He may have them if he will: it is all one- to eat the apples, and to be a boy that would eat them if he could.
-George MacDonald, Lilith, 65.
“Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”- Romans 7:20
In George MacDonald’s classic fantasy story, Lilith, Mr. Vane meets a race of small beings resembling children, some of whom, when consumed with self and their own desires, feast on delicious apples until they morph into large, dumb Giants. These Giants are unaware of their smaller, lovelier counterparts and forget wholly where they came from as they are so over-indulged in their own whims that they suffer from irreversible amnesia. Lona, the “mother” of the Little Ones tells Mr. Vane, as they look on the unfortunate transformation of one of the Little Ones into a Giant, that it would be of no use to try and stop the boy from eating apples. This would do no good since the boy who eats and the one who desires to eat are essentially the same.
There is so much truth packed into this little passage. We are oftentimes consumed with trying to modify our behaviors. We say things like, “if i just stopped doing this,” “if I could just quit this one habit,” or “if I could just get rid of this one behavior in my life.” We truly believe that in tweaking our external behaviors we will achieve a lasting change for better. But what we fail to realize is that the behaviors of our lives are fueled by deep desires within us. Behind our behaviors are internal desires pushing and prodding us to action. We will do what we desire. Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” but to hit nearer the truth, we must say, “Tell me what you desire, and I will tell you what you are.” Is this not an implication of the words of Jesus when He said, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” (Matthew 5:28)? He does not say, “If you commit physical adultery you have committed adultery,” but rather that the one who has desired it in his heart has already committed heart adultery. The intentions and desires of our hearts matter, for they fuel us and control us. This is why behavior modification, simply changing and blocking our external actions, can never produce lasting, godly change. Human desire and belief is the fundamental problem of the human condition. What fueled the fruit-taking in the Garden? “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate…” (Genesis 3:6). The sight of the tree and the desire it awoke in Eve were the causes of human downfall.
But for Christians, the matter becomes more complicated. Christians have been changed and made new by the work of the Spirit through Christ. They are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17) and have the Spirit of God within them (Romans 8:9-11). Their desires have been changed and centered around the Object they most truly desire, Jesus Christ. Their eyes have been opened to see that what they truly want, what they truly need, is no seductive apple that will give the illusion of satisfaction but the One in whom all desires find their quench and their rest. This is what Paul means when he says, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out,” (Romans 7:18). In his inmost being, Paul knows he desires Christ, but he still runs after the things he knows are trash. The truly shocking statement comes in verse 20 when he says, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” This means that fundamentally, since Christians have been changed and desire Christ, they are no longer defined by sin. They have had an identity change. Paul so separates himself from his sin that he doesn’t identify sin with himself. Paul is not saying that he does not sin, and he is not brushing his sin to the side as if it wasn’t serious. What he is doing, however, is latching on to, in his most darkest hour, his deepest, most defining identity, that of saved son, changed and safe in the person of Jesus Christ (Romans 7:25).
Christians are not like the distorted Little One, consuming apples because they are self absorbed and others hating, but they do bear a resemblance to him. Christians suffer from amnesia. Daily they are assaulted by their own sin, enticing them to forget that what they truly desire is Jesus. Sin preaches and boasts to believers that what they truly need is the apple, that what they truly desire is not, in fact, the Son of God. We would do well to remember Lona’s implication; desire defines. Do we have a desire for Christ? Then we are not defined as sinner. Do we have a yearning for Him and His holiness? Then sin has no hold on us. Christians are in the boat with the Apostle Paul, declaring, “I want Jesus! But I keep running after sin.” This does not excuse us from fighting our own sin, but this view does take the fight deeper. The battle now becomes primarily about reorienting our beliefs and desires, preaching to ourselves our true identity over simple behavior modification. Should we block ourselves from eating those apples which so easily entice us? Absolutely. Should we run from those fruits that call out to us like sirens to sailors? You bet. But let us not be fooled into believing that that will produce lasting change. We must go deeper. Instead of letting our sin define us, Christians should let Christ define them. And Christ tells us that we are forgiven, adopted, freed, changed, precious, beautiful, safe, and secure in His arms. Thus it becomes the daily, moment by moment task for Christians to remember who they are while crying out to God in prayer in the midst of temptation, “Help me to remember who I am and who You are!”. The truth is, we are no longer defined by sin but by the beauty and perfection of Christ. We no longer truly desire sin and its trappings but long for Jesus and His righteousness. We are no longer left to our own self-defeating tendencies and cycles but will be transformed by the workings of the Spirit into full-out glorified, God worshipping, God desiring people, for “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it,” (1 Thess. 5:24).
This is the game changer for believers. We cannot fight sin when we believe that we are defined by it. When we realize, however, that our identity is secure in Christ, even in the midst of eating that delicious apple, we will, over time, begin to look at that apple differently. When we fight in the knowledge and faith of who we are in Jesus, we will realize that where sin has boasted victory, it has only utter defeat. Where sin has boasted satisfaction, it is only emptiness. Where sin has boasted salvation, it only proves to be judgement. Desire defines. And since Christians fundamentally desire Christ by the workings of the Spirit, they will never have to fear turning into dumb, self-absorbed Giants but will one day appear with Christ in glory to magnify and make much of Him for all eternity.