"For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith" (1 John 5:3-4, NASB).
If you are a Christian, are you even trying not to sin?
This question was originally going to come up as part of a larger series on theology of sin. However, I don’t think that whole piece will be finished anytime soon, and I realized this was a question worth asking even before all my ducks are in a row on that front.
For you see, different Christians will have different ideas about what acts (and omissions) are sin, how much believers sin, how realistic it is for Christians to be righteous in their daily life, etc. If you ask a given believer how much they still sin, you will get wildly different answers. Some will say they sin all the time. On the other hand, some will say almost never. You may even have those who say they have achieved perfection and don’t sin at all anymore. Many are in between the extremes. And I think this has more to do with one’s theology of sin than how one actually lives his or her life. Those who say they sin all the time are usually not any more sinful than those who disagree; rather, they are usually just in the camp that considers much more to be sinful than those who say they rarely sin. You know the type. Every moment they aren’t thinking specifically about God is a violation of the command to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Every time they get slightly annoyed at someone for any reason they believe they are nit being Christlike, and so forth.
And others would disagree. Others would say that God never intended His commands to be literally impossible for even the redeemed and regenerate to follow for even a day. And those that take this route are understandably going to think they sin less because they think fewer acts are sinful to begin with.
For myself, I tend to side with the latter group (as you might have imagined by my quoting of a Bible passage that says that God’s commands aren’t burdensome). But even though I have not made my case for that position, or unpacked the aforementioned passage (which even I think has some degree of nuance), I nonetheless can ask a question that is relevant to all believers, regardless of their theology of sin:
Are you even trying not to sin?
It seems like we would expect all believers to try to not sin. It seems like we should take for granted that, although sometimes believers will sin (and I don’t think the Bible makes any bones about that), nevertheless as a matter of practice we would all be trying not to. I feel like I shouldn’t even have to cite scripture to make the point that sin is bad and that you have to at least try not to do it. It’s just obvious. It’s fundamental to being a godly person and loving God in any meaningful way. Sin, by definition, is evil and so you shouldn’t do it. That said, several passages about avoiding sin do come to mind (e.g. Mark 9:43-48, Romans 6:1-14, Hebrews 10:26-31, 1 John 3:4-10).
But that said, are you actually trying not to sin? We may have disagreements over sin, but I am not talking about things that you might not think are sinful that others will say are sinful. I am simply asking you, the reader, if you are trying to not do the things that you yourself think are sinful. That’s all.
Although this does not apply only to them, this is especially relevant to those with a theology of sin that tends to be more on the side of lots of seemingly innocent acts being sinful. You say many things are sinful. Are you thus avoiding those things?
Let’s say you are giving a sermon about the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself. In that sermon, you cite an example of your own failure to follow this command by eating out with your wife, spending more money than was necessary to feed yourselves, and in doing so, you didn’t have as much money to donate to charity to help those who do not have enough to eat. Well, if you believe that it is a sin to eat out with your wife like you did, then are you going to live like this is so and avoid going out to eat with your wife from now on? Are you going to actually repent? Or, next weekend, when opportunity presents itself, are you going to go do the exact same thing you just said was a sin? If you say it is a sin, then why would you ever choose to do it again? And it isn’t that hard to avoid eating out. It may be hard in the sense that you really want to do it, but you usually have to be pretty intentional about going to a restaurant and ordering food. It isn’t simply a sin of the mind when you let your guard down. You have to choose to do it. So if you think it is sin, are you choosing to not do it anymore?
Or let’s say you are talking to an unbeliever about Jesus, and in doing so, you point out that we all sin and need Jesus. As an example, you point to just earlier that morning when you spent $5 on a Starbucks latte. You didn’t need that latte to survive. And if you really needed caffeine to be productive, you could have made coffee at home for under a dollar. Plus you didn’t really need all those empty calories, so it was bad your body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit (there is much I could say about 1 Corinthians 6:19 but that’s something for another time). So, you point to it as an example of you sinning by wasting money on frivolous (and unhealthy) pleasures for yourself instead of helping the poor. Okay, well, if that is your belief, then from now on, are you going to avoid going to Starbucks for a $5 latte? If you really think it is a sin, then why would you ever do it again? And again, spending $5 on a latte at Starbucks isn’t a sin of the heart; it is an overtly intentional act that takes time and effort to do.
