If you have been a Christian for more than about ten minutes, you most likely have already experienced the frustrating paradox of wanting to do the right thing, and yet at times feeling entirely powerless to do so.
The call of the Christian is to obedience, to holiness. The writer of Hebrews goes far as to say, “Strive for peace with all men, and holiness with which no one will see the Lord.” These words can feel crushing for the Christian under the weight of conviction.
The Power of Sin
In contrast, the words of Paul in Romans come as a quenching flood to our conscience when he laments his personal struggle with holiness:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Not if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:15–20)
Paul’s words express the conflict. He also presents some hefty concepts. First is a major change in identity. He indicates that there is a tyrannical power within us, the power of sin of “the flesh.” But so encouraging are his words in verse 20 where he says that this oppressive force is no longer him, but the residual power of sin clinging to him. In other words, he has a new identity that transcends his less than perfect labor for holiness.
The Vicious Cycle
Nevertheless, when the Holy Spirit takes up residence, he gives us new desires—desires for the holy, the good, and righteousness. And when things do no change as planned, we are discouraged and frustrated. This leads us to the viscous cycle of recommitting, weakening, failing, and then self-loathing.
Quitting “Cold Turkey”
This is worsened by the repeated attempt to quit “cold-turkey” This is the practical equivalent of being an amateur athlete and then jumping in to secure the world title. You just don’t have the disciplinary stamina established to pull that off. This just sets us up for failure, and above all, a feeling of failure even when you might be making progress.
The key in breaking bad habits is failing in the right direction. This means you need to look for progress. Someone who used to binge drink every weekend and now has a weak moment once ever 6–8 months has come a long way.
So How do we make progress? Well here I am going to share five keys in short form. I want you to just think about them and reflect on them. I will expand on these in later posts.
Accepting God’s Grace
what is grace? To start, it is God’s mercy; it is also the relational latitude to fail and still be accepted—loved. Grace is critical to overcoming failure because if we are threatened by rejection it saps our motivation. God’s love is empowering. John says “we love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Paul says it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). God’s grace is there placidly awaiting us. But we must accept it by faith to access it. It is received by faith.
Accepting My Weakness
We must arrive at a sober acceptance our sin and weakness. As fallen people we fall short. Paul says all have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). This makes us needy for grace. But failure to accept this truth leads to unrealistic life-change expectations. This will usually translate into trying to quit deeply seated ingrained sin habits “cold turkey.” Deeply entrenched habits are not easy to overcome because of our weakness. If we do not accept this, the combination of impatience and pride can do more damage than good.
Accepting God’s time Frame
God’s regular pattern for life-change is process. Jesus works with his disciples over years. God fulfilled the promise of a land to Abraham over a millennium. In judges he said he would expel the inhabitants gradually that the beasts of the field would not rise against them.
Disciplining the Pattern
Now comes the hands-on part: This has more to do with preparation and planning. For instance if you tend to drink heavily late at night when you are alone, then begin by preventing those circumstances. You can’t fornicate or commit adultery if you don’t even put yourself in a conducive situation to that. But understand, putting up such fences cannot guarantee success. That is not where it lies. Success is in the discipling of the mind.
The Battle is in the mind
You can whip any sin as long as you want to consistently. But therein lies the problem. There is nothing consistent about the human heart. The human heart waxes and wanes in its affections. At one moment you are full of powerful emotion against your sin. You feel you now have the passion to whip this thing. But when this emotion subsides so does your will. With a sinful habit, the primary emotion for change is typically shame. But the reality is that shame is just never strong enough. Did you catch that? Shame is rarely ever strong enough to evoke lasting life change. As soon as you want that sin more than the opposite, you will fall, especially if opportunity presents itself. Most of us cannot stand before the juggernaut of our own passions. They bowl us over almost every time.
That is why it is about disciplining the mind in two ways. First we must gain control over the thought life. This means we are are in control of what we meditate on. Oh and this is way harder than you can imagine. Second is to begin to intentionally drive thoughts and ideas of spiritual truth in order to rekindle new passions. This again takes work.
This is essentially critically refusing to accept negative or impure thoughts, and to plug the vacuum with positive godly thinking. When we do this, we will grow in godliness. We will see life change. When we do not, we will become a slave to whatever thought or image assails us.
The key thing in changing a single habit is first remembering it is a process. God works on us gradually. This is where substantive change comes from. Second, the path to success is in the thought life, not in addressing the sin directly. This is the hardest part.
As an example, if you want to overcome a pattern of pornography, you will not succeed by focusing on “stopping pornography.” Why? Well what are you thinking about? Pornography, by its very nature, is stimulating and tempting. You need to focus on God and his goodness in the Gospel. You overcome impure thoughts by thinking on the good, right, and pure things. Ironically, spending a lot of time thanking God for delivering you from what he already helped you with is the better path to overcoming what still besets you. We will expand on this more in the future.
Let us know your thoughts!