When Jesus called us to follow Him, it wasn’t into a valley of rose petals. He called us to come, to bear our cross, to die with Him, and to be raised in newness of life. As such, the Christian journey involves dying to self. It requires us to overcome sin.
But this basic teaching can be difficult for sensitive souls–people who struggle with an overly-condemning conscience or the cyclical woes of religious OCD.
We must overcome sin. But how can that happen in a joyous, non-legalistic way, especially when we struggle with irrational scruples?
In this article, I’d like to share some basic guiding principles from Scripture about how to overcome sin–the God-centered way.
How NOT to Overcome Sin
In my work with the scrupulosity community, I’ve seen some radical and unbiblical attempts to overcome sin. Let me begin by saying how not to try this.
Sanctification by Works
By far, the most common mistake in trying to overcome sin is self-powered, legalistic attempts to humanly achieve sanctification. This is kind of like trying to drive a car that has no gas, no battery, and no spark plugs. There is just no way that car is going to turn on, much less make any progress down the road. Stomp on the gas pedal and crank the engine as much as you want–you’ll still be a sitting duck.
We often assume that Jesus starts us out on our journey through justification by faith, but then we are responsible to take it from there. We think He forgives us freely but then gives us a scowl and says, “Now, don’t you dare mess up from here on out!” So we bear down and grunt and groan and white-knuckle ourselves towards perfection.
But every time we look up to see if we’ve made any progress, we are still in the same place we began.
Contemplate this great truth presented by the Apostle Paul:
Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?Galatians 3:3
If we are to overcome sin in our lives, we must begin with the realization that it involves a deeply supernatural element. As such, we must not look to ourselves to produce this miracle.
Another common but incorrect form of trying to overcome sin that I see in the scrupulosity community is self-punishment.
This may include various forms of self-restriction, such as not allowing yourself to eat if you messed up in some way. Or, it may involve more dangerous forms of self-harm, like cutting or hitting your head against the wall.
I understand where this tendency comes from. It is a way of imposing physical penance on ourselves. We carry weights and balances in our minds, and punishing ourselves lets us “balance the scale,” so to say. Afterwards, we feel better, as if we’ve paid our own debt–and we wager it’ll help us overcome sin in the future because we’ll be loathe to punish ourselves again.
But isn’t this just another form of self-righteousness?
The Apostle John wrote,
My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.1 John 2:1-2
This passage tells us how to handle it when we sin. We look to Jesus, our Advocate, whose righteousness is given freely to us. Here, the word “propitiation” means “the means of appeasing,” or the “atonement.”
Do we want to be our own propitiation through punishing ourselves? Do we really think it will deter us from sinning in the future?
When we think deeply about it, it’s silly. Our self-harm has no spiritual benefit whatsoever. It is not an advised way to overcome sin.
Negative and Condemning Self-Talk
Some people feel that they can motivate themselves into righteousness by negative and condemning self-talk.
What’s wrong with you? Why did you do that again? You know better, you stupid, good-for-nothing, ugly sinner! I bet you’re not even saved, are you? If you DARE give in to that temptation, I swear I’m gonna…
Wait, stop. This kind of self-talk is horrendous and should never be done.
This is shame talking. This is not the sweet, tender voice of the Holy Spirit. We must never indulge in such hideous, self-destructive mental habits.
We are children of God. As such, we have infinite worth.
Imagine a hundred dollar bill. Would it have worth if it falls down on the floor? Would it have worth if it gets crumpled? Would it have worth if it gets spun through the washing machine?
And so do you, trembling child of God!
Here’s an easy litmus test that you can use to check your self-talk: would you address your self-talk to another person?
“Oh, certainly not,” you say. “I could never be so cruel as to say to another person what I say to myself!”
Right. Exactly my point.
You’re using shame as a weapon against yourself–and believe me when I say that shame will NOT help you overcome sin. It will only discourage you, causing you to look at yourself instead of at the One who can help.
