I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed 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. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Rom 7:9-11,18-23, ESV)
I have seen this to be the case in many areas of life. The harder you push a law or rule or policy, the more it tends to be broken.
Consider speeding - how fast do you drive on the interstate? Do you look at what time you want to arrive at your destination, what time you are leaving, and choose a safe speed to get there in a timely manner? Or do you, like me, look at what the law says (the speed limit), and then drive 8 mph faster, figuring that you are unlikely to get pulled over for breaking the law "just a little"?
I see it in parenting and at work as well. We try to make the workplace safer by laying down a new policy and enforcing it harshly...and people still violate it just as often (or more!) than they ever did. At home, I tell the kids that they must eat five more bites of food...and they will eat three.
It is human nature; it is our sin nature. We may know that the rules are good in our head, but our flesh rebels against it. The institution of the Law in our lives actually tells us exactly how to sin - now that we know how fast we are allowed to go, we can decide how much faster we want to go.
So...what are we to do? I speak many times on this blog about accepting this fact of life, so that you do not overburden yourself with guilt, or follow legalism instead of grace. But does that mean that we should just go ahead and sin freely, and not try to get better?
No, it doesn't. The Bible tells us that we are being transformed into Jesus' image, and that He wants us to "go, and sin no more". So how do we achieve the task?
The key point that we get from Romans 7 is this: you will never grow closer to God by adhering to predefined sets of rules. If you set up a series of rules and regulations to live by, you will fail. If you decide that you are going to force yourself to get up at 4:30 to read the Bible every morning, you may do it for a while...but eventually you will fail.
So here are my five steps to reducing sin in your life:
1. Relax. You are not going to be able to will yourself to be perfect, so don't try. God loves you just as you are. When God saved you, He already knew just how good (or bad) you would end up. So the story is already written. Embrace the freedom of that. As John Ortberg says, "Try softer", not harder.
2. Understand that you cannot "systematize" spirituality. You will not be able to create a system or checklist that will make you spiritual. If you set up a daily checkoff list (do the Bible for 30 minutes, then pray every 3 hours for 10 minutes each, then journal for 20 minutes, etc), you will not get more spiritual. One of two things will happen: (a) you will fail and become guilt-ridden, or (b) you will succeed, and become judgmental and feel as though you have "arrived" spiritually.
3. Feed on the Word, and make space for reflection. Feeding on the word might simply mean that you pay attention at church, or listen to Christian music, or read over-long blog posts on Reboot Christianity - God talks to each of us differently, based upon our personalities. That is feeding on the word. And by making space for reflection, I don't necessarily mean a traditional 'quiet time' every morning at 6 am. I just mean keep your life from being jam-packed from beginning to end of each day. Take some time for just slow relaxing vacations, or iced tea on the porch, or a good book by the fire. Simplicity of life breeds reflection, and reflection lets you see the Word of God applied; but when you let your life get too busy (even doing good things, like hanging with friends and family, working, or--gasp--ministry!), you cannot reflect. And without reflection, it is very tough to grow.
4. Put your energy into avoiding the temptation, rather than resisting the temptation. If you are an alcoholic and you keep showing up at bars, I don't care how good your willpower or system is, eventually you will fail. If you are addicted to pornography and you are on the laptop late at night while your wife is asleep, I don't care how good your system is, eventually you will fail. So know your weaknesses and your sins (which requires you to accept yourself for who you are and admitting your faults). Then use that to keep yourself out of the situation.
For example when I have women who work for me, I never give them a ride to work, and I conduct all behind-doors discussions in areas with windows. Why? Because even though I have never even considered cheating on my wife, if I just take the entire temptation away, then my chances of failure are dramatically lower.
Other examples - if you have a pornography weakness, then cancel the movie channels and always shut down your computer before your wife goes to bed. (Or better - go to bed with her.) If you have a problem with anger, then try to avoid situations that you know make you mad, like watching your favorite football team live. (Good luck with the 'avoid angry situations' for you parents out there!) If you are too stingy with your money, then let the wife run the finances instead--and trust her to do it. If you revel in getting your back patted and told how great you are, then set up specific times for your wife or pastor or others to give you constructive criticism.
The key point is - identify your weakness, and try to avoid the temptation from occuring, rather than trying to resist the temptation when it shows up.
5. Realize that even #4, though better than what most do, is still subject to the issues raised in #2. So when you somehow find yourself in temptation and fail anyway, go back to #1.