from the statistics of non-Christians. Is it at all strange to you that pornography is so popular? It’s singularly one of the most tacky things on the planet. It’s garish, badly acted, badly shot, badly directed, badly “written,” completely unbelievable, contrived, mindless, and absurd.
How do we normally condemn pornography? By calling it immoral, abusive, socially destructive, and shameful (all of which are certainly true). But shouldn’t it be enough that pornography is mind-numbingly tasteless? Somehow that isn’t enough. Which makes me think sin is very much connected to horribly bad taste. Let me explain.
Sin is a Failure of …
Before you continue reading, finish this sentence in your mind: “Sin is a failure of _______.”
When I was a child, I believed sin was primarily a failure of judgment. I sinned because I failed to clearly discern the right choice in the moment. I needed to learn more, I thought. If I knew better, then I would do better.
Then I grew a little bit older, and I mastered the knowledge of the right thing to do in all sorts of circumstances. Yet I still failed to do the right thing. It was quite a disappointment to me. I started to think sin must be a failure of will. If only I were able to exercise a little more willpower, I could force myself to do the right thing even when I didn’t really want to, and I could restrain myself from all the wickedness my heart really longed for. Doing the right thing was like eating my vegetables—I didn’t prefer it, but I knew it was good for me.
Doing the right thing was like eating my vegetables—I didn’t prefer it, but I knew it was good for me.
Certainly all of us have felt, like Paul, the bewildering conflict of our heart longings: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (Rom. 7:19).
But unlike Paul, my younger self really didn’t want to do good at all. I did the right thing only because I thought I should. I forced myself to do it. I did it from fear of punishment. Not from love of God. Over time, I started to realize the pervasiveness of this attitude in my life was grieving the Holy Spirit.
Is Righteousness Just Not Doing What You Want?
One way I grieved the Spirit was that I began to consider “my righteousness” as my own. It was based on my own effort. My righteousness became a “sacrifice” I was “willing to make” for God. In my mind, righteousness had become not doing what I wanted. I had this thought that God owed me something for doing what He wanted rather than what I wanted.
I also found my heart growing callous toward others. It’s a natural operation of the flesh to notice in others the weaknesses you don’t possess and focus your heart’s eye only on your strengths. So it becomes easy to think that other people aren’t putting forth the same effort you are, and that, as a consequence, you’re better than others and more loved by God. I found myself doing that a lot. Honestly, it’s still a vicious temptation. It’s also a lie from the Devil.
The worst part of it was that, for all my legalism and redoubled efforts, I was failing to win the fight against sin. I would “succeed” for a time. But then I found myself back at my folly like a dog returning to his vomit, in a worse state than I was in at first. I was focused on sin. Sure, I was focused on not sinning, but my focus was still on sin.
A pretty girl would walk by wearing a revealing shirt, and I would think, “Don’t think that. Don’t look at her like that. Don’t consider her in that way.” And, like a rubbernecking driver, I found myself naturally veering toward the point of my focus. I also found through experience the utter uselessness of the “do not taste, do not touch, do not handle” model for upright behavior. As Paul says, “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col. 2:23).
How my relationship with God suffered while I languished in this cycle! Every time I found myself having been mastered by sin, I believed God must really hate me for it. So I would try to pick myself up again, all the while basing my sense of acceptance with God on my success in forcing down my vegetables.
It took a while for me to break free from this cycle of effort, self-righteousness, failure, and despair. Thanks be to God, eventually He made it clear to me that He loved me while I was yet a sinner, and that wasn’t going to change just because I kept sinning. At the same time, God’s love and forgiveness are transforming by their nature. If we are not being transformed, it is likely because we do not actually possess God’s forgiveness, no matter our many professions.
