How to Deal with Habitual Sin: An Experiment

The summer sun beamed radiantly through the sparse cotton-ball clouds over western Wisconsin. I was a relatively new addict to motorcycles, fresh out of the Motorcycle Safety class at the local technical college where I earned the only perfect score. I took advantage of every opportunity to get some time in the saddle, so this particular day I found myself navigating the backcountry roads during my lunch hour. I was really enjoying the switchbacks at a decent (and legal!) speed until I noticed, on approach, that one of the curves had a lot of loose gravel.  Now, gravel is nearly as bad as ice.  It will grab your wheel by separating it from the asphalt, pilfering your traction, and once it has control, it seldom relinquishes it. Braking and steering are ineffectual. Even at slow speeds, gravel can be dangerous.

I released the throttle. My eyes widened and fixed themselves at the numerous little rocks imbued with such great power. I threw up a prayer.

Just then, I remembered a very important rule: you tend to steer toward that upon which you fixate! I knew that I would certainly crash if I kept looking at the gravel. As difficult as it was, I turned my head and looked where I wanted to go. As quickly as this tense situation had begun, it was over.  I was safely through the turn. I simply had to shift my focus from the outcome I feared to the outcome I desired.

What if we could use a similar approach in dealing with “the sin which so easily entangles us” (Hebrews 12:1, NASB)? What if we were to become so enamored with something else that we “forget” our habitual sin? Wouldn’t it be worth the effort to not only be rid of that burden and shame but also discover the “secret” to becoming more like Jesus? Of course, there’s nothing that we can do to earn our salvation. That work was done by Jesus on the cross. But we can “do” because of what He has done for us. Or, as Dallas Willard states, “Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.”

What would this look like in real life?

There’s not enough time or space to delve deeply into the hidden world of the Spiritual Disciplines, which have gotten extensive coverage in the book world. I encourage you to search Amazon for “Spiritual Disciplines.” I would like, however, to provide you with a few things that you can experiment with as you seek God’s help in breaking the bondage of habitual sin.

Step 1: Identify the persistent thought or behavior (sin) you desire to change.

Most often this is some practice in which you engage. But not all sin can be seen in outward behavior. Jesus pointed this out to us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), where He identified that sin begins in the heart. Having a thought is not a sin, but dwelling on a thought can be. Martin Luther said, “You can’t stop a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair!” We may try to convince ourselves that our sin is not serious since it isn’t obvious to the world, but James tells us that sin is sin, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10).

In Romans, we read that Paul understood this struggle.  He said, “For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15, NASB). Further, he elaborates that in our own strength we do not have the power to overcome this addiction, but the answer is found in Jesus (Romans 7:15-25)!

Step 2: Identify a virtue or Fruit of the Spirit that is in opposition to the offensive persistent thought or behavior (sin).

Suppose, for example, the sin you struggle with is selfishness. There are actually several Biblical virtues/Fruit of the Spirit which are opposed to selfishness: love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control, generosity, etc. Start by picking one or two of these virtues and identifying them as the fruit you would like to see in your life.

Step 3: Look up and write down (Don’t print! Writing helps to implant the words more deeply into your memory.) all of the verses associated with those virtues.

You may need to search for variants as well.  For instance, for generosity, you might also search generous, giving, gifts, etc.

Step 4: Spend time every day–or even multiple times every day—reading, memorizing, and meditating on these verses and virtues.

In your meditating, visualize what your life will look like once these virtues have been grown in your life, from the inside out. The Holy Spirit works on developing fruit in you by changing who you are on the inside first. This is how you become like Jesus! When you have reset your values to align with the character and person of Jesus, your behaviors will change almost automatically.  This will take time, but it is totally worth the effort.  For we cannot truly call ourselves Christians if we don’t desire to be like Jesus! Remember the earlier quote, “Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.” John Ortberg has written, “There’s a tremendous difference between trying to do something versus training to do something.  To train means I arrange my life around those practices through which I receive power to do what I cannot now do by direct effort…. Spiritual transformation is not a matter of trying harder, but of training wisely…. Following Jesus simply means learning from him how to arrange my life around activities that enable me to live in the fruit of the Spirit.”

Step 5: If you stumble, repent…get back up and renew your focus on God’s Word.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,  so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11, ESV).

Comment on your experience with this experiment!

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