How to Overcome Sin: Guiding Principles
As an imperfect-yet-growing Christian, I’d like to share a few gentle but powerful principles that are helping me overcome in my own life. Again, I’m a far cry from perfect, but I see the evidence of God’s fingerprints upon my character, just as He is also working in you. I’d like to share five principles that have helped me focus on Christian growth in a positive way:
- Fighting the Fight of Faith
- Understanding Grace
- Having a Christocentric Focus
- Making Healthy Replacements
- Guarding the Mind
Overcome Sin by Fighting the Fight of Faith
I tell my clients and group members that sanctification by faith means resting in the works that Christ does in us.
Inevitably, someone will ask, “Am I not supposed to be putting forth effort to overcome? I can’t just lay back and expect my sin to go away on its own! What am I supposed to be doing?”
But ok, if you insist. If you want effort, I’ll tell you the effort you’re supposed to put forth.
The Bible tells us,
But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.1 Timothy 6:11-12
Please notice that there are four imperative verbs or verbal phrases in this passage:
- Lay Hold
When we read the context, we see that the “fleeing” refers to all manner of destructive and wicked behaviors. Like Joseph fled from the presence of Potiphar’s wife, we also might find ourselves in situations where we must quite literally flee from temptation.
Naturally, the progression is forward-moving. We flee from temptation in order to pursue something good. The “good” mentioned in this passage is righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. How do we pursue these things? Is it by trying really hard to be patient and gentle?
I would argue no. The next part of the passage gives us more illumination.
“Fight the good fight of faith.”
As we engage in this fight of faith, fleeing temptation from behind us and pushing onward to righteousness before us, what does it mean to fight?
It means that we strive to have faith. This is where our efforts must be placed. I strive to believe the good work that God is doing in me. I place my efforts in a daily, moment-by-moment recognition that “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
My natural mind tells me, “Look, you sinned again. You’re such a loser.” My spiritual mind fights to say, “No, I am saved by grace. God is doing His work in me.” All my feelings drag me down, making it a very unnatural thing to speak or think words of faith. That is why it is a fight.
The shift is subtle but has profound implications. When we face temptations to gluttony, sexual sins, impatient speaking, worldliness, or whatever else, we do not respond by hounding ourselves to resist harder. We do not tense every muscle and squeeze our eyes shut and stamp our feet as if we must humanly fight to overcome sin.
No. Instead, our fight is to push our minds down the unnatural, unintuitive path of faith. We say, “My sinful nature really wants to do this thing. But I choose to believe You, Lord, when You promised to work out Your good pleasure in my life. I choose to believe that You are powerful and have already overcome the devil. You are active in My life, whether I see it or not, and I ask You to help me overcome this temptation!”
Fighting the good fight of faith is to put our efforts into the act of trust rather than the act of self-salvation.
Too good to be true? Maybe. But Jesus did say that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. And He certainly does a much better job of cleaning out my wicked heart than I could ever do. I can trust Him to do a good job in me.
The last verbal imperative is to “lay hold.” Lay hold of what? Of eternal life, to which we were called. It doesn’t tell us to earn eternal life, or work for it, or pay for it. We simply “lay hold” of the free gift which dangles before us all. All that is necessary is faith.
Scrupulous readers, please note: fighting the fight of faith does not mean we obsess about whether we are picturing God correctly in our thoughts or whether our faith is properly motivated. It isn’t even about trying to figure out whether you have “the right kind of faith.” I know this can trip up many people with OCD, but try to remember that this is about making an effort to place your trust in the right place. The point here is that we are making efforts to trust rather than making efforts to fix ourselves.
If your feelings are all out of whack, it is more than enough to make your statement of faith and then get off your knees. If you are the type to get obsessive about your faith, do remember that it can be an act of faith to get up and go about your day, leaving your cares in God’s hands.
Overcome Sin by Understanding Grace
Grace is an extremely important topic when we discuss how to overcome sin.
You probably knew this already, but just to recap, there are three kinds of grace.
