People in churches can be very judgemental or prejudiced against those who are caught in the web of sinful behaviours and habits. Self righteousness does little to help those who need the love and new life that Jesus Christ offers. I heard of a church where one of their members came and asked for help regarding a spouse who had a life dominating problem which was destroying their home. The church investigated the problem, gathered money to pay for the person to go to a treatment centre, mailed the person cards and notes of encouragement, and welcomed the person back home with a promise of continued moral support. What a great model of the love of Christ in action.
A life dominating problem is one which is controlling and ruining a person’s life and is seemingly impossible to overcome. The drug user, or gambler, or alcoholic, or sex abuser, or pornography addict, or overeater, or whoever else with whatever else, cannot stop their habit, even though it is destroying their life and the lives of others. Some, with pressure, or who finally gain a bit of sanity, agree to enter a program to get help. With great effort, they learn to rely on others, achieve some success at overcoming, and hopefully are able to restore all, or part, of what they have lost. All of us struggle with something that we feel is constantly defeating us. Christians are not exempt, for we are all sinners and our fleshly habits are powerful. For those unfamiliar with this Biblical terminology, the word “fleshly” means our corrupted human nature trapped in destructive thinking and behaviours. For example, there is a list of fleshly behaviours in Galatians 5:19-21. Some who proclaim the gospel of Christ say that if you accept Jesus into your life, He will take away your problem. This does happen with some people, but with many it does not. In cases where it does not, those persons may conclude that trying the Jesus way did not work for them, and so, they walk away from Him. What they fail to understand, perhaps because they have not had opportunity to learn it, is that Christ did not come to help us change our corrupt human nature, but to destroy it altogether and replace it with a new nature and a new way of life. (Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:25-27; John 3:6-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20)
Have you considered what being a new creation in Christ means? You are no longer your old self, the one who has no power over sin. You have a new spiritual self and the goal is to learn to live as the new self. Rather than think we can change our old sinful nature, we learn to walk in the Spirit and experience behaviours that come from the Spirit, not from the flesh. We can never change our fleshly nature; we can only subdue it as we learn to live in the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 9:27) Admittedly, we may fluctuate back and forth between the flesh and the Spirit, but our goal is to learn to walk in the Spirit more than in the flesh. However, when we do yield to our fleshly self, we remember that this part of us has died with Christ on the cross and is not really who we are. (Romans 6:6) We are the new self and that is where we put our focus. Success over life dominating problems comes when we rely on the new spiritual dynamics that Jesus introduces into our lives. We believers in Christ are called to walk with Christ and to live like Christ would want. (Ephesians 5:1-2) He came to save us from our sins so that they would not continue to destroy us, nor our fellowship with God, nor our relationships with others.
Continuing in wrong habitual patterns causes our lives to deteriorate in many ways. These habits personally affect us physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. I could go into detail to show how the self-destruction works, but if you are struggling with sinfulness, you already know this. The Bible is very clear that sin leads to death (Romans 6:23) – not just physically, but in every other way. We know this not only because God’s word says it, but we know it because we experience it. We can have a hard time living with ourselves and God and others when we are unable to overcome.
Sinful habits are difficult to overcome. Although some can claim to have been “delivered” from a habit when Christ entered into their lives, many others must fight to win. (Galatians 5:17) It is easy to get tired of fighting when we lose so often. It is good to pursue grace from God to be delivered; deliverance is a real possibility. But I want to address those fellow strugglers who have not yet experienced such deliverance. (Romans 7:24)
How does faith in Christ help us to provide the answer we need for overcoming our problematic habit?
Two basic necessities must be in place to be able to overcome a sinful habit: (1) the determination to never give in to the habit, (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 2 Timothy 4:7) and (2) being free from guilt, and feelings of guilt and shame, so that we do not berate or “whip” ourselves and lose the battle by getting discouraged and depressed. (Romans 8:1-2)
Following is a fuller explanation of these two necessities for winning:
(1) Never quit. In nearly 20 years of doing fifth-step counselings at an alcoholic treatment centre I heard this often used phrase from those battling alcohol, “If you fall and get up every time, you are not a loser.” What motivates a believer in Christ to never quit?
The necessary motivation begins with a conversion experience. This was mentioned above when we discussed what it means to become a new creation in Christ. Jesus called it by different names, such as, “being born again”, “drinking living water”, “being saved”, or “being transformed from darkness to light”. (John 3:3-6; 4:13-14; 7:37-38; Acts 2:38-40; 26:16-18) The first three steps in alcoholics anonymous declare this need for conversion by saying that we must admit our powerlessness to overcome our habit, recognize there is a God who can save us, and turn our will and life over to the care of that God. When we ask Jesus to save us and have faith that He will, God does a miracle in our lives. He puts within us His Holy Spirit who creates in us a new life. (Ezekiel 11:19-20; Romans 8:9; Ephesians 1:13-14) It is this gift of new life that provides the proper motivation to never quit. His presence within us results in thinking things like, “I hate this sin and I will not give in and let it destroy me”, or, “I love God because of his mercy and forgiveness and I want to please Him”, or, “God wants me to be holy as He is holy – and I want that”. (1 Peter 1:14-16)
In our newly motivated determination to never give up we look for any Spirit led method to try that will work for us. (Romans 6:12-13) It may be finding a person to hold us accountable, or memorizing parts of God’s word, or forming a plan to avoid tempting situations, or learning to be rid of initial thoughts that start us down the wrong road to defeat. It may be learning to quit trying so hard and resting in God’s provisions, not focusing on the habit, but focusing on a positive life of prayer and loving others by practicing good deeds. We decide, and re-decide, to become willing to try and do whatever it takes, trusting God to help us. As an example of a method I use to avoid looking at things on the internet that I should not be looking at, I have a picture of Jesus next to my computer, and when temptation comes, I look at His picture and the temptation flees. A method my friend uses that works for him is that he made a commitment never to keep a secret. He has someone with whom he tells any thoughts or actions that he might be tempted to keep secret, particularly those things having to do with a problem area he is seeking to overcome. (James 5:16)
The Bible gives us lots of practical guidance on things to do with statements like “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2), or “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14), or “bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33-34), or “be sanctified in truth” (John 17:17). Learning what statements like these mean and practicing them can help us. No matter what methods we try we need to always be praying for God to help us and show us what will work for us. Different things work for different people.
