A bulwark is a defensive wall. We’ll come back to that in a minute. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who constantly and confidently uses words and phrases out of context? There’s the all too familiar “I literally died of laughter.” Or when you cut that guy off in traffic and he swore he would extract revenge. And conversate. Don’t even get me started on conversate. But oftentimes we talk to people who just fail to understand how the words they are using do not even come close to describing what they are actually doing. Like your friend who thinks that buying new running shoes is the same as training for a marathon. Or the vegan who only eats chicken and fish sometimes. Or your buddy who, after being confronted about his 23rd glass of red wine, tells you to stop being such a legalist. And for my theology nerds, we love correcting “solo fide,” shaking our heads when someone tells us they are fasting today because they forgot to eat breakfast, and making our “Oh Honey” face when someone mentions Elisha being taken up in the whirlwind.
Here’s the thing. Many of us in the church have our own word that we frequently misuse: “struggling.” As in “I’ve been struggling with anger.” Or “I’m really struggling with pornography.” Or “Finding time to read the Word is a real struggle for me.” Now I’m not saying that all of us are misusing the word. I’d never be so precocious (see what I did there?). But many of us need to hear Inigo Montoya’s words to Vizzini: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”
For many of us, “struggling with sin” and “sinning” are interchangeable. It’s simply the language we use to let someone know that we got drunk again and we’re not happy about it. We don’t want to just say that we sinned, that sounds bad. So we say we struggled with sin, yeah, that’s better. Some of us aren’t so liberal with the word. We reserve “struggling” for sins that we’ve been dealing with for a long time. A momentary lapse in judgment that leads to an angry outburst may be a sin, but it certainly isn’t something I’m struggling with. My foul language, now that’s a… darn struggle. But sinning, or even being trapped by sin, is not the same as struggling with sin.
Consider the coyote. You may have heard that when a coyote gets its leg caught in a trap it will gnaw off its own foot to escape. Now, I don’t know if that’s true and spending more than 30 seconds doing a fact check on coyotes just isn’t something I have time for. But, I think we can still learn a thing or two from it. There comes a point when this coyote realizes that it has two choices: die of thirst or bite off its foot. It may seem wise to address practical ways that the coyote could have avoided stepping into the trap in the first place, but I think the vast majority of us are already in the trap, dehydrated and losing blood rapidly. So let’s take some time to address what it looks like to really struggle with your sin, rather than just sitting there in pain, waiting to die. The idea of removing your foot to get out of a trap may seem absurd. And our brains work quickly to talk us out of such an irrational idea. “How will I go through life with only one foot?” “How many of my responsibilities, hobbies, and pleasures will be hindered if I actually do this?” “If people see me with one foot I’ll have to admit that I was stupid enough to walk into this trap in the first place.” “What will I do with all my left shoes?” But every minute we spend talking ourselves out of it brings us one minute closer to death or, perhaps worse, the hunter returning to check his trap. Some of you have already convinced yourselves that under no circumstances would you be willing to sever a limb for the sake of your freedom. A slow, miserable death seems far better than sacrificing a foot and exposing your failure to those around you. Consider, for a moment, the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:29-30:“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
Jesus takes sin pretty seriously. The problem is that many of us don’t. For many of us, our sin is not an atrocious, ugly beast that threatens to kills us. We may talk about it like it’s atrocious; we may think that it’s ugly, but we don’t interact with it like it’s a beast. We treat it more like an overly energetic house pet that needs to be locked in the bedroom when we have guests over. But we keep feeding it, grooming it, and playing with it, all the while saying that we are struggling with it.
If you’re addicted to pornography, stop clearing your search history every morning and calling it “struggling with lust.” If you’re an alcoholic stop going out to bars every night and calling it “struggling with self-control.” If you’re neglecting your wife stop turning on the TV and calling it “struggling to pursue her.” If you’re disrespecting your husband stop belittling, berating, and emasculating him with your words and calling it “struggling with submission.” Get honest with yourself. You’re not struggling with anything. You’re handing your sin an ax and laying your head down on a wooden block. We are called to resist sin even to the point of shedding blood. We are called to follow our Savior who fought sin to the point of death, even death on a cross. Struggle with your sin. Fight it. Battle it. Kill it or it will kill you. Check out the first verse from Martin Luther’s hymn: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.
A mighty fortress is our God
A bulwark never failing
Our helper he amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe
His craft and power are great
And armed with cruel hate
And on earth is not his equal.
