How do you beat sin? Like, seriously? And just to be clear, I’m not talking about petty stuff like dropping a cuss word once in a blue or eating a bit too much ice cream (I know no sin is technically petty but bear with me here). I’m talking about the serious stuff that messes with your head. I’m talking about the stuff that you beg God to take away over and over again and it doesn’t go. I’m talking about the times where you stay in the shower for an hour hoping the water cleanses not only your body but your soul. The stuff that leaves you feeling defeated, despondent and broken. The stuff you hate to do after you’ve done it, but love to do before you do it. The stuff James was talking about when he wrote,
…each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (13-16)
You see, all of us know what this experience is like. James says, “when” you are tempted. Not “if”. Temptation is never a matter of “if” its always a matter of “when”. It is inevitable. It has happened, and it will happen again. And we all know what its like to have all the senses in our body screaming after something we know is wrong. Francis Chan put it best in his sermon “God is Better” when he said (and I paraphrase):
Temptation is things that draw us away from God. Things that we choose over a love relationship. And it’s not that you don’t love God. You love God in your heart. But every once in a while there’s this reality – this real pull from inside of you toward something that God prohibits and you’re feeling it so bad and you’re going, ‘What is wrong with me? I know I love God, why do I feel this way? God I don’t want to go there!’ And we know it’s not going to fulfill but everything in us is pulling us that way.
We’ve all been there. And James says that every person undergoes this experience when he or she is dragged away by their own evil desire. Now I find this strange. Dragging always involves two parties. The “dragger”. And the “draggee”. But James suggests that we are tempted when we drag ourselves. In other words, as Francis Chan put it, there is this real pull from inside, not outside. It’s as if whenever you walk away from God its because you are dragged away from him by your own self. And its one thing to be dragged by someone else. But its a whole other thing to be dragged by your own self when you yourself don’t want to be dragged by your own self.
So what do you do? I’ll tell you what I did. I read the Bible more. I prayed more. I made promises. I tried to do all kinds of stuff in order to overcome. I worked really hard and even started to do well. But then, without fail, the temptation came back. And my own nature began dragging me away from God. And I got tired. Tired of how hard it was to overcome. I was exhausted at how much work it took. I got tired of fighting against myself. I wondered why everyone else seemed to be doing so well. I wondered what was missing. I wondered why God wasn’t helping me. And in my heart I longed for that day – that moment – when it would finally click. That dare-I-say magical moment (sermon, Bible study, song, divine intervention) when I would finally be free. But that moment never came. So I fell. And then what? The feeling sets in. That self loathing. Disgusted at your own self. You wish you could reach inside and tear that black thing inside that drags you away. But you cant. You feel helpless, like you are a prisoner in your own body.
When I was in the Army there was a guy in my unit. I don’t remember his name but he was a really nice kid. Very respectful and down to earth. And one day he came into my room and started talking about his sin. He told me about a girl he had just slept with and how terrible he felt. He said “I wish I had a scrub that could clean the inside.” I tried to encourage him but nothing seemed to work.
How many people have given up on God and life because they couldn’t find the solution to their struggle? And part of the problem is we as a church want to be encouraging and we want to celebrate the power of God but in doing so we actually discourage the sinner. We think in order to celebrate God’s power we have to be triumphalist’s. By triumphalist’s I mean we pretend as if there shouldn’t be struggle. All of our “victory in Jesus” rhetoric appeals to our religious patriotism. It makes us shout “amens” and “hallelujahs”. We make this whole Christian thing look so easy. But when the addict leaves our meeting he realizes he is just as stuck as ever. Many of them walk out week after week thinking, “I’m glad it works for you, but it never works for me. I’m all for victory onto victory, but how? I have surrendered to Jesus. I have asked him for victory. I have fixed my eyes on him. I have believed, and prayed, and fought, and cried, and despaired to no avail. Can someone – anyone – offer me something that will work?” Victory, it seems, is free for the taking but far out of reach. And trust me, I did everything I could to make all those triumphalist “victory in Jesus” truisms real in my life. They never worked. In fact, I have since discovered I didn’t even know what half of them meant. People used to tell me to keep my eyes fixed on Jesus. What does that even mean? They would invite me to believe. What does that mean?
I have a strong hunch (with plenty of statistics to back it up) that most of us are in this same boat, we just don’t show it. We come to church with our pious face on. We pretend like everything is cool. We act as though victory in the Christian life is this easy thing. We drop cliches, one liners and platitudes on each other. And it works. The “victory rhetoric” helps us keep our conversations shallow. It protects us from opening up and admitting that underneath the pretense there is a soul barely gasping for breath and wondering if freedom will ever come. But what if we stopped pretending? What if we admitted that victory in Jesus is simple yes, but far from easy? What if we looked at the brother and sister next to us and admitted that overcoming the mess of our lives is not as easy as we have made it seem? What if we repented of manufacturing our holy reputations and came together as raw and broken people in need of a savior? I wonder if this had been the vibe when I was in the dark valley of struggle maybe I wouldn’t have despaired as badly as I did.
