The apostle Paul has a tendency to give us lists of sins. He gives us at least five of them.1 At first glance, it feels like he is simply piling it on. But his lists include a recurring structure that brings keen insight into the human condition. He identifies the overarching category of renegade desire, and he typically calls out two expressions of this desire: sexual sin and anger. These are a big deal to Paul because they are a big deal to God.
Here are two of those lists.
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. (Gal 5:19–21)
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk. (Col 3:5–8)
Inordinate and idolatrous desires dominate the way Paul describes sin. These sins are filled with “I want!”2
So here is the raw human condition.
We are bent toward sexual immorality. God has created us to live within sexual boundaries. Male-female, joined in a covenant—that is the boundary. But as those who are no longer fully in sync with the mind of God, we flirt with that boundary through pornography, and many violate it when given the opportunity. We want to sexually possess people who do not belong to us. No surprises here.
We are bent toward anger. According to Paul, we should have at least as much interest in anger and its divisive, destructive ways as we do in sexual immorality. Look at the ways it is expressed: enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, wrath, malice, and slander. People are devastated by reckless anger, in our churches and in the world.
Paul urges us to be rigorous in taking our souls to task. We are to aim for accountability with anger just like we do with sexuality. And we want to speak into a world that is losing confidence that we can actually help people with either.
So here is something better.
We aim for self-control. We might prefer to hold out for a better offer, but self-control is Scripture’s contrast to self-indulgence. It is not shallow self-effort or dour asceticism—it is the ability to say “no” to desires. And it is on the cusp of becoming stylish. The world around us is rediscovering the goodness of self-control because it happens to be correlated with happiness and “success.”
Paul’s sin lists tend to scatter our minds in different directions, but he is actually focusing us with illustrations of one thing—unleashed and ungodly desire—that is chronically expressed in two ways—sexual immorality and anger. One small step we can take toward self-control is to be more specific when we pray “forgive us our debts” (Matt 6:12). “Forgive me for sexual sin in thought, word, or deed, and forgive me for anger and its endless manifestations, all of which are lethal.”
1 Rom 1:21–32, 1 Cor 6:9–10, Gal 5:19–21, Col 3:5–9, Titus 3:3.
2 In Galatians, he inserts “idolatry,” but even there he emphasizes the greedy, rapacious roots of idolatry. That is, “God has not given me what I want, so I will look elsewhere.”