ONE STEP AT A TIME
How Not to Deal with Sin
Caught up in the cycle of addiction, I was looking for anything that offered some hope of release from this slavery to sin. I had turned to some drastic measures before, but nothing so severe as this. ‘This is it,’ I told myself. I’m finally going to be free from my addiction to pornography.
I spoke about my decision with my pastor. “I’m going to fast for spiritual breakthrough,” I said.
“For how long?”
“Forty days,” I told him proudly.
Unfazed, he paused for a breath and said, “You know, repentance and growth in the Christian life is more like breathing.”
That was all he said. He didn’t explain the metaphor. (Or if he did, I wasn’t listening.) And while he didn’t overtly discourage me from fasting, I knew what he was hinting at. Unlike some family and friends who thought this was extreme, he simply thought that it probably wouldn’t work.
He was right.
One Step at a Time
The Scriptures are full of images for the Christian life: a journey, a walk, a farmer’s toil, the growth of a vine, a race, etc. What these metaphors have in common is that virtually all of them depict our spiritual lives as a steady rhythm—like breathing.
That’s how spiritual growth normally occurs. The farmer puts in work every day. The plant grows little by little. The race that is run is a super marathon, not a series of sprints. And progress is made in our journeys one step at a time.
That’s not to say that we are not powerfully impacted by emotional events, insightful books, penetrating sermons. These things can, and so often do, play a significant part in our lives. But we are not meant to water the plant with a thousand gallons only once year. God does not intend for us to sprint until exhaustion and then slouch hare-like, until our next mad dash. No, God calls us to daily faithfulness. That is how progress is made.
Short-cutting God Never Works
This means that my fast was completely wrongheaded. I was looking for immediate deliverance from that addiction, but that is not the way that God normally works. I say, “normally,” because God sometimes does bring immediate healing or deliverance in special cases. When God does this, it is a surprising and wonderful work of grace. But by example in the Scriptures and by experience in life, we can plainly see that immediate deliverance from sin is an exception to the ‘norm’ of how God usually works.
That is probably why my fasting did very little, other than make me religiously proud and dangerously thin. Instead of replacing my desire for instant gratification with a deeper desire for a greater satisfaction, all I was doing—ironically—was looking for more of the same. I wanted an instant gratification of a different kind: “God, I want to be free from this now!”
I’m not saying that an occasional fast undertaken in the right way and for the right reasons is a fruitless endeavor. The Scriptures say otherwise. I’m merely suggesting that, like me, many people ‘fast for spiritual breakthrough’ as an attempt to find a shortcut to God’s normal ways of growing us. In our prideful impatience, we demand to be immediately freed of some temptation, instead of seeking to deal with the reasons why we came to be in this place.
Learning How to Live
I remember a counseling session with a man several reasons ago who kept saying, “All I want to know is why God won’t tow me back onto the road.”
This man was using the illustration of driving a car to symbolize his life, and in this particular situation, he knew that he had run off the road. He was furious with God for not towing his ‘car’ back immediately, and keep insisting that his troubles would be gone if God would ‘just get him back on the road.’ Then, he said, he could stay out of trouble.
A very wise friend with me at the counseling session replied, “Your problem is that you think God merely wants to put you back on the road, but in reality, God wants to teach you how to drive.”
In other words, this man’s goals were shortsighted. He thought his problem was as simple as running off the road, when the deeper problem is why he ran off the road to begin with.
All of this matters because it helps us understand what slavery to sin is, and how God brings about freedom from this slavery. Instead of thinking of slavery to sin as some kind of ‘thing’ that is put on us, we come to see that slavery to certain sins is a more like a deep ditch that we dug over a very long period of time. Each temptation taken, each repeated act of sin put another shovel to the dirt and dug us a little deeper.
In other words, we do not “fall” into the ditches of our lives; we dig ourselves into them. And since deep ditches are not dug overnight, we should not expect to refill those ditches overnight either.
This means youth rallies, large revivals, intense periods of fasting—all potentially good things—can be fruitless wastes of time or even dangerously misleading activities when those who are involved wrongly expect the event itself to carry them through the next period of their lives. Every high schooler knows this, as their prayers for God to “keep the fire alive” after returning home never quite seem to be answered. There is no mystery in this. They simply don’t understand how God works to free us from sin.
A Long Obedience in the Right Direction
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul the apostle explained how God works to free us from slavery to sin: “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the standard of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (Rom. 6:16-19)
It’s worth nothing that Paul’s teaching on freedom from sin only appears after more than 5 chapters of theology explaining that we are thoroughly corrupted in our hearts and in need of God’s saving grace, which is freely offered to us in Jesus through faith in his redemption. That does away with any silly ideas that we are somehow saving ourselves in all of this.
What Paul was keen to show them (and us) is that God is at work in our lives, through the teachings that have ‘claimed our allegiance’ to make us ‘slaves to righteousness’ as we ‘offer ourselves’ in obedience. In other words, freedom from sin comes from a long obedience in the right direction.
This ‘long obedience’ teaches us to be faithful to God in “little things” of everyday life. For virtues like patience and self-control are not formed overnight, but they are essential if we hope to grow. As Peter the apostle explained, “God’s divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness… For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness… knowledge… self-control… perseverance… godliness… mutual affection… and love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. ” (2 Pet. 1:3-8).
You see? Through the sacrifice of Jesus and the renewing work of the Spirit, God has already given us everything we need for a godly life. This does not mean that God works by breaking into the world to “magically” take away our desires for sin. Instead, God works through the gospel to produce in us the new desire and ability for a long obedience in the right direction (Phil. 2:12-13). This is how he frees us from sin, in the ‘everyday’ of life, one step of faith-filled obedience at a time.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.