Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.
The sin which doth so easily beset us? What is it? Perhaps I might define it as that thing which you do for just a few seconds when you think no one is looking. For many of us, at least, that might provide a discerning picture into the depravity of our hearts. For others the sin is obvious to all. A man forsakes his wife of decades and chooses a younger replacement. Alcohol calls to a young man, and he awakes to find himself old and bereft of the gifts of life. Alcohol has stolen his life. Those are some of the obvious sins, and I am sure that there are many others, but the besetting sin is not necessarily obvious.
Rather it is the sin which frequently hides itself under the guise of one of our personality traits. With me, having an Irish background, I might excuse my loss of temper by saying, “Don’t mind that, it’s just my Irish temper showing off.” I fear that I did have a bit of a problem with temper when I first became a Christian, but it was not long before I was convicted of my “besetting sin”, which I could not really hide as a personality characteristic. Often the besetting sin is that familiar little whisper in our minds that comes to us as an excuse that we might avoid our duty. It begins ever so softly in my mind, at least, but is strangely persistent and creative in inventing excuses. I find that the only way of overcoming it is to refuse its whisper with the facing of what I ought to do. But God knows how many times that seductive whisper gets through before I recognize it.
Getting out of the presence of sin within our own hearts is not possible this side of the Lord’s return, but the good news is that Jesus left us another Comforter, even the Holy Spirit. There are besetting sins of Christians all around us. We see many of them ending in broken marriages, orphaned or partially orphaned children, and drunkenness. Sometimes pollsters give us alarming statistics, telling us that there is little or no difference in the sin rates of the general population compared to regular churchgoers. “What disheartening reports these are, and surely they do not apply to my church,” we say. But they do. And perhaps the stats are not as accurate in my church, or in yours, and I would hope that was the case, but sin is running rampant in our churches. We turn a blind-eye to judgment; we are told to be tolerant and accepting towards others, and it all becomes more confusing when we know that Christ forgives us totally of sin. But when he gives us forgiveness, it is complete and whole, making us as white as snow. We know that forgiveness applies to others; we hope that it applies to us, but it was never given that we might continue in sin. Jesus, after healing, frequently told the person, “go and sin no more.” The apostles certainly carried that expectation forward into Acts and the epistles. Luther and Calvin and Wesley and Whitefield all agreed on this point at least—that the Christian should demonstrate godly living.
James 1:22 says: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” James teaches that works is supposed to come out of our faith, just as naturally as bread and butter go together. One follows the other, and we see it over and again when we see a genuine conversion. That such a person is changed inwardly manifests itself outwardly, and we are dismayed by those that we see it not happening.
But what are we to think of those whom it does not happen? This I find to be a circumstance that happens all too often. There are two major categories the besetting sin falls into: 1) that which I just spoke about, where the Christian does not seem to be able to escape the pull of sin, 2) and that which the Christian finds victory over, through living in the power of the Spirit.
I am going to examine the first one, the besetting sin which seems to always have victory. I think perhaps that the best way to think about it is when the alcoholic is looked at. Even Christians must walk carefully away from their problems; and alcohol is a problem for many people. Today it is unfashionable to talk about how what was once termed “demon rum” takes over and ruins so many lives, but it actually is ruining many lives all the time. But how do we explain the Christian who seems to so desperately want to leave alcohol and who still seems unable to?
I worked for several years with just such men, alcoholics, many of whom professed Christ, and permanent victory was very hard. Often we would count victory in the time length without alcohol. Some might just make it a few months, while on the outer edge some would make it for a few years without drinking. But one of the major difficulties we had to face in dealing with these men is that they had already ruined their lives, often destroying all family relationships before we ever saw them and started working with them. I am convinced that many of the men that I worked with were as Christian as you or I. Often they were more intelligent than the average, and I have read studies that back that up. But they still seemed unable to find victory.
But if we follow the common path of addiction, perhaps we can understand better why they faced such difficulty. Imagine a very young man taking his first drink. He is at a party, and having fun, and all his friends are doing the same thing. Repeating the experience seems to be the thing to do and before he knows it he has a weekend habit, signaled by his looking forward to Friday, and the “letting loose” that comes with it. Perhaps he is not yet alert to the fact that it is becoming a problem; he still looks at it as if it were entirely normal fun, but in fact what is happening is the early stages of addiction.
Jesus, in one of his last promises to us, told us, “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come” (John 16:13). Notice the statement, he shall guide you into all truth. All truth. But the sad truth is that many Christians do not open their Bibles all of their lives. Others read light devotionals from commentators who we are not sure are genuine Christians, and their theology lacks wholeness, not finding the substance of the whole word of God.
I know professing Christians who have not opened their Bibles in years. Unfortunately, the world knows them too, for often they have allowed themselves to become part of the world, and are totally caught up in one sin or another. It need not be, as outlined above, the sin of alcoholism. A besetting sin can be anything that is allowed to fester, and to infect the body. Like a gigantic cancer that infection can spread outwardly into the body of Christ, his church. I have seen an elder who did not keep his counsel, but spilled his trusted secrets readily to his wife, who devoured them as tasty morsels. You may ask what is the harm in talking to your wife? An elder has many things that he is forced to keep close to his heart, and which he has promised not to share. In this case that I personally know of, in a church long ago and far away, the woman had a besetting sin that she allowed to infect her whole life—the sin of gossip. In this case, she was able to take her gossip, spread it viciously, and ruin a church of several hundred. By the time she was through there were less than ten people left! What damage the besetting sin can do if left unchecked! But thanks be to God, as Paul says, that we can walk no more after the flesh but after the Spirit.
But what about the second case? We should be much more interested in the second case, for do we not all want to find victory over sin?
Our armor comes from being in a wholesome church where the word of God is continually preached, and also from our regular attendance there. How simple is the soul who tells us that he goes to such and such church with such pride, until you ask him where he was the prior Sunday. He was nowhere to be found. He may tell you of the good work his church is doing with the homeless and with school children, but has nothing to say when you ask him where he serves. Does not James tell us, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” (James 2:17, 18). But being in a solid church is just the first step; the next step comes from a lifetime of building an appreciation of the Word of God. “Search the Scriptures,” says our Lord, “for they are they which testify of me.” Is not knowing the Lord the very calling of your life? How can you possibly learn about him if you do not bother to read about him?
And so the process of building the chains that can so easily encircle us is described as one link at a time. We build the sin of gossip one tasty morsel at a time, until we have changed ourselves into something rather frightening. The process of victory over sin is just the reverse: to remove one link at a time. Do not look for quick victory over sin that you have been faithful in building up over a decade. If it took you a decade to build it, it may well take you a decade to tear it down. How much better it is that we are able to reach the young, before they are confirmed in besetting sins, and to tell them of the word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, that the very presence of God may indwell them as they learn to walk and talk and live the faith. How many of us reach the end of our lives with lamenting that we wasted so many years on the unimportant. Let us be zealous therefore to teach the word to the young, that from an early age the children may learn to abide in him, and put aside that sin which does so easily beset. And if you find you have a besetting sin, today is a new day, a day in which you may lay ahold of the power of God, and begin unforging those chains, one link at a time.