Or maybe you say having a big meal at an all-you-can-eat buffet is a sin because of the amorphous and biblically vague concept of gluttony (again, plenty to say for another time). Okay, well, are you therefore going to stop going to buffets? Or, if you think it is possible to go to that buffet and not be gluttonous, are you going to try not to be gluttonous the next time you go (issues of wisdom and avoiding temptation not withstanding)? Or, are you going to continue going regularly and overeating, doing what you say is sin, and then just bringing it up as an example of how you are imperfect?
If it is sinfully failing to love your neighbor as yourself if you do not give money to every homeless person who asks, then do you give money to every homeless person you come in contact with (assuming you have cash on you)? Again, if you think it is a sin to not do so, then why would you ever not do so? Or, maybe you up the ante and say that you and everyone else is failing to love their neighbor as themselves because if you really loved your neighbor as yourself, you’d be letting homeless people you meet on the street live with you. Fair enough. While space makes it impossible for you to let every homeless person you see live with you, why aren’t you housing even just one? If you really think that you are guilty of violating God’s commands and sinning by not housing homeless people, why are you not housing even one homeless person? It’s one thing if you have a good reason that justifies not doing it – but if that is the case, if it is justified, you couldn’t say it is a sin anymore, could you? But you just said it is a sin to not let homeless people live with you. So why are you not letting homeless people live with you?
Of course, I don’t want to pick on only those who think many things are sinful. Even those with a theology of sin that is, for lack of a better word, less sensitive, it is important that you try not to sin. If you are engaged to be married to an unbeliever, don’t feel bad about it and apologize to God for it every Sunday at church. Instead, call of the engagement. Otherwise your “repentance” is meaningless. Do you feel bad every time you have premarital sex with your girlfriend? Again, don’t bother apologizing to God if you aren’t willing to stop doing it.
I am focusing on overt, intentional acts here because these tend to be the easiest things to avoid. You have to make an actual effort to do these thinks that you think are sinful. Looking at a young woman’s butt as she walks by in yoga pants and crossing that sometimes difficult-to-find line between sinful lust and simply having eyes is something to avoid as well, but it is not nearly so clear-cut or intentional. Stuff like that is as much about simply letting the sin still in our hearts show itself rather than making a willful choice. If you can’t avoid the overt stuff like buying that $5 latte that you equate with stealing bread from the mouths of starving children, how can you ever expect to grow in holiness with the hard stuff?
At the end of the day, if there is an act that you think is sinful, and you keep doing it even though it is an overt act that requires a willful decision, why are you doing it? You must ask yourself that question. Why are you doing it?
If you really think it is a sin, and yet you keep doing it by choice, then you are willfully rebelling against God. Sin isn’t a badge of honor or a great way to relate to the unreached. If you are making a willful choice to keep doing what you think is sinful, then you better turn things around, and fast!
Or, quite possibly, deep down in your heart you don’t actually believe that many of these things you do that you say are sinful really are sinful. Maybe factors like evangelical tradition, Romans 3:23 inspired evangelism tactics, and our rightful understandings of our own personal imperfections and need for Jesus have pushed the pendulum too far in one direction. I’m not talking about anyone overtly lying. Humans are complex and fallible creatures who often get things wrong without intending to. In certain contexts, it is seemingly helpful to have a minor personal sin to point to (like when evangelizing or preaching). Maybe you heard a preacher say you would let homeless people live with you and would stop eating out if you really loved your neighbor, and so when you needed a convenient sin to confess, it came to mind. Maybe we have just become trained to think this way without thinking through the implications of what we are saying.
Whatever the case, just make sure your actions are consistent with the beliefs you profess. If they aren’t, then at least one of those two things is probably wrong.