by Kevin Carson
How would you describe your struggle with sin? An unexpected guest? A stalking enemy? A dangerous raging river? A constant threat? An unwanted intruder? An intense war? Sin relentlessly wreaks havoc in the world and in people. Sin blemishes. Sin distracts. Sin impoverishes. Sin steals. Sin breaks. Sin stains. Sin scars. Sin misdirects. Sin deceives. Sin distorts. Sin enslaves. As followers of Christ, sin occupies the space around us, formerly dominated us, and continues to influence us (Ephesians 2:1-3). Often, when we confess it or desire to fight it, the well-meaning yet woeful advice we receive from others is, “Well, stop it.” If it were that simple, who would struggle with sin at all? Why would Paul exclaim, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” (Romans 7:25)? Thankfully, the good news is, there is help and hope in Christ.
WHY IS THE BATTLE WITH SIN SO HARD?
The Bible describes the problem with sin as a war. The desires of the flesh war against the desires of the Spirit. They are opposed to each other and often leave Christians doing the exact opposite of what is biblically expected (Romans 8:5-17; Galatians 5:16-26). In Paul’s analogy, the flesh refers to an internal drive that is opposed to God; in fact, it is God’s enemy (Galatians 5:17). The flesh desires what is in opposition to God and godliness. The flesh encourages sin; so much so that all sin is called the “works of the flesh.”
What makes the flesh so powerful? It is ever-present. Sin is so entrenched in each person that Paul calls it a law warring against the law of God (Romans 7:13-25). As a law it compels, coerces, bullies, and intimidates us to do what it wants. It promises us rewards when we follow its will or commands, and threatens us when we do not. Similar to the law of gravity, even when we do not pay attention to it specifically, it always exercises its power against us.
Sinning less and becoming more like Jesus Christ in day-to-day living is akin to rowing upstream or skiing uphill. Both are extremely difficult, if not seemingly impossible. Thankfully God has not left us alone in our battle against sin. Instead, as we seek to honor Him in daily living, He works in and through us to conquer sin’s stronghold (Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 2:12-13).
HOPE ARISES FROM CHRIST’S WORK IN YOU
At salvation, Christ removes your sinful disposition, the old man, who formerly dominated your being (Romans 6:6-7; Colissians 3:9-10). Honoring God in anything was impossible before salvation. However, when you accept Jesus, you become a new man. Impossibility becomes possibility, inability becomes ability, incapacity becomes capacity, and you can live a life that honors God (Colossians 3:12-17).
This divine change begins in your inner man (2 Corinthians 5:17). God gives you a new heart that desires to follow His will and not to submit to the desires of the flesh. God made you a new creation in Christ and uniquely equipped you to conquer sin and live for Him.
Although you have been equipped to grow in Christlikeness, living for Jesus takes effort. This process demands concentrated energy as you set your mind on the things of Christ (Colossians 3:1-4). As you focus on Christ, you also identify areas in your life where you need to change. After recognizing these problem areas, you seek to replace them with thoughts, motivations, attitudes, words, and actions that honor Christ. The Apostle Paul describes this process through a series of commands where the Christian is to “put to death” and “put off” that which is sinful (Colossians 3:5-9) and “put on” what is consistent with the lifestyle of a follower of Christ (Colossians 3:12-17).
Specificity is important. You know the taste, touch, look, sound, and smell of sin; you live it. With practice, you become increasingly capable of pinpointing unrighteousness in your life. However, many Christians suffer disappointment and fail to change when they neglect to consider righteousness with the same precision.
Two observations: 1) to just put off is not enough, and 2) generalizations are the enemy of real change. Using Paul’s example of daily clothing, whenever one takes off specific layers and items of clothing, it is helpful and necessary to put on other specific layers and items. Related to conquering sin, if you fail to get specific in terms of righteousness and settle for religious platitudes, clichés, truisms, or general principles, growth can be hindered. For example, a conviction to love your neighbor more produces minimal change. But, when you determine to write a note of encouragement, to say a word of kindness, to listen carefully in a conversation, or to provide a meal for dinner, you are intentionally changing your actions in an effort to love your neighbor. Hope for victory over sin and progress in Christlikeness grows as you experience Christ’s work in you through the Spirit’s power as one who is in Christ.
