We all have it—sin—in our own familiar and hereditary forms, or fresh faults we personally import from new and contemporary sources.
There may be sins that we, our kids, and our parents have the same tendency to struggle with the most: self-sufficiency, the self-righteous assurance that our families are nice people who don’t need God desperately the way others may; or its opposite, an insecurity in constant dread of God, and ready to detect that someone or other wants to insult us. Then there’s quick temper, or, conversely, apathy and passivity about principle; the love of pleasure, or contempt for the hedonists; lust, greed, and ambition, or, at some other extreme, epic satisfaction with slackness, laziness, and mediocrity.
Or it’s more respectful sin, such as gluttony. There’s pornography, entertainment addiction—endless, mind-enfeebling hours before a screen, or the sustained search for fatuous trivia to laugh about.
Before and beyond any of these, there’s the insatiable craving for recognition, for the praise and adoration of humans, or the deep pride and haughtiness of spirit that goes before destruction and a very hard fall (Prov. 16:18). Or we may be struggling with more than one of these, multiple spiritual problems—listed or otherwise—all at the same time. Whatever the case, we all have a sin problem.
The question is “How?” How do we get rid of the sin in our lives? Perhaps we try—valiantly, even—but somehow never seem to overcome. The addiction grabs us harder, our temper flares even hotter, and our craving for pleasure grows stronger.
So we try willpower. Maybe we’ve started adding a little bit of devotional time in our day. Perhaps we have begun to pray more for God’s help to get rid of our fault once and for all. But somehow we still cannot overcome.
Growing in godliness and holiness—sanctification—is a lifelong effort and an eternal process.
Why? What are we doing wrong? Everything, perhaps.
It bears repeating, and repeating again, that the issue is often enough that we believe in quick fixes. Progress in our world is equivalent to quicker and quicker fixes—buttons to push, instructions to give Alexa, switches to flick that brighten everywhere; hand claps that make our devices perform detailed tasks. We are less prepared for the long struggle. But getting rid of well-rooted sin involves long struggle; conversion means a complete mind change, and growing in godliness and holiness—sanctification—is a lifelong effort and an eternal process.
Also, overcoming is not for two-minded souls. James tells us that “a double minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8, KJV). Sometimes we or the voices of spiritual authority in our heads obsess over some particular behavior that has been labeled “sin.” Our laser focus on that specific thing can be a great obstacle to our spiritual success. Our attempt to rid our lives of it may show the tragic flaw in our mental and spiritual preparation. We don’t quite triumph in one thing because we attempt to win in one area instead of in every area, a surgical strike over a blitzkrieg.
Giving up eating candy can be very different from surrendering our lives completely to the Holy Spirit’s rule: it’s palate over person. But genuine surrender always surpasses the stats of calorie counting; it shifts the focus from our midriff to the Master who is our Savior, who comes to own our affections and translates them from earthly things and ways of thinking. We eventually listen to John’s warning: “Do not love . . . anything in the world,” or else “love for the Father is not in [us]” (1 John 2:15). Now we respect Paul’s elevating advice: “Set your minds on things above” (Col. 3:2). We remember James: “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4). We insult Jesus by trying to do what He has already told us is impossible to do: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24). Thus we receive the victory, not on our own picky and choosy terms, but on the exhaustive terms of Scripture’s instruction: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2).
Now, meekness subverts temper tantrums, because God has become our primary focus every morning, and the Holy Spirit controls the time and content of our food intake. Service to others grows ever more delightful because the entertainment we once chose—even elements of it that we claimed were “not all that bad”—has given place to the contemplation of what is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report; virtuous or praiseworthy (see Phil. 4:8).
We come to understand that sanctification is one word meaning the same as the two-word phrase, continuous conversion; that salvation is a thoroughgoing and endless process. As eternity discloses to us more and ever more of our God, we turn evermore into the likeness of Him in whose likeness we were always meant to be. God the Spirit gives us single-mindedness for our double-mindedness, and there’s no more picking and choosing about what we’ll give up for Jesus. When His love comes home to our heads and hearts, we are glad to give Him everything. So here we are, Lord: transform us so You can translate us.
Othniel Jeremiah is a grateful, pseudonymous penitent.