Every sin, every wrongdoing, no matter what kind — whether acted out in behavior or nurtured secretly in some dark place of our heart (Matthew 5:28) — is a manifestation of something we believe. Every sin is born out of a belief that disobeying God (wrongdoing) will produce a happier outcome than obeying God (right-doing). Whether or not we’re conscious of this, it’s true. Nobody sins out of duty.
We keep falling into the same sin when we fail to believe that holiness really will make us happier than giving in again. Many other factors may influence us, but at the root of habitual sin is a battle not for self-control, but for happiness. What we believe and want, deep in our hearts, really matters.
When my two oldest children were younger teens, they did what most younger teens do (including my three remaining teens). They ransacked the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer for empty, sugar-based carbohydrates. If they didn’t find them, they would run to fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. My wife and I would urge them toward more balanced diets and cite the science-based negative effects of such foods on the body and mind, but with little success.
Then, around ages 17 or 18, suddenly they began to eat healthy, nutritious food and eschew junk food. In fact, they began to excel their parents and exhort the rest of the family regarding the importance of eating well. Now in their early twenties, they eat far better than I did at their ages.
What happened to them? It really wasn’t that they went from being ignorant to being informed. They knew, even as kids, that junk food was “bad” for them and veggies were “good” for them. What they lacked was a belief that eating veggies would really make them happier in the long run than eating junk food now. Then they experienced an “awakening” that nutritious food would bring greater long-term joy, on multiple levels, than empty carbs. That is when they began to change what they ate.
Their awakenings provide a helpful illustration of why we often live in defeat before a habitual sin: we will keep choosing to sin as long as we believe that choosing not to sin is choosing less happiness.
Sin Can Be Quite Simple
Now, I’m a very experienced sinner (like you are), so I know how reductionistic this can sound. There are many factors contributing to why we keep giving in to sin, even if we think we don’t want to. Sin is quite complex, isn’t it?
Actually, no. Sin can create complex illusions, and it can result in all kinds of complexity. But at its essence, sin is quite simple.
The apostle John says it in four words: “All wrongdoing is sin” (1 John 5:17). Yes, but aren’t our motivations and influences to do wrong a big tangled mess? Well, the apostle James says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin” (James 1:14–15). Not a lot of qualifications. Not a lot of rationalizations. Not a lot of complications.
If we’re tempted to think that this was due to James’s ignorance of psychological, sociological, biological, or family-of-origin factors influencing us to sin, we’re mistaken. He may have lacked the extent of scientific data available in our day, but he knew human beings. His epistle is full of penetrating insight into our inner workings. In fact, I think he saw more clearly into us than most twenty-first-century Westerners do. James simply saw what sin is at its core.