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Counseling Besetting Sins

Truth in Love 441

How do we conquer the sins that keep coming back?

Nov 20, 2023

Dale Johnson: This week on a podcast, I have with me Dr. Lance Quinn. He’s the vice president of the Expositor’s Seminary and on the pastoral team of Grace Emmanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, Florida. He has been involved with the biblical counseling movement for over 30 years, having served as a Fellow and a Board Member of ACBC for 25 of those years. Lance and his late wife Beth have eight adult children and currently 15 grandchildren and counting.

Thank you again for being with us on the podcast. It’s an interesting topic that we’re going to tackle today, this issue of besetting sin. It really is paradigm-shaping to us today as we talk through this. So Lance, what do you say to a person who is seeking your counsel for particular, as the Scripture describes this, as a besetting sin? One, that a person thinks they may never get over and conquer, they just try to manage.

Lance Quinn: I think that it’s a term, besetting sin, that comes from the older English translations of Hebrews 12, which says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” I’m reading from the English Standard Version, “let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely.” As I said, besetting sin, in some of the older translations. I think that’s an accurate translation, but it could be confusing. It seems to some to sound as though it’s a kind of sin that I will battle for the rest of my life, never being able to conquer it. I don’t think that’s what it means. I don’t think it means this is the kind of sin that will dog you all of your days and you’ll never have a full sanctification-victory over it. I think what it’s talking about is certain sins “clinging closely to us,” I like that English translation better because I do think that there are particular sins that are of greater challenge to certain believers, whatever those are. Because of that, you and I must just work then harder to defeat those kinds of sins, to use that language of Colossians 3:5, to murder it, to slay it, to kill it, to mortify it. It’s true that there may be certain sins that you and I grapple with, to try to vanquish those sins takes maximum effort.

What I mean by that would be something like this: someone who says, “I have a certain sin in my life and it’s become such a pattern, it was a pattern in my non-Christian days, it seems to have dogged me even through my current Christian experience and therefore it clings so closely to me. I get so discouraged about it and I tend to say to myself, Well, perhaps I’ll always be dealing with this, I’ll never vanquish it, so just start working on other sins that are more easily grappled with.” I don’t think so. I think it’s really talking about there could be things that you and I are perhaps more prone to. It could be the way we grew up, it could be certain habits, certain ways of thinking. These could contribute to the idea that certain sins or perhaps even one sin is more of a challenge to this person than the other.

Dale Johnson: I think we see that experientially for all of us. There are certain things that I’m not tempted about that you might struggle with and vice versa. I think there are things that you don’t struggle with that, for me, just seem a bit more difficult. I think some of that comes with temperament. The Puritans would talk about this in a way where they would distinguish vice and virtue. They would talk about it in such ways that a person a that exhibits certain virtues will also have similar besetting sins or vices that they struggle with. That’s not always equal. Sins often manifest themselves in different ways in different people. I like the way you’re going here, but let’s bring that to us a little bit closer, because I’m sure our listeners are thinking of particular things, maybe in their own lives. Let’s talk about particular sins, maybe it could be sexual sins, which are frequently mentioned in the Scriptures as being more difficult and ingrained difficulties that we struggle with there. Talk about particular sins which are of a kind that Christians seem most prone to do, those types of sins. What are they and how do we deal with those types of sins?

Lance Quinn: You mentioned sexual sin, so let’s let’s go there first. I think what sometimes occurs as Christians struggle with certain areas of their sexuality is because it is both a mind and body problem. In other words, it all starts in the mind. James 1, “When lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin.” So it always starts in the mind, but sometimes, if it is a kind of sin that includes the activity of your body, now you have other things that are at work, including not just your emotions, not just your drives and your motivations, but also there are certain things that are chemically firing in the body that are giving you the kinds of physical sensations that can, with those two issues mind-body, can seem overwhelming and unconquerable. I believe there’s something to that, but the problem is even if there’s something to it, both in a spiritual/mental or physical/sexual way, people will say, “It’s something that’s ingrained in me.” In fact, you’ll even see certain Christian books on shelves that say “These kinds of temptations and the acting on such temptations rewire the brain.”

