Victory Over the Besetting Sin
How to Deal With Temptation
Many Christians who desire to serve the Lord struggle with some besetting sin in their lives, some lust of the flesh that causes them to keep falling to the same old sin time after time leaving them with a guilty conscience and a feeling of shame which ruins their fellowship with the Lord.
I am writing this article to give some practical advice in how to overcome this problem.
First, however, we must understand our position in Christ. It is very important that we understand what Christ has done for us before we enter into spiritual warfare. God has given us precious promises in order that through them we will partake ‘of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4).
The devil will tempt us to sin, then when we do sin he will condemn us. However, if we know the Word of God, we will know that the precious blood of Jesus Christ was shed to cleanse us from all sin: past, present and future (see 1 John 1:7, Revelation 12:11). God does not condemn us, He forgives us. He loves us and makes a way for us to over-come temptation.
If we go to Romans chapter seven we find Paul writing there that the things he wants to do he cannot do and the things he doesn’t want to do he finds himself doing. He cries out “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me out of this body of death?” (v24 JND), then he goes on to say “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v25); he then moves on to chapter eight which is about living in the Spirit. I used to think: Why didn’t he explain it a bit better than that?!
Let us now look at 1 John 3:9 where it says that ‘whoever has been begotten of God does not practise sin, because His seed abides in him, and he cannot sin because he has been begotten of God.’ (JND)
Also 1 John 5:1-5 says that, ‘Every one that believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God … for all that have been begotten of God get the victory over the world; and this is the victory … [even] our faith.’ Then in verse 18 he says, ‘We know that everyone begotten of God does not sin … .’ (JND)
We see that John is saying that anyone born of God cannot sin. What Paul tells us is that we are not only spirit (which is born of God) but also flesh, and where the spirit side of us cannot sin the flesh can still sin. Then he goes on to say that it is no longer him that is sinning but it is the sin that dwells in the flesh. In other words he makes the stand that he is begotten of God and therefore cannot sin; it is not him but the old sin nature in the flesh and he distances himself from it. By faith he stands on the fact that he is a new man; that is who he now is. He does not align himself with the old man but the new man.
In 1 Corinthians 15:56-57 we read, ‘The sting of death is sin and the power of sin the law; but thanks to God who gives us the victory by our Lord Jesus Christ.’ This is similar to what he said in chapter 7 of Romans ‘I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (v25), but here he has added that God gives us the victory over sin through Jesus Christ.
Paul can thank God because God has given him the victory and that victory is his faith. As John says in 1 John 5:4 ‘For all that has been begotten of God gets the victory over the world; and this is the victory which has gotten the victory over the world, our faith.’ Paul wasn’t waiting until he stopped sinning to thank God, no, he believed God had given him the victory and he thanked God for it before he saw the change in his be-haviour.
What we must recognise is that when we believe on Jesus we are a brand new crea-ture, old things have passed away and all things have become new. When we sin it is not us but the old nature and God has put within us self-control which is part of the fruit of the Spirit.
The Bible tells us that we must stop functioning by the old nature and the things that are a result of that nature must be put aside.
‘Put off the old man … and put on the new man’ (Ephesians 4:22-24).
‘Lay aside … the sin which so easily besets us’ (Hebrews 12:1).
‘By a once for all act, and at once, put to death your members which are upon the earth: fornication, impurity, depraved passion, wicked craving, and avarice which is of such a nature as to be idolatry ... but now put away once for all, and at once, also all these things: a habitual, revengeful anger, violent fits of anger, malignity, slander, ob-scene speech out of your mouth. Stop lying one to another …’ (Colossians 3:5-9 in Kenneth S. Wuest’s Expanded Translation of the New Testament).
‘Wherefore putting away lying, speak everyman truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another. Be ye angry and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: neither give place to the devil. Let him that stole steal no more …’ (Ephesians 4:25-31).
1 Peter 2:11 tells us to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul. Is this possible or impossible? Do we abstain or give in to them? One part of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control (Galatians 5:23 JND & NKJV), so we do have self-control within; therefore let us exercise it in our lives. Peter tells us in 2 Peter 1:5-6 to give ‘all diligence’ to ‘add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge’, and ‘to knowledge self-control ’ (NKJV), so we must persevere in self-control.
Galatians 5:16 tells us to ‘walk in the Spirit,’ and we ‘shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.’ God’s will is that we have put on the armour of God in order that we walk in the Spirit: the devil on the other hand wants us to live our lives in the flesh. Prayer and God’s Word help us to walk in the Spirit, and I might add to that, good fellowship with other believers (see Matthew 6:13, 26:41, 2 Peter 2:9, Ephesians 6:10-18, Hebrews 10:25). The devil, however, comes along with temptations in order to keep us participating in the lusts of the flesh.
