An Invisible Force
Whenever we jump, whenever we trip, whenever we try to get out of bed in the morning, gravity is there working against us. We all feel its tug. It pulls us down toward the surface of the Earth, and it does this whether we like it or not.
Scientists call gravity a “law of nature,” because it’s not up for debate. It’s real. We experience it. It’s there all the time, whether or not we even acknowledge its presence. For example, suppose someone were to jump off a cliff screaming “I don’t believe in gravity!” as they fall. Despite their denial, gravity would pull them to their death. The law of gravity works all the time, without stopping and without permission.
When we think about sin, however, we don’t often think about it like gravity. We tend to think about sin as something someone chooses to do: You lie. You steal. You murder. You hate. You lust. You envy. You overindulge. These are all actions. They are something that someone does. But this is not the only way that the Bible talks about sin.
In fact, the first appearance of the word “sin” in the Bible does not refer to an action but to a force or power: “Sin is crouching at the door,” God warned Cain. “Its desire is for you” (Gen. 4:7). Even if this is some kind of poetic personification of evil, it’s clearly not talking about an action. So when the Bible introduces us to sin, the first thing God wants us to see is that sin is not just an inappropriate choice. Sin is also a force that works against us, constantly pulling and tugging at us to go in the wrong direction.
Paul the apostle understood this idea well. He even called sin a “law,” just like the law of gravity. He writes, “Even when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21). “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” (Rom. 7:22-23).
Paul seems to be saying that one part of him wants to do what is good, but another part of him is constantly being pulled down and held back. It’s like a tug-of-war in his soul. That’s sin like gravity.
The really important thing to see in all of this is that sin is always there whether we recognize it or not. The law of sin and its pull on your life is something that never goes away. You never reach a place where you don’t feel the effects of gravity, and you will never reach a place where you don’t feel the powerful allure of sin. That’s the bad news. (Welcome to life on planet Earth.) The good news is that there’s hope for us, and Jesus shows us the way.
Step One: Stop Your Denial.
It does us no good to pretend. Nor does it help us to re-label sin as something else. If I take the barcode from an apple in the supermarket and place it on a box of cereal, the box of cereal will remain a box of cereal even though the scanner says, “Apple.” You see, renaming or denying your sin won’t help you. It’ll still be there, affecting you without stopping and without permission—just like gravity.
John the apostle writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Notice two things. First, he said “If we say we have no sin” here (1 Jn 1:8), which is different than saying, “If we say we have not sinned” (1 Jn 1:10). The former is talking about sin as a force, power, or law within us. The latter is talking about sins that we commit as actions, thoughts, or behaviors. John clearly believes that both are problems. We have sin working within us, and we commit sins as a result.
Second, notice that John was writing to Christians. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that “people with sin” are those guys over there. (You know, the ones who live differently than you.) That’s a lie that people who claim to be Christians often believe in order to let themselves off the hook. But it doesn’t really help them at all. They still “have sin,” which means that they still have the pull of sin like gravity in their lives. The problem is that for many of these people, sin has blinded them for so long that they no longer think they are affected by it—which is actually the clearest sign that they still are. Sin is what leads us to say we aren’t affected by sin. That’s the oldest trick in the book.
Step Two: Don’t Trust Yourself.
We have said that sin affects us without stopping and without permission. Those who understand sin should take precautions against it. How stupid would it be for you to believe in gravity and then live like it doesn’t exist? In the same way, far too many Christians give a little head nod to the reality of sin, but then go about their lives as if it weren’t really present within them.
Sometimes people do this because they still think of sin as something you do versus something you have. They don’t think of sin as something that affects their whole person: head, heart, and hands. They just think of sin as something done or not done. But Jesus says differently. He teaches that what we do comes from deep within (Mark 7:20). That means that whatever we do is affected in some way by the law of sin at work within us, just as gravity affects everything we do as it works upon us.
At other times, people make the mistake of thinking that sin isn’t that big of a deal. “Sure, we all have to deal with sin,” they say. “But come on. It’s not that serious.” Again, the Scriptures say differently. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). You and I are included in that rhetorical question. Over and over again, the Bible warns against trusting yourself or “letting your conscience by your guide” (thanks for nothing, Jiminy Cricket).
