I think you already know the answer to the question, Why do I so often fail to do what God wants? The problem is not so much about what you do. It’s a matter of what you want to do. You have become a Christian and want to serve Jesus, but you haven’t stopped wanting things that are sinful. Christians still find they don’t completely stop pursuing the things their sinful natures desire.
Different sinful desires
It’s not that you find every sin appealing. We are all different that way. Just as we don’t all share the same tastes for food, we don’t all share the same tastes for sin. I like cheeses with a strong flavor—the stronger, the better. My brother-in-law thinks all cheese smells and tastes like stinky feet. Regardless of our noses and taste buds, we both get hungry and want to eat.
What makes serving our Savior so difficult is that we live in a sinful world. For example, our hypersexualized world bombards us with images, stories, and slogans that tempt us to indulge thoughts or use our bodies in ways that don’t respect God’s purpose for making us male and female.
It’s not limited to easy-access pornography, the constant push to become sexually active, or movements to normalize every twisting of God’s marriage design. That world tugs at us from even more directions. I used to live near a billboard advertising a particular brand of beer. Sprawled across that sign was a very attractive woman wearing a bikini. Based on her physical condition, I don’t believe she drank much of that company’s beer. But you know why she was there. Men, in particular, are visual creatures. We not only notice female beauty, but it is often hard not to look. And sin has corrupted our hearts, so those glances are often infected with the lust that both dishonors women and defies God’s will.
Spiritually drowning the old Adam begins at baptism and takes an entire lifetime.
A Christian woman once told me that she never had any desire for any man other than her own husband. I believed her. But that does not mean she lacks a taste for other sins. It has become acceptable today to show our outrage at whatever political or moral views we dislike. Social media in particular has removed our filters and loosened our self-control. No insult is too cruel, no word is too vulgar, if it helps us express our disgust. My female church friend didn’t use obscenities. But sometimes she so belittled those who held different views that it made others cringe. God is not unclear about the way he wants us to control our anger and our tongues. “[Speak] the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Give your answer to others “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). The fruit of the Spirit includes, among other things, “kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23). Still, it can feel satisfying to let go and give someone else a (rather ugly) piece of our mind.
I am not trying to shift the blame to a godless world that constantly plays to our weakness and entices us to join it. It clearly makes our struggle more difficult, but the problem still lies within us. We still like things God condemns. We still desire too many things he forbids.
Faith and sin within
But if we follow Jesus, if we put our trust in him, shouldn’t our desires line up more closely with his? Shouldn’t the old desires go away?
Consider the fact that we even have a new set of desires in line with God’s will. The struggle is itself a win. The painful, inner war we wage because we find the same thought or behavior appealing and appalling at the same time is evidence that God has already changed us. Atheists know no such battle, at least not because they care about what God wants.
The change that gave us competing, godly desires came in an instant, and thank God it did. Our Lord brought us from unbelief to faith. Some of us may have been brought to baptism just days after we were born. Others may have spent most of their lives mucking around in the world, ignoring or resisting the gospel. But when the time came and Jesus’ forgiveness broke through to our hearts, a switch flipped. The gospel cast a light on the evil of our sins, and we repented. It illuminated our Savior’s grace, and we took hold. We didn’t have to follow a complex process or fulfill a long list of requirements. Faith is a gift, and when God handed it to us, our reconciliation to him was complete. Our responsibility for sin’s guilt was over. We were free.
Yet that didn’t make us “the equivalent of a patient etherized on a table,” unable to feel what the sinful nature wants. Yes, faith brings with it a new life, new desires, new powers. “It makes men glad, and bold and happy in dealing with God and all his creatures. . . . Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace,” as Luther wrote. But that is only part of the story. Faith does not immediately eradicate the old life, old desires, and old powers that have lived in us since we were first conceived—at least not yet. These old powers coexist with the new person of faith inside us as long as we live in this body in this world. Every day between now and the grave we wake up to a civil war within our souls.
All the people we read about in the Bible fought this same fight, even the heroes of faith. Have you ever noticed that their stories are often about sinful pitfalls to avoid and opportunities for our Lord to step in and rescue his wayward children? “The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want” (Galatians 5:17).
The struggle to please God will be violent. Maybe you remember the fourth part of Baptism from the Small Catechism: “Baptism means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance, and that all its evil deeds and desires be put to death.” Try drowning someone sometime. (No, don’t!) It is a violent struggle and will take a long time. Spiritually drowning the old Adam begins at baptism and takes an entire lifetime.
For this God gives us help—and tools—for the fight. The Holy Spirit lives in the hearts of all who believe. As we continue to hear and read God’s Word, the Spirit works to help us understand it (1 Corinthians 2:12-16), sharpens our consciences (Hebrews 4:12), pours God’s love into our hearts (Romans 5:5), affirms our place as God’s children (Romans 8:15,16), and generally empowers us to do God’s will (Galatians 5:16).
Don’t give up in the struggle. God promises victory in the end. He “delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).
Author: John A. Vieths
Volume 108, Number 8
Issue: August 2021