Here’s the thing. Every week I go to church and someone at the front tells me I’m a sinner and that I should stop. But no one ever tells me how.
I know that I’m forgiven, of course. I confess my sins and that’s wonderful. But there’s nothing else. No plan. No practical advice. So each week it’s like I have a kind of sinectomy – my weekly growth of sin is amputated. The problem is that it soon starts growing back. Sometimes even during the sermon.
The biblical picture is clear: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” writes Paul (Romans 3:23).“For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do”, he observes. It’s built-in. The human condition. “It is sin living in me that does it”, concludes Paul (Romans 7:19-20). That’s why we need forgiveness, salvation and all the grace we can get.
But it’s clear that we can also play a part by basically sinning a bit less. After all, Jesus told people to: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11, NLT). We need prayer. We need the Holy Spirit. But also, I think, we can learn something from psychology. So here are seven insights that might help us in our battle against the dark side.
1. You have the remote control
To borrow Paul’s metaphor, sin might have set up home in us, but that doesn’t mean we have to serve it meals, do all its washing and hand over the TV remote. We don’t have the power to get rid of it – only Jesus can do that – but we do have the power to limit its influence. Or to put it in psychological terms: we have agency. Modern psychology gives us a lot of clues to how we can go about exercising this agency.
We don’t have the power to get rid of sin but we do have the power to limit its influence
I have learned a lot about this in recent years, mainly through the weekly appointments with my psychiatrist. Well, I say ‘appointments’ – we go to the pub together. Steve is a Christian psychiatrist (because of his work he prefers to remain anonymous. Or it might just be that he doesn’t want to be associated with me). Anyway, one of Steve’s key themes is that we have “agency” – the ability to do, or not do, stuff. We even have power over our thoughts.
“Our mental life is under a lot more conscious control than we think,” Steve says. “People think: ‘I had this thought and there’s nothing I can do about it,’ but actually there is.”
What Steve talks about is called ‘thought stopping’. The idea is that we can stop thinking negative, harmful or sinful thoughts. We don’t have to keep watching the TV channel in our head. We can switch the programme.
We can use distraction – replacing the sinful thought or action with either another activity or a different thought. Prayer, for example. For centuries Christians have used simple prayers like the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), or verses from the Bible as a way of thought-stopping. But it can be even simpler.
“You can literally just stop it. You can say: ‘I’m not going to think that anymore,” says Steve. “It’s partly technique, like learning an instrument, but it’s partly willpower. The more you do it, the better you get at it.”
2. Develop your willpower
Practise makes…not “perfect”…but “slightly less imperfect than we were before”. We can practise willpower, for example, because willpower is like a muscle.
In 1996 a group of scientists persuaded 67 undergraduates to skip their lunch. Individual students were placed in a room with two bowls – one filled with radishes and the other with chocolate cookies. Some students were allowed to eat the cookies; the rest had to eat the radishes. After this ordeal was over, they had to complete a puzzle (which was actually unsolvable). The interesting thing was that the cookie-eaters spent an average of 19 minutes trying to solve it; the radish-eaters gave up after eight minutes. Why the difference? Forcing themselves to deny the cookies and eat the radishes had depleted their willpower. “Willpower isn’t just a skill,” concluded Mark Muraven, one of the scientists involved. “It’s a muscle…and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”
This is why it is harder to resist sin when we are tired, or when we have had a demanding day: consuming the radishes of our life exhausts our willpower muscles.
The good news, though, is that like any muscle, willpower can be increased. In another experiment, research subjects were given weekly gym exercises. Each week the routines got harder, requiring more willpower to succeed. But as the subjects exerted more willpower in the gym, their willpower increased in other areas as well. They ate more healthily, smoked less, drank less, even saved more money in their bank accounts. Continuously increasing their willpower in one area increased their willpower in other areas as well.
So we must develop our willpower. This is really why the ancient practice of fasting is so important. The early Church certainly fasted as a routine – twice a week, every week. By exercising willpower in one area, they built capacity to resist temptation. I have had pastors tell me that fasting has really helped men who are struggling with pornography. Saying “no” in one area helps them to say “no” in others. It’s all about building bigger willpower muscles.
3. Understand your sin
John Updike once observed: “Surprisingly few clues are ever offered us as to what kind of people we are.” But our sin does exactly that. It tells us all about ourselves, what we value, what we worship, what drives us.
“Central to all these ideas is self-knowledge,” says Steve. “To be honest, Christians aren’t very good at it, but that’s because almost nobody is any good at it in our society. People like to hear about themselves, but they don’t want to know about themselves.”