That aside though, is victory fantasy or reality? Does James give us an answer that actually works? Something beyond platitudes and cheesy bumper-sticker Christianity? He does. But before going there I think its important to first get out of the way what wont work. Often times we have false expectations and faulty grids in our minds that influence how we approach the fight against addiction and sin. So lets take a few moments to get rid of the false models so we can better appreciate the true model.
1. Belly button method. Focusing on your sins and failures. All this will do is mess you up psychologically. By magnifying your sin you can come to the place where you start to believe you are beyond redemption. Don’t fall for it. I don’t care how ugly your past is. Focusing on it won’t do a thing. Yes, we do need to confront our demons but that’s much different to wallowing in them. Confront them so you can move on. Don’t linger. 2. White fist method. Focusing on your strength and discipline. Newsflash. If you had any, you wouldn’t be in this position. So stop trying to overcome. You can’t.
3. More info method. Focusing on gaining more knowledge about your sin. If people only needed info to quit their addictions, no one would be a smoker. Info is good, and necessary. But it alone wont do a thing.
4. Here’s my resume method. Overcoming sin in order to impress God. Seriously, if you could do this God would never have gone through the agony of sending Jesus to die for you. Throw your resume away. You are accepted by God based on Jesus merits, not on how hard you fight to overcome sin or on how well you do. And if you don’t have this assurance of salvation you will never find the power to overcome. You must first feel safe in God’s arms or else the battle against sin will overwhelm you.
None of these work. Why? Because they all require us to look within. And James is very clear that the problem lies within. Therefore the solution cannot possibly lie within. Man in sinful. So if man wants to be free from sin he will never find the answer by looking at himself, by clenching his fists, by gaining more knowledge or by trying to earn God’s favor. His only hope, his only solution is where? It’s right there in verse 13 “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” In other words, there is no evil going into God and there is no evil coming out. He is the sinless one. If you want to be free from your addictions, your only true hope is to run to him who is sinless. He must become your fortress.
But you already knew that didn’t you? You have already tried that. And it doesn’t work does it? So what does? Here’s my answer: Nothing.
That’s right. Nothing else works. I don’t care how complicated the problem gets, the solution is always the same: Jesus. You can travel the world around looking for an answer. You may even learn how to manage your behavior. But real freedom is found only in Jesus. And what you need is not a new theology, a sermon or Bible study that will finally be “the one” that will set you free. What you need is more – desperately more – of Jesus.
Some of you are probably thinking, “I have tried this be all surrendered to Jesus thing and still nothing.” You might even be pondering closing this article right about now. However, I’m not finished. Hang in there. You see, there is another method to overcoming that I discovered, through trial and error, didn’t work either. I call it “Zombie Theology”. This is the idea that you just surrender to God. Surrender to him and he will do everything for you. “The battle is not mans but Gods” was the catch phrase. “Get victory over trying to get the victory” was the other. “It’s not what you do its who you know” was a personal favorite. The idea was that if I just surrendered to God he would defeat sin in my life. All I had to do was rest in him and wallah – someday, like magic I would be set free. I tried. I mean, I really did. It didn’t work either. Failure always made me feel that maybe I just wasn’t surrendering well enough or in the right way. Someday, I figured, I would master this surrender thing. And then my moment would finally come. Freedom. It sounded so good. But it never came.
So if the solution is not in focusing on self by working really hard, and the solution is not in passively expecting God to do everything for you, then what is the solution? Go back to verse 13 and lets read the whole thing again.
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Notice what James is doing here. He is describing a journey. He is talking about a trajectory. He borrows the language of human birth, growth, and death when describing how sin works. Dragging and enticing he pictures as the coming together of two things like a couple being intimate. Then there is a conception like when a child is conceived in the womb. Then there is a birth, growth and finally death. Notice that James doesn’t say conception gives birth to sin and sin to death. No. He says conception gives birth to sin, and sin when it is full grown gives birth to death.
In other words, sin is not some static thing inside of you. It’s growing. It started out small at conception when your evil desires mated with the enticement and with each passing day, month and year it grows more. Every time you feed it, it grows. Every time you nurture it it grows. And it grows, and grows and grows until eventually death results.
And here I have discovered is the key to overcoming sin in your life. There is only one way. And trust me I tried every old kind of approach to avoid coming to this conclusion. But eventually I had to put my arm-chair theology aside and recognize something that the school of hard-knocks was screaming out at me. The only way to overcome sin in your life is this:
You have to reverse the growth process.
What do I mean? I mean sin is growing. And you cant be free from it by focusing on it or by pretending God is just going to remove it magically somehow. There will never be a sermon, a Bible study, a song or some divine intervention that will mojo this thing away. Instead, you have to painfully and intentionally reverse the growth process. But isn’t this the same as the white fist method? No. Allow me to explain.
How does sin grow? When you feed it. When you nurture it. When you give it nutrition. How do you stop its growth process? You stop feeding it. You stop nurturing it. And how do you reverse it? You pursue Jesus recklessly and obsessively.