The Heart of Change is a Change of Heart
God’s will for our lives is our sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3). But sanctification is not becoming better at forcing yourself to eat your vegetables. It’s learning to love vegetables. It’s a transformation of taste. Sanctification is not just about an increase of willpower or of right knowledge. Sanctification is about our hearts being transformed into hearts that love the right things. This doesn’t come about as a result of redoubled efforts and monumental sacrifices. As Paul said, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). And what is the first fruit of the Spirit? Love.
It’s no surprise to me at all that we live in a tacky and tasteless world. Because we live in a world that loves sin. And the world loves sin because it has bad taste. Sin basically is bad taste. What is the corrective for bad taste? Regeneration. Through the power of our union with Christ, we are becoming new creations (2 Cor. 5:17f). If we have God’s love in us, we cannot and will not love sin. “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
If on the other hand, God’s love is in us, we will have our tastes transformed. Our desire will be for the good things we formerly hated. As John Gill commented:
Thus such who have their taste changed, and relish spiritual things, can distinguish between the meat that perishes, and that which endures to everlasting life, even Christ, whose flesh is meat indeed; and those that have tasted that the Lord is gracious, and to whose taste the fruits of Christ and the doctrines of grace are sweet; these will desire the sincere milk of the word, and that strong meat in it, which belongs to discerning and experienced souls; and will feed by faith upon the pure word of the Gospel, and mix it with it, and reject all others.
Taste and See …
Perhaps you think I am equivocating the word “taste” here. Perhaps you think that “good taste” is not the same as “righteous taste.” I don’t think the Bible makes a huge separation between material goodness and moral uprightness, like we often do. And, along the same lines, the Bible also doesn’t make as much of a distinction between moral discernment and material taste. Consider the Greek words for “judgment,” “discernment” and “senses.” They all derive from the Greek root from which we get our word aesthetics. That casts a different light on verses like Hebrews 5:14—
But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses [aesthetics/taste] trained to discern good and evil.
Notice that food analogy? It makes sense that many of the verses on God, God’s Word, and righteous living should be based on food. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). “The judgments (tastes!) of the Lord are . . . sweeter also than honey” (Ps. 19:9-10). “How sweet are Your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103).
In Proverbs, Wisdom spreads a delicious feast of meat and wine available for any who would come, but the those with undiscerning taste would rather eat the secret bread and stolen water of Folly (Prov. 9). Jesus calls Himself the bread of life, and beckons us to eat His flesh and drink His blood. He is the Word that is sweeter than honey (John 6:32f).
It seems that from the beginning, God designed to align our senses, our taste, and our judgments with His vision of what is good and beautiful. But sin tore beauty and righteousness asunder. Through Christ, God intends to reconcile them again. If we saw as God sees, we would recognize that what is good and righteous is alone beautiful. And all that is wicked, no matter its deceptive adornments, is ugly. We don’t see that clearly yet because our tastes are still immature.
One of the main functions of the Church is to be a place where the good things of God are treasured and generously shared. That is one of the main reasons my father and I founded the Nehemiah Foundation. In our original mission statement for the Foundation, we wrote that we were working “toward the transformation of the church from a market of consumers courted by the world’s sin merchants into a community of producers prevailing against the gates of hell.” A little heavy-handed perhaps, but our point was that the contemporary Church’s taste is not all that different from the world’s taste (remember those porn statistics?). And as long as our tastes were not different from the world’s, we ourselves were tasteless—useless and irrelevant. That should be a sobering reality, and it needs to change. The Church needs be salty again (Matt. 5:13).
I’m not saying that developing artistic discernment will fix our moral shortcomings. But it may be that the opposite is true. It should be that a person who loves righteous things will also learn to love good things and shun mediocrity. God’s original declaration for Creation was that it was good. When we have been reconciled to God in Christ, we will again be driven to excellence and goodness, recognizing God’s plan to reconcile all of Creation to Himself. The regenerated Christian is an ambassador of righteousness and goodness. That means we should have a wealth of good things to share with our neighbors, and we should be paragons of good taste in a tasteless world.