This’ll probably come as no shock but, despite my intent to be a Christ disciple, I still sin. I don’t want to, but I do. The influence my long-established patterns of rebellion and selfishness I allowed to exert immense power over me has proven extremely hard to overcome. I’m constantly tempted by the lures of this fallen world that so despises the Creator who made it. Jesus has helped me tremendously to be more like Him but if I said sinful thoughts never enter my mind I’d be lying through my teeth. One of the many great things about Celebrate Recovery is that it helps folks like me expose our destructive behavior routines and offers a systematic way of heading them off at the pass before they come galloping in like a band of outlaws hell-bent on shooting up the town. If you’ve studied your Bible at all you’re probably familiar with what Paul, perhaps the most respected disciple of Christ ever, wrote about his own battle with iniquity.
“For we know that the law is spiritual – but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin. For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate. But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good. But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me. So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue 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 8:15-25). Wow! Any notion Paul was a conceited, holier-than-thou egomaniac goes flying out the window in that revealing passage. Now, if Paul had let that statement stand alone without clarification we’d be tempted to think the apostle was the devil’s puppet, doing bad things all the time.
But that’s not the case. Earlier, he made it known sins aren’t something we have to commit. He wrote, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires, and do not present your members to sin as instruments to be used for true unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used as righteousness. For sin will have no mastery over you, because you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:12-14). Too many Christians consider sin no more than a gnat in the stew but they vastly underestimate its power to poison the soul of the offender. Simply being “saved” doesn’t keep one from sinning as much as they ever did before. They’re still “captive to the law of sin”, enslaved by fear, greed, impatience, narcissism and sexual lust because they have yet to surrender their entire life to Christ and the kingdom of God.
On the other hand, there are many who think of Satan as a genuine god who can force us to sin. Back in the early 70s there was a popular comedian named Flip Wilson. One of his characters was a woman named Geraldine Jones who’d claim when she got caught doing something wrong, “The devil made me do it!” The reason so many found it hilarious was because it’s an excuse all of us are tempted to use when caught red-handed. We want to pretend there’s an invincible, overpowering cosmic force that compels us to do what we shouldn’t. But that’s not true. It’s a cop out. Dallas Willard wrote, “…If we think we’re facing an irresistible cosmic force of evil, it’ll invariably lead to giving in and giving up – usually with very little resistance. If you can convince yourself that you’re helpless, you can then stop struggling and just ‘let it happen.’” Nothing’s worse than resignation. Satan is an angel but he ain’t all-powerful. God’s got him on a leash and he can’t do anything God doesn’t allow him to do. So blaming the devil is lame. The real culprit is the person we see in the mirror. If we reflect on any of our sins or trespasses we usually see we committed the deed because we acted without thinking. We did it impulsively, entirely out of habit. Then we end up having to deal with what we’ve already done, which leads to our relying on self-defense mechanisms like denial, outright lying and making petty rationalizations. That’s why identifying destructive behavior patterns is such an important part of the CR curriculum. Only then can a person begin the process of replacing them with the kind of responses a Christ disciple would choose.
If we rule out Satan then the only other “outside” entity to blame for our sin is God. But the Bible is specific about that not being an option. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death” (James 1:13-15). Face it; we’re all creatures of habit. We drive our cars mostly by rote. We trod the grocery aisle without having to deliberately put one foot in front of the other. Sadly, we have a sin nature that has a routine of its own, too. Once again, though, it’s Jesus who showed us how to deal with temptation. In the upper room He told His disciples He’d soon have no time to talk with them. He knew the “ruler of this world” was on his way to attempt to thwart God’s will. The devil threw everything plus the kitchen sink at Christ, trying to get Him to abandon His faith in His Heavenly Father. The attack was so severe mentally that Jesus almost died of anguish in Gethsemane. But our Lord had assured the disciples earlier that “He [Satan] has no power over me, but I am doing just what the Father commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (John 14:30-31).
