How to Grow — Recognizing Our Sin

The anxiety in sin calls for compassion. The pride in sin calls for condemnation.

Sin is not a simple phenomenon. It is complex. In my last post on growth, I talked about the challenge of the human situation. We can see big, but we are small. This creates a gap between the problems we see and what we can do about it. Therein lies our anxiety.

In the face of these problems, we have two options. We can trust the Lord, or we can seek our own solution. When we seek our own solution, we not only turn from the Lord, we seek a solution at the expense of others. From seeking our own solution arises all the injustices we commit against other people: seeking our own welfare at their expense and attacking them when they don’t cooperate with our project.

When the Apostle Paul spoke about sin, he said that it began with knowing God but suppressing that knowledge (Rom. 1:18–20). He explained that people don’t stop seeking an ultimate hope. They just create a new god in their own image, an idol (Rom. 1:25). This leads them to seek their happiness and satisfaction in created things, even in a debasing way (1:28–29). This in turn leads to all the injustices people commit against one another (1:29–31).

Sin is complex not simple. Sin leads to sin. It creates a way of looking at the world that has consequences that involve more sin.

Richard Lovelace in his book Dynamics of Spiritual Life notes that this way of looking at sin was common in Christian history. When the Enlightenment came, Christians tended to downplay the depth and complexity of sin and to view it primarily as “conscious, voluntary acts of transgression against known laws” (88).

However, the idea of an unconscious motivation for sin did not disappear entirely. “Sigmund Freud rediscovered this factor and recast it in an elaborate and profound secular mythology” (88). We could also add to this Karl Marx’s communist mythology that did point out the way sin gets systematically entrenched in society.

Ironically, the secular world became more aware of the depths of sin than the church. The sad result: “in the twentieth century pastors have often been reduced to the status of legalistic moralists, while the deeper aspects of the cure of souls are generally relegated to psychotherapy, even among Evangelical Christians” (88).

In recent years, there has been a recovery of the complex nature of sin. Books like Lovelace’s and like Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods explain sin in this more complex way.

One way I have taught about the complexity of sin is through the concept of idolatry. We begin with the idea that God is our highest good and the One in whom we are to find ultimate satisfaction. Then, we ask, where are we looking for that ultimate satisfaction in things and people rather than God?

How can we answer that question. I suggest five steps.

First, identify a problem behavior. Things in our life that we find problematic such as destructive emotions, habits, or relationships are not themselves the root problem, but they can point us to the problem.

Second, ask why to discern the idol. Our first answer to the why question is usually superficial or based on obligating others. Keep pushing. Don’t rest with a superficial answer. For example, why does it bother you so much that this specific person treats you this way? You may say, “people shouldn’t do that,” but it doesn’t burn you up when other people are treated this way. Why this person and the way they treat you?

Third, identify the idol. We can think of idols from three perspectives: gods of self such as “your god is your belly”; gods of objects such as food, money, or sex; or gods of needs or wants such as desire for security, acceptance, or comfort.

Fourth, repent of your idol. Acknowledge that seeking your ultimate acceptance in a person rather than God, for example, is idolatrous.

Fifth, replace the promise of the idol with the promise of the Gospel. For example, recognize that the acceptance you are looking for in a child, friend, or husband can only be found ultimately in God.

This is just one way of looking at the complexity of sin. The major payoff for our growth is that we not only need to address our will but the way we think about life in order to be transformed. If sin is a complex problem, it requires a complex solution. God’s grace is needed to renew our will and our thinking and our emotions.

Diagnostic Questions
1. What are some problem areas that you continually struggle with? Have you ever seriously probed your thinking behind these issues?
2. What idols do you struggle with most?
3. What do you tend to look for most in circumstances, things, and people: comfort, security, acceptance, or control?
4. What is a time you get the most upset when things don’t go your way or when you don’t get what you want?
5. What promise of the Gospel do you think you need to apply most readily?
6. When you don’t get what you want, what is your pattern in dealing with other people?
7. How do you tend to skew things your own way in your own life?
8. Who are the people you struggle with the most in your life? What do you think you do that contributes to that struggle?
9. Do you make confession of sin to God and to others a regular practice in your life?


This is part of a 7 part series on how to grow. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.


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