Story 1: There was this winter retreat when I was in high school at which I heard the most amazing message. I still remember it to this day. Just wow.
Story 2: I was in high school and went to a winter retreat mostly because I was a desert-dwelling kid who wanted to play in the snow. Not to mention there was this boy there named Benjamin on whom I had the most massive crush that ever was (I mean, he was nice, funny, at a Bible retreat, and played the piano!). While there, I heard a really powerful sermon from which I learned a lot. Years later, when I think of that retreat, I remember how my shoes weren’t built for the snow, how the girls from our church just wanted to take pictures instead of actually do anything, and how much I loved listening to that amazing guy (now my husband) playing Fireflies on the piano. I do actually still remember the sermon, but mostly because I think it’s so cool that I remember a specific sermon from so long ago…
I think I’m sticking with story #1… ; )
The other day, I was randomly thinking about that retreat again, and I realized how glad I am that I remember more than just the fun or the swooning. Although my reasons for remembering the sermon aren’t the best, it did mean a lot to me at the time, and it still speaks to things I am dealing with today, right now.
And because I am sure it speaks to things you are dealing with today, right now, too, I’ll give you a glimpse into the truth I heard there.
After we had all been gathered from the snowy woods that night and were comfortably seated in our pews, the speaker got up on stage, pulled out his Bible, and told me that all of my efforts to get rid of the sinful habits in my life were pretty much a waste of time. Wow. Without replacing them with anything good, he said, I was just leaving an opening for the bad to come back or for a different bad to cut in. He said that, as Christians, we want to overcome sin, but we are often only using half of the equation.
The first step to all of this, though, is recognizing that we are sinners that are riddled with sin. Sin is anything we do that displeases God, so there is no specific list, but that night the speaker turned to one of many Biblical lists of a few examples of sin. I don’t remember which one, so we’ll look at Romans 1 for now:
“unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful…”
Even with the cleansing of Christ, we are still at war with our desires to slip back into sin every day! We want to follow Christ, but we just keep messing up. Even Paul said, “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (Romans 7:19), meaning that he doesn’t always do good like he wants to do, but that he keeps doing the evil that he doesn’t want to do.
For me, right now, the biggest struggle has been gossip and just generally using my tongue in ways that aren’t helpful or edifying. I go on rants, I tend to nitpick, I love a good gossip. Sin, sin, sin.
And what have I done to get rid of it? I have tried just reminding myself not to do it. I have tried telling myself it is bad. I have tried just keeping my mouth shut. But I still struggle!
That’s where this message from the retreat comes back in. The speaker said that it isn’t enough just to work hard at overcoming bad habits. People all over the world try and fail at that all the time. How many people do you know who can actually keep all of their New Year’s resolutions?
The Bible tells us that real change requires a total dependence on Christ, a complete change of focus from us to Him, from getting rid of bad to being filled with true good.
Galatians 5:22-23 talks about something called “the fruit of the Spirit.” My mom, when I was little, had this cute picture of all kinds of fruits sitting on a shelf with this list written on them, as if you could eat a pear and magically become patient or something. I always loved that picture, but it’s totally inaccurate. This word ‘fruit’ is the same idea as when we talk about how change is really making a difference or when someone’s hard work is paying off. AKA what we say when something is “bearing fruit.” In this case, the hard work is being done by the Holy Spirit, God Himself, working on us and in us.
Through His hard work, we grow in…
“…love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
When we want to change, we can’t just steel our jaw or grit our teeth and make the bad habits vanish. We have to ask God to work in us and change us, to fill us with His goodness and His strength to fight our sinful temptations. We still have to work hard (1 Peter 2:11 begs us to, “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul”), but we have to be following God’s leading rather than our own. We have to be in submission to Him so that He can bring the good fruits from the efforts. Alone, we’ll get nowhere.
As I work on taming my tongue, I need to be asking God to help me, to make me aware of what I am doing wrong, and to grow in me His traits of love and kindness. The more I am filled with the fruit of the Spirit, the less I’ll be filled with sin.