How to Overcome Sin God’s Way

So many Christians aren’t taking responsibility for their sins nowadays.  This attitude has been fostered by some Christian groups and individuals who, instead of teaching repentance from sin, are encouraging sinners to have their demons cast out.  For example, some Pentecostal and Charismatic groups lay hands on people caught up in sin to cast out the demon of anger, the demon of lust, the demon of pride, and so on.  In doing so they classify demons in a way that scripture does not.  But more importantly they take away the sinner’s responsibility and deceive him into thinking his sin is not his fault.  And if it’s not his fault then he’s not likely to take any action other than to have someone pray for him to be delivered from the demon.  And if the demon isn’t cast out, the person who laid hands on the “victim” can blame him for his lack of faith, while the “victim” can blame God for not answering his prayer.  It’s pretty convenient for all, don’t you think?

Some books give examples of people caught up in sexual (and other) sin and say that they need to be “delivered” from the demon that is harassing them.  In fact, there are now ministries and books devoted to this idea and practice of demonic deliverance. 

Then there is the recent fad of accusing controlling women or women with strong personalities, of having a “Jezebel spirit”.  This, too, requires exorcism, according to the holders of the idea.

No, this idea of casting out demons to get rid of sin is unknown to scripture; nowhere does it tell us to do this.  Of course, there are examples in the bible of people who had evil spirits cast out e.g. the Gadarene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20) – this poor man was so controlled by them – thousands of them – that he lived among the tombs, walked around naked, and cut himself with stones.  And Jesus set him free.  But when he was delivered, we’re told he was “sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind” (Mk 5:15) and Jesus told him to go home and be a witness for what he had done for him.  His problem wasn’t that he had been caught up in a sinful practice; he was demon-possessed.

There is also the example of the woman in Luke chapter 13:10-17 who came to Jesus; she was bent over and couldn’t straighten herself – she had been like this for eighteen years.  Jesus identified her problem as having had a “spirit of infirmity”, and he cast it out.  She was one of his people, for he called her “a daughter of Abraham”.

Again, there is the “dumb and deaf spirit” that Jesus cast out of a child when he and the disciples came down from the Mount of Transfiguration (Mk 9:14-29).  This, and the previously mentioned spirit, are both classified as being spirits of specific afflictions, but there are none identified as being responsible for specific sins; they all only afflict people with diseases and physical and mental conditions.

I’m not saying that demons who afflict people don’t cause or provoke them to sin in various ways; what I mean is that we need to distinguish between the two – the Gadarene demoniac, for instance, went around naked, and was very violent.  Sin is sin and needs to be repented of; demonic affliction needs prayer.

The focus is on the heart

I don’t mean to belittle a person’s difficulty in dealing with their sin; I realise that some sins are harder to deal with than others; but in the end sin is still sin and must be repented of.  If we’re going to overcome our sin, we need to know where to focus our efforts.  The bible tells us that temptation is from our own hearts.  “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.  Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:13-16). 

Some people do blame God for their sin.  They reason that if God is in control of everything, why doesn’t he deliver me from my predicament?  Why won’t he take away the desire to sin; why won’t he remove the temptation?  They feel so ensnared in their sinful practice, and have tried so many times to stop it, and failed so many times, that they get angry at God and hold him responsible.

But God will have none of this.  He clearly states in this passage that he cannot sin neither does he tempt anyone to sin.  Instead he puts the responsibility right back where it belongs and says people are tempted by their own lust.  Their fallen condition and their own sinful hearts are their tempters and their own undoing.  Jeremiah states it powerfully when he says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer 17:9).  What a statement!  The deception within our own hearts and its capacity to deceive, reveal it to be the most deceitful of all things.  We not only deceive people, we deceive ourselves, and we even try to deceive God.  We’re always trying to deflect the responsibility for our sin onto someone or something else – is this not what Adam and Eve did when they were caught by God in their sin? Adam blamed Eve and God, and Eve blamed the devil (Gen 3:12-13) – sound familiar?  As for the state of our hearts, Jeremiah says it is “desperately wicked”; “who can know it?” he asks.  We need only to honestly consider our own thoughts and actions to know what scripture is talking about here.  “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

God – help me

Another way we dodge responsibility for our sins is to pray that God will help us overcome it.  This is a good and right prayer when prayed with the right attitude, and is also essential – how could we possibly hope to resist Satan and fight against temptation without first seeking God’s help?  But most times when we pray this, we’re really just putting off dealing with it ourselves and putting the onus on God; and if he doesn’t do anything, then we hold him responsible and we’re free of guilt.  One man told me he’s been praying for years that God would help him overcome his addictions to pornography, alcohol and smoking, but that God doesn’t seem to be interested.  This man isn’t making any effort of his own, he’s waiting for God to take away the temptation; in a way, he expects God to just pick him up and carry him away from the temptations and set him down where he won’t be troubled by them anymore.

