If I am a Christian, then why do I continue to struggle with sin?
Am I broken? Is there something wrong with me? Am I really a Christian?
There exists a myth in Christianity that once a person becomes saved, they lose the appetite for sin. No desire for anger, no inclination to be jealous, and no real temptation towards anything. We think a Christian should have it all together — no struggles, no sin — just perfection.
Well, I don’t know about you or what your experience has been, but that hasn’t been mine. My journey reads more like this: lots of struggles with jealousy, lust, insecurity, lots of sin, and very little perfection.
Growing up in a conservative church, I was subtly tricked into believing that Christians should have a life of perfection. Our church would periodically host a testimony night, and we would hear stories about how people came to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ and, consequently, never struggled with alcohol, drugs, anger or sin ever again.
As a youth, I walked out of those services confused and very discouraged. You see, I believed two things to be true:
1. I believed that I had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
2. I knew I had an amazingly strong desire for sin.
These opposing views caused great problems for me, and even made me question the sincerity of my salvation.
Am I broken? Is there something wrong with me? Am I really a Christian?
Does Scripture have anything to say about this dilemma? Can anyone answer the question, If I am a Christian then why do I continue to struggle with sin?
Roughly 2,000 years ago, in A.D. 56, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Church in Rome, answering this mystery in just 11 short verses (Romans 7:15–25). Paul explains why the believer still struggles with sin:
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
— Romans 7:25
There it is, plain English and clear as mud!
In short and simple terms, here is what Paul says: You’re a Christian, so you have a new nature (2 Corinthians 5:17). But you are a human, so you still have an earthen vessel (the flesh). This translates to the sad reality that, although you are a believer of Jesus Christ, you will still struggle with sin. This is not an excuse to continue in sin, but an explanation why you, like the apostle Paul, do the things you don’t want to do (Romans 7:14–24).
Take comfort today that you aren’t broken. You’re a human, and humans will struggle with sin until Christ returns. Oh, how we long for that day! Come, Lord Jesus!
Have you ever craved something that makes you sick (emotionally and/or physically), but you give in to it anyway? I sometimes crave horribly-fattening-but-oh-so-good food that I know only provides temporary satisfaction.
For instance, I know that Taco Casa messes me up somethin’ fierce, but there’s just something about a big ol’ bean burrito with extra cheese and sour cream that makes me sooooo happy — for a little bit, at least. It sounds good. It looks good. It tastes gooooooooooood. But after I’ve satisfied that craving, after an hour or two, I feel hungry again, and a little nauseous.
It’s the same with sin, really. We know it hurts us. We know it separates us from others, but we don’t care in those moments of weakness. Once we’re in the middle of the sin, we’re all in. By the time the wrapper has come off, we want to eat that fat burrito, and so we hide from others. Maybe in our car. We let the sour cream and cheese ooze out everywhere. No worries. We’ll lick it up later. But then it’s gone. We’ve eaten the burrito. And, now, there’s nothing left but a feeling of guilt and, maybe, some gas. Holy beano! What have we done? We said we weren’t going to give in to that temptation anymore, but we did it. And in a few hours, we’ll feel empty again.
So, why do we do it? Why do we crave, or hunger for, the very things that make us feel bad? It’s because our focus is skewed. Our lens is letting the things of the world in and not the light of God.
We’re trying to fill a void, to capture something that will satisfy us. And, so often, we look to sinful things to do that (food, gambling, porn, drugs, approval of man, whatever idol it is). But can I tell you something you and I already know? None of those things will ever be able to satiate. We’re longing for, hungering for, craving the wrong things.
We’ve gotta shift our focus, setting our minds on things above and not on earthly things. (Colossians 2:2) Once we received the redemptive gift of Jesus, we were to put the old behind, rejecting the sinful ways of the world, and setting our minds on the things of God. It’s all in your mind, really. And mine.
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
— Romans 12:2
Changing the way we think takes effort, discipline and will power. When sinful desires enter our minds, we’ve got to take them captive and change them, replacing sinful thoughts with healthy, godly thoughts.
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. — Philippians 4:8
You’ve got this! Step away from the burrito. and step into God’s truth that you, with God’s power, are an overcomer.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
— John 1:1–5
I love the Gospel of John. Unlike the other three gospel writers, John wastes no time slow-playing the deity of Jesus. There it is in the very first sentence: Jesus is God! John spends the rest of his gospel exhorting his readers to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:31). What a beautiful message that we should preach to ourselves every day: Jesus is the Son of God, and we may have life in his name and his name alone.