What I discovered is this: Victory is just as much a journey as slavery. The same way that you have nurtured sin to grow in you, you must now nurture holiness. And you do this by daily surrender to Jesus and by cooperating with the Spirits leading in your life. Jesus alone can set you free, yes, but what does that mean? And what does that look like? Its neither focusing on self nor ignoring the self. Its about focusing on Jesus while simultaneously cooperating with him in the process of sanctification. And what are the things that Jesus instructs us, through his word, to do in order to overcome deep seated sins? He invites us to open our hearts and motivations to him (Psa.139:33-34), to radically cut off the avenues through which temptation assails us (Mat.5:29-30), to guard our minds and hearts vigilantly (Prov.4:23), to bring all of our thoughts into captivity to him (2Cor.10:5), to dedicate time each day to him (Mat.6:33), to confession and repentance (1Joh.1:9), to prayer and mediation on his word (Psa.119:11), to intentional and strategic warfare (1Cor.9:27), to the pursuit of love (1Cor.13), to be doers not just hearers of the word (Jam.1:22), to honest accountability to others who can help you in the battle (Ecc.4:12) and so much more.
But no. We like to boil all this down to cheesy platitudes. We like to pretend like its easy. We like to act as though we have it all figured out. And if you do, I’m happy for you. But its never worked for me. It wasn’t until I came to the realization that this would never be easy, magical or romantic that I was finally in the right frame of mind to fight. This is the truth that I discovered in the trenches of war against self. I didn’t need a new theology. I didn’t need a new Bible study. What I needed was to journey with Jesus. I needed to get intentional, because regardless of what anyone says or does, if you don’t get intentional in your life you will never overcome. Plain and simple.
This idea that sanctification is passive is cute and pretty. Arm-chair theologians love to talk about it. They tote it around as some “anti-legalism” discovery. But after trying it for years and giving Bible studies to others wrapped in the chains of sin and addiction I discovered just how practically bankrupt this idea is. The truth is this: There is no magic formula to overcoming sin. No theology or Bible study. No method or approach that will somehow result in some fast food delivery of victory over your inherited and cultivated tendencies. Victory comes when we put our faith in Jesus – not in some airy fairy way – but in real practical daily obedience to his Spirits leading and the principles of his word. By daily surrender to these we intentionally cooperate with the Spirit of God and embark on the most difficult task of our existence – overcoming self. And that’s anything but easy.
But the awesome thing is this. So long as we obey Jesus. So long as we trust in him day by day we will overcome. Not because we are so strong and holy. But because Jesus is trustworthy. And when he asks us to follow him step by step its because he knows the way. He alone has overcome. And he invites us to go on that journey with him.
In Jesus alone, the growth of sin in your life can be reversed. So come to Jesus today and surrender your life to him. But don’t simply surrender your heart (that’s abstract). Surrender your activities, environment and friendships. Remove temptation from your life. Remove the avenues that lead you to fall. Stop feeding the sin. Stop nurturing the sin. But most importantly, pursue Jesus, the holy one, with every ounce of intentionality he gives you.
Here are some practical steps to consider.
Step 1: Surrender your will to Jesus. Your will is captive to sin but we can still choose to surrender it to Jesus. Do this every day. Step 2: Stop feeding the sin. For a time you need to avoid anything that feeds the sin. Staying away from places, movies, TV shows, music, people, Facebook or whatever is relevant to your situation. When recovering from addictions the first few months to years can be a time of intense vulnerability. You have to be radical and avoid feeding that sin. Step 3: Feed the spirit. Have good accountability in your life. Pursue Jesus relentlessly. Spend time with him, fill your mind and environment with Jesus, immerse yourself in the gospel and do good to and for others. And of course, if need be, seek professional help.
Reverse the growth process. That’s the only way. Its difficult yes. You might even need to see a counselor or go to rehab. That’s how serious it can be. And those in this battle know that triumphalism is useless. Here in the real world overcoming is a painful uphill battle. Here in the real world, sanctification is messy not sexy. Here in the real world, if you are not intentional it isn’t going to happen. But so long as you hang on to Jesus and by his grace reverse the growth process you are promised that he will complete what he started. And as you journey with Jesus and daily celebrate his grace in your life. One day you’ll wake up and realize that Jesus hasn’t simply reversed the growth process – hes gone all the way back to the “evil desires” James talks about and replaced them with his own desires. Over time the neuro-pathways of the brain are rewritten toward healthy choices instead of unhealthy ones. The will is liberated and self-control regains its independence. The new nature controls the impulses of the heart and the reason, judgment and conscience regain their authority over our passions, desires and appetites. And while it gets easier over time (thank you Jesus) this battle – this journey – will continue until Jesus returns and “this corruptible puts on in-corruption” (1Cor.15:54). Until then, we keep our thoughts and passions directed toward Jesus, cooperating with his word and Spirit, knowing every step of the way that he will lead us from victory to victory.
Note: This post was originally published at pomopastor.com
Victory? Yes! That’s How.