Hope for When Sin Feels Unconquerable
Before my feet hit the cold morning floorboards, I was already discouraged. There was a part of me that didn’t want to get out of bed, knowing that the day was already set for failure. The night before I had cried myself to sleep, considering all the ways I had given way to anxiety.
It began with a biblical self-counseling assignment. I was working towards my BA in Biblical Counseling online, and I had loved every moment of it until now. Our professor assigned a self-counseling project in which we had to choose an issue in our lives to work on like road rage, fingernail chewing, procrastination, specific fears, etc. I have struggled with anxiety the majority of my life, and this assignment gave me a new hope that had long ago burnt out—that I could be free from my struggle.
But this project did not bring me the relief I desired, but rather increased my anxiety to a new high. Now I was faced with overcoming my anxiety for the sake of a grade, and progress was absent. Crying at my desk, I daily wrote down each of my failures to overcome anxiety from the day before. Hot tears slid down my cheeks as I wrote down all the things I tried to do to persevere against anxiety, but had failed once again.
One day in the midst of frustrated tears, I closed my journal and decided not to write about my struggle that day. And I did so the following day, and the next, until an entire two weeks passed without touching my self-counseling project. I secretly wished I would be forced to drop out of school so that I wouldn’t have to finish that project.
Maybe you don’t struggle with anxiety like I do, but you have a different struggle in mind. You hate the feeling of failure that washes over you each day. Maybe you too easily burst into fits of anger. Maybe you struggle to put down the food even though you aren’t hungry anymore. Maybe you fight against people pleasing on a daily basis. And though you so desire to change, studying God’s Word and striving to be obedient to him in each step, this battle never seems to end.
In the midst of this struggle, we can feel like failures as believers. We become ashamed to bring it to God in prayer because we know we are going to fail yet again. Some days it may even feel like God has turned away from us and left us to struggle alone. Friend, I know these feelings well. And I want to offer you hope in the midst of this struggle, reminding you of sanctification and the gospel.
Our Battleground—The Process of Sanctification
As a perfectionist, my temptation is to see struggling as a failure. In my perfect world, I would be able to implement what Scripture says about my daily struggles immediately, and then move on, never to stumble in this way again. But that’s not how sanctification works.
Progressive sanctification is a slow process of ups and downs. We are obedient for a time, and then we fail for a time. We fall, we rise. It’s never a perfectly straight line rising to the top. This isn’t a weakness on God’s part, but ours—though we have been freed from sin, we are still living in our sin-tainted bodies. While we walk on this earth, we will not be immune to sin.
Paul the apostle experienced this same struggle with us. In Romans 7, Paul openly writes about this battle against sin and his desire to be obedient:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:15-20 ESV)
In my struggle against anxiety, I expected perfection from myself. I had a skewed version of what sanctification should look like. As much as I would like to be completely sanctified and holy immediately, I know that I never will be on earth. I am reminded by Paul’s struggle against sin that I am not alone in my battle. I am no less of a believer. I am not a failure in the faith. But rather, I am striving along with the rest of the body of Christ to defeat sin and live to righteousness.
Our Hope—We Are Not Alone
Reading through Romans 7, it may sound like a hopeless process. We can expect, like the apostle Paul, to fight against sin and difficulty the rest of our lives. But Paul doesn’t leave it there. He cries out our greatest hope in the midst of his great anguish:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” (Romans 7:24-25)
Paul recognized that he, nor anyone else, could save him from this battle. No behavior modification, no step-by-step process, no friendship, no spiritual leader could save him from the battle he fought daily. In humble proclamation he declares that it is only through Jesus Christ. Because of his sacrifice on the cross, his defeat of death and sin, and his power living inside of the believer, through the Holy Spirit we can get through this battle.
This is not to say that we will ever reach a point of perfection. We learned from Paul that we are in the flesh until death, which means living in the stench of sin. Only by the power of Christ can we find hope for the ability to be obedient and live in freedom. The only reason we can ever have victory over sin is because of Christ’s work on the cross and his life inside of us.
Our hope continues on—he will not leave us where he found us. Philippians 1:6 says that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Our hope is that Christ will never abandon us in this battle. He will keep working on our hearts and growing us in obedience until the day he takes us home and finally perfects us, doing away with the sin remnant.
We all struggle against sin. Even Paul did. Find joy in the grace of the gospel, and remember that sanctification is a process accomplished in God’s timing. We are all slowly crawling towards Christlikeness until the day of glorification in heaven. Don’t compare your journey to others’, but focus on being obedient to God in the day-by-day, moment-by-moment steps.
I still fight against anxiety. Though I am not crippled by it like I used to be, it still haunts me. I still struggle with worrying about our finances, our coming child, my health, and what people think about me. But God is working in my heart and he is, in his timing, conforming me to Christ. In the days when I worry less, I thank God for strengthening me. In the days when worry overwhelms me, I repent, find hope in God, and do the next thing in obedience.