Now we all go through times of temptation. When we resist we break the cycle of defeat. When Jesus was baptised in water the Holy Spirit descended on Him and He went out into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. He then returned out of the wilderness in the power of the Spirit to Galilee. So often when a person gets saved the initial experience is wonderful as the Lord blesses them, then they will go through a period when it seems that the Lord has put them to one side and instead of the bless-ings of God there is nothing. They feel empty and forsaken of God, so much they want to live for God yet without Him they can do nothing. This is a very important time in their Christian lives as God is bringing them to the end of self and to complete reliance on Him. Christ was forty days in the wilderness, Moses was there forty years; there is no specific time period for this wilderness experience but it can take many years of a Christian’s life.
It is important to note that Christ met each temptation with the Word of God. This is a template for us. It is not an empty dead word but a living specific word given to us by the Spirit and spoken by us against the adversary. It is during this time that the Christian learns to overcome.
The first thing is to understand the source of temptation; it can be the world, the flesh or the devil (or, most likely, all three working together).
If it is the temptation of the world then remember that we are told to ‘love not the world, neither the things that are in the world’ (1 John 2:15). The world consists of ‘the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’ (v16).
The world rejected Jesus and crucified him. We cannot have both. ‘Friendship with the world is enmity with God’ (James 4:4 JND). It is faith in Jesus that overcomes the world (see 1 John 5:4-5). Faith clings to Jesus, whom the world hates.
If it is the sinful nature in the flesh then we are to reckon ourselves ‘dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 6:11 JND). When we start to reckon ourselves dead to sin we have moved into spiritual warfare and the flesh and the devil will be out to prove that we are not dead to sin in order to undermine our faith in this truth. Christians often seem to struggle with reckoning they are dead to sin; they don’t feel
it is true so they won’t confess it. They have no faith to believe the Truth which will set them free.
If temptation is of the devil then we are to resist the devil (see James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:9).
Our adversary, Satan, who is the devil and the prince of this world, goes around like ‘a roaring lion’ ‘seeking whom he may devour’ (1 Peter 5:8). He is also the slanderer of God’s people, tempting them and accusing them day and night. We must be aware that he also acts like an angel of light seeking, if possible, to deceive the very elect.
Satan is the prince of the power of the air and as such reigns over the lower atmos-phere. He is the god of this world who demands worship from the people in bondage to him.
Although Satan is very active today he is restricted to what he can do because of the death of Christ on the cross. His problem is those people who put their confidence in Christ. His aim is to deceive them, condemn them and to undermine their faith in the finished work of Christ and all it means. Satan is out to overcome the Christian; how-ever it is the Christian who is to overcome Satan.
The Apostle John wrote to the young men because they had ‘overcome the wicked one’ (1 John 2:13-14). He says that they have overcome the wicked one and the Word of God abides in them. This is also how Jesus overcame, by the Word of God, which is the sword of the Spirit. We use the Word of God in order that we sin not.
James, Peter, and Paul use a different word to overcome, they used the word ‘resist’.
1 James 4:7 says, ‘Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.’
2 1 Peter 5:6-9 says, ‘Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time: casting all your care on Him; for He cares for you. Be sober; be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith.’
3 Paul says in Ephesians 6:12-13, ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.’
The word ‘withstand’, used by Paul in verse 13, is a translation of the same Greek word which is translated in James and Peter as ‘resist’. We fight our warfare by resisting.
J N Darby makes a very interesting comment concerning 1 Peter 5:6-9. He says to “be ‘humbled’, also ‘vigilant’, ‘watch’ and ‘resist’, refer to characters to be won. They are to act in this character, or have it by acting” (i.e. by doing it). “It is not simply an exhortation to do it, but to acquire that character by doing it” (from the notes to his New Translation of The Holy Scriptures for those verses).
We will never have an overcoming character unless we acquire it by putting it into practice.
The wilderness experience is the time when we must learn to overcome the tempta-tions by resisting the wrong thoughts that we might have.
It is important that we deal with the temptation in the thought stage. William Mounce says that, ‘For the Christian who daily jousts with sin, the battle is won or lost in the mind, not in the physical members.’ (Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, page 451)
The Bible says, ‘For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).
How Does Temptation Affect Us?
Let us now look at how temptation affects us. The first place that temptation attacks us is in the mind, in our thoughts. If we entertain those thoughts for a second then we are on the slippery slope. The longer we entertain the thoughts we will experience the same emotional feelings as if we are indulging ourselves in the flesh. Sometimes an incident from the past which involved negative emotions will be triggered in our memory and all the past feelings and emotions will resurface. These may be hate, an-ger, fear, lusts, or just carnal worldly pleasure that we might find ourselves entertain-ing longer than we should by reliving the incident in our minds. Immediately a wrong thought comes to our mind we need to stop and refocus our mind. Turn to Jesus and thank Him for all He has done. The Bible gives us a wonderful promise that if we ‘rejoice in the Lord’, and make our request ‘known to God’ ‘by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving’, then ‘the peace of God’ ‘will guard your hearts and thoughts by Jesus Christ, so whatsoever is honest, just, pure, and lovely to think on those things (Philippians 4:4-8). God will keep our hearts and thoughts from sinning if we rejoice with prayer and thanksgiving. We must also think on things that will produce the fruit of the Spirit in our minds, love, joy, peace, … meekness, etc. (Galatians 5:22-23). To resist that wrongful thought by the strength of the flesh will only feed the sinful thought until it overcomes us and we fall into sin; it is better to turn our mind to something else. If we find some temptation easily besets us then the second we recognise the temptation we should turn to God for deliverance.
