By T.R. Robertson
Purity is a frequent topic of discussion in prison ministry. Our “captive audience” knows full well they need to learn the secret to “staying on the path of purity” (Psalm 119:9). They’ve been there, and failed, in ways and to degrees most of us can’t imagine.
Or can we?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from counseling people whose impurity has landed them in prison, it’s that many of them are not that different from us. It’s just that we haven’t indulged in our favorite impure habits so much they spiral wildly out of control.
Those small impurities, though—the ones we toy around with—are pretty much the same indulgences that turned out to be “gateway impurities” for people who allowed them to grow into punishable offenses.
Our congregation of the incarcerated eagerly desires to learn how to be pure. They can rattle off a list of biblical dos and don’ts they struggle with daily, and are obsessed with figuring out how to reverse their inclinations.
“At the end of every day I look back and count all the times I cussed. And that doesn’t even count the times I thought those words but didn’t say them. And then I try to do better the next day.”
“I’m trying so hard to quit smoking. But when everyone around me is lighting up, when I can smell it on their clothes . . . oh, I want one. And if I can’t even give up smokes, how am I ever going to stay off the other stuff when I get out of here?”
We all want to change. We’ve tried hard to stay pure. We get caught up in trying to follow the rules perfectly.
But willpower is not enough.
Scriptures about purity tend to include lists of dos and don’ts. Those catalogs of right versus wrong grab our attention because they highlight the pressure points of temptation in our own lives.
Paul instructed Timothy to “flee the evil desires of youth” (2 Timothy 2:22). My mind immediately recalls those youthful temptations that can still sneak up and try to take control again, even though decades have passed.
In Romans 13:13, Paul advises against carousing, drunkenness, sexual immorality, debauchery, dissension, and jealousy. The first things in that list don’t spark much interest in me—I’ve never been much of a party animal. But dissension and jealousy constantly nip at my heels.
When my friend Marcia became a new Christian, she was eager to learn more about Christ and how to follow him. She knew next to nothing, having been raised without exposure to anything religious.
Everyone told her she should read the Bible. So she approached the Word eagerly, with the curiosity and eagerness of a child.
After just a few days, though, she had developed a nearly immobilizing fear of the Scriptures. She was in tears when she confided, “Every time I read the Bible, all I can see is a bunch of reasons why God should hate me.”
Marcia’s not alone. The Bible’s warnings about impurities can mess with our minds and with our spiritual growth.
The temptation is to resort to one of two different misguided responses. Like Marcia, we can sink into hopeless despair and self-recrimination. Guilt weighs on us and drags us down. Or we can fall into believing that if we had more willpower, we could do what Paul told Titus and just “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:12). I think I can, I think I can.
But we should remember Paul also said focusing on rules has no value in restraining sensual indulgence (Colossians 2:23). There is a better way to stay on the path of purity.
I ask the same questions of all sorts of people: “Have you been trying hard to get rid of impure habits? Have you been putting all your willpower into doing the right things instead? How has that worked for you so far?”
I get the same answer from students in a Sunday school class and worshippers in the prison chapel, from lifelong church members and unchurched unbelievers alike: “Not so good.”
Along with every scriptural list of purities and impurities, one key to success is often overlooked. We skip right over the good news because we’re distracted by our own visceral reaction to the impurities that so easily beset us. The key to Paul’s exhortation to “flee the evil desires of youth” is to “call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22).
When Paul warns against carousing and drunkenness and other impurities, his corrective advice is less about focusing on willpower and more about clothing ourselves with Christ (Romans 13:12-14).
Being involved in prison ministry has been the best experience for learning to keep my focus on Christ. When I tell non-Christians I’m involved in a ministry in a women’s state prison, some of them respond with a snicker or with lewd comments about “women in chains.”
While their worldly concept of incarcerated women is skewed by popular culture, there is a kernel of truth behind their reaction. It actually can be difficult to deal with impure thoughts in any ministry situation involving people of the opposite sex.
Every week I find myself in a room filled with a group of women, many of whom have experienced impurities I wouldn’t even want to imagine. I realized early on that I needed to stay on my guard, both for their sake and mine.
I could approach the situation by constantly chastising myself, continually averting my eyes, carefully holding back from any hint of a close relationship. But that just doesn’t work.
The prison system routinely dehumanizes and depersonalizes the people it refers to as “offenders.” If I have any hope of reaching these women for Christ, it’s important for me to be friendly, engaging, and personal with them. I can’t be constantly thinking about which lines I shouldn’t cross (even though those lines are very specifically laid out).
I’ve discovered that the more I keep my focus on Christ and on his mission, the more impure thoughts are kept at bay. My studies, prayers, and meditations throughout the week are filled with thoughts of Christ’s love for me and for those women. I have pictures—mug shots—of our regulars, so I can learn to connect the names with the faces while praying for each one’s specific needs.
It also helps that my wife shares in this ministry, and that she is fervently praying for them and for me as well.
In any struggle with temptations toward impurity, the best weapon is to keep the character and mission of Christ constantly in the forefront. This requires daily attention to spiritual disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, meditation, and fasting.
These disciplines keep my heart in step with his heart. I’m continually training myself to love what he loves, to value what he values, to look at life from his perspective. I’m slowly becoming the kind of person who will, by nature, live a pure and holy life—a life like his.
None of this matters without the right starting point. Before you can work at daily “clothing yourself with Christ,” you have to be “in Christ.”
Jesus says, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me and I will remain in you” (John 15:3).
By his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14).
“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22).
Purity is a gift Christ gives, and a way of life nurtured by the Holy Spirit within us. Staying on the path of purity is not something any of us can do on our own. The better way is carefully to nurture and protect the focus recommended by the disciple Jesus loved: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2, 3).
We are made pure by the one in whom we put our hope. We are kept pure as we continue to fasten all our hopes upon him. T
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.
Keeping our minds, hearts, and bodies free from ungodliness is a full-time job, and it changes with each day, season, year, and life stage. Review this list regularly to make sure you’re safeguarding yourself.
Bible reading: Is regular time in the Word a habit you keep? Are your times with Scripture fulfilling, or routine?
Prayer: Is your prayer life broad, covering every aspect of your life and the world around you? Do you regularly ask God for protection for yourself, your marriage, and your family? Do you regularly ask God to reveal your sin to you?
Meditation, fasting, and Scripture memory: Do you have a habit of using spiritual disciplines to structure your life and keep you on the path God has for you?
Honesty: Do you tell your spouse or accountability partner every time you slip up or need extra prayer support?
Internet habits: Is your Internet history accessible to your spouse or accountability partner? Is there anything on it you’d have a hard time explaining to God?
Thoughts: Do you occasionally think back over your hour or day and imagine that all your thoughts were played out loud for everyone to hear? What types of recurring problems do your thoughts point to?
Risk: Do you regularly assess and address the risks around you, avoiding obstacles, altering your perspective, or preparing in advance to avoid sin?
Know your weaknesses: Do you regularly assess what situations and characteristics make you susceptible to sin? Do you use your strengths, gifts, and interests to fill the void your weaknesses leave?