“I thought I’d be over this by now!” Whitney* exclaimed as she sat at my kitchen table.
It’s been two years since Whitney started going to counseling. And while the presenting issue at the time had nothing to do with sexual sin, the journey to get healthy in one area of her life shed light on unhealthiness and sin in other areas.
Have you ever packed for a trip and just tossed a bunch of your necklaces in a travel bag? Then you arrive to find them so tangled that you don’t even bother trying to sort through the mess you made? (Confession: this happened to me recently).
As I think about Whitney and other women I’ve come alongside, this image of my jewelry as a Gordian knot comes to mind. The unhealthy relational patterns these women learned at home, the abuse they experienced growing up, the unproductive coping skills they developed, and the unwise decisions they made to numb or satisfy their desires—these parts of their lives become so tangled and interwoven that to deal with one of these strands necessitates dealing with all of them.
Fighting Sin is a Process
This is why fighting against sin is a process. We’d love to name and claim victory and experience instant release from temptation. But that’s not a realistic understanding of how sanctification works.
God wants to take every area of your life and make it holy, so it accurately reflects him. But no matter your story or your sin struggle, there’s a lot in our lives that’s unholy and needs to be addressed. We can’t focus on all of it at once—that would be too overwhelming! It’s like how my tangled mess of necklaces seemed so impossible to undo that I didn’t even want to start. Taking on the whole mess is paralyzing. But if I pick one necklace in the knotted mess and begin with it, I can sort it out. This leads to dealing with other necklaces and addressing other knots in the tangled clump. God knows what we can and cannot handle. His timing is perfect as he brings our unhealthiness and sin to light.
Do Root Work First
As Whitney quickly learned, she couldn’t pray enough, read her Bible enough, go to church enough, or memorize enough Scripture to stop her sexual sin. Especially considering it had been going on for more than a decade. Now, please hear me say—spiritual disciplines are essential in our fight against sin. However, they are often not enough on their own to help us win the battle.
Effectively fighting against sin involves addressing that behavior at the root. Our actions flow from our thoughts, beliefs, and heart. Therefore, fighting against sin involves identifying what it is we’re worshiping and what we’re believing about ourselves, God, others, etc. If we don’t deal with our sin at the root, the fruit won’t change. And sexual sin is the fruit, not the root.
I’m currently walking alongside several young women who have experienced sexual abuse. They’ve all struggled with various forms of sexual sin (masturbation, pornography, homosexuality, hookups, sexting, etc.). While experiencing trauma does not make it okay to engage in sin, a person cannot deal with her sin without also addressing her trauma because the sin she’s engaging in is likely connected to the pain she’s experienced. All of this demonstrates why it’s important to consider sexual sin as the fruit and to trace things back in people’s stories, emotions, and thinking. Doing root work takes time, which is another reason why fighting sin is a process.
Identify the Why
Tori* knows what the Bible teaches and that sleeping with her boyfriend is sinful. But when she’s with her boyfriend, nothing else matters but being close to him emotionally and physically. Together, we identified she’d made an idol of the relationship. Tori had prioritized it above her relationship with God. This led her to break boundaries and do things she’d never thought she’d do.
During our conversation, I asked Tori to pinpoint why Christ is worthy of her obedience. If you are currently stuck in a pattern of sin, answer this question for yourself. When you feel tempted, what truths about God are helpful to remember? While your flesh may want the instant gratification of the sin in front of you, what are your reasons for resisting that temptation? Identify these in advance. Remembering Christ—who he is and what he’s done—motivates us to obey and keeps our behavior from becoming legalistic.
Address the Fruit Too
With all of this, we don’t wait until we’re done with root work to begin addressing the fruit. As I conversed with Tori, we considered the factors at play the past couple of times she’d spent the night with her boyfriend. We zoomed out to consider how she’d allowed herself to even be in a position to sin. Then we identified these as yellow flags, which serve as warnings of what’s ahead if she continues on the path. A yellow flag also is a great time to reach out to someone for help and to back up and flee rather than seeing how close to the line you can get.
The New Testament often draws on the image of clothing to help us think about obedience. We’re to “put off” sinful behaviors and “put on” godly ones (Eph. 4:20–25; Col. 3:5–14; 1 Pet. 2:1). While your sin is what you’re putting off, what can you be “putting on”? This might include spiritual disciplines, going to church, and spending time with other believers. But it can also involve things like exercising, getting adequate rest, and cultivating a hobby. Create a list of 10–25 healthy, God-honoring things that you can “put on” or do, particularly when tempted. Put this list on your phone, so you’ve already got a plan of things to do or people to contact when you’re tempted.
Your Story isn’t Over
As Whitney can testify, fighting sin is a process. But as I often tell her, seeing how far she’s come in the last two years gives me so much hope for her and her future. She’s not the same person she was two years ago, and this is evidence of the Lord’s work in her life. It’s been a hard journey, but the Lord is growing her and using her—and his work isn’t finished.
Whitney’s story isn’t over, and neither is yours. You might think you’re too far gone, it’s too much work, or it’s too painful to address your past and your sexual sin. But neither you nor your story are unredeemable by the Lord. And while it will be a lot of work and will be uncomfortable—maybe even painful at times—to address your sin, the Lord is with you (Matt. 28:20). He has given you all things “that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3).
*Name has been changed for privacy purposes.
Meet the Author:
Ashley Chesnut serves as the Associate Young Adult Minister at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, and she’s the author of It's Not Just You: Freeing Women to Talk about Sexual Sin and Fight It Well. She has a Master of Divinity from Beeson Divinity School and a Certificate of Biblical Counseling from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. When she's not at the church or meeting with girls, you can probably find her at the farmer's market or trying some new local restaurant.