There is prevenient grace–literally, “the grace that goes before,” which is operating in your life even before you confess Christ. This is the grace that draws you to Jesus and brings you into His fold. The concept of prevenient grace is of utmost comfort to people with scrupulosity who feel unsure whether they are saved or not. Even people who are unsaved are still bathed and covered in grace. God’s grace draws the lost to Him and is always active, even upon the wicked. Were it not for this prevenient grace, you and I would not know the riches of His love.
The second type of grace is saving grace. This is showered upon us when we choose to accept God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life. Saving grace places us in a new relationship to God–we become His children, adopted into His family. We who are covered in sin and transgressions are made as if we never sinned. Our wrongdoings are thrown into the deepest part of the sea. Saving grace comes from the treasure house of God’s love, which overflowed when He gave His Son to a fallen world. This grace became a legal reality at the cross when Jesus shed His blood as a substitute for fallen man. And at conversion, we receive this saving grace, securing us in God’s never-failing grip.
The third type of grace is transforming grace. This is the invisible spiritual power that works to develop godly traits and behaviors in us. Just as we are powerless to come to Christ or to save ourselves, we are also powerless to develop a Christlike life. It is not as if being saved makes us self-powered little energizer gods who can suddenly do everything on our own. No–every good gift comes from the Father, including the transforming grace which turns the redeemed sinner into a saint.
When we talk about overcoming sin, it is particularly important to understand transforming grace. This grace surrounds us, encourages us, picks us up and dusts us off when we make mistakes, and fills us with power. Paul wrote,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”Romans 1:16-17
Have you ever wondered why Paul speaks about experiencing God’s righteousness “from faith to faith?” In a single instant, saving grace wipes our slate clean, placing us in a right relation to God. When we have faith to believe this wondrous gift, we are filled with incredible joy. But that is not the end of the journey. We go on from one cataclysmic, life-changing moment of faith into a million and one continuous moments of faith, strung together like pearls on a string. Ever afterwards, for the rest of our lives, we are to live by faith, believing in the transforming grace that leads us on to godliness.
Yes, we will fall. Sanctification is the work of a lifetime. I have not “arrived” at perfection and neither have you. We mustn’t doubt God’s presence or His power when we do stumble, but continue having faith in the grace He gives us for overcoming sin.
Overcome Sin by Having a Christocentric Focus
Looking away from self is a very important aspect of overcoming sin.
One of my former group members shared about how she struggled with temptations to overeating. It would really discourage her. She would almost berate herself for being so weak. Unfortunately, this kept the focus on herself. Whenever she chose to look to Christ instead of herself, she reported a complete change of attitude. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so discouraged anymore. Looking away from self to Jesus meant she was looking at the solution, not the problem.
The book of Hebrews recommends this Christocentric focus.
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.Hebrews 12:1-2
In this passage, the “laying aside” of our sins equates to the “fleeing” of 1 Timothy 6. There is definitely a time when we must lay things aside. In Acts 19, for example, we see mass conversions in Ephesus, where “many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all.”
Sometimes, we have to burn the magic books.
We have to flee from Potiphar’s wife.
We have to take decided measures to sever ties with things we know are sinful.
But note what Hebrews 12 goes on to say. Yes, we lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily ensnares us…but what makes this possible? Looking to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.
We look to Him and are encouraged with fresh promises from His Word. We see how He is the Author and Finisher of our faith, which keeps us from obsessing over whether we are “believing” right or not. We learn to trust simply. Very, very simply.
Looking to Jesus and away from self is the only way to keep ourselves from sinking in total discouragement in the upward path of sanctification.
Overcome Sin by Making Healthy Replacements
My husband likes to play the old switcharoo game on me.
We have a big window behind our breakfast bar which looks out into the yard. Sometimes we’ll see foxes or deer meandering past. My husband likes to point out the window when nothing is there and say, “Wow! Look at that!”
While I look, he’ll switch some of his food with mine.
