The Bible portrays sin as a powerful, ever-vigilant enemy. Sin deceives (Genesis 3:13).
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.
We are accustomed to using the gospel to relieve the guilt of our sin. But sometimes—especially in the case of persistent, nagging sins—we should use the gospel first to aggravate our guilt. John Owen puts this challenge quite vividly:
Bring thy lust to the gospel, not for relief, but for further conviction of its guilt. Look on him whom thou hast pierced, and be in bitterness. Say to thy soul, “What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace, have I despised and trampled on! … Have I obtained a view of God’s fatherly countenance that I might behold his face and provoke him to his face?”
If we do not feel the magnitude of our sin, if we are not gripped by its stench and grossness, if we pass over it lightly with glib affirmations of grace—we will probably never get around to the serious vigilance required for killing it. Truly subduing it requires properly grieving it.
This is particularly so with nagging sins. 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.
In one of my favorite films, a man is diagnosed with schizophrenia and told that several of his lifelong friends are actually not real. He genuinely misses talking to them, but knows he must stamp out all delusions in order to move toward health. So he simply chooses to ignore them, calling it a “diet of the mind”—and as he does, they gradually recede in their influence over him. Even at the end of his life, he still sees the delusions, but they have lost their destructive power over him.
There is a similar principle at work in our struggle against sin—the more we indulge in it, the more of a grip it gains over us (even while we understand that grip less and less). But, as with any addiction or animal, the less we feed it, the weaker it becomes. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). Choose not to acknowledge your sinful desires—starve them of your affections and your attention, and they grow weaker.
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.”