How to break your sinful habits

Here is the cartoon that accompanies this essay.

Surrounded by zombies?

Everyone who seeks to be spiritually awake is aware of sins that they repeat often enough to irritate and even discourage them. We hesitate to call them habits because we would like to think that we have more control than that over our will. We would all like to be done with sin once and for all, but sin has a way of persisting. The flesh killed at the cross doesn’t want to stay dead. If we had some kind of spiritual glasses, we might see a number of zombies walking with us wherever we go.

Paul shares his struggle

Paul apparently had a similar challenge. In Romans 7, he gives us insight into the history of his lifelong struggle with sin. “I would not even known what lusting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not lust,’” he says, “But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of lustful desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died” (Romans 7:7-9). The past tenses Paul uses in vv. 7-13 seem to indicate that Paul is speaking of his former life, his life before coming to know Christ and be known by Him. In the second half of Romans 7, however, Paul switches to present tenses, probably meaning that now he is describing his life as a Christian. Paul says this (Romans 7:15-24):

I don’t understand what I do. For I don’t do what I want to do, but what I hate…. As it is, I’m no longer the one doing it, but sin living within me. I am aware that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. I really desire to do good, but I just can’t carry it out. What I actually do is not the good I intend to do. No, the evil I don’t want to do is what I keep on doing. If it’s true that I do what I don’t want to do, then I’m not really the one doing it, but the sin that is living in me.

So I find this principle operating in my life: Just when I want to do good, evil is right there with me. My inner being delights in God’s law, but I perceive that another principle is operating in the members of my body, waging war against what my mind wants to do. This sin-principle takes me prisoner. I cry out, ‘How wretched I am! Who will rescue me from this dead body?’

Rescue is coming

Lest Paul infects us all with this despair and sense of hopelessness, he immediately adds, “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25). In other words, Paul looks to his own death and resurrection as the point when he expects ultimate deliverance from this wrestling. As he has said in the previous chapter, “Anyone who has died has been freed from sin” (Romans 6:7).

Live a rescued life now

Anticipating with confidence that future deliverance, Paul invites us to act day to day as if it has already happened. “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). He explains what he means in the next verses: “Therefore, don’t let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Don’t offer the parts of your body as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been made alive; offer the parts of your body to Him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:13-14).

Yes, we will have the struggle. We will experience the tug-of-war between the flesh and the Spirit, a tug-of-war that sometimes pulls us away from God where we don’t want to go. But Paul urges us to resist, not to give in. We must keep up the fight, we must never surrender. Eventually, we will experience God’s ultimate victory.

Assess where you are

This is the first step toward breaking sinful habits: gaining God’s perspective of what we’re going through. This struggle is only temporary, and it need not determine our destiny. Step two is to look at our spiritual GPS. Keep track of how often you commit this or that sin. Painful as it is, you must honestly take a look at what you are doing and how serious the situation really is.

This spiritual assessment should be holistic, that is, it should include an analysis of the circumstances in which this sin recurs. Does it usually happen, for instance, when you are exhausted, or alone, or under considerable time pressure? If you can identify the “zone” in which you are particularly vulnerable, then you can take steps either to prevent entering into that zone or to heighten your spiritual readiness to resist if you cannot avoid it.

Access available resources

Step three is to get help. This help comes from the Lord and from other believers. Confess your sin to God, seek His forgiveness, and ask Him with deep, spiritual passion to help you avoid getting captured in the future. Then talk about your struggle with someone you trust and respect. Lay out what you plan to do next time, and ask them to pray for you and to check from time to time on how you are doing.

Don’t give up!

Step four is to keep repeating steps one, two, and three. We should expect our spiritual life to be a struggle. Sin doesn’t want to let go. Eventually, “sin shall not be our master.” Whether today sin “reigns” is up to us.

Want to go deeper?

  • Have you ever heard this axiom?

Sow a thought, reap a word.
Sow a word, reap an action.
Sow an action, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character.
Sow a character, reap a destiny.

Do you believe this is true? It seems it could break down and go haywire between ‘habit’ and ‘character.’ At least, it seems that the Pharisees were doing many right actions, but with the wrong attitude. How can we present that from happening in our case?

  • Resources for further study:

Dr. Tony Evans – 30 Days to Overcoming Addictive Behavior – unabridged audio book on CD (Christianaudio, 2017)

Philip Nation – Habits for Our Holiness: How the Spiritual Disciplines Grow Us Up, Draw Us Together, and Send Us Out (Moody, 2016)

Steve has been a Bible teacher for over 30 years. He has written many articles, more than 20 e-books, and several study guides, most recently, Overcoming: Guide to Understanding the Book of Revelation. His website, DeeperStudy.com, encourages all people to go deeper in their understanding of the Word of God, the Bible, and to become authentic, New Testament Christians who serve a risen Lord.

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