Of course, I’m the type to save my favorite food until last, while he’s the type to eat his favorites first. So I’m always the one who still has a full slice of melty vegan cheese toast on my plate, hoarding it until the very end.
After a few seconds of looking out the window, I realize there’s nothing to see, and sometimes I’m so gullible that I don’t realize my cheese toast has been replaced with a chunk of apple. (Until he starts laughing, of course.)
Sometimes we don’t notice when a switch happens.
But other times, we have to be intentional about making that switch for ourselves. Overcoming sin is one of those times.
Jesus spoke about what happens when demons are cast out of a person. If evil goes out of us and we leave an empty vacuum, things will not go well for us. He said,
When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.Matthew 12:43-45
No, this isn’t about switching apples for cheese toast, this is about replacing evil deeds and evil influences in our lives for positive ones. It’s not enough to say, “I’m going to stop doing this sin.” We must replace it with something that will fill the empty vacuum.
This is particularly true for sins of an addictive or habitual nature. Our brains like repetition, and sin is hard to break when it becomes repetitive. The power to overcome is from God’s grace; but one of the things that we can do to express our faith in what God is doing is to implement healthy replacements.
Let’s take an example. Julia is our pseudonymous middle-aged single mom who has trouble adjusting after her divorce. She’s terribly lonely. The worst times are when her son is with her ex-husband and she’s home all alone for three nights in a row. It feels like the dark, empty house is closing in on her.
Julia begins reading romance novels to feel a spark of love and companionship once more. But soon her loneliness tempts her down a path of progressively more erotic reading choices. Soon she’s addicted to “mommy porn” books. One day, her young son picks up one of her books and leafs through it. He can’t read yet, but Julia blushes crimson red and snatches the book out of his hand.
All day, she replays that moment. Why had she been so loathe for her child to know what she was reading? The Holy Spirit and the Word of God convict her heart. If it is adulterous for a man to “look” at a woman with lustful intent, is it not likewise sinful for a woman to fantasize erotic and lustful images in her mind?
Julia repents and asks God to forgive her and give grace to overcome sin. She gets rid of every book that she wouldn’t feel comfortable spreading openly before the sun. But then the weekend arrives. Her ex-husband picks up their child on Friday night and she’s plunged into a dark, lonely house once more.
What should she do?
Julia feels strong, overwhelming temptations to find companionship in her old fantasy worlds. She prays for grace to overcome, and she activates her faith by claiming promises of God’s power. This is right and good. But there is something else she can do which will fortify her mind against temptation. She can provide a healthy replacement for the thing which tempts her.
Julia makes it through her first evening alone, but it’s a tough one. The next day, though, she’s prepared. She joins a Saturday night learn-to-knit club at her church and signs up for a yoga class on Sunday evening. As the weeks pass, she makes friends in these groups. She never expected to be interested in knitting, but the group is full of wholesome women who encourage her in her spiritual walk. The yoga class relaxes her nerves and makes her feel restful. But most importantly, she’s filling a time block that would otherwise be a vacuum filled with temptation.
Julia is relying on Jesus to give the necessary grace for her Christian growth. But she’s also following the advice to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” by recognizing that she cannot trust herself. She needs to beware of leaving the house “empty, swept, and put in order.” Instead of leaving it empty, she’s filling it with better, positive replacements.
As God leads you forward in overcoming sin, don’t leave empty spaces. Make the switch and provide a healthy alternative.
Overcome Sin by Guarding the Mind
The mind is the control center of our entire being. As we “fight the fight of faith,” striving to put our efforts into believing God’s work in our lives, we can make this easier by guarding our minds.
The Bible says,
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.Romans 12:2
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.Colossians 3:1-2
Keep your heart with all diligence,Proverbs 4:23
For out of it spring the issues of life.
