Questions – Why Do I Keep Sinning?
Sycamore Creek Church
April 18, 2010
Recently I was listening to the radio show, This American Life. A great segment came on with a poem titled, “The Fable of the Scorpion and the Tortoise.” The tale is told of a tortoise who is swimming along when he is greeted by a scorpion on the shore. The scorpion asks for a ride on the shell of the tortoise. The tortoise declines knowing that the scorpion is prone to strike and kill him. The scorpion replies that there would be no reason to do so because then they would both die. The tortoise is won over by the scorpion’s logic, so he gives him a ride across the river. Half-way across, the tortoise feels the scorpion sting him. As he begins to die and sink he cries out, “Why did you do this? We both will now die.” The scorpion replies that he does not know why he has done this, but he cannot help but sting because it is in his nature to do so. The morale of the fable is said to be that we cannot change our natures. What we are is what we are. What we do is what we do. Is this true?
The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that our natures can change. We can change from what we have been to become a new creation with a new nature. It is not always easy, and there is certainly struggle along the way, but YES, we can change our nature.
Today we continue in the third part of a series on questions. These questions were questions that the teenagers in our church asked Sarah and me one day when we met them. I enjoyed the questions so much that I thought they were worth building a sermon series around. Each week a different teenager has asked me a different question. Week one: How do I know that Jesus is who he said he is? Week two: What’s up with heaven or hell? Today, week three: Gaelen asks, “Why do I keep sinning?” Let’s begin by taking a look at what Paul has to say about the topic in Romans.
Romans 7:14-25 (NLT)
14 The law is good, then. The trouble is not with the law but with me, because I am sold into slavery, with sin as my master. 15 I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate. 16 I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 But I can’t help myself, because it is sin inside me that makes me do these evil things.
18 I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. No matter which way I turn, I can’t make myself do right. I want to, but I can’t. 19 When I want to do good, I don’t. And when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway. 20 But if I am doing what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing it; the sin within me is doing it.
21 It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another law at work within me that is at war with my mind. This law wins the fight and makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. 24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.
This is God’s story for us today. Thank you, God!
Paul’s thinking throughout this passage is a little difficult to follow. Thankfully he gives us a summary of what he’s trying to say in the last verse. We read, “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin” (Romans 7:25, NLT). It could be said of our lives that sin remains but it does not reign.
It is a popular conception that one sin is no different than another sin. This is true from the perspective of whether any of us are better or worse in God’s eyes, but it is not true as to the consequences of sin. There are at least four different kinds of sin. Let’s take a look at each one of them.
The first kind of sin is external sin. External sin has to do with the big ones: idolatry, lying, stealing, murder, adultery, etc.. If you grew up Catholic you would have known to call this kind of sin “mortal sin.” This is the kind of sin that breaks our relationship with God. We know that it is wrong and that God does not want us to do it, and we do it anyway. Generally speaking, when one becomes a Christian, one does not commit these kinds of sins. We’re talking the Ten Commandments here. This is not to say that Christians never commit external sin. Rather, it is to say that when we know it is clearly wrong, we simply don’t do it, and if we do, we ask for forgiveness, and we intend to not do it again. These kinds of sins are easier to avoid because they are obvious.
When I was working in a church in Petoskey I committed this kind of sin one time. I lied to my secretary. It was not a big issue, but she confronted me about how I was using some office equipment. I knew what I was doing, and I knew that it was wrong. I was ashamed at what the truth meant for me. So I lied. I had not lied like this in a very long time. I couldn’t believe what I was doing. Immediately the Holy Spirit convicted me of this sin, but I did not immediately act upon this conviction. Eventually I did. I went and confessed to her what I had done and asked for her forgiveness. She forgave me. Thank you, God.
The second kind of sin is internal sin. Internal sin has to do with our attitudes, our spirit, our motivations. We’re talking about the sins of jealousy, envy, ill will, pride, etc. These are much more subtle sins. They don’t immediately break our relationship with God, but they can over time build up a resistance and hardness to the work of the Holy Spirit in us. If you grew up Catholic you might have known these sins as venial sins. These kinds of sins are harder to avoid, but you can grow in God’s grace to overcome them. The tricky part is that as you grow in maturity, you begin to notice all kinds of sins like this that you had never noticed before. So while you make progress, you also realize more and more how much progress needs to be made!