But that’s not the way things work.  God tells us to repent of our sins.  When Jesus began his ministry, he didn’t say “Ask God to help you stop sinning”; he said “repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mk 1:15).  He put the onus on the people to do it.  When the Jews asked Peter what they should do after they had been convicted of their sin in putting Jesus to death, he didn’t say “Ask God to help you”; he said “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). 

As for the young man I just mentioned, I know him and his family well, and I’m pretty sure that his parents have come to his rescue when he’s got himself in trouble through rebellion and wilfulness so many times that now, when he’s on his own, he’s waiting for God to take the place of his parents and get him out of his predicament.  He’s never had to suffer the consequences of his actions; and his parents, though no doubt well-meaning, have left him ill-prepared to face life and to accept responsibility for his actions.  When he discussed the matter with me, I tried to show him how he needs to, and can, take responsibility for his own life, and to encourage him to make the effort despite the huge difficulties that would involve; and that God will help him once he’s put his hand to the plough: “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you” (Jas 4:8).  But so far he can’t accept it, and blames God.  [Update – this young man joined a bible church has since been saved.  With the encouragement and close support of his pastor, he has been able to kick alcohol and tobacco and is working on the pornography with the pastor’s help].

The thing is that we must exercise faith.  Without trials and temptations, we become secure and we don’t need God.  We don’t need to exercise faith because we can buy or manipulate our way out of anything.  It’s only when we are out of our depth, our usual props are taken away from us, and we’re out of our comfort zone where we can usually take care of everything ourselves, that we must turn to God.  Sadly though, too often he’s our last resort.  But when we’re faced with an impossible situation, we have no alternative but to deal with it through faith – and when we do, we not only have a wonderful sense of victory and achievement which leaves us stronger for the next trial, but we also experience God’s help.  Facing temptation and repenting of sin turn us from being wimps into men.  It’s not until we take the necessary action to resist and overcome sin that we grow; it is both faith-building and character-building.  It’s not until we take the bull by the horns that we experience God’s presence and receive his help.  We don’t need to ask him to strengthen us, he already has; we just need to trust him and step out in faith by doing what he requires of us.

Even if we try and fail, we’re still ahead because we haven’t given in, we haven’t given up the fight.  And as long as we keep fighting, God is there with us and for us.  We must keep getting up after every time we fall because we never know whether the next time is the time we have the victory.  And by our constant resistance even when we fail, we demonstrate that we hate the sin and will not surrender the fight.  The reason that ancient Rome was so successful was that they never gave up, never surrendered.  For example, when Hannibal was ranging up and down Italy, inflicting the most crushing defeats on every Roman army they sent against him, they would just raise another army and come at him again.  At the same time, they were busy fighting in Spain as a means to defeat Hannibal by cutting off his resources and defeating his allies.  Where every other nation’s armies would sue for peace when faced with military defeat, Rome steadfastly refused and only ever accepted the idea of victory; surrender and defeat were never an option for them.  There is also the humorous example of Pepe le Pew in the Looney Tunes cartoons; no matter how many times he was flattened by the poor cat he pursued, he kept getting up, filled with romantic ardour and continued after her, refusing to accept that he wouldn’t succeed.

So we conclude that we’re tempted, drawn away and enticed, by our own lust.  God didn’t tempt us; the devil didn’t “make me do it”; we are solely responsible for the sin we commit.  I’m not saying there aren’t factors at work which might weaken us and make us more prone to sin; but in the end, whatever the circumstances, there is always the moment, that point in time, when we make the decision, and we choose to sin.  As long as we’re being tempted, that’s all it is – temptation.  And that’s all it can ever be – until we make the decision to go with the temptation – and that’s when the sin is committed.

But doesn’t Satan tempt us?  Yes, he most certainly does.  Speaking of a spouse’s responsibility to give conjugal rights to the other, for example, Paul says “Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer” (1 Cor 7:5).  Satan simply works on the weaknesses that he knows are already in our hearts.

