Let’s play a game. I’ll quote a Bible passage and omit the last word. See if you can fill in the blank. (If you already know this verse, this game loses its effect. And no cheating: Do not open your Bible for this game.)
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be ______________ .”
Do you know that last word? If not, how would you complete this sentence? After hearing Paul’s admonitions to avoid sexual immorality and impurity, what did you expect him to offer as an antidote? Did you think he’d encourage thoughts of beauty or goodness? Perhaps you anticipated a rebuke. Or maybe he’d direct your attention in completely different directions: “Think about God’s kingdom advancing around the world. Pray for unreached peoples. Consider ways to feed the poor.” Or did you think he’d remind you to pray for the person you’re looking at lustfully? If you’re praying for that person’s well-being, you’re less likely to view them as a sex object for your sensual consumption.
All those strategies have some value and, in fact, have support from other portions of scripture. But that’s not how Paul finished the sentence that cautioned against lust, greed, filthiness, foolish talk and crude joking. He said the antidote to those vices is thanksgiving. How many guesses would it have taken you before you landed there? Thanksgiving as a cure for impurity! It’s worth pondering how that can work.
We should begin by exploring why these vices really are bad. After all, we live in a culture saturated with sensuality of almost limitless expressions – none of which are ever labeled “immoral.” The only “immorality” in our society is condemning someone else as immoral. Also, few people can even imagine what “purity” could look like in our sex-saturated world. A category of “impurity” seems like a naive dream at best.
And what about covetousness? Is it really that bad? Isn’t it the fuel of capitalism, the cause for economic growth? What would Super Bowl commercials be without lures for more and appeals to have what others have? If coveting can be limited to just internal longings, does it really harm anyone? How did a prohibition against this particular “lifestyle choice” make its way into the ten commandments? (see Exodus 20:17).
Avoid foolish talk and course jesting? Does Paul have no sense of humor? Aren’t these the essential ingredients of almost every form of entertainment we consume on a daily basis? Would Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel have anything to say if it wasn’t for these core components of their monologues? If we want to get retweeted or recognized by the algorithms that get us “liked” or “friended,” we dare not go the gentle, kind routes. People applaud us when we deliver a zinger or drop the mic. They ignore us if we’re mild.
But God’s word says these things are “not proper among saints.” Savor those four words for just a moment. The outward actions and inward attitudes of these various impurities do not fit, are not suited, fail to reflect, contradict the essence of the newly-created people God has rescued, redeemed, and sanctified as his adopted children.
It’s also worth exploring how these sins effect people. If I had to find a unifying description for the sins in Paul’s list, it might be “desacralizing” — the opposite of sanctifying. These sins degrade God’s good gifts to the status of fodder for ridicule instead of prompters of praise. Instead of seeing all things as sacred creations of a holy God, we see them as valueless items to be used and discarded. And these sins also desacralize the people who commit them. When we fall into these sins, we’re not living like saved people. We’re behaving like ravenous animals.
Not Even a Hint!
God says sex is a profound, powerful, pleasurable gift. Engaging in sexual immorality, in any and all forms, treats God’s gift as a low-value commodity and sees people as things to be used and abused. If we’re tempted to wonder why lust is so bad and condemned so strongly in God’s word (Jesus says a person who lusts commits adultery in his heart — Matthew 5:28), we may have bought into the world’s logic instead of God’s. We may think, “I’m not harming anyone when I look at another person lustfully. They’ll never know what I’m thinking.” How did we forget that God sees our heart and knows our thoughts.
Sam Allberry, in his very helpful book Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With, offers some desperately needed insight:
“According to Jesus, there is more going on than we might realize. Something very significant is going on when we lust. We are actually shaping how we view the world around us…Looking at someone with lustful intent is looking at someone purely as a means of gratification for you as a means of satisfying a desire you have. It is turning them into a commodity to be consumed, rather than a person to honor. It makes their sexuality something for us to be satiated by….This is what lust does. It reduces how we see others, and in the process dehumanizes us.”
In other words, lust harms the one doing the lusting. Adultery adulterates. Immorality distorts, destroys, and perverts everyone involved!
We live during an odd moment in history. Some (but thankfully not most) Christians are compromising Biblical standards about sexuality while some (but certainly not most) non-Christians are rethinking the sexual practices of our day. They’re wondering if something went wrong in the past 50 years. For example, in her deeply disturbing and penetratingly insightful recent book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, non-Christian, feminist, “progressive” author Louise Perry dares to say things few on her side of the cultural spectrum would utter. Consider just the chapter titles in her book:
Chapter 1: Sex must be taken seriously
Chapter 2: Men and women are different
Chapter 3: Not all desires are good
Chapter 4: Loveless sex is not empowering
Chapter 5: Consent is not enough
Chapter 6: Violence is not love
Chapter 7: People are not products
Chapter 8: Marriage is good
Conclusion: Listen to your mother
Perry makes a strong case that the sexual revolution has harmed people especially women. She dedicates the book, “For the women who learned the hard way.” Her concluding section is an open letter to young women, pleading with them to not go along with the sexual “norms” of current culture. Ironically, if a conservative evangelical Christian would have written this book, it would have been panned as the ravings of a repressive, puritanical prude.