There was once a person I did not like very well. I tended to avoid this person. When I would see them coming down the hall, I would turn a corner so I didn’t have to meet them. There was something about them that just got under my skin. It wasn’t that they had done anything to me. I just didn’t like them. I didn’t ever do anything outright sinful to this person. I didn’t lie to them. I didn’t cheat them. I didn’t fail to follow through on commitments I had made. One day while I was in prayer, the Holy Spirit convicted me about my attitude. I realized I had to go and confess this sin to this person. I did. I was amazed to find that they were very receptive to my confession. They said that they saw a soft side of me in that moment that they had never seen before. I can’t say that I immediately liked this person, but the ongoing build-up of resentment stopped. Thank you, God!
The third kind of sin is sometimes called sins of surprise. These are sins that we don’t plan to commit, they just happen in the moment when we’re not thinking about it. You smash your thumb with the hammer and you say, “@%#$!” You see someone being bullied, and you don’t do anything. When you think about these kinds of situations you intend to do the right thing. When you think back on the situation you wish you had done the right thing. But in the moment of the situation, you react in a way that surprises yourself. These kinds of sins may be lessened over time, but they may never go away.
There is something about computers that really gets me agitated. It’s like they’re a magic black box that I can’t understand. I can get so agitated by them when they are not working right. I want to pick it up and throw it out the window. One time I got so annoyed with my laptop that I slammed the top down and brought my closed fist down on top of it. I immediately felt ridiculous. My stupidity was multiplied when the computer would no longer turn on. I had not planned on treating the computer this way. I was sorry that I had done so after it was over. I surprised myself by my reaction. I confessed my sin to God. God forgave me. Thank you, God!
The fourth kind of sin is corporate sin. It has to do with the sin ingrained in the structures of our society. If you live and work and breathe in our culture, you participate in the sinful ways of our society. These kinds of sin can be fought against but they will likely never go away completely until Jesus comes back to set everything straight.
I remember the day that I first realized that when I bought shares of a mutual fund I now owned a part of that company, and that meant that I owned a part of the responsibility of how that company was going about its business. I could potentially be profiting off of their misdoings. Do they pad their books? Do they lie to make money? Do they make money on sweatshops around the globe? Do they pay their employees a living wage? Do they harm the creation? Do they discriminate in their hiring practices in terms of the number of women or minorities in leadership positions? I began to pay more attention to not just the bottom line of how much money my investments were earning, but the manner in which the businesses that I owned went about making that money. When I realized this I found that there are investment strategies and investment brokers who care about these same kinds of things. Thank you, God!
There are different kinds of sins and some are easier to overcome than others, but over time we can be transformed so that sin does not have the same hold over us that it once did. Sin remains, but it does not reign.
John Wesley has a great sermon called On Sin in Believers. He has this to say about sin:
Every babe [new Christian] in Christ is holy, and yet not altogether so. He is saved from sin; yet not entirely: It remains, though it does not reign. If you think it does not remain, (in babes at least, whatever be the case with young men, or fathers) you certainly have not considered the height, and depth, and length, and breadth of the law of God.
Sin remains, but it does not reign. He goes on to add:
The usurper is dethroned. He remains indeed where he once reigned; but remains in chains. So that he does, in some sense, “prosecute the war,” yet he grows weaker and weaker; while the believer goes on from strength to strength, conquering and to conquer.
Sin remains, but it does not reign. It does not reign because the power of Jesus has come into our lives and broken the bondage that sin held over us. It does not reign because Jesus has made us free. It remains because the old habits remain, but it does not reign because we are free to replace those old habits with new habits of love.
So if sin remains in a Christian, what motivates us to continue the fight? Can’t we just settle for good enough? I mean, we’ve got our fire insurance. We’re Christians. That gets us into heaven, doesn’t it? Why worry beyond that? The answer to that question is that I don’t think there is such a static place where we are not growing. We are either growing as Christians or we are not Christians. We are either growing at following Christ or we are not following Christ. Health implies growth.
It is a beautiful thing to see a four or five-year-old dog paddle across the pool for the first time. It is rather disturbing to see that same person at age fifty still dog paddling across the pool. It is a beautiful thing to see a five-year-old riding their bike around with training wheels on. It is a very disturbing thing to see that same person riding their bike with training wheels when they are fifty.