BATTLE RAGES IN THE HEART WITH DESIRES
After identifying the thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors that need to change, there is an additional step toward long-term change. The real war takes place in the heart — where the process of sin begins. James writes, “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin ….” (James 1:14-15). Notice how he described the process. What you want, crave, or desire creates a trap that leads to sin. He uses a fishing and hunting metaphor to describe how your own desire captures you. He then transitions to a pregnancy metaphor where desire conceived leads inevitably to the birth of sin.
The biblical principle is clear: whatever you live for (your momentary desire) will influence everything else in your life. Jesus used the example of fruit trees to explain this process (Luke 6:43-45). No one would ever expect to get apples from a peach tree or peaches from an apple tree. The fruit always matches the root. So whatever it is you desire in your heart — that thing which exercises control over your heart — determines what you do. Your desire is the root; your response is the fruit. It becomes imperative then to identify what rules your desires since that alone determines whether you honor God in your thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions. As Jesus said, “From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
As a way to understand this principle better, think of your life as a kingdom and your heart as the throne room. Whatever you desire essentially sits on the throne of your heart. Christians should desire to love and honor the Lord in everything. But in many instances (possibly even seasons of life), instead of desiring to glorify God, something or someone else occupies the throne. Life is then lived worshipping and serving a God-replacement, an idol, an imposter on the throne of the heart.
Change becomes likely as the believer recognizes what it is he or she is living for at the desire level. Once identified, confession is made to God and commitments are made to live for something different. But committing to change alone is not enough. As mentioned above, the hard work of determining what to specifically “put on” for righteousness is essential.
HELP BEGINS WITH THE WORD OF GOD
How do you identify what righteousness looks like? How do you grow in wisdom and discernment on the journey? How do you develop good ideas regarding the “put on” that is necessary? The answer for all these questions is the Word of God. James provides the process or structure necessary to get the answers that help the Christian honor God in daily living. “But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25). This process culminates in blessing.
First, the process of growing in righteousness begins by looking into the perfect law of liberty, which is the Bible. The idea of looking here is to stoop down and observe carefully or intently. Why do we need to look carefully into the Bible? The Bible text expands our categories of thinking. It develops our vocabulary. It provides us wisdom. It teaches the character of God. It chronicles His actions, especially the sending of His son. The Bible provides the window for us to watch Jesus’ love as he engages sinners like us.
Second, the follower of Christ must continue in the Word. It is not enough just to read it or study it; instead, the goal is to continue in it. Just as looking is intentional, so also is continuing in it. Memorizing what you study is one way to continue in the change you are considering. If you struggle with memorizing, write the verses out on a card and determine to read it 25 times per day. Mark on the back of the card each time you read and consider it per day. Over a short period of time, you will find you have essentially memorized it. Another way is to write out the key verses you are studying on a few cards. Place the cards in locations you visit often. When there, take a moment to read over the card and consider its meaning and application to your circumstance.
Third, do not be a forgetful hearer but a doer of the word. The intended end of Bible study is application. Carefully think through the meaning of the text you are looking at with the goal of specifically putting it into action. Consider questions like these: What fruit should become prevalent from this text? What does God want me to think? What does God want me to say? What does God want me to do? If I am going to practice godliness in this moment, what would that look like? How might Jesus respond in this situation in order to honor the Father and do His will?
Bringing a friend into this process is also very beneficial to help you make changes. Because sin is so deceitful and the potential destruction so great, all Christians need someone to exhort them daily (Hebrews 3:12-13). This daily conversation provides a very practical way to help your endurance as you strive to fight a particular sin.
VICTORY IS POSSIBLE IN THIS MOMENT, AND THE NEXT MOMENT
Is fighting sin easy? No. It would be nice if there were a silver bullet, a magic potion, or an easy button for sanctification. It would be nice if there were anything that would make this process easy. The reality is, there is not. God’s goal is for us to depend upon Him as we eagerly wait for the future day when we will struggle with sin no longer (Romans 8:18-39).
How do we know victory is possible regardless of the sin in which we struggle? The Apostle Paul points us to the character of God. “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:13). When he refers to “no temptation,” he means you will never be in any situation or pressure-filled circumstance that is greater than the grace given to you through the faithfulness of God. Your ability to have victory does not depend solely upon you. Your hope of change is based on the faithfulness of God Himself.
God provides the grace to say no to sin, the grace to put off those things that do not honor God and replace them with what does honor Him, the grace to identify what it is you really desire, the grace to confess and cultivate greater God-honoring desires, and the grace to say or do what God wants you to do. God provides grace unto change.