The Comeback Sin, Part 2
Professor Theophilus finishes up his conversation with Peter about a sin that just won’t go away.
Peter had been talking to me about a sinful tendency that he couldn’t seem to break — what used to be called a “besetting” sin.
I had just given him the unwelcome news that his assumptions about sin and spiritual progress were incorrect. There never comes a point when struggles disappear.
“If it’s like that,” he was saying, “how can you smile about it? And what can you do?”
I laughed. “Which do you want to know first? How I can smile about it, or what you can do?”
“How you can smile,” he grumped.
“For two reasons. The first is that Christ is right there with us. He takes the worst burdens on Himself. What else did you think He was doing on the Cross?”
“I thought that was long ago,” he said.
“Long ago in time,” I replied, “but in eternity, it’s always right now. God doesn’t change, Peter. Everything that He has ever done, in a certain sense He is always doing. He is carrying your burdens right now.”
“What’s the other reason?”
“That if we cooperate with the gift of His grace, we will, slowly, make progress. Not at the rate that we wish, not with the ease that we wish, not without tears. But we will get further up the slope. We will become holier people.”
Peter was still displeased. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to climb at the rate that we wish. Why doesn’t He give more grace? Doesn’t He want us to make better progress up the mountain?”
“I think He always takes us by the swiftest route He can.”
“Not in my case.”
I studied him. “How do you know that?”
“What do you mean, how do I know? God doesn’t want me to sin, right?”
“He promises help, right?”
“He knows that I’m having a problem, right?”
“So if He really wanted to take me up the slope by the swiftest route He could, He’d remove the temptation.”
“Has it occurred to you,” I asked, “that allowing you to experience the temptation might be a part of His grace?”
“How could that be?”
“Perhaps the very thing you needed to learn most of all at this point in your life was what He said to Paul — ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'”2 Corinthians 12:9 (RSV).
“But I already know that His grace is sufficient for me.”
“Do you? Haven’t you just been telling me that it’s not? Haven’t you been arguing in the clearest possible terms that He hasn’t been giving you enough grace?”
“But that’s because I’m struggling!”
“That statement only shows that you feel justified in saying that His grace is insufficient. It hardly shows that you think it is sufficient.”
He made no reply, but his color grew somewhat heightened.
I continued. “And think of how you were speaking a few minutes ago, when you were explaining how much easier things used to be.”
“What did I say?”
“That you’d sinned sometimes. That you’d had little struggles. How does that sound to you?”
“It sounds accurate.”
“How would it sound to you if someone else had said it?”
He hesitated. “I’d say smug.”
“So is it possible that the greatest grace God could have given you at this point — the greatest help that He could have given you in getting up the mountain — might have been cutting your pride down to size?”
His color heightened further. “So you’re saying that maybe I’ve been flattering myself. Taking credit for what really came from Him.”
“I’m only asking, Peter. I don’t know. There are lots of different reasons why a person might begin to have greater trouble with temptation than he used to have. The cause might be something much simpler than pride, like not getting enough sleep. But if you ask me whether you may have been just a little smug — then I think you should consider the possibility.”
Embarrassed, he changed the subject. “What about my other question?”
“What other question?”
“I asked what I can do about my comeback sin. Prof, are you smiling again?”
“Perish the thought. But haven’t we already been talking about what to do about your comeback sin?”
“I don’t see how.”
“What were we saying might be the very thing you need to learn most of all at this point in your life?”
“What Paul had to learn. ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'”
“If so, then the first thing you have to do is learn it. I don’t think you can expect to make further progress until you do.”
Peter shifted in his seat. “What if my problem isn’t that? What if you’ve misdiagnosed it?”
“We may have,” I conceded. “After all, I’m not all-wise, and there are a lot of things about you I don’t know. I don’t even know what your besetting sin is. So I could be wildly off.”
I looked him in the eye. “But if you’re thinking of getting yourself off the hook, forget it. At the bottom of every sin problem there is always some spiritual problem. It might be taking credit for God’s grace — it might be anger toward Him — it might be incomplete repentance — it might be something else. But if you’re serious about dealing with the sin problem, you have to start dealing with the spiritual problem.”
There was a long pause.
At last he said, “What else can I do?”
“The rest is all practical.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are certain practical steps you can take to make any temptation less troublesome. What they are depend on what your sin is. I’m not asking you to tell me. But any sin can become a besetting sin. For Felix it may be drunkenness. For Sheila it may be resentment. For Edgar it may be sexual immorality.”
“Felix I get. His practical steps would be pouring his liquor down the drain and joining a twelve-step group. Start with Sheila. What would her practical steps be? Avoiding the people who irritate her?”
“Maybe. But suppose that her bitterness is easily provoked, even toward her friends, and even for little things that shouldn’t upset her. She can’t very well avoid everyone. And she shouldn’t.”
“I guess not.”
“But she could pray for the people toward whom she’s bitter.”
“How is that ‘practical’?”
“It’s amazingly difficult to be bitter toward someone whom you’re praying for.”
“Praying how? Like ‘God, please forgive that rat Marsha?”
I laughed. “What if Marsha hasn’t been a rat? But how about this? Sheila could pray, ‘God, I know I’ve been bitter toward Marsha. Please help her to get over the flu.’ And she could follow up by taking Marsha some hot chicken soup.”
His face bland, Peter asked, “What about your other example?”
“What about it?”
“I can’t see any ‘practical steps’ that a person could take if the sin that kept coming back was sexual impurity.”
“Because the kind of problem is inside. There are – certain urges.”
“The problem isn’t just inside,” I answered. “Suppose Edgar keeps going too far with Darla. Anything that makes it hard to stop is already too far. Obviously, then, he shouldn’t do anything with Darla that gets his motor running.”
“What if just holding hands with her gets his motor running?”
“Then he shouldn’t hold hands with her. But do you really know anyone for whom just holding hands is that overpowering?” I saw from his face that he didn’t. “Second, he can stop doing all the other things that get his motor running. Watching certain television programs, reading certain magazines, even hanging out in certain places.”
“He might say that’s his recreation.”
“Then he needs to stop thinking of sexual arousal as a form of recreation, doesn’t he? Third, he can stop spending time with Darla alone. They won’t be so tempted if they spend all their time with their friends, or at least in places where other people are around.”
He grinned. “Darla might not think much of that idea.”
“The fourth practical thing he can do is choose a girlfriend who does.” I paused. “Peter, is any of this helpful to you?”
“Prof, I’m not saying that either of those is my sin.”
“That’s not what I’m asking.”
“Well — yes. It’s helpful.” He hesitated. “But I still want you to pray for me.”
I smiled. “That’s the fifth practical thing.”
Copyright 2009 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.