Now, I have difficulty with that because it’s almost making it sound as though this is a particular category that over time someone will never break with because their brain has been altered, rewired. If that’s true, then the boatload of New Testament passages that say “mortify the flesh” seem to be then impenetrable. You can’t do it because it’s in your body. It’s the chemicals that are working in such a body. Well, what about Colossians 3:5, “Mortify the flesh, kill it, put it to death.” If there are certain categories of sins, it doesn’t have to be in the sexual realm, it could be anger. Anger of the mind is so disruptive. If it lives itself out as a pattern, there are certainly people who presume, “I can never not be angry.” Now, they may not be as angry in the fullest sense all the time, but they’ll almost give up and have a defeatist attitude, as though there are certain sins in the world that God can’t do anything about with me. That I think is a temptation and a dart of the evil one that makes you think something is true when, in fact, it is a Satanic lie. It is not true and Scripture calls us to mortify the flesh. Therefore, we must and we can.

Dale Johnson: As you mentioned, in Colossians 3:5, “Put to death,” Paul says, “therefore, what is earthly in you.” I want to talk about what you mentioned mind-body, what a really critical subject, especially for where we are today. When you talk about the mind, I want to make sure everybody understands you’re talking about the inner man, the heart, and that the body is certainly influenced. I think we have a tendency, at times, I’m reading a book by a man named Allan V. Horwitz, who is a secular psychiatrist and he writes a lot on the history of psychology, the history of psychiatry. In his book, The History of the DSM, it’s super intriguing.

One of his critiques, which I think he’s absolutely right, he talks about these labels as snapshots. As he describes this idea of snapshots and these labels that are provided by the DSM, what he says is most of the time people are looking at some problem that they have and they’re acknowledging, “I feel really strongly about this, I can’t help this urge or this that’s happening to me. The language of the body keeping score neurologically, that these patterns are being built in my head.” He’s saying that the idea is that people are taking snapshots with a label. What we forget, like we do in medicine, is there’s a course to an “illness,” there’s a course to a problem, as we think about it in counseling. What’s happening is that snapshot is truncating our view of how we got here. The Bible, with Biblical anthropology, helps us to understand how we got to a place like that. We’re not saying the body’s not involved. We’re just saying that’s not all that’s there. We’re wrestling in our interpretation of what’s happening and what we choose in that moment, what we desire, what we want, what we’re passionate about, what we pursue in that moment. Over time, it begins to build a connection in the body where, we could use a modern term, addiction. The body becomes trained in that way, I would describe it, in some ways, as bondage. We’re presenting our members once again, as Paul would say. We find ourselves stuck in those sorts of realms and we don’t know how to deal with it. We’re not saying the body’s not involved, but we have to say that the body is not all there is to this story. There’s a course of how this happened, how it unfolded. We have to take both into consideration or else we won’t, as you mentioned, mortify this within us and we’ll just be managing this sin in an outward expression for the rest of our days. That’s not hopeful nor helpful in the terms of restoration and change and redemption that the Scripture provides here.

Lance Quinn: You mentioned that principle. If we believe that there were certain sins, whether their sins of both mind and body, and as though some of those categories of sins are unable to be vanquished, then Paul’s words to the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 makes no sense because he says, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely or entirely. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful and He surely will do it.”

If our life, body and soul is not going to be sanctified completely or entirely, when he mentions there your spirit, your soul, your body, he’s not talking about three different separations of the immaterial makeup of man. He’s simply piling on words to talk about the totality of the believer. You’re going to be totally sanctified. The process of it is ongoing. The fact of it is not in doubt. If, in fact, it’s not in doubt, both in the process and in the end outcome, then if someone says, “I’ve got to besetting sin, I can’t deal with it. I’ve tried, I’ve done everything, I’ve done everything my counselor told me to do, I’ve done everything my preacher has told me to do, but I can’t vanquish it. I suppose it’s probably my cross to bear, a thorn in the flesh.” I think that’s a problem because first of all, there are two different contexts. Secondly, Paul actually, in the outcome of the Lord, as Paul prayed three times to remove it and the Lord said no, “My power is perfected in your weakness,” and then Paul actually rejoices by saying okay, if the Lord has made it clear he’s not going to deliver me of it. And by the way, it could have been a physical malady of some sort, could have been an eyesight issue with Paul, a lot of interpretations on it. What Paul is saying is no matter what happens now, if the Lord is saying you’re going to have this the rest of your life, this challenge, this trial, then he says I’m actually rejoicing that the trial itself is producing a vanquishing of my pride.

