Most of us are aware that there are certain sins that we consistently struggle with. Gavin Ortlund calls us to stop tolerating these sins and to intentionally fight against them.
The Bible portrays sin as a powerful, ever-vigilant enemy. Sin deceives (Genesis 3:13), desires (Genesis 4:7), destroys (Genesis 6:7). Even forgiven sin within the Christian is powerfully active, waging war (Romans 7:23), lusting (Galatians 5:17), enticing (James 1:14), entangling (Hebrews 12:1).
Many Christians struggle with “nagging sins” — those entrenched, persistent, difficult-to-dislodge sins that continually entangle us in our efforts to follow Christ. Sometimes we struggle for decades, with bouts of backsliding and despair recurring. Most godly Christians, who have made true progress in their pursuit of holiness, can sing with feeling “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” or share the lament of Augustine: “I have learned to love you too late!”
The gospel gives us hope that all sin, even nagging sins, can be both forgiven and subdued. But because sin has such persistence and power, we must be vigilant in our struggle against it. As John Owen puts it, “If sin be subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of killing our souls, and we be slothful, negligent, foolish . . . can we expect a comfortable event?”
Here are four strategies for maintaining vigilance in the fight, drawn from John Owen, and particularly in relation to a nagging, persistent sin — that kind that keeps on tripping us up and entangling us in its grip.
1. Hate it.
...Nagging sins are those we are most likely to become numb to, and therefore we have to work extra hard to continually re-sensitize our consciences to them in light of the gospel, saying things like:
- This impatience is part of what Christ had to bear on the cross.
- This worldly ambition would lead me to hell, but for the grace of God.
- This lingering resentment grieves the Holy Spirit within me.
Often this means really slowing down and really examining our hearts. In a lesser-known passage in his Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis, reflecting on the distinction between enjoyment and contemplation, observes that “the surest means of disarming an anger or a lust (is) to turn your attention from the girl or the insult and start examining the passion itself.” Defeating nagging sins often requires this uncomfortable, honest reflection and acknowledgement on what the sin is doing within us.
Nagging sins can survive our annoyance and mild dislike. Only hatred will fuel the needed effort.
2. Starve it.
...One of the most important principles involved in this starvation process is to act quickly: Don’t let sin get even the smallest step. Don’t say, “I will give in this much, but not that much.” That never works. As John Owen puts it: “Dost thou find thy corruption to begin to entangle thy thoughts? Rise up with all thy strength against it, with no less indignation than if it had fully accomplished what it aims at.”
3. Corner it.
Sin, like any other enemy, thrives among its allies (unhappiness, exhaustion, and discouragement are some that come to mind). To wage effective war against sin, therefore, we must deprive it of the opportunities and occasions it makes use of...
4. Overwhelm it.
...the gospel means that God provides us with power, that we might overcome nagging sins (2 Timothy 1:7). His Spirit gives us strength beyond ourselves with which to fight, and his all-satisfying presence gives us the promise of a superior, lasting joy...
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