Our failure to conquer persistent sins is one of Satan’s favorite targets. But as usual, God’s grace has this one covered.
The human ability to remain in destructive behavior is mind boggling. Think of the billions of dollars and thousands of lives tobacco use costs our nation each year. Or the additional costs of drunk or distracted driving. The passion of our pursuits defies explanation.
I heard this illustrated vividly one day as I heard a radio interview with a man who had found victory over a particularly gripping pattern of sin.
The first time I tried it, it made me vomit. The second time I tried it, I tolerated it. The third time, I was hooked for life.
Wait a minute. The second time? How do you go back and commit a sin that made you sick the first time? What logic is there in that? What sense?
But that’s the thing about persistent sin. It defies logic and reason. It short circuits common sense. We will rationalize, minimize, and explain away to whatever degree is necessary our “darling sins.”
Breaking free of that deadly pattern requires a power greater than our will, stronger than our resilience, and more trustworthy than our self-directed promises.
From Thomas Brooks‘ Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices, here are six truths that counter our failure to conquer persistent sin. Satan uses our weakness to discourage us. But that’s when God’s strength is made perfect.
1: God saw failure coming and he is prepared
Not only was God prepared to deal with the overall sin problem, he remains ready to continually forgive us. This is not a new trait he took on when Jesus rose from the grave. It’s been part of his character all along.
In Deuteronomy, Moses’ last address to Israel shows God expected them to turn from him. As God prepared Moses for his impending death he said:
Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?Deuteronomy 31:16–17, ESV
Knowing this, God still gave Israel the promised land. If you’ll go just one chapter back in Deuteronomy, you’ll see Moses “farewell address” to Israel. There you learn that, despite the nation’s eventual turning from him, God would make a way for restoration if they repented of their sins and cried out to him again.
And that’s exactly what happened. Israel worshiped a golden calf before Moses made it off the mountain with God’s commandments. They complained and grumbled in the wilderness. All but three of them were too afraid to go up into Jericho. Generations of them and their kings “whored after” foreign gods and tore themselves apart.
And God forgave, and forgave, and forgave. Because once God sets his favor on a people he never lets go.
2: God hasn’t promised to fail-proof us
God liberates us from sin’s penalty and power, but not its presence. Not yet.
I have never seen a promise in Scripture, which says that when our sorrow and grief has been so great, or so much, for this or that sin — that then God will preserve us from ever falling into the same sin.
Have you ever been told that God will forgive you “if you’re sincere enough”? Or if you pray a certain prayer, a certain way? Or if you demonstrate your contrition with enough good works?
None of that is biblical. In fact, quite the opposite.
In one of my personal favorite encounters in the Gospels, Jesus fields a question from some of the crowd whom He had miraculously fed with fish and bread the day before. Clearly, this miracle had set their minds in motion about what they could do for God in return: “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”
Our religious hearts expect quite a to-do list. Prayers, alms giving, reflection upon our failures. Jesus’ answer strips our self-reliance and self-righteousness to the bone: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29, ESV).
The only real work with which we must concern ourselves is belief. Faith. Unrepentant unbelief is the only unpardonable sin (calling the Holy Spirit’s work satanic falls into this category). Jesus’ very first command in the book of Mark is: Repent and believe the good news.
And as if that weren’t compelling enough, our very ability to believe in Jesus is itself God’s work (Eph 2:8). God gets all the credit. We get all the benefits.
Believe. Repent. Have faith. You will sin again. Repent and believe again. God will forgive again.
3: God’s greatest contenders were repeat failures
In our previous post we made the point that “you’re in good company” when your zeal for God wanes. The same is true when we fall prey to the same old sins.
Brooks’ list of this “faith’s hall of fail” omits one standout example. The apostle Paul, who wrote more of the New Testament than any other author, whose pen helps us interpret the Gospels, who evangelized and planted churches across huge swaths of the Near East, said:
For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.Romans 7:18b–21, ESV
And who does Paul thank for delivering him (eventually) from this “body of death”? Jesus Christ, our Lord. Not Paul’s effort, nor his sincere sorrow, nor his promise to do better next time. Jesus.
4: God remains faithful in our failure
And now, there is no condemnation. Not for Paul and not for you.
God sometimes allows our relapses to remind us who is the true victor. Our pride in spiritual maturity needs an occasional painful check.
Let’s go back to Paul. To the church at Corinth he wrote that God gave him a “thorn in the flesh,” something that caused him discomfort and trouble, which was God’s design to keep him humble. Scholars have speculated this thorn may have been a physical malady, the vision problem Paul hints at elsewhere perhaps. It may have been the troublesome Corinthian Christians themselves, or possibly persecution from unbelievers.
Whatever it was, Paul asked God to take it away. The answer: “’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, ESV)
God will use our continuing weaknesses to shape us into more faithful followers. When your failures cause you to despair, remember they may be God’s messengers to draw you closer to him.
5: God knows your heart
Peter once asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother for sinning against him. (His brother, Andrew, may have been right there listening to this!) Jesus effectively answered: 490 times.
Now, if you you’ve done the math and figured out 70 x 7 = 490, you may be missing the point. What human is so spiritual that he or she could forgive another person nearly 500 times? The parable Jesus tells next illustrates that the degree to which we forgive others is in measure to how much God has forgiven us.
And that is the point. If you love God and hate sin, if his Holy Spirit lives in you, he can forgive you 490 times. Or 490,000 times. Jesus’s blood was powerful enough to cleanse you even of the sins you have yet to commit. This is not a license to sin, but a promise of victory.
6: Feelings can’t cure failure
We talked a lot about feelings last time. Brooks brings them up here again. The first few sentences of his point here are hard to understand. Allow me to paraphrase:
“You’re in miserable sorrow because of your sin? Great. You should be. Now you’re overjoyed because you’ve rediscovered God’s grace? Wonderful! Just remember none of that will give you victory.”
Freedom is found in faith, not feelings. Emotions are the fruit of a godly heart, not the root of your justification.
Remember Peter’s example. You or I could just as surely deny Christ before our accusers and weep bitterly for it. We might experience his forgiveness for our betrayal and shout for joy. Either way, and anywhere in between, we have the irreversible, irrevocable love of Jesus.