Overcoming life-dominating sinful behaviors often begin with a crisis of truth. Everyone who struggles with sexual sin or any other kind of pervasive sinful behavior will have such a moment in their lives when they will be faced with the truth of God’s word and the resulting decision(s) they make in the face of that truth.
When we choose to follow God through the saving grace of His son Jesus, we are making a choice to choose life in every challenge we face. His word provides the biblical principles on which we are to live our lives. Once we accept that truth, we then embark on the second part of our journey: the journey of sanctification. Sanctification is choosing to live radically by biblical principles rather than our broken preferences. Sanctification is an inward spiritual process whereby we die to all which is false, to that which limits our becoming the men and women we were created to be. This change is wrought by the deep working of the Holy Spirit.
The process of sanctification does not stop once we are saved, but it continues throughout a Christian’s life. Even though we are now children of God, we will continue to behave and struggle inwardly in ways that are contrary to His truth. Paul best describes this struggle in Galatians 5:17: “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another so that you do not do the things that you wish.”
Sin that dominates our lives may continue for a period because dying to it is not an easy or pain-free process. All too often we try to maintain control, so our journey is as pain-free as possible. We often still believe the lies of the enemy that we can be self-sufficient and in control; that we do not need to be dependent on anyone but ourselves.
The obstacle of self-sufficiency
Addressing these life-dominating issues requires the recognition that we cannot overcome them by self-sufficiency. Many individuals contact Regeneration NoVA because they have come to the end of their own resources. Coming to this realization doesn’t necessarily mean they have come to the end of their own self-sufficiency. In our own self-sufficiency, we often attempt to change through behavior modification, but true freedom can only be achieved by yielding our complete control and obedience to Jesus and making Him truly Lord, not just our Savior – there is a difference!
Achieving sexual integrity cannot be done apart from Jesus’ strength. Many attempt change through legalism and attempting to “clean up” their outward flesh patterns. At the end of Colossians chapter 2, Paul asks why since we have died with Christ, do we put ourselves under the law again. Behavioral change through a law of “do nots”lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Col 2:23). So often the initial goal is to stop addictive behaviors, but behavioral change is only an aspect of our process.
Lasting change ultimately requires focussing on the heart rather than mere behavioral change. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were the quintessential perfectionists of the flesh but missed the perfecting of their hearts. They were proud of their outward appearance and sobriety record, but inwardly they were like empty tombs. If our trust is placed in our sobriety and outward actions, at some point, we will fail, and when we fail, we often turned inward with self-hatred. If our trust has been in our attempts to be self-sufficient, when we turn inward we will only see an empty tomb.
But if our righteousness is based solely on Jesus and not our record, when we turn inward we will see His face looking back at us. The overcoming of my 17-year addiction to pornography and masturbation finally occurred when I stopped keeping a record of my own perceived strength of will and shifted my focus to building intimacy with Jesus. Jesus was after my heart and not my behaviors. When He had my heart, my behaviors began to change.
Choosing not to engage in certain behaviors is only a precondition for becoming the men or women we were destined to be. If we use behavior as an indicator of success, we lose our focus (see Col 3:1-2) and set ourselves up for failure. Change based on performance is usually driven by the flesh rather than the heart. When we change our focus from outward to inward, our process becomes more intense. We will experience increased struggle as we stop avoiding or pacifying our pain through the use of our addictions. As it becomes more difficult, as we continually struggle with sin and our obedience to God, we experience sanctification at work. Dying to the flesh means we will have to choose between escape through the familiar or to stay present to our pain inviting Jesus into it. In choosing the more difficult path, we begin to experience the reality of the sanctification process in which the result will be a lasting change.
