Gratitude Can Prevent a Lot of Problems
In my experience, a lot of the problems that we have with sin result from the longing for more. Humans are remarkably creative; it is one of the greatest blessings that God has given us as a species. But the downside to that creativity is that no matter how good our life is, we can always imagine it being better. If we have a nice home, we imagine it bigger. If we have a beautiful wife, we imagine her more beautiful (or perhaps we imagine having two beautiful wives).
Gratitude helps us short-circuit this process. It does this in at least two ways. First, it redirects our attention away from what we do not have and towards what we do have. Second, it reminds us that what we have is a blessing from God—and that not everyone has been blessed in this way. If we can orient our lives around gratitude rather than desire, we will have made significant progress in our war against sin.
Secrecy Does Not Help
The Bible tells us that we should tell one another about the struggles that we are having with sin (James 5:16). It is something that I have always had difficulty doing. I generally do not trust church people with that kind of information—and with good reason. After all, church people can be surprisingly mean to one another. What I have often failed to recognize is that, when I fail to follow the advice given to us in Scripture, I cut myself off from a really powerful source of support and assistance in the war against sin.
My advice to you is this. Don’t be like me. I am not saying that you should be naive about confessing your sin. You need to show some discernment about what you confess and to whom. Nevertheless, your war against sin will be a lot easier if you can find wise and compassionate members of the Christian family with whom you can share your burden. Confession makes the sin more real, which, in turn, makes you more likely to address it in a healthy manner. Moreover, confession provides others the opportunity to pray for you and hold you accountable.
Also, be aware that professional assistance is available for certain problems (especially those involving addictive or deviant patterns of behavior). In most large cities, there is at least one congregation that sponsors a full-service Christian counseling center. Many pastors keep lists of trained professionals to which they can refer you if you have difficulty finding help on your own. Organizations like Focus on the Family can also connect you with helpful resources, as can professors in the ministry and psychology departments of Christian colleges and seminaries.
Real Discipleship Can Have Unexpected Consequences
Another thing that I have discovered is that general discipleship can have a positive impact on specific problems that we are having with sin. In other words, when we follow Jesus closely, we sin less. Why? Because, when we follow Jesus closely, we learn things about God, about ourselves, and about the world that help us understand why we want to sin and why sin is a bad idea. More importantly, following Jesus closely gets us in the habit of submitting to his authority over us. We become comfortable with not being the ultimate authority over our lives.
So, what does discipleship entail? How do we walk closely with Jesus? It is more than praying and reading our Bible (although if you are not currently in the habit of praying and reading your Bible, now is a good time to start). Discipleship happens when we really lean into worship, especially the preaching of God’s Word but also the singing of sacred music and participation in the ordinances of the church. It happens when we read good books that ask hard questions. It happens when we attend conferences and retreats with the expressed purpose of learning more about Christ and his ways. And, it happens when we build meaningful, intentional, and authentic relationships with people who know Jesus well.
But what are we trying to accomplish with all of this activity? I like the model that is proposed by Marcus Warner of Deeper Walk International. He argues that, more than anything else, we need a firm theological foundation built on the grace of God. Grace is, according to Warner, the heart of the gospel, and therefore it is indispensable if we are going to understand who God is, who we are, and how God has chosen to interact with us.
The work of educating people about grace is vital, but Warner helpfully observes that it is only part of our task when we are seeking be and make disciples of Jesus. We also need to identify the accumulated spiritual and emotional baggage that interferes with God’s work in our lives. As we come to recognize the ways in which we have been wounded by our sin and by the sin that others have committed against us, we open the door for God’s perfect love to heal our brokenness.
Finally, Warner argues that we need to be on the lookout for demonic activity that may be poisoning our hearts and minds. Western Christians sometimes get squeamish when people start talking about evil, suprahuman powers, but there is no need for alarm. We do not have to posit that demons are responsible for every adverse circumstance in order to acknowledge the thoroughly biblical reality of personified evil.
Sometimes, as we clean out the spiritual and emotional baggage that has accumulated in our lives, we will find that the Enemy has used those negative experiences to get us to believe lies about God, about ourselves, or about others. When we confront those lies with the truth of Scripture, we make it harder for the Enemy to use them to tempt us into more sinful behavior. Moreover, our renewed confidence in God and clearer vision of our world functions as a conduit that God can use to heal our brokenness—which, in turn, kills the causes of our sinful desires from the roots up.
Self-Awareness Is Key
Recognizing our sin—to say nothing of the emotional wounds or faulty thinking that may have contributed to it—is one of the hardest things for most people to do. Several years ago, a friend described to me some things that I had apparently said in college. Not only did I not remember saying those things, I could not imagine any circumstance under which I would have said them.
My point isn’t just that I had a bad memory. The real issue was self-awareness. I perceived myself to be one kind of person, but my friend perceived me to be a completely different kind of person. I (apparently) had a lack of self-awareness.
All of us struggle to see ourselves as we truly are. Either we put too much weight on how others view us (this is a persistent problem in dyadic cultures, but it happens in individualistic cultures, too), or we are completely blind to how our behavior is construed in a social context (think about the tone-deaf bureaucrats and business leaders that you have seen testifying before Congress). More importantly, the finitude of our mental faculties and the fallenness of our nature fills our heads and our hearts with a plethora of false imaginings of who we really are.
The lack of self-awareness is a particularly difficult problem to overcome, and I certainly do not have the expertise to offer a comprehensive solution. The one point that I would make—and I think that it is a thoroughly biblical point—is that we need to gather around us wise people and then give them permission to tell us the truth. Believe me, I know that receiving criticism can be difficult. I am one of the more thin-skinned people that you will meet. I want people to like me, and it wounds me deeply when they don’t. Still, I am grateful beyond words for the wise and loving people that God has placed in my life. I have learned far more from them than they learned from me, and I would not be the person that I am today without them.
There is, of course, a second, thoroughly biblical, dimension to cultivating self-awareness. As well-meaning as our family and friends may be, they do not always see things as they really are. That is why we need to cultivate a deep and sincere sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. Obviously, the Holy Spirit speaks to us through people, but the Spirit also speaks to us in prayer, Bible study, worship, etc. In other words, the Spirit can speak to us in ways and with insight that no one else can.
Jesus Saves Us from Our Sin
Finally, we need to remember that it is ultimately Jesus who actually saves us from our sin. This statement has two implications that are of particular importance for our discussion. First, it is Christ who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that we have victory over sin. All the things that we do are important; they are part of God’s redemptive plan. But we cannot take credit for what only Christ can do.
Second, Christ came to save us from our sin, NOT simply to save us from the consequences of our sin. It is all too easy for us to want the latter without the former. After all, sin is fun. But that would be to presume upon God’s grace. It would also misunderstand the nature of sin. After all, destruction is not merely a by-product of sin; it is inextricably interwoven into the very nature of sin. If God were to offer us salvation without sanctification, He would be a liar, for salvation without sanctification is an impossibility.
Fortunately, God is both full of grace and faithful to the truth (cf. Exodus 34:6-7). The call to salvation is a call to arms. Let us embark upon the war against sin with ferocious zeal and tenacious endurance.