Last week, we laid out the Enemy’s strategy (or, at least, one of his strategies) for keeping us enslaved to sin. I argued that the Enemy begins by allowing us to imagine how a given course of action might benefit us and then convinces us that God has been holding out on us. I further argued that the Enemy draws us deeper into a given pattern of behavior by depriving us of genuine satisfaction, and, if we wake up to what he is up to, the Enemy leads us to imagine that there is no other way to live that would be better than what we are currently experiencing.
So, how do we combat the Enemy’s strategy for enslaving us to sin? That is what we are going to talk about today. Below, I describe three habits of the mind that have helped me in my own fight to overcome sin. I focus on habits of the mind because, as Neil T. Anderson rightly points out, our struggle with sin is fundamentally a war for our minds. (Anderson also points out that there is often a significant spiritual warfare component to our struggle with sin. We are not going to talk about spiritual warfare in this blog, but we will talk next week about spiritual disciplines and the role that they play in our struggle with sin.)
Habit #1: Lean into God’s Goodness
In my experience, we need to begin by attacking Satan’s strategy at its very heart. We do this by affirming the goodness of God. This affirmation must not only be the foundation for our beliefs (left brain). It must also be the foundation for our identity (right brain). When everything around us is going wrong and all we seem to see is darkness, we must return again and again to the supposition that God is good, and we must allow that fundamental truth to comfort us and to guide our actions.
Now, this does not mean that we will always understand why God forbids us to do some things and requires us to do other things. There are times that I do not understand why God establishes the rules that He does. But affirming God’s goodness helps me to realize that God is not, in fact, holding out on me. His rules are not arbitrary—even if I do not always understand them.
Moreover, the fundamental conviction that God is good helps us to avoid the feeling that we can never go back once we have become mired in sin. Because God is good, we can trust that His intentions for us are good. The road back to God can be difficult. It will usually require us to make some sacrifices, and those sacrifices will hurt. But God wants us to walk that road; He wants us to come back to Him (2 Peter 3:9). Why? Because He sees more clearly than anyone what sin is doing to us, and because He sees more clearly than anyone what we can become if we will simply trust Him enough to follow His lead.
Excursus: God’s Agenda and Our Happiness
At this point, we need to stop for a moment and talk about something that I wrote in last week’s blog. I said that the Enemy will try to convince us that God cares more about His agenda than He does our happiness. Some of you may have thought to yourself, “What is wrong with that? Of course God cares more about His agenda than He does about my happiness.”
On the one hand, you are right to express some concern on this point. As my wife often points out, “life is not about our happiness.” More importantly, God is the creator and ruler of the universe. His sovereignty is absolute, and His will is not to be questioned by creatures who owe their very existence to His grace (cf. Romans 9:6-29, especially vv. 19-24).
On the other hand, thinking of God in this way runs the risk of making Him out to be just as self-absorbed and impersonal as we often are. In truth, God is nothing if not deeply relational. Just because God has the right to ignore our happiness in favor of His agenda does not mean that He regularly does so. If He did, He would be saying by His actions something different than what He says by His words. He would be saying, “I don’t really care about you.”
That is not who God is. God is good—not just in the abstract, but in His relations with us. As such, His agenda is designed to promote our happiness and to bring us out of the self-destructive narcissism that so often characterizes our perceptions of happiness.
Habit #2: Reflect on Our Motivations
The second thing that we can do to combat the Enemy’s strategy is to reflect on why it is that we want the things that we want. For example, if you like getting drunk on the weekend, ask yourself why that seems to be a fun thing to do. If you want to have an extra-marital affair with someone in your office, ask yourself what a sexual relationship with that person will provide to you that the relationship with your spouse does not. If you constantly fantasize about how to get revenge on the boss who wronged you, ask yourself what that act of vengeance would accomplish.
Sometimes, the answers to questions like these will be obvious. For example, an affair may seem desirable if your relationship with your spouse is so broken that it has lost its intimacy. At other times, answers are much more difficult to come by. Either way, the specific answer isn’t really the point of the exercise. Rather, asking questions like these—especially in the context of prayer and/or worship—helps you begin a journey towards self-understanding. The goal of this journey is to help you see the things that you want in the light of your identity in Christ. The desired outcome is to create cognitive dissonance; it is to get you to ask “If I am committed to the way of Christ, then what place can this sinful behavior really have in my life?”
When we embark upon this journey with seriousness and commit ourselves to follow the Spirit’s lead, we should not be surprised if we end up in some interesting places. Sometimes, the things that we want are a result of greed. Greed is an inordinate desire for anything, and it amounts to idolatry (Colossians 3:5). Desires of this sort are incompatible with our exclusive love for and worship of God and must be exterminated.