God is not after a morally restrained heart
There are many moral people in this world who do not know Jesus and His saving work on the cross. But the pursuit of merely having a morally restrained heart will ultimately fail and when failure happens it is easy to blame shift—either God, the Church, counselor, recovery group, or ministry where we went to for help has failed us. God desires our hearts and behaviors to be changed supernaturally by the work of His hand. This process requires perseverance and perseverance occurs after there has been a commitment to face our struggles and a calling upon the Holy Spirit to aid us. All too often we want the best results with the least amount of effort or struggle, and we want it now. However, God in His sovereignty has told us that His plans, purposes, and timing are perfect.
God does not guarantee that temptations will never return, but often this is an expectation. He does guarantee, however, that temptation will not have the power to overcome us. (I Cor. 10:13) The temptations Jesus experienced did not define Him nor does the “type” of temptation we experience define us.
Our brain may automatically turn to the drug of choice we used in our past to escape so that when we are at a point of vulnerability, we may be tempted to use old patterns. It can appear we have not “changed,” but in reality, this is a common reaction based upon years of repeated behaviors which have established neural pathways. Jesus can renew our minds which I firmly believe also applies to the cellular level (Mark 10:27) and is part of His healing work in us.
For some, to continue to struggle or face temptations over and over is equated as a failure. We need to understand that the process of sanctification has nothing to do with living in sinless perfection. The Bible tells us in 1 John 1:8 that we will never be sinless in this life: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Dying to sin is a slow process but one which will eventually produce perseverance with the Holy Spirit’s empowering.
There will always be struggles and a continued need for dependency on Godly inspired strength to persevere. Those who do not continue to grow in their dependency on God cannot make the long journey of sanctification. It is easy to believe the lie that we do not need God and can be self-sufficient. It is easy to point fingers of accusation toward others to justify our sinful choices. We must resolve to remain steadfast without placing demands on Him and trust that “He who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:6)
On more than one occasion in my life, the Lord has asked me, “Bob will you continue to follow me even if I do not bring desired changes in your life?” We see that St. Paul’s affliction, his thorn in the flesh, was never healed but this did not lessen his commitment to God. (2 Cor. 12:7-10) Rather, he rejoiced in his weakness because in it Christ’s power shone through. Our choice to follow Jesus must be without strings attached.
For me, I realized I had to yield up the right to be pure. This may sound strange, but as long as I was trying to achieve purity (i.e., track record) in my strength, I was not resting in the truth that Jesus alone is my purity. My part is to walk in obedience to His will. I know I am capable of slipping into sin as I continue in my walk. However, my personhood, my identity does not wear the label “sinner.” My spirit (the core of my identity) has been sanctified, and I am now a “saint,” a new creation, who has the capacity to sin rather than a “sinner” who occasionally can be a saint. My purity is the result of my identification with Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, not based on my performance.
Our struggles are all the same
My struggle is no different than anyone else’s. We live in a sinful and broken world. We all struggle with brokenness in our lives, with our desire to be self-sufficient and in control. Our root issues of sin are all the same. The outward expression of our brokenness may differ, but underneath it, we all have places of need. We all have unmet love needs, a deep longing for healthy intimacy (to know and be known) and wrestle with differing aspects of shame. However, being in need does not make one “needy.” This is just another label we can sometimes wear.
Focusing solely on our behavior keeps us on the surface, and will not result in lasting change. We must identify the deeper areas, naming what is killing us and holding us prisoners. We must allow God to heal our heart first and foremost and then we can progress on our journey of hope and transformation. It may be long, and it most assuredly will be fraught with struggle, but just as with the Israelites in the Old Testament, our God is always faithful and will never leave us nor forsake us. (Deut. 31:8)
“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess. 5:23
Rev. Bob Ragan is the full-time director of Regeneration of Northern Virginia. Bob provides spiritual direction, healing prayer, and coordinates support groups in the DC metro area. He has ministered on five continents and is an invited lecturer for the C.S. Lewis Institute and YWAM (Youth with a Mission). Bob is the published author of Path through the Wilderness and is an ordained deacon in the Anglican Church.