Research has shown that obsessive thoughts cause a brain pattern to develop which is like a groove in a record which the needle gets stuck in. The way out and the way to change the brain pattern is not to give in to the urges. Eventually the brain will change its pattern and the obsession will lose its strength. (Brain Lock by Jeffrey M. Schwartz)
The way we resist is not by meeting it head on and thereby thinking about it, but rather to use it as a trigger to cause us to turn to Jesus Christ to thank Him and tell Him that we love Him. The brain is affected when we habitually sin and therefore will follow the same pattern of sin when something triggers it off, but its pattern can be changed over
time by not responding to the obsessive thought. Recognise the things that trigger wrong thoughts and avoid them where possible. Try to avoid situations that will cause you to sin. Flee from things that will encourage the lusts of the flesh. We need to refocus our mind on Jesus by telling Him that we love Him. We need to devalue the wrong thoughts by recognising what the consequences of them shall be, they are the sin which easily entangles us and causes us shame and grief until we put them right in the Lord. The Bible tells us to renounce ‘the hidden things of shame’ (2 Corinthians 4:2 AV then JND). The word ‘renounce’ can also be interpreted ‘forbid’. W E Vine says that ‘The meaning to renounce may therefore carry with it the thought of forbidding the approach of things disowned.’ (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words).
Count the cost, it just isn’t worth it.
Breaking the Habit
So we see that once we have started a pattern of habitually sinning it imprints it on the brain; however that imprint can be changed by not responding to the temptation. Yes it is hard but it must be resisted in order to change the brain pattern. Once we change the brain pattern the effect will be to reduce the power of temptation in that area. Initially there will be strong inclinations to give in to temptation; as we resist then the strong inclinations will decline and leave us alone for a time (they do come back to try again but resistance to them will causes them to flee). The second that we recognise we are entertaining a wrong thought we must cut it off and refocus on Jesus, giving Him thanks for saving us. This is an important point to make; victory over sin is either gained or lost in our thoughts. If we allow the temptation to gain a foothold in our thoughts then the battle is lost.
The whole issue of whether or not we will give in to sin or not depends on what we do with the initial thoughts of temptation; if we entertain them then it is most likely that we will be defeated again. The way into victory is to stop the thought the instant we realise what is happening and to turn our mind onto Jesus with joy and thanksgiving at what Jesus has done for us. It takes the mind off the temptation and onto the Saviour (see Romans 7:25). Thanksgiving then brings the assurance to our hearts that the victory is won. Thanksgiving lifts the spirit out of heaviness and into victory.
Thanksgiving causes the lips to praise the Lord (see James 1:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Ephesians 5:20, Psalm 100:4). So, resist temptation and give thanks to God.
Let me repeat the important point. When we resist temptation then the brain pattern which maintains the habit will diminish, releasing us from the habitual pattern of re-sponding to the temptation by giving in to it. Once the habit is broken then we must maintain the resistance so as not to allow it to become powerful in our lives again. Now that the temptation is resisted it will leave for a season. Yes, it will keep coming back after long breaks, but if we resist it then it will leave again. We need to replace the sinful habit with new habits of reading the word and prayer. It is no good sweeping the place clean and leaving it empty. The way we resist is by the word, prayer and refocusing the mind on Jesus with thanksgiving.
Prayer of course is very important; we need to start each day recognising that without Christ we can do nothing. In the course of the day we will be faced with situations that will cause a reaction within us. Many people will bring the worst out of us, especially when we are not prepared for them. The temptation will be to react to them in the same manner that they have acted towards us. Christ taught the disciples to pray ‘lead us not into temptation’ (Matthew 6:13). Before we face the world each day we need to ask God to keep us from temptation. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus told his disciples to ‘Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation’ (Matthew 26:41).
Finally, if we sin we grieve the Spirit; we have a guilty conscience, and our fellowship with God is affected. It is restored as we confess our sins to God (see 1 John 1:9). Jesus Christ is our advocate with the Father, standing on our behalf; He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world.
© Mark Greenwood
Special thanks to Keith Cline for the work he has done for me in editing this article and for his advice and input.
Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are from the Authorized Version of the Bible (AV). Extracts from the Authorized Version of the Bible (the King James Version), the rights in which are vested in the Crown, are reproduced by permission of the Crown’s Patentee, Cambridge University Press.
In a few places ‘old’ AV words have been replaced by more current ones, e.g. ‘exalts’ instead of ‘exalteth’.
JND A New Translation from the Original Languages by John Nelson Darby 1867, 1884 & 1890
NKJV The New King James Version Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission.
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