Part of overcoming sin might involve changing my mental diet. I cannot expect to receive grace to overcome sin when I am feasting on it every day. For example, Tom was praying to God to give him grace to overcome cussing. He used bad language without even thinking, and as a growing new believer it made him ashamed. He had even cussed in front of the pastor! Why couldn’t he stop?
Eventually, Tom began to realize that everything he watched on TV was full of bad language. How could he expect to stop cussing if he was voluntarily filling his mind with it every evening?
Part of guarding our mind against sin is to feed it a diet that is wholesome, pure, and lovely. This is something that God does not magically do for us. Through His Word and His Spirit, He will convict us of sin–but then it is our choice to respond to those convictions and clean out the closet.
Readers with scrupulosity, please note: I said He convicts us through His Word and His Spirit. People with overly sensitive consciences tend to rely heavily on what they believe to be the Spirit but what is actually the strange impressions of their own hearts. If you can’t find a single Bible verse or Bible principle that condemns your action–that is, if you think something is sin JUST because God wants to test you–please do not go down that road. Sin is sin because God’s Word declares it to be such. Discerning sin will not be so convoluted and confusing that you have to write an entire thesis to explain your convictions.
So, back to my main point here: part of overcoming sin involves sensibly fortifying our minds against the constant influx of worldliness and sin that claws at Christians. Is this legalism and self-salvation? I would argue no. It is the “be sober, be vigilant” part of recognizing that “the devil goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”
I think this principle, out of all five, will be the most complicated one for a person with a sensitive conscience. We need to be careful not to see sin where there is none. But at the same time, there are definite aspects of today’s culture that Christians should never permit inside our hearts or our homes.
If you struggle with going overboard in scrupulous behavior, I would recommend studying and praying in a group setting with others who can cross-check your Biblical conclusions. We want to be open to the Spirit’s leading and recognize that He may “do a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19) and teach us new truths. But there is such a thing as extremism, and people with sensitive consciences are particularly prone to this.
So, just be aware.
Guarding our minds means we protect ourselves from any influence that would have a destructive influence on our spiritual lives. It is to allow only those things which we would not feel ashamed to do, say, think, buy, eat, drink, wear, listen to, read, watch, or play if Jesus Himself were standing in front of us.
Overcoming sin is part of the Christian life. I’ll admit from my own experience that it isn’t enjoyable. I much prefer the mountaintop experiences in my walk with Christ. In these mountaintop experiences, I have tasted of the gentleness and kindness of our Lord.
I love Him.
And it is because of my love for Him that I am learning to hate sin.
It’s true–sometimes sin can appear devilishly attractive. I would be a liar if I said I never crave unholy things. But when I do, I run to Jesus and ask Him for grace. I fight to put my mind in a place of hopeful trust in what He is doing in my life. I focus on Him instead of myself, and I make sure to guard my mind and make any functional replacements that can help me avoid falling.
Am I always successful?
But that’s why the Scriptures reminds us that
…He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.Philippians 1:6
I am a work in progress. I am safe in Christ–so safe!–but I’m not the finished product yet. He is working in me to progressively reveal His image in my life.
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.1 John 3:2
As we can see in this verse, I can be a child of God “now,” but not yet be fully shaped in His likeness. I don’t even know what that end result looks like, because my understanding of God’s holiness is so partial and incomplete.
My job is to cling to Him in faith. To say “yes” to what He wants to do in me. To hold on for the ride!
I can testify that overcoming sin in my own life–especially after getting my OCD in proper management–has been an ongoing experience of humbling joy. I see my weaknesses, but I also see Jesus in His glorious compassion, never condemning, always drawing me nearer, always ready with a soothing balm. I find victory–not in myself, but in Him. Sometimes I wrestle and stamp my feet and rebel. Sometimes I fall or backslide. But He is always there, a Savior who lifts me instead of judges me, pointing my feet back in the right direction.
As you face your own sins and struggles, try not to harm yourself with a spirit of self-condemnation. Be as gentle with yourself as Jesus is to you. Rest in His works.
And everything will work out just fine.
Best wishes for the journey,