John was really upset. His carefully planned campaign for overcoming had just fallen apart. He had been baptized only a few weeks earlier and he was full of enthusiasm to grow spiritually. He realized that sin was a powerful force, but he was sure that with diligent planning he could make steady progress.
So he made a list of his most obvious sins which he recognized as being pride, anger and envy. “Ok,” John said to himself, ‘we’ll’ take them one at a time. Envy this week, pride the next and with those two out of the way, I’ll concentrate on anger during week three.”
All went well at first. John always had been competitive; he wanted to be the best at everything. It really upset him when others got recognition and he didn’t. But now he went to work on solving the problem. His work-mates noticed the difference: “What’s the matter with John? He’s so easy to get along with these days.” He must be sick or something.
At the end of week one, John felt he had the sin of envy under control. Now it was time to work on pride. He hated to lose, and when he won, he wanted everyone to know about it. All that would have to stop, he told himself.
During the second week, he had several temptations. He made a breakthrough at work that saved his company several thousand dollars. But to the astonishment of his supervisor, he refused to take all the credit, explaining that others had helped him. By the weekend pride was licked. Two down and one to go.
John was known for his fiery temper, which could flare up when things didn’t go his way. His wife, children and workmates knew this only too well. But now John began to control his temper.
That’s ok, we all make mistakes he told his wife when she lost a whole week’s grocery money. Could have happened anytime, he consoled his teenage son after the son had broken the lawn mower. Just try to make the time up, he told his fearful secretary, who had come back late from lunch.
Toward the end of the 3rd week of his overcoming program, John was proud, or well pleased with his progress. And then, suddenly, it had all fallen apart. It happened at church, of all places. And, it was over such a stupid little thing.
It had happened after service, when everyone was standing around talking. John was chatting with Tom a young man who had recently gotten married, when the minister walked up. The minister greeted them both, and then said to Tom: “Say, Mrs. Smith told me that you and your wife helped her clean up her yard last week. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate what you and your wife are doing.” Then he went off to greet someone else.
John felt the blood rush to his face .Why didn’t the minister say anything about him? What was so special about Tom? Didn’t the minister know that John was making progress too? Why, in only three short weeks he had overcome envy, pride and anger .And yet here was Tom (a blue-collar worker John secretly looked down on a bit) getting publicly congratulated.
It just wasn’t fair! John stomped off to sulk by himself in the parking lot. And there it hit him. He had just undone three weeks of work, and was once again the victim of envy, pride and anger.
Most of us can identify with poor John, can’t we? We work on overcoming something and feel it is safely out of the way. Then one day, unexpectedly, if flares up all over again.
Human nature, it seems, doesn’t play fair. Once it is seemingly licked, it doesn’t just stay down. It is so frustrating! How can we ever make progress? Take-heart. This is a problem that dogged the footsteps of even God’s most diligent servants.
Surely if anyone should have thought he was making progress, it was the apostle Paul. And yet, look what he wrote to the Christians in Rome, after he had been trying to live a Christian life for more than 20 years: “I am carnal sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. I know that in me (that is in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me; but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (Rom. 7: 14-19).
It seems that Paul had the same problem as John, he worked hard to overcome his human nature, but it wouldn’t stay overcome. But he did understand what was wrong: “Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (v. 20).
These long years of experience taught Paul some things about himself. He showed us that the downward pull of human nature is still strong, even though you are determined to overcome sin and obey God’s law. Paul must have hated that nature, which still led him to do things he did not want to. Paul even became discouraged sometimes: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (v. 24.)
Paul’s experience shows that we must not underestimate the problem of overcoming. Once you have overcome an aspect of your human nature be watchful. Otherwise, like a weed that you can never quite kill, it will start growing back.
Our friend John (we left him kicking himself in the parking lot) could not give up trying to overcome just because he had badly underestimated the power of sin. What he had to do now was repent (perhaps more deeply than before) and start again. Only this time, he needed to watch out for his envy and his pride while working on his anger.
Mercifully, God does not show us everything that is wrong all at once. We couldn’t take it.
Christ listed the kind of things that could be lurking in our hearts (Mark 7: 21-23). And if that is not enough you’ll find another list in Gal. 5: 19-21. These things are part of our natures and given a chance, will be expressed. Overcoming can become quite a complicated business. There are so many things to concentrate on; it sometimes seems that we need to be some kind of acrobat.
Overcoming is a struggle, but it can be done. And you don’t have to do it alone, you know. You should ask for help from God. He understands the problem.
Jesus Christ spent many years on earth, struggling against temptations and trials. He knows what it is like (Heb. 4: 15). When Christ returned to heaven to sit down once again at the right hand of His Father, He was especially well prepared to help people like Paul and John and you and me to overcome. As verse 16 says: “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in times of need.”
That help, of course, is the Holy Spirit – spiritual energy from God. When you go before God’s throne in prayer to ask for help, Jesus Christ can literally think back to the time when He had a similar and perhaps the very same problem. He can remember how He had to call out to His Father for the spiritual energy to resist sinning (Heb. 5:7-8).
And then, from the throne of grace, your Father in heaven and your elder brother, Jesus Christ, can send you that same help. With that help, you’ll keep going and you’ll make progress. You will still make mistakes, and there will be times when you’ll feel like asking, as Paul did; “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
But you’ll also understand Paul’s answer: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25). With God’s help, you can overcome.