It’s a battle we all must fight. It’s a battle we all must fight from this moment until the moment we die. It’s a battle fraught with discouragement and setbacks, yet a battle we all can and must win. It’s the battle against sin.
All throughout the New Testament we are told to put our sin to death. For example, in Colossians 3 Paul says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” How do you do that? How do you stop a sin, and how do you stop an especially stubborn and deep-rooted sin? Is there any hope? I want to track with John Owen here (via his great work Overcoming Sin and Temptation) and give a list of 9 things you need to do to overcome sin. Consider that sin that is prevalent in your life and then consider each of these 9 steps.
Evaluate whether your sin is especially serious and deep-rooted. You have heard it said that “all sin is the same,” and there is a sense in which this is true—every single sin alienates you from God. However, some sins are more serious than others because they bring more serious consequences. The most serious sins are the ones that have gone so deep that they are now habitual; your subconscious habits now lead you to sin again and again. Consider your sin. Is it manifested in your habits? Do you sin almost an auto-pilot? Is it easier to sin than to do what is right? If it is, your sin is especially deep and you will need an extra measure of God’s help to battle it and overcome it.
Fill your mind and conscience with the guilt, the weight, and the evil of your sin. Sin always tries to convince you that it isn’t very serious and that it is not worth worrying about. “Come on. Others have sinned worse. This is just a little sin. You deserve this.” But God wants you to know that your sin is eternally serious and absolutely worth worrying about. You need to consider just how dangerous your sin is, how it dishonors God, how it calls upon God to discipline you, how it makes you less useful in the Lord’s work, and even how it may show that you are not saved at all. Let that sin sit heavy in your mind and soul. Never succumb to the temptation to minimize it.
Load your conscience with the guilt of your sin. Compare your sin to God’s law, to what he demands of you and promises you can have if only you take hold of righteousness. Feel the guilt that you have incurred. Consider how patient and kind God has been with you in allowing you to go on without striking you down for your sin. Consider all the ways he has been gracious to you. Look to the gospel, not for forgiveness yet, but for the ultimate picture of the cost of your sin. See Christ suffering for your sin and don’t turn away your gaze. Feel all of that. Feel the weight, the guilt of it.
Long for deliverance from the sin. Now you are in the right frame of heart and frame of mind to desire deliverance from that sin. When you know and feel the weight of your sin, you will want to put that sin to death for the best reasons. You will no longer hate that sin merely out of fear of consequences or fear of shame or embarrassment. Now you will rightly see the cost and guilt of your sin, and you will long to be delivered from it so God can be glorified in you. Long for it. Pant for it. Cry out for it.
Consider how this sin is amplified by your nature or constitution. You need to consider whether there is something in your makeup that makes you especially prone to this sin. Some people come from whole families of alcoholics and it may be that there is some kind of predisposition to addiction within them. Or perhaps you were sinned against earlier in life and the sins that were committed against you seem to make you especially prone to a sin of your own. Though these things may be true, you cannot allow them to excuse your sin. Instead, allow them to further convince you of your weakness and your desperate need for God’s strength. Being predisposed toward a certain sin puts the burden on you to fight even harder against it, to destroy it even more completely, and to be especially vigilant in watching out for its reappearance.
Contemplate the occasions in which this sin breaks out and guard against them. Now think about the times when you fall into this sin. What are the occasions? What happens right before you sin? What are the habits or patterns that lead to it? Think about these things, know what you do before you actually commit the sin, and stop the downward spiral long before it gets to the point of sinning. You never commit a big sin without first sliding down a long and slippery slope of little sins. So consider those little sins, identify the patterns, and learn to stop the little sins.
Battle hard against the first awakenings of that sin. Never, ever allow yourself to play with sin. Never think you will sin this far, but no farther. Do not toy with sin. Do not think you can control your sin and allow only so much of it. If you do that, sin will win every time. The very second you feel that sin awakening within you, slam it down with all your force and all your strength. Cry out to God in that very moment. Call for help from other Christians in that very moment. Sin is like water held back by a dam; the moment there is even a small crack in that dam, the weight of the water pushing against it will blow a hole right through it, and the entire structure will collapse.
Meditate on God to see his glory and your desperate inability. Think about God. Read his Word and meditate on it. Especially search out the glory of God and think about the massive distance between you and him. Think of how great he is and how little you know of him. Humble yourself by thinking great thoughts of God. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble; if you want his grace in battling sin, humble yourself by considering God and by meeting with God. You cannot think high thoughts of God without being overwhelmed by sorrow for your sin and your sinfulness.
Expect to hear God speak peace to your soul (but do not speak it to yourself until he does). As you do all of this, expect that God will help you put your sin to death, and expect that he will give you peace. You will feel peace because you will be at peace. But here’s an important thing to consider: Do not speak peace to yourself until God does. It is God who has the right to speak freedom and peace to your conscience, to your heart, to your mind. Let God speak it through his Word or through his people. When he does, listen. But do not speak it to yourself too soon or you will be deluding yourself, and will go straight back into your sin. Listen for God’s affirming voice and look for success. God is for you and loves to help you put your sin to death. It is his delight.