Sin and the Growth Process
Back in the 1980s, I remember listening to a minister give his opinion on the recovery movement, which was becoming popular in the church. He was angry. People were getting off to lightly he thought and he was not going to stand for it. I can almost still hear his words today:
“What’s all this stuff about people being ‘powerless’ over their addiction? Don’t you know? This is not what the Bible says! People are free moral agents and responsible for their sin! Don’t give me all this stuff about being powerless. People choose to sin, and they are responsible for their choices! It’s just sin, sin, sin, period.”
The minister was obviously upset at hearing people in recovery talk about Step 1 the 12 Step Process: “We admit that we are powerless over alcohol-that our lives have become unmanageable.” To him, powerlessness was a cop-out. He thought this was letting people off the hook; they needed to admit they were choosing wrong and begin to choose right. They were sinning. They are not supposed to sin. So to him, the answer was clear: Stop it!
I remember thinking about all the addicts I knew who were listening, and I felt sorry for them. His was a message I was sure they had heard before, and it had not helped them very much.
At the same time I thought about both the truth and the error in what the preacher was saying. He was not wrong about addicts’ choices being sin; nearly everyone agrees on that. But his statement that “people are free moral agents and responsible for their sin,” is a loaded one. In this single statement lies much of the problem in how people both look at sin and try to help those struggling with it. The preacher was only half right. People are responsible for sin. People are moral agents.
But this is only part of the truth. The Bible does teach we are responsible and accountable for our sin. It is our problem and no one else’s. But—and this would have been a surprise to the preacher—the Bible’s message is much more devastating and convicting. For the Bible says not only that we are responsible for our sin, but also that we are powerless to keep from sinning. Think about that for a moment: we cannot change, and we are held responsible for not being able to change. This can only lead to one conclusion: Does anyone need a Savior?
I understand what the preacher was thinking, for it would seem that seeing ourselves as powerless and unable to change our lives would get us off the hook, a little like having a genetic illness, (like hemophilia) verses one caused by an unhealthy lifestyle (like cirrhosis of the liver). We usually have more empathy for someone with a genetic problem than we do for someone who has made destructive choices and has contributed to his own illness.
But when we add in the other half—that we are responsible for that which we can’t change—we find ourselves in a much worse shape than the jail cell to which the preacher wanted to send people. In his thinking, people should go to “jail” for making bad choices, but they could avoid jail by choosing differently. And they could get out of jail by repenting and becoming better people. His “tough stance on sin” had a strange kind of hope in it. If we are agents who can choose, then let’s just choose differently! Why allow any pattern in our lives to ever rule us again. Let’s just do better. You can almost hear the motivational speech gather steam in the pews. “Stop being stupid! Don’t let sin ruin your life anymore. Choose life! Make right choices and be successful.”
In the “powerless and responsible” view, you go to jail and have no hope of getting out because you are unable to do better. This is both what the Bible teaches and what any addict will tell you. No matter how many times someone with a compulsive behavior or an internal character problem tries to “just make better choices,” it doesn’t work. Don’t be deluded into thinking that willpower will suffice.
The Bible tells us that we cannot avoid the problems we find ourselves in, we cannot change ourselves once we are in them, and we are held totally responsible and accountable for them. In short, we are in prison, or as the Bible says, we are “slaves to sin.”
That is a much more brutal message than the tough preacher was delivering. But gracefully the Bible does not leave us there. For when we are thrown into prison with no chance of parole, when we are asked, “Does anyone need a Savior?” the Bible gives us one. It is into that prison Jesus comes and tells us he will break us out. This is Good News indeed. When people realize that they are both powerless and responsible, they get serious about seeking help from outside themselves.
First, A Warning
Whenever we talk about sin being a problem in the world of personal growth, we want to make sure you know what we are not saying. We are not saying that a person’s individual sin is the cause of all the struggles and problems he or she might have. All too often in the church, people are blamed for pain and struggles not of their own making.
Job was a great example of this. He had losses and pains he had absolutely no part in creating. In fact, it was his righteousness that placed him in the cosmic contest between God and Satan. He was not suffering because he was bad, but it could be argued, he was suffering because he was good. Who knows the reason for his suffering, really? It is too complex to ever fully understand. Yet we do know that his pain came from losing his family, his work, and his health. These losses were not his doing. He, like all of us, lived in a fallen world where there is suffering we cannot understand.
In addition, people suffer because of the sin of others. We have all experienced—or have had someone close to us who has experienced—long-standing suffering because of the abuse of another person.
So, as we look at the subject of sin, let’s first understand that people suffer and lack growth for other reasons besides their own sin. If we don’t understand this, we may fall into the trap of blaming the hurting person.
A Better Way: Repentance and Living by the Spirit
The Bible gives us a better way—Jesus. While the law (and all our versions of it) cannot help, Jesus can. He replaces living by the law with living by the Spirit. This is the answer to all the problems sin can ever throw at us.
Thus, while the standard is good and the need to make good choices is real, there is only one way to do that: Live according to the Spirit. This means to live according to a relationship and a process that empowers us. So there we are again, back to dependency on God.
To change the areas we want to change, we first have to admit to them (confession) and admit we are unable to change them by ourselves (poverty of spirit). Then we have to be set free by establishing a relationship with him, which takes care of the guilt and condemnation of the law (forgiveness). Then there must be a change of mind and a change of direction about the seriousness of the sin (repentance).
In other words, winning the war over sin includes the entire growth process itself as we live the life the Spirit provides. We have to be doing many things to achieve the victory we need. Significant problems like addictions and other patterns of behavior do not give way to simple formulas such as “That is sin. I won’t do it anymore.” To achieve victory we need to change fully in all of life as we commit to the life of the Spirit.
This truth also explains why patterns of behavior that have not given way to those formulas give way to the process outlined above. When people:
- admit powerlessness,
- ask God and others for help,
- continue to stay plugged into a supportive environment,
- seek healing for their hurting parts of themselves,
- receive deep forgiveness and give that to others,
long standing patterns of problematic behavior do in fact change.This is the way the Bible has described the process we need.
The Medicine of the Gospel
We can’t deal with sin and temptation without confession and repentance. They are assumed in everything this article talks about, for it would be impossible to overcome sin and temptation without them.
The formula for dealing with the sin we commit has been around for a long time: confession, forgiveness, and repentance for the “bad stuff” in our own souls. Also, with repentance comes a turning to the life of God and a filling up the soul with the “good stuff of his life.
Likewise, the formula for dealing with the sin done to us is similar: confession, granting forgiveness, healing the wounds through God’s life, and reconciliation, if possible.
Both kinds of sin require the grace of God, facing the truth about oneself or others, receiving the life we need, receiving and granting forgiveness, and reconciling as much as we can.
There are no new ways of dealing with sin, for God gave us the Way a long time ago. We think this is very encouraging as we look at the prospects of growth from a biblical perspective. There is no rocket science, only the gospel. But what a gospel it is! It is the medicine for the sickness we all possess, and that really is good news.
Taken from How People Grow, © Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Zondervan 2001
This article is part 11 in a series of Feature Articles adapted from How People Grow
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