Let’s start by acknowledging that this question can be asked in many different contexts and can mean many different things. The focus of this post is to examine the person who asks this question when in a legitimately difficult circumstance that leads them to want to do something they know they should not do. For example:
- A wife with a distant husband who wants a divorce
- A husband with an unresponsive wife who wants to look at pornography
- A teenager with a chaotic home who wants to escape through drugs
- A victim of sexual abuse who wants to cut to escape the pain
- An employee with a harsh boss who wants to fudge a report
These are situations that are “easy” to answer until you are in them. The longer the real suffering continues the more it seems to justify the sinful response. The common cultural refrain is to say, “After all I need affirmation (affection, stability, peace, or fairness).”
We should not assume the refrain is spoken by hard-hearted, backslidden Christian or unregenerate souls masquerading their identity as “Christian.” Often these words are spoken by sincere followers of Christ who are trying to articulate what God’s compassion would look like for their situation.
In light of this, let’s look at I Corinthians 6:12-13
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.
Paul starts by saying it is lawful to pursue any legitimate desire/need (affirmation, affection, stability, peace, or fairness from the discussion above). Paul even illustrates his point with the example of an absolute physical need – food. In context, Paul has just discussed overcoming life dominating sexual sin and is about to discuss food in chapter 8.
Paul’s main point is, “I will not be enslaved to anything.” When we want/need something so badly that we are willing to sin to get it we have become a slave. We have surrendered our freedom to choose to the availability of our central want/need.
But that seems so harsh. It appears to be void of compassion. If you read the next several chapters of I Corinthians, you probably would not change your mind. Paul continues to call the Corinthians to resist being enslaved to any want/need. In chapter 10 he labels this slavery as “idolatry.”
When you keep reading you find the compassion starting in chapter 12. Paul begins to point to the Body of Christ, the nature of love among Christians, life in the church, and the impact of the resurrection.
God never meant for us to live as dependant on one or two earthly relationships as we so frequently do. We might ask, “Why has the ‘need’ teaching become so prevalent in our day?” Among many other reasons, we could point to the mobility of our culture, the privatization of our faith, the closedness of our casual relationships, and the centrality of our work environment. With these factors in place, it only makes sense to ask one or two central relationships (spouse, parents, or children) to play the role God intended the entire church to fulfill.
With that said, I think we can reach two conclusions. First, the absence of a need/desire does not give us a license to sin. Second, the presence of suffering should call us closer to God’s people for support during our suffering.