Sometimes, however, the desires we have result from unmet social or emotional needs. Too often, we in the church simply delegitimize such needs. We argue that they do not matter, since all we really need is Jesus. The problem is that such a view flies in the face of sound biblical teaching, and it is incompatible with everything we know from the social sciences. God made us to be relational creatures. As such, there are needs that only the presence, acceptance, affection, encouragement, and correction of others can meet.
When there are unmet social and emotional needs in our lives, we need to recognize the existence of these needs and take steps to meet them in ways that are consistent with our Christian identity. Even when we are not able to meet our deepest needs at the present time (for example, the need of a single twenty-something for intimate companionship), simply recognizing our needs, bringing them to God in prayer, and sharing them with an encouraging community of faith (one that won’t immediately try to “fix” us but will stand with us in our pain) can take some of the sting out of the unmet need and can deprive the Enemy of a place to work in our lives.
Habit #3: Restore Balance to the Imagination
A third habit that will help us find freedom from sin is to honestly evaluate every desire, fantasy, or plan that comes to our mind. The goal is to restore balance to our imagination. Restoring imaginative balance is important because, when we are indulging sinful thoughts or developing sinful plans, we tend to create a world for ourselves in which the normal rules of life do not apply. Obviously, a world where the normal rules do not apply can be quite alluring when there is something that we really want. The problem is that the more we allow our fantasy world to provide the architecture for our identity, our emotions, and our plans, the harder it becomes to distinguish reality from fantasy and the more we are willing to entertain our darker passions.
You may be surprised to learn that properly evaluating our desires, fantasies, and plans will require us to be honest about the benefits that we hope to derive from the particular course of action that is under consideration. “Isn’t sin all bad?” you might be thinking to yourself. “Wouldn’t admitting that there could be a benefit to sin make it more likely that we will actually do the things that we are thinking about?”
It is a fair point. Still, we need to remember that Satan is the king of taking something good and using it for an evil purpose. If we do not acknowledge that there is something attractive about the desire, fantasy, or plan that we have formulated, we won’t ever figure out why we keep returning to it even though we know that it is wrong.
So, let’s be honest about what we find attractive in a given pattern of behavior. But let’s also be honest about the possible negative consequences that could come if we acted upon our desires, fantasies, or plans. The truth is that any course of action, whether bad or good, requires a trade-off. When we recognize what we stand to gain and what we stand to lose, we put ourselves in a better position to guide our behavior in accordance with what really matters to us.
The benefits of this kind of cost-benefit analysis extend well beyond moral decision–making. Sometimes, it reveals important things about our emotional or spiritual health. For example, sometimes we discover that we are disappointed with God because He (in our minds, at least) has not provided us with things that seem to be important not only to us but also to Him.
Perhaps what I am saying will make more sense if we do a thought experiment. Let’s say you really want to serve the Lord in a position of leadership. You are gifted for the task. You have taken practical steps to hone your skills and acquire more knowledge. And yet, you find yourself stuck on the sidelines.
In the process, you also find yourself thinking about patterns of behavior that would disqualify you from the kind of position that you seek. Doing the cost-benefit analysis helps you realize that you still place a high value on serving God faithfully, but you also feel the pain of not being afforded the opportunity to serve in the way that you have been gifted and trained. Your priorities did not change, but your confidence in your ability to live in accordance with those priorities did. As a substitute for this loss of satisfaction, your brain turned to pleasure.
Why is it good for us to discover our disappointment with God? Like everything else, it is easier to deal with something when you know about it and can pray about it. It does not matter if it is an unmet need, a dream that has died, or some other disappointment. God wants you to bring it to Him. God will help you deal with whatever is motivating your sinful thoughts. Remember, it is much better to bring our problems to God before they become sinful actions.
Getting More Help
This last point needs to be emphasized. Overcoming sin is not merely a matter of thinking the right things—although what we think matters. It is also a matter of spiritual discipline and, in many cases, spiritual warfare. As we seek God more earnestly, we will become more convinced of His love for us and more aware of the devil’s evil schemes. As we become more honest with God about our problems, we find that He is more active in our lives, providing solutions and reminding us of the sufficiency of His grace.
Moreover, we need to be more open with one another about our struggles. Sin can be extraordinarily difficult to overcome, and there is no shame in asking for help. We need the support of a loving community of faith. We may also need the assistance of a professional counselor or spiritual director. These professionals can help us find the psychological and spiritual resources that we need to combat sin and can help us make the habits listed above a part of our everyday lives.
A Personal Note
Please understand that I have not written these blogs about sin as one who has overcome. I have made substantial progress, but I am not, as Jesus would say, “perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That means two things. First, I am sharing these insights to encourage you, not to condemn you. If you are struggling with sin, I am cheering you on. Second, if you have learned something that you think is important about the struggle with sin, please share it in the “Comments” section below. Help your fellow travelers on this road as we all strive to be more like Jesus.