We don’t often talk about Satan the way Luther does in this hymn. But the reality is we have an enemy. Like a roaring lion prowling around for someone to devour as the apostle Peter put it. And left to ourselves he would sink his teeth into us and rip us apart. He is not weak; he is not imaginary; he is not able to be conquered by any strength or skill of man. But he is not the Victor. Christ is the Victor. Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus has defeated sin, Satan, and death. And the same Spirit that was in Christ as he endured the torment of the cross lives in you. Living in you is the same Spirit that was in Christ as he stepped out of the tomb and snapped the jaws of death. You can’t just will yourself to start battling with sin, and even if you could, you would lose. But you can rely on the Spirit, Word, and Church of God to strengthen and equip you for war. Here’s what Scripture tells us about going to war with our sin.
Take every thought captive. See 2 Corinthians 10:3-5.
I’ve never met a drug addict who slipped and fell onto a needle and I’ve never met a married man who slipped and fell into the bed of another woman. Your actions follow your thoughts. If your mind is heading off into sin your feet will follow. Pay attention to the things you are thinking about. Christ does not call us to follow Him when we feel like following Him. Christ does not call us to passively disengage our minds. Christ calls us to think (Philippians 4:6; Romans 8:5-6; Colossians 3:1-3)!
Your actions will follow your thoughts. Set your mind on sin and your body will follow. Set your mind on Christ and your body will follow. We are being conformed to the image of Jesus, not by our own strength and effort, but by the love and power of God (Romans 8:29).
Don’t follow your heart. See James 1:14-15.
James tells us some insightful things about our desires and how they inevitably kill us. Desire conceives and gives birth to sin. Sin, when it is full grown, brings death. Basically, your desire is like a prostitute that you knock up, and after she gives birth, the kid grows up to kill you. Great movie plot? 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, easy. Great life story? Absolutely not. Master your desires. Stop them before they get into the backseat of the car.
Read what the apostle Paul says about the passions of his flesh in 1 Corinthians 9:25-27. Paul isn’t talking about his physical appearance. He’s talking about his desires. Notice that he doesn’t deny that he needs discipline. Paul is not foolish enough to believe that all of his desires, motives, and thoughts will be pure. In our war against sin one of the most useful things we can learn is that we want some very unhealthy things. The infant who desires to know what the red circles on top of the stove feel like. The 15 year olds who desire to take their relationship to the next level. The husband who desires another woman. The CEO who desires more money than she earned at the expense of her employees. We desire bad things. The truth is, in many of our desires, we’re still infants reaching for a hot stove. If you’re looking to your heart for direction, you’re looking in the wrong place. As followers of Christ we rely on His Spirit, His Word, and the counsel of His Church to guide us into holiness.
Don’t start cutting off body parts.
If you’re about to take a sledge hammer to your computer monitor or schedule an appointment with an optometrist to remove an eye, please, read on. Let me introduce you to Origen, an overzealous 2nd Century theologian who is said to have castrated himself to eliminate sexual temptation. Let me be very clear, I am firmly planted in the “Don’t castrate yourself” camp. I realize this is just the opposite of what Origen was going for, but there is something sexy, exciting, and rockstar-esque about a guy willing to castrate himself for the sake of holiness. We love grand gestures. And throwing your computer out the window is way easier than actively setting your mind on the things of God. Cutting out your tongue is way easier than speaking the truth in love. And as Origen found out, there’s a lot more to resisting sexual temptation than castrating yourself. God isn’t scoring you on how many R-rated movies you throw away or how many limbs you hack off. He’s after your heart. So yes, if you’re addicted to pornography, put safeguards on your computer and find accountability. If you have a drinking problem, get rid of the alcohol in your house. But don’t be so distracted by the grand gesture of cutting off your hand that you ignore the fact that your heart is rotting.
Know what you’re fighting for.
The sad reality is that many of us don’t war against our sin because we simply don’t see it as a pressing issue. We are not compelled by the beauty and majesty of Jesus to lay down our lives for the sake of His Gospel. We may attempt to cover up the symptoms. We may hope that marriage, money, health, knowledge, power, friendship, or work are what we need to motivate us to finally take our sin seriously and get out of it. They aren’t bad things, they just can’t save us. If Jesus is not the driving force behind your struggle against sin you will either lose every battle or become puffed up with pride when you experience victory. Listen, you are not enough to be the reason you fight your sin, and neither is your marriage, or your body, or your children, or your job. Jesus must be the motivation, strength, and prize in our battle against sin. We don’t fight for the sake of fighting. We don’t fight for the sake of morality. We fight because Jesus is worth the fight.
Let me close this article with another verse from Luther’s hymn:
If we in our own strength confide
Our striving would be losing
Were not the right man on our side
The man of God’s own choosing
You ask who that may be
Christ Jesus, it is He
The Lord of hosts His name
And age to age the same
And He must win the battle