So what it looks like to take sin seriously, then, is to not trust yourself. Don’t say things like, “I feel like I should…” You should even be careful of saying, “God told me to…” Not every voice is from God (1 John 4:1-6), and naively assuming that you have heard God clearly is dangerous business—no matter how many so-called Christian books or conferences tell you otherwise. Because the Scriptures say not to trust yourself, it’s vital to stay close to other followers of Jesus who know you well and know how serious sin is. It’s foolish arrogance to think that we can handle sin on our own. The loving wisdom and correction that comes from other brothers and sisters in Jesus is a huge part of overcoming sin and temptation.
Another important aspect of not trusting yourself means not putting yourself in a place where you are likely to fall. For example, because I believe in gravity and I know the limitations of my balance skills, I don’t walk across tightropes between skyscrapers. In the same way, it’s foolish to put yourself in a place where you are all but guaranteed to fall into sin. Sadly, we do this sort of thing all the time.
Suppose that you want to honor your boyfriend or girlfriend by not making sexual advances toward them until you are married. Since you think they’re attractive, since you have a sex drive, and since you have the law of sin at work within you, you’d be an idiot to spend a ton of alone time with them in an isolated place. The pull of sin will likely lead you into compromised situations. You may object, “But I couldn’t help it!” That’s only half true, though. Maybe you can’t help falling off a tightrope once you’re on it, but you never had to get on the tightrope in the first place. In the same way, because you are aware of how sin is a constant presence within you, don’t put yourself in the way of obvious temptation.
That’s exactly what Paul meant when he said that God is faithful to provide a way out of temptation (1 Cor. 10:13). He doesn’t mean that you can be foolish and reckless and always bank on the fact that God will somehow, magically, provide a super convenient escape route to get you out of trouble. Rather, he meant that if you take sin seriously, you’ll take temptation seriously too. That is why I don’t own a TV, and I still screen every movie I watch. My past failures combined with my present knowledge of the law of sin means that I don’t trust myself around too much skin. (To help with this I often use a website that tells me, on a scale of one to ten, how much nudity is in a certain movie.) It may sound like a lot of trouble to go through, but I’d rather miss a few TV programs or blockbusters than dishonor God and hurt my wife by giving into sin.
Step Three: Look to Jesus.
If sin is as much of a problem as we have said, if it blinds us and tricks us and tugs on us at all times, then we are hopelessly lost.
And we would stay that way if it weren’t for Jesus. Those who believe the good news of the gospel are given power through the Holy Spirit to put sin to death (Rom. 8:13). “Putting sin to death” is another way of saying “die to yourself,” which was Jesus’ basic call for his followers. It means choking out the life of our sinful desires, and it happens through the slow and difficult process of following Jesus.
Following Jesus means trusting him and listening to what he says. As we do this, we find that he works in our lives to give us new desires—desires that weren’t there before (Phil. 2:13). That doesn’t mean the old desires are completely gone, for sin will continue to live within us until the day we die. But it does mean that we now have the ability to say “no” to the kinds of thing we used to indulge in without even putting up a fight (Titus 2:11; 3:3-7).
Although gravity doesn’t diminish throughout life, your awareness of gravity and your ability to live within a world with gravity does improve with time. That’s why adults are able to walk without falling as often as toddlers. In a similar way, people who have been following Jesus in faith and obedience for a long time will find that they are better able to see the work of sin in their lives.
The last but most important part of dealing with sin is that we’ve got to remember that we’re forgiven. Because the fight against sin is an ongoing battle that will never stop in this lifetime, it would be easy to grow weary of the fight or feel guilty for our failures. That’s when the forgiveness of Jesus is especially beautiful. The more you realize how sinful you are, the more deeply you can appreciate the forgiveness that you’ve been shown. And if you truly believe that you are forgiven, you’ll want to keep fighting against the sin that sent Jesus to the cross in the first place, not out of guilt or fear of punishment, but out of love for the one who died for us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8).