It’s a question that I get quite frequently:
“Why am I still struggling with this sin issue?”
This is never asked in an academic manner. The person is often deeply discouraged, even disillusioned, wrestling with doubt.
“Struggle (IV)” by Truls Espedal
One could speak to this important question in a number of different ways. Here is one incomplete but hopefully helpful response.
When it comes to personal change/growth in my own life, I have tended to give credit to myself when there is change and to blame God when there isn’t change: “I’ve prayed, I’ve read my bible, I’ve read books, I’ve sought help, etc. I’ve done pretty much everything I can do on my end, but God just doesn’t seem to be holding up his end of the bargain.”
We could take some time to critique this perspective (at length), but let’s actually set it aside for now (or let the reader give it some thought).
Consider this simple but extremely important idea: Left to itself sin grows. How so?
James 1.14-15 provides a window into the way that sin grows. He maintains that sin undergoes a perverse maturation process:
“…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.”
Temptation begins with evil (or inordinate) desire, and that desire “conceives” and undergoes a gestational period: we think about sinning, resist it, but then reconsider and entertain it in our hearts and minds; it becomes possible, then plausible, then reasonable, justifiable, and, finally, necessary.
When desire has met temptation (the right circumstance) and conceived and its gestational period has run its course, so that sin becomes necessary, it is ready to give birth to sin. A sinful act is carried out hesitantly, fearfully, and regretfully. It is then reluctantly repeated. The sinful act becomes a sinful pattern, in which reluctance and regret wane, and a sense of inevitability and despair (“I’ll probably do it again anyway”) lead to further sin, even blatant, willful, premeditated sin.
And over time such sin becomes “full-grown.” The verb translated “fully grown” means “to run its course.” It speaks of the effects that come over a period of time–like a disease that has been left unaddressed. This is crucial: the effects of sin are experienced over a period of time–months and years.
In truth, many people–whether followers of Jesus or not–experience these effects over time and don’t really pay much attention. They are simply ignored, partly because they are so common: a guilty conscience, loneliness, an ever-increasing blindness to their own sin issues (and how others actually perceive them), an ongoing need to be someone they are not, etc.
But at some point, says James, these effects produce catastrophic results:
“…sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
This is not physical death. From the context (vv. 16-18), it seems that this death involves the shutting down of our hearts to receive truth, to receive a message from the outside (so to speak)–at least any message that may challenge or disagree with our own view of self, others, God, etc.
Most all of us probably know persons who are in this terrifying condition: they don’t want to hear from anyone; they can be stubborn, willful, defensive, unapproachable. They have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear, hearts that do not understand.
They, like dead people, do not change. This is what sin does, slowly but surely.
But what in the world does all this have to do with why you and I are still struggling with sin? Everything. Here’s why.
If sin, left to itself, naturally grows–if, e.g., lustful desires give way to lustful fantasies, which are in turn lived out vicariously via pornography and masturbation, and then lived out personally via a relationship that becomes more and more sexual over time (or multiple encounters with random persons), then when this natural growth process is interrupted or curbed, one must ask why.
(The above example of lust is imperfect for a number of reasons, but it suffices as an example.)
Suppose someone is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer–i.e., a cancer that left to itself will run its course so that the body will inevitably and catastrophically shut down. But then the doctors notice that this extremely aggressive form of cancer is either growing much more slowly than anticipated or that it has stopped growing altogether. It is still there, and it is still a real concern. Nevertheless, an explanation for this very good news would be sought.
So, when sin remains in a person’s life but it doesn’t seem to be running its natural course, some explanation must be sought. Or at least, it should be sought.
But often it isn’t. Why?
Because we have lost sight (or have never heard) of James’ insight into sin’s natural development. Rarely, then, do we ask, “Were it not for the numerous ways that God has enabled me to battle sin, where would I be?”
In a sense all this may seem anticlimactic, not to mention convicting: God is at work in our lives in ways, significant ways, that we often do not give him credit for. But is this really that surprising? Think of how God is at work sustaining His creation for us in ways that we often don’t give him credit for. Similarly, God is at work sustaining us, the church, His new creation. (In vv. 16-17, one may note, James points to God as the source of all good things, calling us to give credit where credit is due: “Do not be deceived…every good and perfect gift is from above…”).
And just as the created order was brought into existence (and is sustained) through His Word (Genesis 1: “And God said…”), God’s new creation, says James, is brought about through his Word as well:
“He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of his creative activity” (v. 18).
How does one properly respond to this word that births those who are otherwise dead? James tells us:
First, “…everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”
(Here “anger” refers, I suspect, to the action of prematurely judging and evaluating our circumstances–and, thus, God–in an unfavorable way. In the Bible’s wisdom literature, anger and impatience are often a sign of pride/folly–see Psalm 37.8; 39; Proverbs 14.29; 16.32; 19.3; 29.11, 22; Ecclesiastes 7.8-9.)
Second, “get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent…”
Third, “…humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” What does it look like to “accept the word planted in you”–so that it can grow? James says bluntly, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
These exhortations are humbling because they are so incredibly straightforward. The first calls us to listen–to really listen and give thorough, humble consideration to God’s Word. The second calls us to repent of the evils that are so common that they seem normal and relatively harmless. The third calls us to take action, to leave our interaction with God’s word with a definite agenda.
A final thought on the idea that “sin left to itself grows.”
Part of Christian maturity involves learning how to sin works. If, as James says, the development of sin begins with desire, becoming students of our own desires is a really smart thing to do. In the Bible the location (or “seat”) of our desires is our hearts. So, to say the same thing differently, part of Christian maturity is knowing our heart (more on that in a future post)–i.e., knowing what our heart desires. When we grow in understanding our desires, we can begin to “battle” sin before it even becomes sin. A tempting circumstance arises, and desire awakens. Our ability to (1) recognize this desire and (2) come to terms with its ability to “drag us away” (as James says) and then (3) get help is a huge sign of maturity.
Consider the following story:
When I was in a previous small group, one of the other group member’s close friend was a cardiologist. In this cardiologist’s neighborhood a man had recently had a heart attack in his home; tragically, though experiencing signs of an immanent cardiac event, he did not recognize them for what they were, and the man (or his wife) did not call 911 soon enough, and he died. Only a few weeks later the cardiologist himself was at home reading, when he realized that he himself was beginning to show the signs of a heart attack (chest pain, shortness of breath, sudden nausea).
Being a cardiologist, however, he immediately recognized these signs and had his wife call 911. (And with a heart attack, so I’m told, time is everything.) Though he still experienced a fairly major heart attack, he was able to get the medical attention needed to save his life.
At one level, there was very little difference between these two men: both, it seems, had major heart issues. And yet the little difference between them–viz., the ability to recognize symptoms of a bad heart–made all the difference in the world.
Sometimes Christians look at themselves (or at other Christians) and think, “I can’t believe that I am [or s/he is] still struggling with this sin. What makes me/them any different from a non-Christian?”
And yet, when we know that the evil within us has a natural, if twisted, development and when we become students of our own hearts and have the humility to call for help, that can make all the difference in the world.
I have another thought–on why repentance is so incredibly worth it–but I’ll leave it for the next/future post…