Roller coasters are supposed to be fun, but struggling with ongoing sin and the ups and downs involved are anything but exhilarating. As Romans 7 seems to suggest, the tension of being redeemed in Christ and the realities of the remaining power of sin can be the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience of our Christian life.
Whether for ourselves, or for others, the question is: how do we fight against ongoing sin? The following are some key foundations and principles to take on the journey of overcoming ongoing sin. Notice I use the word principles and journey. Overcoming ongoing sins is a process that will take time. There are no short cuts or five step programs. With that in mind, here are a few overarching principles:
1. Focus primarily on growth in Christ.
With good intentions, sometimes our focus in fighting ongoing sin is whether or not we blew it this week. I’m not condoning sin but if we’re going to win this battle, it’s got to be about more than behavior management.
The other day I was talking with another pastor and he remarked that couples can get so focused on their marriage in marriage counseling, they sometimes lose sight of the greater goal, which is to work together to fulfill the great commission and to become more like Christ. Focusing on a particular behavior rather than growth in Christ can also become an issue when addressing ongoing sin.
That means a “good” week shouldn’t be just about whether we gave in or not, but taking stock of how we’re cultivating a deeper relationship with Christ and treasuring him for all that he is.
Growing in Christ could include:
Taking in God’s word for transformation, not just information.
Serving, loving, and forgiving others in sacrificial ways.
Recognizing the joy that is ours when we say no to sin and yes to being more useful for God’s kingdom.
2. Dig beneath the surface.
Sometimes I tell a counselee that the presenting issue they came to talk with me about isn’t their biggest problem. Naturally, they look at me with amazement, either feeling they’ve been let off the hook or that I’m not taking them seriously!
Of course, I tell them their present issue is important, but what’s driving them to those sinful behaviors is a larger issue that needs to be addressed in order to have long-term change.
Digging beneath the surface could include seeking understanding and asking questions like:
What’s so attractive about a particular sin?
What do we hope giving in to our sin will accomplish for us and does it really deliver?
How are we not seeing Christ for all that he is?
What lies about our sin are we believing?
3. Be realistic.
Expecting change overnight for something that has developed over years will set all involved up for disappointment. Sometimes I wish I could just clap my hands and my struggles or the struggles of those I counsel would just go away. But God usually works through time, demonstrating his patience and giving us opportunity to genuinely change.
Even a guy like Peter wasn’t immune to ongoing sin. He was confronted with his prejudice against Gentiles as a young man in Acts 10. He learned how wrong he was and, in typical Peter fashion, he boldly told the Jerusalem council that their ideas of who can be in a relationship with God are incorrect. Lesson learned, end of story, right?
Over a decade later, we find Peter still struggling with such prejudice. In Galatians 2:11-14, he’s confronted by Paul for his treatment of Gentiles. Fortunately, Peter’s story doesn’t end there. Nearly 30 years after those events in Acts 10, Peter writes to multiple gentile churches, calling them dear brothers and God’s elect, seeking to encourage them in their faith in a time of hardship.
Peter’s innate prejudices didn’t change overnight. There were no shortcuts. Practically, we can be encouraged by even small crumbs of victory, taking it one day or even one hour at a time, and ask someone, who can be objective, if you’re making progress. Satan would love us to think we’re back at square one when we fail, so we rest in God’s grace when there are setbacks to continue on our journey.
4. Give thought in who you talk to.
We can’t go on this journey alone, but enlisting the right help requires some forethought.
Perhaps you’ve been open with your sin and been judged harshly. Or maybe someone listened well but never worked with you on meaningful change. Or, perhaps the help was really just about behavior management and not about growing in Christ-likeness.
Be thoughtful in who you ask for help. Thinking back to the previous points of this article, consider people who are willing to push you when needed, be patient when necessary, ask you awkward questions to get to the root of your struggle, and above all, keep the primary focus on helping you grow in Christ-likeness.
Questions for Reflection
For pastors: How are you equipping your church to be the kind of place where people can be open about embarrassing matters and receive Christ centered help?
For lay friends: Thinking of the key foundations in this article, where do you need to grow in being able to help someone overcome ongoing sins?
For those struggling: In what ways do you need to get serious about your fight with sin and what are signs of victory, no matter how small?