Sometimes change is just noticeable improvement. I don’t spend a lot of time at bars. I’m not a big beer drinker. In fact, I don’t like the taste of beer. There’s nothing wrong with having a beer here and there if you don’t get drunk. Drunkenness is what the Bible has a problem with, not drinking.
Now I don’t know what you think about seminary students, but most of my friends at seminary liked to have a drink now and then. One of my friends had a birthday party, and it was at a local bar. There was a back patio that all these seminary students took over and celebrated my friend’s birthday. No one was getting drunk, but we were having a good time. I found out that night something I never knew. Beer girls aren’t just in beer commercials. There was this beer rep at the bar and he set up shop on the back patio. He was cursing up a storm and handing out free beer samples. I don’t think he realized that we were all future pastors. He brought along with him a beer girl. I call her a beer girl because I don’t know what else to call her. She was dressed like a girl in a beer commercial. That is to say, she was dressed to capture the eye of every guy in the joint. Skimpy top. Mini skirt. Stiletto heels. Being a guy, I noticed her. It was almost impossible not to notice her. It would be like telling my wife to ignore the gold finch at the birdfeeder. But that night something happened that had never happened before. For the first time in my life I noticed her and I thought to myself, “I bet she’s really uncomfortable in those shoes.” What happened in that moment? She became not just an object for me to look at, but she became a real person. How did this happen?
I’ve thought back on that night several times and wondered why that just noticeable improvement happened. Here’s why I think it did. First, I had been married for over ten years by then. I knew from my wife’s experience how uncomfortable women’s shoes can be sometimes. My marriage was a means of grace for me to grow in God’s grace. Second, I was surrounded by Christians. I had the community around me reminding me constantly not verbally but implicitly who I was called to be. Third, I had been practicing this for thirty plus years. I regularly pray, “God help me to see everyone through your eyes.” That night, God answered my prayer. I saw that “beer girl” as God saw her, a human being in need of a comfortable pair of shoes.
There are two ways to kill the fire of the Holy Spirit in us. The first is to throw water on it. That is to sin, but the second is to remove the fuel. That is to neglect the practices, habits, and disciplines of following Jesus. Do you spend unhurried time with God daily? If you do, you will see just noticeable improvements. You will see the habits of your new nature, your Christian nature begin to move to the forefront more and more, and you will see the old habits of your old self begin to move more and more to the background. Sin remains, but it does not reign.
So what would it look like if you grew to love more perfectly? I’m not talking about absolute perfection. I’m not talking about being at a place where you are never tempted, or can never fall back into sin. I’m talking about being at a place where you are fully submitted to God’s will that you are entirely devoted to God, you love God with everything you’ve got and you love your neighbor as yourself. As you grow in God’s grace what would it look like if you had a fully accurate self understanding in which you knew what you were good at without pride and knew what you were not good at without frustration or envy? If you were patient with others around you born out of a humility of knowing that others are patient with you. If instead of trifling your time away in front of another TV, computer, video game screen you spent your time enjoying the beauty of creation and God’s presence in it? If you didn’t ever worry about what to do next because you fully trusted in God’s leading? If you had no money anxiety because you trusted God by living simply and giving generously? If you were present fully to the people around you, able to love them not because you needed someone to love but because unconditional love flowed naturally from your entire being? If instead of loving the things of this world, you used the things of this world to love God and others? What would your life look like? We’re talking here about not just good enough, not just getting into heaven, but growing in God’s grace so that while sin remains, it does not reign.
If you want to know what it would look like take the famous passage from Corinthians about love and insert your name in the place of “love.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-8
_______ is patient and kind. ______ is not jealous or boastful or proud, or rude. _____ does not demand his/her own way. ______ is not irritable, and keeps no record of when he/she has been wronged. _______ is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. _______ never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. ______’s love will last forever.
Why settle for good enough when there is a more excellent way of love? Why settle for the sin that remains when God’s grace is able to help you overcome the sin that does not reign? Why settle for just getting by when you can spend unhurried time with God every day and grow into the person that God has called you to become?
Gaelen, why do we keep sinning? Because sin remains, but it does not reign. We live in a fallen world and absolute perfection may not be available this side of heaven, but we can grow in maturity wrestling less and less with pride, impatience, anxiety, distrust, greed, hate, idolatry, and the like. We can grow to overcome the sin the sin that remains.
“Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25, NLT).Share on Facebook