We cannot formulate ways to address our sins if we don’t know what they are. This is why regular sinectomies are not enough. Forgiveness is wonderful, but we must also examine our sin. Otherwise we will simply repeat it.
A few years ago I did a course in Ignatian prayer. One of the exercises was to keep a detailed journal of every moment of sin each day. (“You’re going to need a bigger notebook,” said my wife, helpfully. She wasn’t wrong.) It was both extremely painful and extremely illuminating. Keeping a sin diary identified my characteristic sins (I’m not much driven by covetousness, but I do get eaten by envy. I don’t go in for gluttony, but there are rivers of anger bubbling below the surface. And there’s lust, because, well, I’m a man).
Talking to others, honestly and openly, is also helpful. Deep friendships help us to recognise patterns. This is nothing new: at the heart of the Wesleyan revival were small groups of believers who would meet weekly to encourage one another, pray for one another and be honest about their struggles. They even had questions to answer. This is why they became known as Methodists: they had a method, a plan. At each meeting they would ask one another four questions: 1) What known sins have you committed since our last meeting? 2) What temptations have you met with? 3) How were you delivered? 4) What have you thought, said or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
It’s worth considering if there’s anyone who asks you those kind of questions. Do we even ask them of ourselves? If we do this, we can build up a kind of ‘sin profile’ – a list of which sins particularly beset us, and where and when they are most likely to break in. We can even start to ask the really important question of why? What is lacking in my life that I need to act this way?
Crucial to this is an atmosphere of love and trust. One reason we flinch from examining our own sin is because we think that God will hate us. But “God is love” (1 John 4:8). There is nothing we can do or have done or will do that will ever make him love us more or less than he does right now.
Once we have a list of our sins then the next thing is to…err…pick one.
4. Start with one sin
This might be my most controversial point. We want to change everything at once, but the research shows that if we are trying to start new habits, it’s best to start with one thing.
“If I have a patient who wants to give up promiscuous sex and harmful use of alcohol, I’ll say to them: ‘Pick one,’” explains Steve. “They say: ‘I need to do both.’ But if they try to do both, they’ll fail, because people who have these problems are not used to exercising willpower. It’s like an atrophied muscle.”
We’re back to willpower. And in order to build our willpower muscles we must go for the easiest win.
“People are used to failing, and when they succeed in something it can be a revelation,” says Steve. “So pick something where you are likely to succeed. That gives you hope that you can achieve more. And it increases the strength of the willpower.”
So how about this. Intentionally address one sin this week. Don’t actively look to rectify the others, but just focus on one.
5. Be specific
In 1992 a psychologist was asked to improve the recovery rates of elderly patients who had undergone hip or knee surgery. She gave them books with pages headed “My goals for this week are…” and she discovered that the patients who actually set themselves written goals recovered much faster than those who did not. They walked almost twice as fast and rose from their chairs three times faster. And the more specific, detailed the goals, the better. So give yourself measurable goals: “I’m going to drive to work without shouting at other drivers. I’m going to refuse to engage in gossip. I’m going to resist the urge to strangle the worship leader with his own guitar strings.” I’m sure you’ll think of something.
6. Recognise the triggers
The patients in that study not only set goals, they also noted how they were going to deal with pain when they encountered it. One man always experienced excruciating pain when he got up from the couch, so he decided to take a step right away so that he wouldn’t be tempted to sit down again. These patients were identifying what are known as ‘inflection points’ – those moments where the temptation to give up is strongest.
“You have to avoid triggers,” says Steve. “All alcoholics who have had any period of abstinence know this.
They all know that you don’t go into a pub.”
One of the things that keeping a sin diary helped me to identify was my times of vulnerability – the events, places or even people who would set me off. Find the inflection points and invite God into those moments. Pray before, during and after.
7. Keep on going
Part of the difficulty with establishing new habits, or trying to break addictions or compulsions are those moments when we fail. And let’s face it, since we are all sinners, we are bound to fail. Probably often. But what we don’t do is give up the whole project, or wallow in how disappointed God must be in us, or how worm-like and useless we generally are.
Instead, we focus on the grace and forgiveness of God, and we pick ourselves up and carry on building our willpower muscles. In one of his other great metaphors for the Christian life, Paul writes of running the race. He talks of not running aimlessly, but disciplining his body, like an athlete (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
And that is what this is all about. The truth is that there is no finishing line this side of resurrection, but we can get better at running. And who knows? Maybe we’ll improve on our personal best.
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