One of the most common misconceptions about becoming a Christian is that when you give your life to Christ, you no longer have fun. Another equally perplexing misconception is that when you have frustrations in your faith it is because you have “substandard Christianity.”
The first misconception is often voiced by the unbeliever, the person who is looking at Christian faith “from the outside.” The second misconception is voiced by the believer who is going through struggles and they really don’t know what to do about their problems.
Both are horribly wrong.
Most of us have highlights in life, times when we are extremely happy and life seems to be going right. I can point to a few highlights, my marriage, the birth of my son, getting hired for an exciting job, completion of a degree, but none of these compare to the time in my life when I discovered I was a child of God, that God was my Savior and the death of His Son had wiped away all of my sins. Fun? Maybe that is the wrong word. Maybe the word is joy, joy in the knowledge that I was beginning to live the life I was intended to live, a life for Jesus Christ. I became His servant. The burden of my sin-filled life was lifted.
But baby Christians are naïve creatures. They act like they are dead to sin from the point when they are born again, but nothing could be more untrue. Sin is still alive in the world and it is very powerful, maybe more powerful since the baby Christian is trying to avoid it. Unbelievers are continuing on in their profligate lives right in front of the new Christian and the fun times they are having can be awfully tempting. “I can have a few drinks and be ok.” “I remember taking that drug; it sure relaxed me and I am sure feeling pressure now (maybe I can just try a little).” “Oh who cares if I look at those naked people on my computer; I like the way it excites me and everybody is doing it.”
The urge to sin is not dead. When you dedicate your life to Christ, old sinful habits don’t go away like turning off a light bulb. Those habits are strong and they must be dealt with. Packer* writes that this inward trial is a struggle but too many young Christians don’t label it as a struggle; they label it as a defeat. They are plunged into a miserable life because of their guilt.
I have been there as well as many of you. I don’t want to sin but the opportunity to do so always presents itself. Maybe a common activity of life serves as a trigger. When the activity occurs, the human brain goes immediately to the sinful activity and maybe I think it will be fun, no big deal. I will just do it this once. I do the sin and soon after I begin to feel the guilt. “Why did I do that?” “What was I thinking?” “Now I feel awful.” In my case, I have trouble talking to God when I sin. “Why would He want to talk to me?” “Here I am asking for forgiveness again, for the same sin I have done for years”. “How many times can I ask Him to forgive me?” “Why won’t He take this sin away?”
We are not talking about people who once believed and they have fallen away from God. Those people are apostates; they have renounced their faith and they may be cheerful in their lives [at least on the surface]. The truly miserable person is the “backslider;” they wonder where the joy went, the blessed feelings they once had when they truly met God.
The “backslider” can get on what Packer calls a “treadmill life,” a constant cycle of sin, misery, eventual forgiveness and then sin again. “Why can’t I get that old excitement back, when I was free from sin?” I often think of this as going round and round a mountain. I desire to climb closer to the top, but I can’t go higher due to my sinning nature. I just keep going round and round. Maybe Packer’s imagery of the old Chinese habit of binding girl’s feet will serve to help us understand. This practice was cruel, but it got the desired results. The small foot represented the height of female refinement in China but it arrested physical development of the child’s foot. God does not want to bind us with a lifestyle that inhibits spiritual development any more than He would want us to bind our feet in order to shape them into a ridiculously small shoe. A life in Christ is about freedom. It is about growth.
It is also about strength. What happens when a Christian is confronted with powerful sins and goes through the process of confession and acceptance of forgiveness? The Christian can grow. They realize that evil is a part of life and it has to be dealt with. When problems occur, God does not want us to return to our babe like state when we were young Christians. He wants us to learn to deal with sin. He wants us to grow in Christ. He wants us to become adults. Packer writes that God is not pleased with a “childish, grinning, irresponsible, self-absorbed breed of evangelical adults.” Neither is He pleased with Christians who suffer from “morbid introspection, hysteria, mental breakdown and loss of faith.” Like God did to Job, He “exposes Christians to strong attacks from the world, the flesh and devil, so that their powers of resistance might grow greater and their character as people of God can become stronger” [Packer, 248].
Struggles with sinning are a part of life but there is such a thing as victory over sin. However, it is not instant victory, nor is it easy. In my opinion, common human will-power will not rid a person of a persistent sin. External rewards can only motivate a person so far. Psychological techniques can help but they won’t do it alone. In my opinion, it is God who will push a person higher up on that mountain. It is God who will do it when He wants and how He wants. Praying for a cessation of temptation and resultant sinning may be of use, but when it is God’s will for you to triumph over a particular sin, it will happen.
What is the Christian to do until they are “dead to sin” [Romans 6:1]. Packer writes “when problems and temptations come [he must learn the habit] of handing them over to Christ to deal with for him. If he does this (it is affirmed) he will find himself once more, in the theological as well as the metaphorical sense, on top of the world.” To put this in common terms, know you will sin because you are human. [Being born again does not rid you of your humanity]. When you do fall, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move forward in Christ.
The fact that you are miserable from your sinning is not unusual. You want to return to God’s good graces. Choosing to stay miserable is not a good option because God does not want His believers to live lives of painful frustration. Choosing to renounce your faith is not a good option; turning your back on God and delighting in sin will get you nowhere.
We all have this inward trial and with patience and perseverance, this trial will eventually lead to victory, not defeat.
Oh! for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.
Return, O holy Dove, return!
Sweet the messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made thee mourn
And drove thee from my breast.**
*J.I. Packer Knowing God
**From William Cowper’s Hymn “Walking with God”