Joe called and said he needed help. He was frustrated, he was discouraged, and he wanted to know what he could do.
Joe has had this problem for years. He has prayed about it. He’s wrestled with it in his mind countless times. He’s even fasted in hopes of overcoming this sin. Yet he’s never been able to stay away from committing this sin for longer than a month or two at a time. The pull seems so strong and this angers him, yet he’s been unable to do anything about it.
The phone rings. It’s Mary Jane. She too is crying. It’s been almost a year since she last gave in, but she has done it again. She seemingly cannot stay away from this particular sin. She knows what God says about it. She knows she is wrong, yet she still gives in and then wonders if God will really forgive her.
How often have you experienced something like this in your life? What does it take to really overcome habitual sin? Is it even possible to overcome habitual sin?
Have you ever found yourself saying, “I know the Bible tells me to repent, but I feel as though I have done that many times and yet I’m right back where I started…I don’t know if I can really do this.”
For many people, trying to overcome sin has led to discouragement, frustration and even a defeatist attitude. Why is that? What is the difference between someone who feels that way and someone who experiences peace, happiness and fulfillment as he or she tries to overcome sin?
How Can I Stop the Cycle of Sin?
Let’s ask and answer the question: How can I stop the cycle of sin? Simply put, the answer is through understanding and practicing repentance that works. By that I mean repentance as defined in the Bible as opposed to any other idea or definition of repentance.
Repentance literally means “change.” The Greek word is metanoia, which means change. To repent is to change from sin to belief in and obedience to God.
Although sorrow is a part of the process of repentance, there is considerably more than sorrow. Sorrow is what many people relate to when they think of the term repentance . But as I hope we all know, we can certainly be sorry for all the wrong reasons or motives. There are different types of sorrow. Some sorrow is selfish, but not the sorrow we experience when we are truly repenting.
Repentance that works requires no less than three steps.
Genuine Sorrow Toward God Because of Our Sin
When we are young children, we learn early to be sorry that we have to suffer consequences for disobedience or unwise choices. What we don’t tend to learn for quite a while is to be genuinely sorry to God for sinning against Him.
Notice David’s attitude and frame of mind in Psalms 51:1-4 Psalms 51:1-4 1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness: according to the multitude of your tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight: that you might be justified when you speak, and be clear when you judge.
American King James Version×. As he cried out to God in repentance, he showed that he wanted to be cleansed. He understood that he needed to be cleansed thoroughly . And as verse 4 shows us, he knew exactly who he sinned against.
As a result of knowing and acknowledging this, he showed genuine sorrow toward God as opposed to sorrow for being caught or sorrow that he wasn’t able to have or do something he wanted or sorrow that he no longer had something he once had. His sorrow was because he sinned against God.
There is no possible way you or I can be genuinely sorry and repentant if we do not clearly see that, when we sin, it is the Word of God that we have ignored or forgotten. We offend our Father in heaven, our Eternal, our Creator, our life giver and life sustainer—and that is why we need to correct and change what we have done. Let’s consider an example.
Joe breaks down and gives in to his desire to have an affair with someone. After doing so, he is caught or he feels so sorry that he tells his spouse. But there are different reasons to be sorry.
• He could be sorry that he hurt his wife.
• He could be sorry that he broke up his family.
• He could be sorry that he set a lousy example to his family as well as the person he had the affair with.
• He could be sorry that this will cost him financially.
• He could be sorry that he lost an innocence that he can never have back.
• He could be sorry that others will question whether or not to trust him.
• He could be sorry that he got caught.
• He could be sorry that he is now depressed.
• OR he could be sorry that he sinned against God.
Now obviously there is a chance he could be sorry for all of the above reasons. But repentance that works only occurs when our primary area of focus is that we sinned against God. We may have hurt ourselves and others around us, but the fact remains that we sinned against God—and that must be squarely addressed before any change can or will occur.
Notice Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 7:9 2 Corinthians 7:9Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that you sorrowed to repentance: for you were made sorry after a godly manner, that you might receive damage by us in nothing.
American King James Version×. He told the Corinthians it did not in any way excite him to see them be sorry, unless their sorrow was toward God and led to repentance or change. Verse 10 points out the difference between worldly sorrow and the sorrow found in repentance that works—worldly sorrow leads to death, whereas the sorrow in true repentance leads to salvation.
The thought progresses in verse 11. Simply put, godly sorrow (sorrow toward God) breeds a fire inside us that stirs excitement and diligence and zeal for the truth of God. In turn we grow in faith and we begin to change how we think and how we operate.
By way of an example I believe we can all relate to, I’d like to try and magnify what Paul tells us here.
Example: Let’s say you have a child. For whatever reason your child chooses to disobey you. Now disobedience of parents is bad enough, but additionally in our example, your child is disobeying the Word of God. And to top it all off, he (or she) is struggling with you as the parent because he is convinced that you have hurt him because of your stance.
In other words, the way he sees it, you are not understanding or loving enough so he ends up feeling sorry for himself because he sees you as hurting him. What he doesn’t realize is the hurt he has brought you. You can see the decision he has made is going not only against what you have asked or taught him, but more importantly against what God teaches in the Bible. So while he is feeling sorry for himself, what he does not see is that his decision should lead him to a genuine sorrow toward God.