A Call for Verbal Reformation
The New Testament’s call to turn from immorality includes calls for verbal as well as sexual reformation. Paul’s cautions against sexual immorality lead seamlessly to exhortations to watch our language. This shouldn’t surprise us. The Scriptures teach us repeatedly that words are powerful tools for edification, building up, encouraging, praising, and celebrating. Words also can cause tremendous damage to our souls. Think of all the Proverbs about the power of the tongue. Recall to mind James’ comparisons of the tongue to a rudder of a ship or a bit in the mouth of a horse (James 3). The vocabulary we use, the jokes we tell, and the images we conjure up will point and move us in either righteous directions or crude ones. Do not miss the harmful effects on the person saying the “dirty” words or telling the crude jokes. It’s not just the people hearing the foolish talk and course jesting who feel degraded. The speaker also gets tainted.
By contrast, our world treats words as weapons for insulting, belittling, degrading, mocking, and winning arguments. Or nothing. People may say, “I’m just talking” or “It’s only words.” But don’t be deceived. Profanity profanes. Insults degrade. Hurtful words hurt.
Thanksgiving as Essential
So Paul says thanksgiving can steer us away from immorality. Before we explore that connection, it’s worth reflecting on thanksgiving in general. God commands us to give thanks to him quite a lot in the Psalms and elsewhere. “Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father for in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” fits into the list of essential out-workings of being filled with the Spirit (see Ephesians 5:18-20). Conversely, we’re told that people who did not glorify God as God were also guilty of not “giving thanks to him” (see Romans 1:21).
The Psalms show us that thanksgiving is a form of praise. Consider Psalm 100:4, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name.” The poetic parallelism shows us that thanksgiving and praise are tightly tied together. Thus, the distinctions between adoration and thanksgiving may not be as watertight as we sometimes assume. Unwittingly, we may segment things too strongly between our categories of Adoration/Confession/Thanksgiving/Supplication. To be sure, that guide to our prayers, using the ACTS format, has great value. But allowing the lines to blur a bit between adoration and thanksgiving may not be bad. We praise God for who he is, which leads seamlessly to our need to confess sins to him, which progresses to gratitude for his forgiveness, which flows to requests for help in resisting sin. Or we bless God for being holy, powerful, gracious, omniscient, and thousands of other attributes and that leads to gratitude that we can know him and enjoy him forever.
Consider C. S. Lewis’s keen insight about the difference between adoration and gratitude:
“Gratitude exclaims, very properly, ‘How good of God to give me this.’ Adoration says, ‘What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations [flashes of light] are like this!’ One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”
It’s not just the Bible that tells us thanksgiving is good for us. A growing consensus from the social sciences is mounting in very encouraging ways. Robert Emmons, professor at the University of California, Davis, has dedicated his career to researching ways gratitude is good for individuals and society. His methodology earns respect from his academic peers and his findings prompts even more gratitude.
According to Emmons, gratitude relates to benefits that are physical (such as stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, better sleep, and less pain), psychological (such as greater joy, more happiness, and keener attentiveness), and social (such as deeper compassion, less loneliness, and freer forgiveness).
In answer to the question, “What good is gratitude?” Emmons offers four major answers:
- Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present.
- Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions.
- Grateful people are more stress resistant.
- Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth.
Emmons defines gratitude with two components: “an affirmation of goodness” and “figuring out where the goodness comes from” As a Christian, he also explores the unique dynamics of gratitude to God.
Thanksgiving as an Antidote
All this serves as helpful backdrop to dig into how thanksgiving counters immorality.
Sexual immorality seeks to consume. It sees self as of utmost importance. At its essence, it is greed.
Gratitude, by contrast, acknowledges God as central and dethrones self. Its essence is humility.
Obscenity, foolish talk, and course joking values things and people poorly, almost as worthless.
Gratitude reframes our vision so we see all things as valuable, precious, and unmerited so as to be treasured.
Immorality stems from a posture of “I deserve this.”
Gratitude flows from a posture of “God gave this.”
Immorality claims, “I must have.”
Gratitude marvels, “Why am I so favored?” (see Luke 2:43)
Immorality raises a clenched fist.
Gratitude also raises hands in praise.
Immorality asserts “Mine!”
Gratitude asks, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (see 1 Cor. 4:7).
Reflect for a moment on what precedes Paul’s statement, “…But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you…” He says, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).
Our gratitude starts with the greatest of all of God’s gifts, his Son! The reservoir of God’s love, powerfully displayed on the cross, fuels our gratitude, stemming back the tide of immorality. The more we meditate on the fragrant offering of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, the more we bask in the reality that God calls us “beloved children.” The more we grow in gratitude, the more we veer away from sin and focus on our Savior.