Something that has helped me when I feel discouraged is to see a broader perspective about my life. I can easily look at the negative aspect of my life and let that be my focus. But my life is not defined by a bad habit. There is much more to my life than that. Look at all the good and positive things. Jesus said that no one can serve two masters. (Matthew 6:24) We need to stop letting our habit be our master, and let Jesus be our master. We need to focus on living for Christ – doing His work, engaging in the kind of lifestyle He is teaching and leading us to practice. As we get involved in thinking about others, and caring for other people by serving people’s needs, we feel better about ourselves and our motivation to never quit improves. We do not have time to focus on our negatives and we see progress. We enjoy the life God has given us. Our faith in Christ’s salvation teaches us to say “my sin is not who I am”. (Romans 7:17, 20; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11) Constantly believing and affirming who I am in Christ is what defines who I really am. The ability to have this positive perspective is discussed in the following necessity for overcoming a sinful habit.
(2) Be free of guilt and guilt feelings and feelings of shame. Without this, we get tired of our sin and we feel hopeless and we say “what’s the use”, and we give in to the sin and we give up believing we can ever be the kind of person Christ is helping us to become. The spirit of Satan will often be around to accuse us of not being a good Christ-follower. (Revelation 12:10) If an inner voice tells us that we cannot be a true Christian since we keep living like we do, don’t listen to these thoughts. Counter them with the truth. “I am in Christ and He is in me. He loves me. He accepts me. This sin does not drive Jesus away from me. He will never dessert me, but is planning to bring me into His eternal kingdom.” (Romans 8:1; 1 John 3:1; Philippians 1:6; 2 Timothy 4:18)
How does one gain freedom from guilt and shameful feelings? Every time I repeat the same wrong I say to myself something like, “Father in heaven, I have blown it again. How can I love you and hurt you like this? I hate this sin. Thank you for sending Christ to me. Thank you that he paid for my sin. Thank you I am forgiven. Thank you that you still love and accept me. I want to do better. Help me to live a life pleasing to you. You deserve my best.” Then I get up again and walk on without guilt and shame, but with determination to live right.
Faith in Christ means I believe His love and forgiveness. His cross took away my sin and shame forever. (1 Peter 2:24) Every time I mess up I again exercise my faith in His forgiveness. It is like having an on-going never-ending new start. The temptation is to think that it is easy to get God’s forgiveness, so I can stop trying to be rid of the sin; after all, God will forgive me. This is where we must remind ourselves not to let this sin continue. I still fight the battle, but without guilt. Eventually, this cycle of failure and faith in forgiveness, failure and faith in forgiveness, begins to break me down. I may weep when I realize how much God loves me. That He keeps forgiving me, no matter how many times I fail and sincerely confess it, is an overwhelming thought. (1 John 1:9)
I may feel bad that I fail Him, but never that I am a bad person, for He understands and accepts me. I begin to accept that I am a new person in Christ and that my sin does not define me. I believe that I am of great worth to God. He went to the cross for me and He is transforming me. (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:16-17) This kind of thinking motivates me even more to ask and trust Him to help me live a better life. I come away from such a humbled time with God, renewed and happy, but also saying, “I cannot keep doing this sin, I must find a way to stop.”
When guilt and shame is never allowed to weigh me down and make me depressed, I have renewed energy and a reason to live and to keep pursuing my walk with Christ. I resume my work for Him, and my daily life, with its “normal” activities, stresses, and good times. Forget the sin you just committed again. God has forgiven and removed it from his sight. So must you. (Psalm 103:1-5, 12-14) Press on. Concentrate on the good life He is giving you and on your future hope in Christ. If it is hard to believe that God loves you, it may be helpful for you to be around loving Christian friends who can affirm their love for you. This will help you believe God’s love. (Proverbs 27:17)
I refer you to read and meditate on Romans chapters six through eight for a confirmation of what I have been saying. And I remind you again that faith in Christ helps a person overcome sinful habits by providing two necessities: (1) The spiritual motivation to never give up fighting the good fight to live the Christ-life, (2 Timothy 4:7) and (2) Freedom from guilt and shameful feelings by believing Christ’s forgiveness and loving acceptance, every time sin happens. (Romans 8:1) May the grace and peace of Christ be with you.