A note from Kelly King: I can still remember my “aha” moment of dealing with repetitive sin when I took the apostle Paul’s words to heart. In Romans 6, he says, “What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply? Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” I remember thinking that I was in good company if the apostle Paul struggled with sin while living under the grace offered through Christ. I encourage you to read Ashley’s Chesnut’s encouragement today, but I also urge you to read the entire passage of Romans 6. Whether you are struggling with the same old sin or someone you love just can’t seem to break free from their cycle of sin, I hope today’s article will give you clarity and hope.
The year starts out hopeful, and maybe there’s even success for a couple of days, weeks, or months. Then it happens. They give in. That sin struggle comes back like the pounds and inches to our waistlines during the holidays. “Why can’t they seem to defeat this sin once and for all?” you might wonder.
As a ministry leader, do you ever have those seasons in ministry where you feel so frustrated when someone you care about confesses to you that they’ve once again given into sin? Why can’t they stop? Why must we have this conversation again? Or I thought we dealt with this a year ago—or 5 years ago or 15 years ago! What do you mean that sin is back and better than ever?
I’ve been in one of those ministry seasons for the past couple of months, and it’s both wearisome and heartbreaking. Why? Because I can pray for the person, but I can’t change her heart, make her see truth, or force her to follow God. So I need God-sized patience, wisdom, compassion, and love for her as I continue to disciple her.
So what can we do when this person sits down in front of us? As someone very much in the trenches while I’m writing this, here is what God is teaching me as I walk alongside girls in our church’s Singles Ministry.
Remember that none of us have arrived. We are all still on the road of sanctification. You’re not perfect and struggle with sin too. So as a ministry leader, keep this humble perspective.
At the same time, God calls us to holiness (1 Pet. 1:16-17). We will imperfectly pursue that trajectory of growing in Christlikeness, but we must persevere and continue in the journey. When we fall and fail, there is grace for that (1 John 1:9). It’s okay to be broken, but it’s not okay to wallow in that brokenness. It’s okay to struggle, but it’s not okay to do nothing about that struggle.
As we pursue holiness, we remember truth, and we remind those around us of God’s truth—His truth about His care and concern for us (Luke 12:22-34), His truth about our identity (Eph. 1:3-8; 1 Pet. 3:9-10), His truth about how we should think of ourselves and our sin nature (Rom. 6:11), His truth about how our sin does not define us (Rom. 8:1,15-17), His truth about how our sin is forgivable (1 John 1:9), and His truth about hope for us and our circumstances (Rom. 5:2-5; 15:13).
Identify the source of the symptoms, and address the internal.
Often, attempts at fighting sin haven’t been effective because we have only been fighting symptoms, not the root issue(s). For example, if a person struggles with same-sex attraction, simply trying to “renew their mind” whenever homosexual desires and thoughts arise will not be sufficient in itself as a tactic to fight sin because same-sex attraction is not the root issue. It’s just the symptom.
I believe that this—fighting the symptom instead of the source—is one of the biggest reasons why we’re unsuccessful in killing sin. In Lord of the Rings terms, it’s like trying to take out an Orc when Sauron is still alive. Or if Harry Potter is more your speed, it’s like taking out a Death-eater as long as Voldemort is still kicking.
Our fight against sin is actually a fight against sins. It’s not just one sin; it’s many. And those sins trace back to our thoughts, beliefs, and worldview.
So if the person acts out on their same-sex attraction, why? Have them engage in self-examination here. If they’ve acted out on their pet sin recently, direct them to think back on what happened before they acted out. Where were they? How did they get there? What were they thinking about? What were they wanting? What was the goal of acting out at that particular moment?
Then after they acted out, how did they feel? What were they thinking? Did they reach out to God or to anyone else about what was going on? If not, why? If so, what did they say or share? Why?
We can’t do the heart-work for this person to know what all is there at the root of their sin struggle, but we can ask questions and point them back to the Bible. Bear in mind that if we’re not addressing their thoughts and beliefs, then all of our efforts at fighting sin will fail. Accountability won’t work. Encouragement to pursue holiness won’t work. Memorizing Scripture won’t work. Listening to sermons or reading books about fighting sin won’t work.
They won’t work because they’re missing an essential component—identifying why the person is engaging in the sin in the first place. It’s applying external behavior modification without dealing with the internal issue. It’s managing sin, which works about as well as trying to hold a beach ball underwater. You can’t do that forever, and eventually, you’ll tire, let go, and the beach ball will pop up to the surface.
Kill sin and pursue holiness.
While we’re doing this internal work of identifying and addressing root reasons for sin struggles, we also need to focus on killing sin and putting up whatever boundaries are needed to help that happen. And it’s important to note that obedience should not be put off until we feel like it. Often, our obedience has to precede our feelings because our feelings take time to fall in line.
So as we’re helping those in our ministry identify root reasons for sin, encourage obedience in fleeing sin (2 Tim. 2:22), giving up sinful practices and things that lead to sin (Col. 3:9), and putting to death what is earthly in us (Col. 3:5).
To flesh this out, if a toxic relationship with someone of the opposite sex or same sex is the sin struggle, this could practically involve deleting the person’s contact info, unfollowing them on all social media, not going to events where the person is likely to show up, and having people check in on your thoughts about the person.
However, while these things are important and helpful, we should focus on what to do as well as what not to do. This is why Paul writes about what we should put off as well as what we should put on (Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:9-14). So let us do things that would cultivate a greater love and understanding of our Savior.
Is the individual studying the Bible and praying to God? If they’re not engaging in actions that foster spiritual growth, they won’t grow. Their desires won’t change. Their thinking won’t change. We have to put ourselves in a posture to be changed by the Spirit.
All of this requires perseverance, which in itself is a gift from God, because fighting sin is hard and wearisome work. But when we consider the beauty and glory of God, He is worth the fight, and He has already won the war.
Ashley Chesnut serves as the Associate Singles 20s/30s Minister at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, and has a Master of Divinity from Beeson Divinity School. While Ashley has a passion for discipling young women, she also loves her city, and when she’s not at the church or meeting with girls, you can probably find her at the farmer’s market or trying some new local restaurant.