What to do about Temptation and Sin

God tells us “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make the way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor 10:13).  So we see that every temptation has a built-in escape.  We do not have to sin.  No matter how fiery the temptation, there is a way of escape.  And when we do sin, we bring ourselves into bondage; but that is not demon possession, it’s bondage to sin.  “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey, whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness” (Rom 6:16).

So how did Jesus deal with temptation?  He was tempted but he didn’t yield to it.  With each of the temptations, he opposed it with an appropriate passage from scripture.  Each time Satan presented a temptation, Jesus met it with “It is written…..” (Matt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13).

The thing NOT to do is exorcism.  The bible NEVER tells us to do this.  If we want victory over sin, we must do things God’s way.  He knows our weakness and how easy it is for us to sin.  Here are some examples of straightforward instructions from God for dealing with sin and temptation – notice they are things that we ourselves need to do:

  • “Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.  Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded….Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (James 4:7-10; see also 1 Pet 5:6).
  • “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Pet 2:11).
  • “…seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.  Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth…..Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry…. But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth” (Col 3:1-2, 5, 8-9; see also Rom 8:13).
  • “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Ps 119:11).

I’m all alone

When we’re struggling with temptation and sin, it’s easy to think we’re alone in it; that nobody would understand what I’m struggling with – and if I told them, they’d be horrified.  So we keep it to ourselves and consequently struggle on alone.  God understands this tendency and has provided for it.  He assures us “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make the way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor 10:13). 

And the apostle Paul, who penned the above by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, explains these struggles.  He says “…but I am carnal, sold under sin.  For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.  If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.  Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.  For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.  For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil I which I would not, that I do.  Now if I do that I would not, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.  I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.  For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members…..So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” (Rom 7:14-25).

Paul here describes the struggle of the born-again soul; a bitter warfare that will never end in this life, and that explains why we keep on sinning.  He summarises the above passage very succinctly in another passage: “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Gal 5:17).  But we must nevertheless continue that struggle, and never give up. 

We also need to remember that we’re never alone in our struggle against sin.  God doesn’t just issue instructions and then withdraw and leave us to ourselves; he is with us in every struggle.  The apostle Paul says “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.  For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13).  And Jesus said “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).  And going back to Paul’s description of his struggle, he concludes it with these comforting and reassuring words “O wretched man that I am!  Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?  I thank God – through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 7:24-25).

Addictions

I am neither a medical practitioner nor a psychologist so I don’t speak as an expert; but I do know that addictions are the consequence of sin, and are a more complicated sin.  And in these cases, there can also be a demon involved, either directly or indirectly.  The person caught up with addictions usually does need outside help. And if they mean business, they are in for a long struggle, and probably with many falls.  The young man I mentioned above took several years before he was able to kick his alcohol and tobacco addictions.  But it would help a great deal if they confess their sin to God in first getting caught up in their addiction.  Nobody forced them to take that first drink, or puff that first joint, or inject that first heroin, or look at that first pornographic image; they may have been deceived into taking it, but that doesn’t exonerate them in God’s sight.  Addictions can generally be traced back to the moment when they were faced with that first choice; the decision was theirs, and when they made that decision to drink, inhale, inject, look, or whatever, they made a decision to sin.  That left them open to demonic attack and bondage to sin.

So when they are struggling with the addiction and trying to overcome it, they need to go back in their mind to that first moment when they chose the sin, if they can, and confess it to God and ask his forgiveness; and they need to repudiate it before God in prayer.  If they can’t remember, they still need to confess it and own it.  When we humble ourselves before God (Jas 4:9-10), and confess our sins to him (Ps 66:18), God hears us and will help us. 

When we do this, we can expect more confidently that we will be delivered.  And while medical and psychological help (which latter is of limited use, though) is being sought to treat the addiction, spiritual counsel and prayer should also be sought from a biblically sound pastor in a biblically sound church; remembering that it is the addiction that is to be treated, not the demon of a sin that must be cast out.  Prayer will enable the pastor to discern whether there is a demon involved.  If there is, the first step must be to expel him; then the addiction can be treated.  Indeed, if a demon is cast out, there may not be any need to deal with addiction, as it may have been the direct cause of the addiction.