I want to focus on verse 3:
All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
— John 1:3
That includes you, and that includes me. Paul elaborates on this in his letter to the church at Colossae:
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
— Colossians 1:16
Jesus created all things by and for himself. That includes you, and that includes me. Therefore, John is making the argument that life is found in Jesus alone. Why? Because that’s what you were created for. Now, if that’s true (and it’s definitely true), then that should do wonders for us in helping us make sense of our angst. If I have been made by Jesus and for Jesus, then it makes sense why my job is not ultimately going to satisfy me, because I have not been made by my job, for my job. I was made by Jesus and for Jesus. As wonderful as my wife is, it makes sense why she will never be for me what I truly, deeply need. I wasn’t made for my wife, by my wife. I was made for Jesus, by Jesus. It makes sense why my two boys, as much as I delight in them, will never ultimately satisfy me, because I was not made for my kids, by my kids. I was made for Jesus, by Jesus, and it is ultimately in him and him alone that life is found. My job, my wife, and my kids are all good, right, and beautiful things, but it makes sense that putting all my weight behind these things leaves me wanting every time. I was made for Christ, by Christ and life is found there and there alone.
Augustine says it this way:
“You move us to delight in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
— Confessions, Saint Augustine of Hippo
What does Augustine mean by this? He’s talking about moving us out of praising these other, ancillary things. There’s nothing wrong or sinful about a heart that says, “Thank you God for this job, thank you God for this house, thank you God for this money, thank you God for this relationship.” All of these things are good, and right and beautiful. But something happens in the soul, because of Jesus, when we just say “thank you,” and we relinquish everything else. It’s why you see the disciples able to walk away rejoicing and singing the name of Jesus after getting the flesh beaten off their backs in Acts 5. What is that about?! It’s relinquishment. It’s “praise you for whatever.” You have me, I am yours, come what may, you are my King.
You were made for Jesus, by Jesus. Your job, spouse, kids, money or success weren’t meant to satisfy you, so be free of the angst you feel when they don’t satisfy. As we get ready to start a new series on marriage at c|Life, I think it’s important for all of us to remember that we weren’t meant to complete our spouses, we were made to go on this journey with one another, growing in a love for the beauty of Jesus Christ, who made us for himself. If we can ever get this and be serious about it, I think some of the lingering angst that we feel in our lives might start to evaporate over time, in Jesus’ name.
When I was 19 years old, I had a near-death experience. It was the summer after my freshman year in college, and I was a too-cool-for-much-of-anything chaperone on my church’s summer mission trip. That day was our “fun day” to be enjoyed after a week of ministry. We were buzzing with excitement to go white water rafting on a faucet river that had been used the year before during the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics. I had experience with rafting and was sitting up front in the lead boat. Although the ambient temperature was in the high 80s, the water was 56 degrees and colder, depending on depth.
We meandered down the river for a while, getting our bearings, enjoying the bright day and listening to our guide tell us about himself and the river. We listened with rapt attention as he told us stories about his many years on the river, the maneuvers he had worked to perfect and other rivers he had rafted with high-level rapids reserved for experts. He instructed us on how to navigate the rapids we would face. It was sizing up to be quite the adventure.
In my boat were several youth and my long-time boyfriend who had never rafted. Three other boats trailed behind us with the rest of the group and leaders. My boat had gone first because I was the only adult with experience. After rounding a bend, the first rapids came into sight, and the guide announced it was a Class III/IV run. We thought we knew all we needed to know because he had spent time telling us. And remember, I had experience. My heart raced as we approached the white-tipped water.
About two seconds before we hit the rapids, I sensed something was very wrong and I was completely helpless. We hit at an improper angle, which caused the raft to sharply jerk upwards on one side, tossing everyone on the left side into the water, along with one of the rafters on the right side. I could hear yelling and panic, but all of my energy was being spent on staying face up. I had lost my oar, was disoriented and becoming aware of the effect the cold water was beginning to have on my body. I could not turn to see behind me or what lay ahead. I had no idea if I was in open water or on a collision course with a boulder. I could not do anything except look up.