The point again is this—you and I absolutely, positively will not repent or change until we recognize our sin is against God. This is the beginning of repentance that works.
In the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, notice what he had to learn. In verse 18 he understands that he sinned against God by participating in “wasteful” living.
Another example is that of David in 2 Samuel 12. Verse 13 shows he recognized his sin was against God ahead of anyone else.
Repentance Involves an Inward Repulsiveness to Sin, Followed by the Actual Forsaking of It
Job’s example is one that stands out when considering this point. In the final chapter (chapter 42:1-6) we see Job showing that he understood what he was not aware of when God first allowed him to be tested. He says in verse 6, “I abhor myself.” He was repulsed by sin in him and he was more determined than ever to change what needed to be changed so that he would not continue to sin.
I think all of us can relate to this. I don’t know anyone who professes to be Christian who wants to sin. However, there is an enormous difference between not wanting to sin and not sinning because we hate it.
I’m reminded of a quote from my favorite football coach of the past, University of Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant: “There is a big difference between wanting to and willing to.” He was referring to perseverance on the football field. But this could also be said about overcoming sin. It takes much more than wanting to overcome. We have to be willing to see sin for what it is—a death sentence. Then and only then will we show that we are willing to repent or change and overcome the cycle of sin.
Paul states in Acts 26:20 Acts 26:20But showed first to them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.
American King James Version×that, if we truly repent, our works will show it. They will be “works befitting repentance.” This then raises an important question for each of us. Are we showing through our daily activity a repentant spirit? Are we changing in all the ways we need to? Obviously we are not perfect, yet a Christian continues to strive for perfection nonetheless.
In Matthew 3:8 Matthew 3:8Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:
American King James Version×we see the same words that we saw in Acts 26. A Christian bears fruit worthy of repentance. It’s much more than a wanting to. It is a willing to.
Repentance Includes Humble Self-Surrender to the Will and Service of God
So first comes the recognition that we sinned against God, then comes an inward repulsiveness to sin, followed by the actual forsaking of it. And lastly comes the humble self-surrender to the will and service of God.
As members of God’s family, we should know both what we are to be changing from and into. We are to change from selfishness to selflessness. We are to become a new creation (Ephesians 4:17-24 Ephesians 4:17-24 17 This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you from now on walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind,
18 Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart:
19 Who being past feeling have given themselves over to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
20 But you have not so learned Christ;
21 If so be that you have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus:
22 That you put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;
23 And be renewed in the spirit of your mind;
24 And that you put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
American King James Version×).
Do you remember the stark change in Paul at the time of his conversion (Acts 9:1-6 Acts 9:1-6 1 And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest,
2 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:
4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying to him, Saul, Saul, why persecute you me?
5 And he said, Who are you, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom you persecute: it is hard for you to kick against the pricks.
6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what will you have me to do? And the Lord said to him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.
American King James Version×)? Notice verse 6 where he said, “What do You want me to do?” This is the heart, the attitude, you and I are to have from the time we are called into God’s Church.
“What do You want me to do” is one of the most beautiful phrases in all of the Bible. This is the attitude of a servant of God. This is the frame of mind you and I must incorporate in our daily lives. “What do You want me to do” tells God, “I’m listening and I want to obey You. You show me what I need to understand and how to live because that is all I want to do. I want to do what You want me to do.”
Notice this attitude in Acts 2. Imagine being told and understanding that it was Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, whom you were happy to see crucified (verses 22-24, 29-36). Verse 38 gives the instruction on repentance that is so often quoted. Yet notice that the previous verse (37) shows that beautiful humble attitude, “What shall we do?”
This is such a teachable frame of mind, one that is willing to not only learn, but do whatever it takes to be right with God. This is humility—this is the heart of a servant. This reflects a spirit of repentance, a change from where we once were.
If you are struggling to overcome a certain sin, why not ask yourself, Do I really understand repentance that works, and am I really willing to practice it? Am I truly willing to change?
If we need encouragement in this arena, perhaps we could remind ourselves of the positive lesson in 2 Chronicles 15:1-4 2 Chronicles 15:1-4 1 And the Spirit of God came on Azariah the son of Oded:
2 And he went out to meet Asa, and said to him, Hear you me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin; The LORD is with you, while you be with him; and if you seek him, he will be found of you; but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.
3 Now for a long season Israel has been without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law.
4 But when they in their trouble did turn to the LORD God of Israel, and sought him, he was found of them.
American King James Version×. It is so very important for each of us to never forget that, if and when we truly turn to God in repentance, no matter what the situation, He is there and we will know it. “When in their trouble they turned to the Lord God of Israel, and sought Him, He was found by them” (verse 4).
When you and I show a genuine sorrow toward God because we recognize we sinned against Him, when we have an inward repulsiveness to sin followed by actually forsaking it, and when we humble ourselves and surrender our will and service to God, He will be found by us.
We never need to worry about God not hearing. Repentance that works involves much more than being sorry for what we have lost or for being caught or for being depressed. Repentance that works requires practicing steps that lead to change. UN