Struggling with sin is hard! And we all want to feel like we are becoming more like Jesus. That growth of character and heart is what Christians have called “sanctification.” The Bible has much to say about sanctification, especially the letters of the New Testament to the new believers around the Roman empire who had just come to faith.
This growth can be hard. And I think it is made more difficult when we believe wrongly about how we grow as Christians. If I believe that sin is overcome by sheer will-power, then life is going to be quite difficult. I’ve gotten to walk with some folks, recently, for whom victory over a particular sin was slow in coming or who were downright hopeless. As I dug a little deeper, they each seemed to believe, at least subconsciously, that they were losing to sin because they just couldn’t muster enough effort.
At the center of these thoughts is this question: “As Christians, what do we believe about how people change?” And a related question: “What can I do to grow in Christlikeness?” Here’s how I’ve begun to think about this. I’d love to hear your thoughts. I see that there are 3 layers of activity that we need to think about when we consider fighting sin or growing in Christlike character. And these three layers – they accomplish different things. I’ll deal with the 2nd and 3rd layers in a later post, but let’s look at the first one here.
Layer 1 – Boundaries
Often when someone is struggling with a particular sin, they will think through what boundaries they need to establish. If they struggle with drunkenness, they avoid the bar. If the struggle is pornography, the research internet filters, etc. This is a Biblical step. In Proverbs, we are instructed to avoid altogether the temptations of the prostitute for instance: 5:8 Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house. When Paul instructs the Corinthians to “flee” from idolatry or from sexual immorality, it gives the impression of putting a lot of space between us and the object of our temptation. Run! Don’t go near it!
So, we should create boundaries that will help us stay as far from sin as possible. Flee! Sometimes the problem is that we try to choose boundaries that won’t require too much of us. I’ve seen many people choose a boundary that was completely ineffective because they needed much more distance from their sin. For the man addicted to work, changing jobs might be necessary. And that’s demanding. For some women addicted to streaming entertainment, they need to not only remove the TV from their bedroom, but also from the entire house. Flee!
This is a good layer, but this layer does not change your heart. Read that line again because it’s very important. Jesus said, “if your eye causes your to sin, pluck it out,” but it’s clear from the rest of the Sermon on the Mount that it’s not the eye that causes us to sin…it’s the heart! That is where all sin resides. Boundaries do not deal with the heart. Instead, they simply help clear the immediate danger out of our context so that we can then have space to engage in the heart.
Imagine an athlete, perhaps a quarterback in American Football, who injures his shoulder. Before anything can get better he has to stop using his arm. He has to protect it from further external harm. Boundaries are like casts. They don’t make you a good quarterback, but they can create a context in which healing can start.
At the same time, if we think that simply adding internet filters will change the lust in our hearts that drives us to look at pornography, then we are in trouble. Brothers and sisters, the battle has only begun when we’ve built good boundaries. We have a cast, but we are not yet healed and healthy and holy. In Christianity, holiness begins in the heart. It begins by replacing and destroying former loves and former idols. And that is what Layers 2 and 3 are about.