Willard nailed it with this poignant statement: “This is the true situation: nothing has power to tempt me or move me to wrong action that I have not given power by what I permit to be in me. And the most spiritually dangerous things in me are the little habits of thought, feeling, and action that I regard as ‘normal’ because ‘everyone is like that’ and it’s ‘only human.’” He’s describing yours truly right there. Thus, by his reckoning, Christ-like behavior is not “normal” behavior in any sense of the word. That’s what our Master was implying when He said, “…If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). We Christians must daily straddle the fine line between being in the world and being of the world. No easy task. But that’s why ministries like Celebrate Recovery are so helpful to those who want to be Christ disciples. The power of habit can be broken. Compulsive, dysfunctional behaviors can be changed. And you don’t do it alone. God and those He’s already healing take the journey with you. Now, having said that, nobody’s been able to recover from their hurts, hang-ups or habits without first making the critical decision to do whatever it takes to change. No one ever got “healed” just by showing up.
One of the most encouraging passages in the New Testament is found in Ephesians 2:2-10. Paul wrote, “And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God: it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.” There are many things to glean from those verses but one thing that sticks out to me is that the changes in our thought processes, emotional responses and knee-jerk reactions will not be done for us, nor are they something we can do by ourselves. Jesus said “…apart from me you can accomplish nothing” (John 15:5) so it only goes to figure that if we do nothing at all it’ll certainly be without Him. In other words, without Christ we’ll be stuck with our sinful selves forevermore.
The bottom line is that whatever program or ministry outreach we go to to help us “get transformed” isn’t going to be successful unless we come to grips with the fact it’s going to be hard. We have to make a full commitment to act wisely and consistently over a long period of time – most likely the rest of our earthly life. And we’ll be looked upon by others as being one of those people who seem to take some kind of perverse joy through serving others in a humble manner. They won’t understand the kind of person you’re turning into, especially if they knew you before you met Christ. Paul tells us to not be bothered by what others may think. His recommendations are priceless: “So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine like lights in the world by holding on to the word of life so that on the day of Christ I will have a reason to boast that I did not run in vain nor labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice together with all of you. And in the same way you also should be glad and rejoice together with me” (Philippians 2:12-18).
Notice that in the Scriptures I cited from Ephesians 2 Paul is reassuring us we’ve received, as a free gift, the life of the kingdom through the word of the gospel and the person of Jesus. We did nothing to deserve such a generous and, frankly, costly present being given to us. Yet now that we’ve been granted forgiveness, mercy and redemption we have something major to do. Yes, we do have the awesome Holy Spirit living inside us and the Holy Word to guide us but we must now reach out and connect with other children of God who want the same thing. We can’t do it alone. It’s too big a job! Paul wrote, “Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).
Becoming a strict legalist won’t do the job, either. James S. Stewart wrote: “The soul of man, setting out gallantly enough on the crusade to conquer besetting sin and weakness and to establish personal righteousness, has found the road too hard and the foes too stubborn; and gallantry has given way to disillusionment, and aspiration to a sense of downright futility. No man can save himself: this was Paul’s great discovery. A drowning man does not want a lecture on the art of swimming: he wants a rope to cling to. Nor does a lame man ask for a guidepost to point him out the way: he asks for an arm to lean upon. But the very weariness of those unavailing efforts to achieve its own salvation may prepare the soul of man to hear the cry, ‘Stand still, and see the salvation of God’” (Exodus 14:13).
In his superb best-selling book, Inside Out, Dr. Larry Crabb presents three specific ideas about how an individual, with God’s help, can change. He wrote, “First, awareness of all that’s within us is more important to changing than a set of instructions about what to believe and do. Second, the actual process of change can never be fully explained; the work of God’s Spirit cannot be packaged into our neat categories. We must expect neither precision in our understanding of change nor confidence that we’re saying all that needs to be said. Third, no one is fully changed. It should comfort us to know that everyone has ample room to grow. Even Paul admitted, ‘I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it’ (Philippians 3:13), referring to the richness of all Christ has provided.” We can all become better at following Jesus.