Overcoming sin: The risk of having good habits

One of the first places we often turn, having confessed sin and asked for God’s forgiveness, is towards the power of habit. This makes great sense. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and good habits help us to strengthen self-control. Smart secular psychologists recognize that our motivation to do the right thing is limited and that our willpower is weak. Thus they advise us to work on developing good habits.

Good habits in the Bible
The Bible reinforces the idea of building good habits, both through direct instruction and multiple examples. In Genesis the habit of the Sabbath is built into the very structure of creation! That alone tells us something of the significance of habits, for this translated directly into the weekly practise of Israel. Proverbs 22:6 says parents are to instruct children in the way they should go, implying that habits are formed from an early age and that it’s important to get them right. In Psalm 1, the habit of ‘walking’ should be avoided if it is walking in the paths of sinners; contrast the instruction in Galatians where our walk is to be “by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16; see also Rom 8:4).

So then, we should get into the habit of fleeing temptation and pursuing spiritual good. Many times we are commanded not to resist specific temptations but to flee from them: think Joseph fleeing Potiphar’s wife in Gen 39; think Paul telling Timothy “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim 2:22). Interestingly, though we are commanded to resist the devil, there is no specific biblical command to resist temptation.

One habit that the Old Testament highlights and emphasizes is the habit of prayer and offering sacrifice for sin. This was built into the very fabric of national life through the temple and its associated sacrificial system. So too the five books of the Psalms both demonstrate prayer, and regularly call on the hearers to join in with prayer for anything and everything, most especially praising God and expecting him to act in steadfast love. The use of the Psalms and the offering of sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins were combined in the daily worship of the temple.

So ingrained is the habit of prayer in Daniel’s life that his enemies know they will be able to cause trouble for him if they target it. In response to their trouble-making, we read that Daniel “got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously” (Dan 6:10).

Likewise the New Testament gives this very simple instruction about our prayer habits: “Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:17).

The risk of good habits
There is, however, a significant risk associated with developing good habits.

Over the years, I’ve gathered a fat dossier of excellent ideas in regard to habits. Some of them are ideas for avoiding bad habits. Others are about developing good habits, or (following the best advice from secular psychology) replacing a bad habit with a good one. One conference speaker told us of how he locked the temptation of television in a cupboard and gave his wife the key. A Christian doctor told me, before internet connections from mobile phones were standard, that he hadn’t even connected to the internet from his house, thus cutting out one possibility of online temptation (he lived alone). Other ideas abound. Accountability groups. Computer software. The man who took up cycling and went for long bike rides whenever temptation struck, even if was at two in the morning.

Some of this advice is so good that it can applied to a whole range of sins equally well, be they pornography, gluttony, laziness, or losing your temper. Each of these temptations can be staved off by a solid cycle or a long distance run, after which it is quite possible that the particular sin will be the last thing on your mind!

But can you see the problem?

Consider. Without in any way taking away from the goodness of pursuing certain habits—whether praying three times a day, or exercising, or putting a lock on the fridge, or doing all your computer work where your screen can be seen by others—ask yourself this important question when you hear good advice about building better habits: has the person, article, book, conference or good idea pointed me to Christ? That question is serious and fundamental.

None of what follows is meant to make light of our own desire to find good habits to deal daily with sin, which if pursued is not only fatal but demonic in character—for Satan was a murderer and a liar from the beginning, and anything that keeps us out of Satan’s grasp is all to the good.

But good advice without reference to Christ is like a car missing its engine, a choir its conductor, or a bark its dog. Or—and this is where it matters—a gospel without any sense of salvation or rescue. Worse, it threatens to become a semi-Pelagian heresy in which the Lord Jesus has supplied something to us by way of initial grace, but now it is up to us to make that grace effective by forming good habits. We are not talking here of working out our salvation with fear and trembling, but of compensating for something fundamentally inadequate in Christ, in that his initial grace given at the cross is incapable of carrying us through to final salvation from the judgement of God.

How Christ overcomes sin
So how does Christ overcome sin in us not only through the initial act of forgiveness through the cross, but in the daily struggle with “sin which clings so closely”? The writer of Hebrews 12, who gives us this expression, has a straightforward and powerful answer to those who are tempted back into a reliance on good habits (and it is hard to deny that the Old Testament habits of ritual sacrifice, as discussed in Hebrews, were indeed good habits).

The answer that the letter to the Hebrews supplies (and therefore the whole of Scripture), is to look again to Christ who was in every way tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15). Here are just some ways that Jesus Christ, through his cross and resurrection, and by the power of his Spirit, overcomes our daily sin:

He graciously shows us and speaks to us of the true God. (Heb 1:1-4)
He saves us and makes propitiation. (Heb 2:3, 17)
He destroys the devil and his power. (Heb 2:14)
He sympathizes with our temptation. (Heb 2:18)
He warns us of the consequences of continued sin, so causing us to fear. (Heb 3:12-13, compare Heb 6:4-6)
He prays for us continually. (Heb 7:25)
He leads the way and encourages us in our race. (Heb 4:14, compare Heb 12:1-2)
He brings us into God’s presence. (Heb 10:19-22)
He disciplines us as a Father with his sons. (Heb 12:5-6)
He brings us to heaven. (Heb 12:22-24)
We could say a great deal more here, whether from Hebrews or from the rest of the Bible. But if your Christian life is held together by good habits, you can do better. It is Christ, not our good habits, who will lift us out of sin and into salvation.

Jesus saves
One friend, who’d struggled for many years with addiction to both alcohol and pornography, shared that he was quite literally delivered overnight from this dual addiction after praying and putting his trust in God for salvation. To this day, decades later, he remains untroubled by those particular temptations.

I hasten to add that he is not now sin-free. Nor does the Bible promise to anyone that our deliverance from the power of sin will be complete before the day we depart to be with Christ. But his story starkly illustrates how the power of sin in our lives will be broken, be it overnight or by a process that lasts a lifetime. It will come, as with my friend, through the power of Jesus Christ, who by his Holy Spirit raises us to the same new life that first raised our Lord. Fittingly, this is the closing idea of the writer of Hebrews, and I’ll do likewise:

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Heb 13:20-21)

By Gordon Cheng

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