The sky above me was vibrant blue with a few clouds here and there. I began to lose consciousness as time went by and hypothermia took hold. Scenes from my life started coming to mind. I internally laughed at the irony that I was experiencing the very thing I had heard about so often in movies and read in books. My life was, literally, flashing before my eyes. I thanked the Lord for his many blessings as tears stung my eyes. I contemplated what my parents and brother would face after my death on the river. It made me very sad, but not afraid because I knew where I was going upon taking my last breath. At 19, I was nothing if not dramatic.
I felt a tug on the back of my life vest, then it registered that someone was yelling my name. I focused as best I could on the voice. It was my boyfriend, and he was yelling, “Hang on! I’ve got you!”. I could not see him, but I felt his grip on my vest, knew he was holding tight and was in the water with me. Miraculously, all of us were rescued without serious injury that day. As I began to think about writing this devotional, the memory of that day came to mind, and I realized it is exactly what addiction is like.
What I did not know or understand at the time of the incident on the river was that the seeds of addiction had already taken root in my life and would continue to grow for years to come. For addicts, dependence on a substance or habit grows over time and takes more of life with it along the way. Just like my time on the river before the rapids, my addiction sort of hummed along without much drama. But, just as it was the moment I was catapulted into the water, addiction eventually causes chaos and crisis. Try as you might, addiction is just like swimming a rapid. You do not have control and, unless someone intervenes on your behalf, you face an entirely uncertain future and may be on a collision course with something far worse.
Our heavenly Father offers divine intervention for those struggling with addiction, compulsion, hang-ups or habits. Just as I was not alone in the water, I was not alone in my addiction, either. If this is your struggle today, you are not alone.
“Anyone can struggle with addiction, at any income level or position in life.”
— NorthPoint Recovery
You may be thinking, “You don’t know my struggle,” or “It will always be this way for me,” or even “It’s too late for me.” You are right, I do not know your struggle. But it does not always have to remain this way, and it is not too late. Ask me how I know, and I will tell you without reservation that it is because I have swum that river.
There is a temptation to believe that what you struggle with is so bad that God cannot or will not come to your rescue. That is the enemy’s lie, meant to keep you defeated. The Lord offers you redemption, healing and hope. He says so, in no uncertain terms, in Isaiah 43:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…
… Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you…
— Isaiah 43:2,4
If you are struggling today, know that you are not alone. You, like me, can be pulled out of the water and your feet set on dry land. It’s possible. Oh, it is so very possible. The Bible is full of redemption stories. In both the Old and New Testament, there are accounts of murderers, thieves and the like that God rescued and redeemed. You can be the next one.
I encourage you to reach out to your campus pastor or our co-pastors. It’s safe to tell them your story, and they can help you find resources to address what you face. Use what is available in your area, such as Re:generation (clifec.com/JourneyGroups) to begin learning how to fight this battle. Above all, as pastor Paul McDill said on Sunday, “Go all in with Christ.” Believe him when he says in Jeremiah:
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
— Jeremiah 29:13
He guarantees to show up for you. You are not alone.
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. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
— Romans 7:15–25
I have always taken so much comfort in the reality that the Apostle Paul struggled. When it comes to the Christian life, other than Jesus, no one has done it better than Paul. While he became a Christian a little later in life after a very checkered past, it is clear that Paul was all in when it came to following Jesus. He suffered greatly (2 Corinthians 11:23 - 28), yet he persevered. He spent years traveling around the Mediterranean, planting these little churches that would change the world. And, obviously, he wrote about half the New Testament. You would have to agree, that the Apostle Paul was a heavyweight in Christianity.
Yet he makes it clear in this passage of Scripture that he struggled. His actions didn’t always line up with his beliefs and intentions. He says clearly that he wants to do (knows he should do) one thing, but ends up doing the other (what he should not do). And I know that all of us can relate to this.
But, while we can all relate, and we all have our own struggles, we don’t give up. We recognize that God is working in us, and he wants to give us a full and abundant life. In fact, he is in the process of transforming us from the inside out. And the great news for us is that he will be successful. It doesn’t matter how far you feel like you have to go, how far away you are from who God wants you to be. If you are a believer, he is going to conform you to the image of Christ.
In fact, the same Apostle Paul relays that promise to us in his letter to the Philippians:
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
— Philippians 1:6
God is working in you, so don’t give up today. Don’t quit trusting. Don’t quit obeying. Don’t quit striving. Don’t quit looking to Jesus as the author and perfecter of your faith!