I’ve been a Christian for more than a quarter of a century. And with all those years as a follower of Christ, you might think I was nearing faultlessness. I know better.
Not that I haven’t tried. I remember as a teen getting so frustrated over the same old sin struggles that I finally resolved never to sin again. That vow didn’t last even through the day.
One particular area I’ve struggled with is blowing my top. Over the years, I’ve memorized Scripture, prayed to become a man of peace, and worked at curbing my anger, and I’ve seen real progress (you can ask my wife). But as I entered new circumstances — college, marriage, a new city, a new job, children — my temper would flare up in unexpected ways.
Life has shown me that while I may be able to control my anger in one circumstance, that doesn’t mean I’ve mastered my anger. Sin is a complex beast that will take the rest of my life to overcome.
But that hasn’t stopped me from getting frustrated about the same old sins, like anger, that I thought I wouldn’t be dealing with anymore.
A Conundrum of Satisfaction
Getting frustrated about a recurring struggle may be understandable, but it’s not productive. Instead, we must always be unsatisfied with our progress in holiness, but satisfied with God’s sufficient grace and providential plan.
I can hear you now. What nonsense! Unsatisfied and satisfied? That’s completely unhelpful!
Yet I think this tension is actually quite helpful. Consider this: We’ve all known people who have a sensitive conscience and others who don’t. For those who have daily felt the sting of guilt for cheating on a math exam back in seventh grade — despite their repentance — they need to stand under the shower of God’s mercy and accept His forgiveness as sufficient. But for those who had spread lies about a former friend in seventh grade and have never thought twice about it, they need their cages rattled.
The reality is that we’re all complex beings. Sometimes I carry guilt longer than I should, failing to acknowledge that God’s mercy wholly covers my sins. Other times I justify my sinful actions, refusing to deal with them rightly.
The problem is not God’s grace. That much is clear. We can’t complain to God for not helping us enough. God’s grace is always sufficient for our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 2:9). And the Scriptures say that God “will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
I’ve often been amazed, since I’ve started looking for ways of escape, how frequently they show up. My failures come most often because I persistently resist these ways out. But who can be blamed but me for not opening the escape hatch?
Cain offers the best example of stubbornly ignoring God’s provided escape. When God rejected Cain’s unacceptable offering, the Lord warned him that sin was trying to take him as a lion pounces on its prey. Cain needed to “rule over” it (Genesis 4:7). Instead, Cain rejected the escape route and introduced the world to murder.
And so, while on the one hand, I need to be satisfied with God’s grace and provision of a way out, on the other, I must also work toward greater holiness. Unlike Cain, I must heed God’s warning to “rule over” the sin that seeks to ensnare me.
As I’ve learned that I won’t be perfect in this life, I sometimes feel tempted to stop trying. Frustrated over my slow progress, I wonder, What’s the point? And I’m tempted to take advantage of God’s forgiveness, to scurry off like the nine beggars Jesus healed from leprosy, never acknowledging God’s mercy, but exploiting it and going my own way (Luke 17:11-19).
But responding without changing is not repentance. As Robert South states, “True repentance has a double aspect. It looks upon things past with a weeping eye, and upon the future with a watchful eye.”The source of Robert South’s quote is difficult to track down. In fact, some more recent sources attribute the quote to Robert Smith, but that is most likely due to a copying error that confused “ou” with “mi” in a volume with aged print. Robert South was a seventeenth-century English divine known for his sermonic wit. “South, Robert,” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1531-1532.
If I don’t keep a watchful eye, the frustration just gets worse because I get worse.
Instead, we must rejoice in God’s free reconciling grace (Romans 5) and then change the way we view ourselves. I can’t keep telling myself, “You’re just going to screw up again.” No, the Scripture says to “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).
If I’m dead to sin, I don’t respond to it anymore. And I don’t put myself in places that make it easy for me to sin again: “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Romans 6:13).
The Crux of Christ
Change is hard. We can’t do it on our own. We need focused plans for overcoming sin areas. We need people to encourage us and keep us accountable. And we need the Holy Spirit working in our hearts.
How do we get the Spirit to work in us? There’s no formula or mantra that makes it happen. That’s the lie of other religions: If you just pray enough times at the right hour each day or abstain from these foods or make that pilgrimage or confess every sin — if you just do the right things according to some human method, then you’ll get divine help for the rest of the way.
But no formula works. The Holy Spirit moves where and when He will. And He changes us not because of ourselves, but because of Christ.
That was the insight Martin Luther discovered five centuries ago. If anyone was frustrated about his personal character, it was Luther. He did everything the medieval church told him to do to deal with his sins, from penance and pilgrimages to kissing relics and meticulous confession. He almost drove his confessor mad with the hours he spent recounting every sin he could remember. And no sooner did he leave the confessional than he recalled other sins and turned back to confess more.
How did he break free from his frustration? He threw himself on Christ. He recognized that he could never be good enough to counteract all the deep sin in his heart, but that through faith, he could be clothed with Christ’s righteousness instead. Only Christ would suffice.
Moving Past Frustration
So what do we do? I like what the Puritans used to say. We need to “put ourselves in the way of grace.” We nurture patterns in life that increase the resounding of Christian truth in our ears and the practice of Christian virtue in our lives, giving the Spirit room to complete His sanctifying work.
We only have so much time in a day, and it’s worthwhile to consider where it goes. Of course we all have daily responsibilities that need to be done. But how much time do I spend watching TV, updating Facebook, shopping or making sure I look great? And how often do I put myself in the way of grace? We all need to reassess from time to time how we use the hours God has given us.
We also need to better grasp God’s grace. It really is amazing that God forgives our sins, especially when we keep struggling with the same thing — “here I am again, Lord!” But when we repent, God is faithful to forgive us (1 John 1:9). Though we are perpetually inconsistent, God consistently forgives those who repent.
As my pastor, Mike Woodruff, puts it, “The slide into sin is stopped by repentance.” In repenting we recognize our inability to overcome sin, and the burden of frustration lifts when we see that God knows all about us and loves us anyway.Pastor Mike Woodruff, “The Road Less Traveled,” preached on July 11, 2010, at Christ Church Lake Forest.
And finally, we must hope in the promise that God will grant us the grace to stop sinning in our final state when we are glorified with Christ and completely conformed to his image (Romans 8:29-30). The apostle Paul held great confidence “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
And like Paul states later in the same epistle, holding this assurance firm, we make good on the Spirit’s work by striving after Christ and His righteousness. The apostle himself admits, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12).
It’s too easy to forget the powerful truth that I cannot accomplish my pursuit of Christ on my own, but that it is because Christ, who humbled himself by joining humanity to divinity and dying a cruel death in my place (Philippians 2:5-10), has made me His own. That precious truth must motivate us time and again to join with Paul in saying, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
So I’m no longer surprised that I still struggle with sin. But I’m renewing my efforts to kick those nasty sin habits with a view to the final, sinless state God will grant me in Christ. In the meantime, I won’t always be satisfied with my own slow growth. But with God’s sufficient grace, I’m not going to be frustrated either.
Copyright 2010 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.