My imperfect understanding of medical treatment is that it often relies on substituting one substance for another.  For example, methadone, an addictive substance itself, is used to treat heroin addiction; cigarette smokers use substitutes which don’t have the tars of tobacco but still contain the nicotine.  And psychology denies the reality of the spiritual realm and of demons and spirits, and uses human reasoning, powerful mind-altering drugs, and hypnosis, in their treatment of addictions.  God, on the other hand, delivers from addictions totally and forever.

Joe Avila, Director of Prison Ministries, California, is a living example of how Christ cures addictions.  Joe started drinking as a youth and became alcoholic.  Despite this, he became a successful business man, and learned how to fit his drinking into his family and business lives.  One day he was driving home from work while being well under the influence of alcohol.  He crashed his car and killed a teenage girl.  He was imprisoned and was also stricken with guilt and remorse.  A few days after he was imprisoned, he spoke to the chaplain and subsequently gave his whole life to Jesus.  As a result, he says, he immediately lost the desire for alcohol and hasn’t touched a drop in over twenty years since that day.  After serving his jail sentence, he got involved with Prison Fellowship, and also speaks to young DUI offenders.  He says he believes that when he gave his life to Jesus and became a Christian, Jesus bound the alcoholism so that he has never even had the desire for it, and he can go to a bar anywhere and anytime and not drink or be troubled by the presence of alcohol.

Excerpt from “The Pilgrims’ Progress”

(After Christian had been refreshed by the good people in the Palace Beautiful, and armed, he continued on his way towards the Celestial City.  But shortly after leaving that place he had to struggle through the Valley of Humiliation, where he was approached by a “foul fiend” named Apollyon, who tempts Christian in every way, using deception, intimidation, beguiling, riches, etc.).

“So he went on, and Apollyon met him.  Now the monster was hideous to behold; he was clothed with scales like a fish, and they are his pride; he had wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke; and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion.  When he came up to Christian, he beheld him with a disdainful countenance, and thus began to question him……..

Then Apollyon straddled quite over the whole breadth of the way, and said, I am void of fear in this matter.  Prepare thyself to die; for I swear by my infernal den, that thou shalt go no farther: here will I spill thy soul.  And with that he threw a flaming dart at his breast; but Christian had a shield in his hand, with which he caught it, and so prevented the danger of that.

Then did Christian draw, for he saw t’was time to bestir him; and Apollyon as fast made at him, throwing darts as thick as hail; by the which, notwithstanding all that Christian could do to avoid it, Apollyon wounded him in his head, his hand, and foot.  This made Christian give a little back: Apollyon, therefore, followed his work amain, and Christian again took courage, and resisted as manfully as he could.  This sore combat lasted for above half a day, even till Christian was almost quite spent.  For you must know, that Christian by reason of his wounds, must needs grow weaker and weaker.

Then Apollyon, espying his opportunity, began to gather up close to Christian, and wrestling with him, gave him a dreadful fall; and with that Christian’s sword flew out of his hand.  Then said Apollyon, I am sure of thee now.  And with that he had almost pressed him to death; so that Christian began to despair of life.  But, as God would have it, while Apollyon was fetching his last blow, thereby to make a full end of this good man, Christian nimbly stretched out his hand for his sword, and caught it, saying, Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall I shall arise; and with that gave him a deadly thrust, which made him give back, as one that had received his mortal wound.  Christian perceiving that, made at him again, saying, Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.  And with that Apollyon spread his dragon’s wings, and sped him away, that Christian saw him no more.

In this combat no man can imagine, unless he had seen and heard as I did, what yelling and hideous roaring Apollyon made all the time of the fight; he spake like a dragon: and on the other side what sighs and groans burst from Christian’s heart.  I never saw him all the while give so much as one pleasant look, till he perceived he had wounded Apollyon with his two-edged sword; then, indeed, he did smile, and look upward; but t’was the dreadfullest fight that ever I saw.

So when the battle was over, Christian said, I will here give thanks to Him that hath delivered me out of the mouth of the lion; to him that did help me against Apollyon.  And so he did, saying

               Great Beelzebub, the captain of this fiend,

                    Designed my ruin; therefore to this end

                    He sent him harnessed out, and he with rage,

                    That hellish was, did fiercely me engage:

                    But blessed Michael helped me, and I,

                    By dint of sword did quickly make him fly:

                    Therefore to Him let me give lasting praise,

                    And thank and bless His holy name always

Note: Bunyan refers to “blessed Michael” in this rhyme.  The notes in the Geneva Bible state that Michael is Christ, but Bunyan used the KJV, so the belief may have been the prevailing one.