When you want to stop committing a certain sin, what do you do? Do you try to deprive yourself of something, keep away from tempting situations, or try to distract yourself with more innocuous activities?
You have probably already learned this through practice, but none of these techniques will ever work. You cannot deprive yourself, ignore your desires or beat your will into submission. Eventually, those desires will manifest themselves in some unwanted way.
Why? Because your mind and will aren’t the center of your decision-making process. Your heart is. As Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” If you don’t love something you won’t do it. If you don’t hate something you won’t leave it alone.
Yet in so many of the self-help books and even sermons today, people are preaching this strategy. There is always some new “wisdom” for how to stop bad habits and start good ones. Many of them treat sin like a diet. Starve out the bad. Feed the good. But sin doesn’t work like this.
In fact, Colossians 2:20-23 explicitly tells us trying to fight sin by depriving, restricting or punishing ourselves is a self-made religion of no value. In this passage, Paul is going up against similar religious tactics of his time. He is trying to help his audience fight the indulgences of sinful flesh (Col. 2:23) and what is earthly (3:5). But before he tells them how to do it, he tells them how not to do it.
People in Paul’s day were saying that the right way to weed out sin was deprivation. “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (2:21). They formed a man-made religion around depriving themselves of basic goods – “asceticism” (2:23) — and inflicting themselves with wounds — “severity to the body” (2:23). The way to fight sin was to beat it out of yourself and punish yourself when you don’t.
This is an extreme version of what we do. For instance, if someone struggles with pornography, they might deprive themselves of the internet and technology. And when they fall into it, they inflict themselves with guilt and shame. The problem is deprivation cannot change the heart any more than starving yourself can get rid of hunger.
Maybe this sounds wrong to you. Maybe this is how you thought you were supposed to fight sin. It’s no wonder that Paul said, “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom” (2:23). Why do think there are so many self-help books that offer this kind of bootstrap advice? Because it looks like wisdom. But it only has the appearance of wisdom. Like a mirage, such tactics look like an oasis from afar, but are a suffocating dessert upon investigation. That’s why the publishing mill never tires of churning out self-help works, both irreligious and Christian. Since the last one didn’t work, hopefully the next one will. But, it will never work. Such sin tactics “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (2:23).
How do we fight sin? If our willpower isn’t the answer, if determination and deprivation won’t do it, what will? We have to change our hearts. We have to see a deeper change take place.
So how are our hearts changed? Paul has our answer. “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above” (3:1-2).
We don’t change our hearts by saying no to sin, but by saying yes to Jesus. We don’t change what our hearts want by depriving them of the junk food of sin, but by feeding them with the satisfying substance of Christ.
The only way to kill sin is to rewire our hearts with the Gospel. Only the Gospel is beautiful enough to change our hearts and produce in it all the affections that will cause us to live new lives.
Reflect on all God has done for you in Christ. Rejoice in the fact that your sins are forgiven by the precious blood of the Son of God. Revel in the truth that you have been adopted into God’s family at the high price of the cross.
When we do this, new affections will spring to life in our hearts. We don’t fight sin by stifling our desires and feelings. We fight sin by taking the restrictions off our affections. Paul made this point elsewhere. In 2 Corinthians 6:12, he says that the Corinthians are restricted by their affections. We need to feel more, not less. And these feelings need to come from the Gospel.
When you remind yourself that you “have been raised with Christ” (Colossians 3:1), your heart is filled with great affections. These affections will rewire your heart to do what deprivation never could. Setting your mind on Christ and his Gospel will kill sin in your life.