On Sunday we began the sermon with some questions from the congregations about the struggled of life and doubts that we have. We asked people attending church to submit questions on an index card, thinking we would get two or three questions. We actually got a bunch. You can hear answers to a couple of those questions at the first part of the sermon. But I also thought I’d answer a few more in the blog this week. So here is the first one.
I have a habit in life that I am not able to kick. I ask God to help me, but for some reason, I keep going back to the habit. Why is this so hard? Is God not hearing my prayers?
I can resonate with this question, because I tend to have a bit of an addictive personality. I have had several issues in life that I tried to quit and overcome. I knew they were spiritual issues for me. In some, I have had some victory, while in others the struggle has lasted long and been tough. One of the difficult things about being over weight is that I wear one of my struggles right in front of me for all to see!
Dealing with addiction can lead to some of the darkest struggles and doubts for any person, but especially for the follower of Christ. There is nothing like religious guilt added to the general guilt from knowing that you are doing something that is bad for you, and that goes against conscience. There is many a story of the person who keeps pitching their cigarettes only to go back and pick them up on the road. Or the guy who has a deep addiction to porn, and sets up all kinds of filters and systems to stop it, but keeps coming up with more creative ways to sneak around the system. Or the young woman who secretly sneaks into the bathroom after every meal, and just cannot overcome the struggle with an eating disorder. No matter what the struggle, habits tend to lead people to feel lonely, helpless, and often abandoned by God. I am not making it my goal here to write on how to overcome addictions (although I will share a few brief things about the path God provides for His people at the end). My goal is to deal with the question of doubt in the midst of the darkness of addictive sin issues.
What often makes this issue so tough is that people who are trapped in addictive behaviors often take steps toward the Biblical exhortations many times. A person feels conviction, and confesses sin, gets themselves into the Scriptures, makes promises to God, and even keeps them for a while. But then, after a while, the old nature of things creeps back up, the person gives in once, and before he or she knows it, the old habit is back, has overtaken him, and they feel trapped again. And, many times this will lead to frustration with self, anger with God, and questions of doubt over whether God exists and loves the person.
So, if this is you, how do you deal with your doubts and questions of faith that arise with the struggle to overcome your habits? The first thing I would suggest is to spend time looking at the comprehensive nature of forgiveness in the cross. As Jesus died on the cross, one of his last declarations was “It is finished (John 19:30).” This was so much more than a declaration that his life was over. In the original language, this statement was a single word, “tetellestai“. In Greek, this word was used as a banking term used after the final payment of a debt had been paid. It would be stamped on a loan agreement, indicating that the debt had been paid in full. This declaration by Jesus on the cross was an announcement of victory, the debt for sin is paid in full! Too often, a habit feels like a mortgage payment that never goes away. Each day, I feel like I have to pay again and again for the the mistakes made as a youth that turned into habits. The guilt is astronomical. I mean, really, if I genuinely loved God, how could I keep doing these things? There must be some sort of penance, right? The great news of the cross is that Christ has paid the debt for the habits in our lives. While they are difficult, and the struggle to overcome habits is great, the love of God displayed on the cross settles the debt forever.
This means that I am eternally accepted in Christ. I am just as accepted when I am failing as when I am in church. The basis of my acceptance is not my ability to overcome sin and my struggles. The basis of acceptance is the sacrifice Jesus made in my place and on my behalf. When a person has this desire to honor God, but they cannot overcome an area of life, the tendency is to feel accepted and loved by God during the times of victory over the habit, but to feel rejected and distant in times of failure and struggle. This is not the Gospel. The great truth is that, if I am a follower of Jesus, I am accepted because of His grace alone, and that acceptance and love is unconditional. it is that unconditional grace and love poured into our hearts that leads to life change. In other words, I do not obey in order to be accepted by God, I am accepted and that leads me to a desire to live in obedience, or as Paul said in Romans 2:4, “it is your kindness. Lord, that leads to repentance.” When a person has deep doubts that arise because of inability to conquer a habit, the doubts are often associated with a sense that God has abandoned the person. If this is you, and you are a follower of Jesus, meditate on the reality that you are accepted, loved, and graced unconditionally, not based on your ability to overcome the habit, but based on the fact that Jesus died to pay the penalty in full, taking the consequences of all sin.
The second thing I would say to a person who loves Jesus, but is struggling deeply to overcome a tough habit is that they need to recognize that the Bible teaches that our greatest weakness is the flash point for God’s grace and strength in life. God uses our greatest weaknesses and struggles to drive His followers to dependance and faith, and then demonstrates himself glorious. If the journey away from our habits and hurts was an easy path, we would get to the end of it and rejoice in our ability to overcome and the strength of our character. But when the journey brings us to the absolute end of self, and the complete denial of any glory to self, it is in these places that God’s grace shout the loudest in us. A great example of this is found in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Paul gives us a glimpse into the depth of his soul as he shares that he had a thorn in his flesh, something that was painful and cut deep. He prayed three times that God would remove the thorn. While I don’t think the thorn was a habit that he could not overcome (many scholars believe it was a physical ailment), the truth found in God’s response speaks directly to the struggle with habits. Jesus said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Nothing reveals the complete weakness and ineptitude of the human heart like a habit that can’t seem to be overcome. But it is this very struggle that can bring a person to the end of self and lead them to fall to the grace of Jesus. It is in the greatest weaknesses that the power of grace is demonstrated in the most magnificent ways.
Two last thoughts about God’s path from struggles with habits. First, learn the art of quick repentance. Be quick in failure to confess sin, and return to God as the solution to your struggle. Second, find strength in community. If you are struggling with habits, you need to be deeply connected to other followers of Jesus, building relationships, and growing in the ability to be transparent. You need to have people who will pray with you, and will be there for you when you fall. This only happens when you live in community over a good period of time. Eventually, in loving community, you can learn to understand what James meant in James 5:16, “Thererfore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a rightous person has great power as it is working.”