Growing in Gratitude
Like so many aspects of a spiritually maturing life, gratitude grows with practice. The Bible speaks about growing in grace (see 2 Peter 3:18) and that involves effort on our part. Some may resist this, fearing we may slip into a “works-righteousness” mentality. But as many have observed, grace is opposed to earning, not effort. We “continue steadfastly” (Col. 4:2), “make every effort” (Eph. 4:3 NIV), “put to death” earthly things (Col. 3:5) and engage in many other practices to “work out” what God has worked in (Phil. 2:12). All of this takes effort. None of it earns salvation.
And this applies to growing in thankfulness. The discipline of gratitude can start with simply making lists of things God has graciously given us. But we may need more than lists. In fact, just listing things might point us in the wrong direction. We might settle for looking at the gift instead of the giver. Worse, we might point our attention to ourselves (“Look at how happy I am”) instead of God (“Marvel at how kind he is”). To use C. S. Lewis’s imagery, we might not look back up the sunbeam to the sun. We might just fixate on the sparkles in the sunbeam.
So start with a list but don’t stop there. Allow thanksgiving to morph into praise. If God gives gifts like this, what does that tell us about him? If he provides temporal gifts like food, shelter, clothing, and work, what does that reveal about his eternal provisions? If he showers our days with delights like beauty, music, and feasts, what might that foreshadow about banquets in heaven? If he blesses us with friendship, fellow believers, and community, how does that reflect his interpersonal nature as a loving trinitarian God?
In other words, we need cultivation of gratitude as a steady diet more than instantaneous bursts of deliverance when we face tempting situations. When we read Paul’s list of things we need to turn away from, some of us throw up our hands in defeat because our world is so saturated with provocative images and immoral endorsements. We’re surrounded by pollution and can’t find ways to escape.
But training our minds, eyes, and hearts to see the good, the true, and the beautiful can transform us (although not as quickly as any of us would like). We can “train” ourselves “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (see Titus 2:12). Just as an athlete trains for hours and hours in a gym so he can perform in a moment on the field when a ball gets hit his way, so we too can train ourselves to handle things thrown at us on the field of life. Just as a musician repeats scales in a practice room for hours and hours so she can perform masterpieces in a concert, so we too can practice a lifestyle of gratitude so as to perform with holiness as we resist temptations of immorality.
The Joy of Thanksgiving
For quite a while, I enjoyed watching the Food Network competition “Chopped.” Four chefs were given a mystery basket of some rather bizarre ingredients to present three judges with an appetizer that had to please both the eye and the palate. Whichever chef presented the least delicious first course got “chopped.” The remaining three cooks repeated the procedure with a new set of ingredients for a main course. Then, the final two competed in the dessert round. The winner took home $10,000.
What I always found odd were the ways some of the chefs trash-talked their competitors while boasting that they had prepared the best food and why they alone should win. Apart from the obvious question of “How can you say yours was the best food if you hadn’t tasted the other dishes?” something always struck me as out of place when culinary artists behaved like competing athletes. Before the dessert round, the two finalists would march to center stage and face each other, scowling like boxers at the beginning of their bouts, and say things like “I’m gonna win” or “You’re goin’ down” in ways that didn’t seem to fit in a gloriously stocked kitchen.
On one episode, the four contestants were not award-winning chefs in Michelin-star restaurants. These four remarkable people served in difficult charity-based kitchens, feeding hungry people in difficult life-circumstances: soup kitchens for the homeless, shelters for abused women, orphanages for abandoned children, clinics for patients with life-threatening diseases. As part of their appearance on “Chopped,” their charity received free publicity with contact information scrolling on the bottom of the screen so viewers could make contributions.
These chefs displayed none of the arrogance that showed up in other episodes. They were just so grateful to be there, they couldn’t help smiling, helping out their competition (“Oh, you’re looking for the paprika? It’s on the third shelf right over there” or “Here, use my cheese grater. I’m finished with it.”), and choking back tears because so many people were going to hear about their great works of caring for the less fortunate.
When the two finalists came to face each other for the dessert round, even when the host tried to bait them with, “Who’s gonna win this?” they couldn’t be mean to each other. They just smiled, shook hands, and wished each other luck. When one chef was declared the winner, the runner up hugged the champion.
Gratitude shuts off valves of unkindness and opens rivers of grace. It frames reality with beauty and splendor. It colors our lenses so we see things as gifts instead of entitlements. It softens our hearts and tames our tongues. It reimagines possibilities and stimulates compassion. It highlights people as image-bearers, not mere physical bodies.
If gratitude worked for competing chefs on a television cooking show, it can transform us in countless other ways in a myriad of settings. It might just be what many of us need to get set free from things that have harmed us for far too long.
 Sam Allberry, Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With, (The Good Book Company, 2020, 66-69).
 Louise Perry, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, (Polity, 2022, contents).
 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, (Harvest, 1964, 90).
 Robert Emmons, “Why Gratitude is Good” at https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good
 see Emmons other resources at: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/profile/robert_emmons