Strategies for Fighting an Unrelenting Enemy

Whenever my wife and I, operating independently of one another, highlight the exact same passage – either in Scripture or in some other book we are reading – it tends to get our attention. “Oh, yeah…you noticed that, too?” Neither of us believes in coincidence; instead, we tend to view these episodes of freakishly-likeminded thinking as the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, perhaps putting unseen exclamation points on things we might otherwise be tempted to minimize.

Currently, our Monday night study group is reading through “Respectable Sins” by Jerry Bridges. Bridges is a highly-respected author whose career-long concern has been the need for all Christians to actively resist besetting sins and pursue personal holiness. His most well-known book, perhaps, is in fact entitled “The Pursuit of Holiness,” and while I have not yet read through that particular volume I can enthusiastically recommend “Trusting God,” another title by Bridges that meant quite a lot to me as I was struggling through a recent period of personal loss. Shelly and I even had the great privilege of hearing Bridges speak in person; suffice to say that we both think quite highly of him, and there is much to commend his work.

Getting back to “Respectable Sins,” though, the particular passage that caught our attention has been bolded in the excerpt below, wherein Bridges is providing a simple checklist for combating the “respectable” sins (gossip, envy, lust, etc.) that so many of us are tempted to minimize or ignore altogether; Bridges takes on the sins that we might classify as those that can safely be tossed into the junk drawer of “Look, no one’s really getting hurt by any of this…” After first providing detailed guidelines for how we might take up arms against those nagging sins that routinely snare us, Bridges provides a quick summary:

Do all these directions seem overwhelming? If so, perhaps this summary will help:

  • Apply the gospel.
  • Depend on the Holy Spirit.
  • Recognize your responsibility.
  • Identify specific respectable sins.
  • Memorize and apply Scriptures.
  • Cultivate the practice of prayer.
  • Involve one or a few other believers with you.

As you seek to apply these directions, remember that your heart is a battleground between the flesh and the Spirit (see Galatians 5:17). In this guerilla warfare, the flesh will sometimes get the upper hand. And as you zero in on a particular sin to seek to put it to death, your situation may get worse before it gets better. Take heart: This is not unusual. The Holy Spirit will use these times of disobedience and defeat to help you see how deeply rooted your subtle sins are and how totally dependent you are on His power to help you.

How interesting that my wife and I each had our own copy of this book and – with zero interaction as we read – we both just happened to highlight the bolded portion above! I suspect that the primary reason this particular passage stood out for both of us is that in the past few years we have both set out to destroy very specific sins in our lives…only to find the day-after-day, on-a-scale-of-10 intensity of those sins cranked up to 11, past what previously might have been considered “normal.”

Perhaps something similar has happened in your own life? For example, you want to cut back on your drinking (or stop altogether) but as soon as you resolve to do so a particularly upsetting series of events takes place at work or home (or both!) and you find your ability to cope in ever-shortening supply. Or perhaps you decide once and for all to stop showing disrespect toward your husband…and that is precisely the time he picks to pull off some spectacularly boneheaded stunt in public. Maybe you tell yourself that you want to better model Christ to your children…and that very day the boys decide to shoot holes in all of the window screens with a BB gun. Consumed by outrage, you completely lose your mind and go off on both of them.

We’ve all been there…the best of intentions coupled almost immediately with the worst of prevailing circumstances. Our group is only six chapters into “Respectable Sins” but already I am massively encouraged to read that Jerry Bridges “gets it.” He fully understands that battling sin is not for the faint of heart; it’s a serious, life-or-death undertaking that has tremendous implications for how we live out whatever years the Lord graciously provides to us…and going forward into eternity. Simply stated, a decision to eradicate even the smallest of sins is nothing less than a declaration of war (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).

Maybe it’s because I am a guy, but one of the most helpful analogies I’ve ever heard for describing what the Christian’s battle against indwelling sin “looks like” on a spiritual level adapts Paul’s wartime metaphors to an actual historic event, namely the landing of Allied troops at Normandy in the final days of World War II. Although the Allied invasion and subsequent advance inland (along with the Soviet advance on the eastern front) made it abundantly clear that the days of the Third Reich were coming to an end, Hitler offered no surrender. Facing both the Allies and the Red Army, the “sane” thing to do might well have been to admit defeat and spare the shedding of more blood. Instead, rifles were issued to young German boys and bloody battles raged from city to city, block to block and house to house until every last pocket of German resistance had been wiped out.

In a similar manner, the prophet Isaiah assures us that the outcome of Satan’s uprising against God has never been in doubt; God is sovereign over absolutely everything, rebellion included (Isaiah 46:9-10). The Apostle Paul tells us that the murderous grip of sin on the Christian was decisively shattered at the Cross (Romans 6:6-11), and the revelation to John likewise confirms that we Christians (just like the post-Normandy Allies in World War II) are battling fiercely against a foe that has already been vanquished (Revelation 12:7-9). Because we also battle against an insane, malicious and defeated enemy, the forward progress against our own sin may be depressingly slow, and we may yet encounter fierce resistance as we march on, sometimes from unexpected ambushes. Clearly, Jerry Bridges is warning all of us that we should expect this and – here’s the key – not lose heart.

It really is folly to think that we Christians are going to declare war on those “small” sins that so easily entangle us and somehow the enemy of our soul is immediately going to give in and wave the white flag of surrender. Quite the opposite, in fact; just like the murderous Nazi regime, depraved to the point of issuing guns and grenades to 10-year-olds so they can die while defending Berlin, the enemy of our souls is committed to taking as many of us down with him as he possibly can. For whatever this is worth, it has been immensely helpful for me to know going into battle with any sin (“large” or “small”) that I should expect to take a few casualties…perhaps several.

Ephesians 6:12-13(ESV)
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.

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