When Roots Are Allowed to Grow
There is a small flower bed in my backyard, near which there is a large pecan tree. A few years ago, I noticed a pecan shoot towards the back of the bed near the foundation of the house and went to pull it out of the ground. The roots were deep enough already that the shoot broke off in my hand, and the roots stayed below the surface.
Rather than doing the work of getting a shovel and digging the roots out, I let it go and didn’t think about it again the rest of the summer. When I noticed a new shoot in the same spot the next year, I tried to pull it again, and once again, the shoot broke off and the root stayed in the ground. This pattern repeated itself at least once more from what I recall before I finally realized that I needed to put in the additional effort to get a shovel and dig the pecan shoot up by the roots.
When I started digging, I was amazed at what I found: although I had repeatedly plucked the shoots—keeping the area above ground relatively clear—the roots had grown to several inches in diameter under the soil. Because I had neglected for so long to dig out the roots, I had to dig a substantial hole in the flower bed to get it out.
I have come to think of my experience with the pecan shoot as an illustration of what it’s like when we fail to put sin to death at its root—at the level of desire. It has long been a common thought among those who claim to follow the Lord that is only necessary to be in external conformity to God’s law, and that it is unnecessary (or even wrong) to expect Christians to successfully put their sinful desires to death.1One obvious example of this is the popular effort to reconcile homosexual desire with Christian faith (cf. Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010]). The Pharisees were examples of this: Jesus said they were “like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).2Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations in this post are from the Legacy Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 2021).
A survey of what the Bible says on the matter will demonstrate the urgency and the possibility for the believer to kill sin at the root-level of desire.
What the Bible Says about the Desire for Sin
The danger of the desire for sin is evident from the earliest pages of Scripture: it was in part the desirability of the forbidden fruit that led Eve to commit the first sin (Genesis 3:6). By the time God gave the Ten Commandments, He specified (in commandment number ten) that sinful desire is forbidden: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male slave or his female slave or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17).
It is forbidden, God says, to desire anything that does not belong to you; this would include, then, anything that God’s providence and/or His law does not grant to you. This means that the desire for sin—referred to historically as concupiscence—is itself sin.
Perhaps the most succinct condemnation of sinful desire in Scripture comes from the pen of the apostle Paul: “Therefore, consider the members of your earthly body as dead to sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). The last three items in Paul’s list here are different ways of referring to sinful desire, the last of which Paul equates to idolatry.
The testimony of Scripture—from beginning to end—is that the desire for sin is sin, and that God’s Word forbids it.
The Effects of Sinful Desire
God is wise and loving to forbid the desire for sin.
It seems James might have had the progression of the scene of the fall in mind when explaining how the desire for sin leads to death: “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully matured, it brings forth death” (James 1:14–15).
It is also from James that we learn the effects our sinful desires have on others: “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is it not the source of your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have, so you murder. You are envious and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1–2).
The biblical testimony is replete with such admonitions, as well as examples (like Cain’s murder of Abel) of how one’s sinful desires tend to lead to death for oneself and for others (see also, e.g., Proverbs 2:19; 7:22–23; Galatians 5:15–16).
The Hope of Fighting Sinful Desire
Efforts to reconcile the persistence of sinful desire with Christian faithfulness are popular because it’s so hard (it can even seem impossible) for us to change our desires. So, is there any hope for those of us who continue to struggle over a long period of time with the same sinful desires? Will we ever be able to overcome our attraction to things God is not willing to give us?
According to Scripture, there is hope, since “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).
God commands (as in Colossians 3:5) that we put sinful desire to death, and—as has often been said—whatever God commands, He provides. This provision (by means of the Holy Spirit) is implicit in Paul’s instructions in Galatians 5:16: “But I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”
Practical Steps to Take
The most important part of God’s provision for those who would put sin to death is the new heart He grants to those who first put their trust in Christ. If you have never before confessed and repented of your sins, and turned in faith to Jesus, that is the first (and by far the most important) step you need to take.3To read or listen to more about the Bible’s gospel call, visit https://www.gracechurch.org/sermons/4907.
If you have already trusted Christ, but find yourself continually beset by sinful desires, there are three additional steps I would encourage you to take.
First, you must confess your sin to God, which means saying the same thing that He says about it (1 John 1:9–10).
Secondly, you must make concrete (and even extreme) choices against that which you have been sinfully desiring. While Jesus does not mean for us to physically gouge out our eyes and cut off our limbs (Matthew 5:29–30), He is serious about the need for radical measures. As Paul writes, we must “make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:14). This can look like changing your habits, your relationships, and even your possessions. You might stop spending time with others who practice the sins that tempt you, or you might get rid of the electronic devices through which you have accessed sinful content.
Finally, you must avail yourself of the various means of grace. Practice accountability with others, keep short accounts of sin, and maintain an open and honest attitude about your sin (1 John 1:6–7; Hebrews 3:12–13). Get into (or strengthen) the habit of reading and meditating on God’s Word regularly (Psalm 119:11), go to church, and become more actively involved in loving your church (Hebrews 10:24–25). And remember that we show and cultivate our values by the way we speak. Seek to follow Paul’s example in Philippians 3:1–11, where he lists things that were previously desirable to him and calls them “rubbish” (literally, dung) in comparison with the value of Christ. Take every opportunity to speak the truth of the value of the gospel and the worthlessness of the things you’re tempted to covet.
Don’t be complacent in your fight against sin, thinking that because its growth is not visible aboveground, it’s not causing any harm. Like with the pecan shoot in my flower bed, sin’s staying power and potential destructiveness will only grow if it is allowed to remain unopposed beneath the surface, at the level of desire. Thank God that His Word both forbids sinful desire and gives us hope and practical steps to take to fight it. May we prayerfully and dependently avail ourselves of God’s sufficient provision in His Word and put sin to death at the level of desire.
This blog was originally posted at Center for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship. View the original post here.