Even if someone, let’s say, has a car wreck. They are drinking, they have a car wreck. The wreck results in the loss of a limb, his left arm. The person is going to have to deal with the loss of his left arm for the rest of his life, but it doesn’t mean that he can’t serve the Savior. It doesn’t mean that he can’t be more and fully sanctified. In fact, if the Lord’s providence brought such a thing, it’s actually one of the tools of God to bring him to the place of vanquishing his pride and allowing him to serve the Lord without a part of his body, physically speaking.

Dale Johnson: This is so important. A lot of people would compartmentalize these problems and they’ll say, “Yes, the spiritual things you’re talking about, we agree with them, the Bible is sufficient. But there are bodily problems,” this is the snapshot issue that I talked about and we say, “There are other ways to deal with those types of things.” I think that’s bifurcating the human being the way that the Bible doesn’t. For example, you used those two illustrations, you said besetting sin versus what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 12:9, the thorn in the flesh, which he describes as weakness.

Guys, as you hear this, this is the dynamic of the Bible. You don’t have a one-size-fits-all counseling. We’re trying to discern what’s going on. Is it a weakness in a person that they’re having to wrestle with? That can end in the glory of Christ. And notice, Christ is not glorified when we manage our sin, when we harbor our sin. There’s two different responses here. When it’s a weakness, Paul says we can embrace that weakness for the glory of Christ because it demonstrates the sufficient grace of the Lord. This is a huge distinction and our counseling will be different in that situation versus what you’re describing here is a besetting sin, which Paul says to mortify. He says this in Romans, he repeats it again in Colossians 3, as we mentioned.

I’m just going to read this and I want you to get into talking about mortification of sin here. Colossians 3:5 says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” If we were to go on, he describes what some of those look like: anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk from your mouth. He tells us to put all these things away. It’s interesting to me how different philosophies or approaches to counseling would distinguish all of those things that I described as being spiritual only. I’ve been angry before and it was a full-body experience. It’s not like my body goes limp in moments like that. We are intended as human beings that all of our being, inner man, outer man, is working together in that process and it’s expressed in an outer way. The Lord is still telling us to put this death. Later, he tells us as the word of Christ dwells in us richly, that we can be at peace. The peace of Christ can rule in us. I want us to talk about how we mortify. How does this happen? What are some of the key Scriptural passages? How do we emphasize these passages to help folks mortify these besetting sins?

Lance Quinn: You’ve set it up with the perfect truth that the Bible attests to and that is, there is both a mind and body problem because we’re encased in a sin-cursed world. Our minds are affected. Theologians call it the noetic effects of sin. It is true that our bodies are breaking down. Our bodies have impulses, they have drives, determinations. Those things are never divorced from the mind. Yet, at the same time, the Apostle Paul talks about in Romans 6: “our members.” He’s talking about both our mind and our physical body. He tells us that we cannot be slaves to our members. We have to say to ourselves that if we are Christ’s and if we are slaves of Christ, servants of Christ, he says in Romans 6:15-18, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” So that slavery is true, that bondage is true of someone who doesn’t know Christ. They are, in a sense, beholding only to their drives, determinations and desires. But when we are set free by the gospel of Jesus Christ, that bondage to sin is broken. Is it eliminated? By no means. But it is broken as to its mastery. Because of that, we are now on a different path and we have a different Master. We are obedient to the new Master that we have, who is the Lord Jesus. His death and resurrection is the guarantee that our lives will become different in both mind and body.

Dale Johnson: It’s exactly what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 where he describes as Christ died for all. He’s died so that we now no longer have to live for ourselves. He has freed us to no longer live in the bondage of having to follow those passions and desires, that we can obey our Lord, we can obey Christ. That gets us to the question: at some point in our lives, we have wrestled or are wrestling or maybe will wrestle with this idea. 1 John tells us to test these things, to know about our assurance. “These things,” he says, “I’ve written to you so that you may know that you have eternal life.” This type of discussion brings up a question for so many professing Christians that have consistent ongoing battles with sin, which they just seem like they struggle to resist or they struggle to see change happening. Talk to professing believers about this particular issue and how they may question their assurance of salvation and how to work through that.

Lance Quinn: It certainly is true to say that multitudes of Christians often fight the matter of, am I in a continuing relationship to Jesus Christ? When I look at my life, when I look at my sin in the mirror, the mirror of God’s Word, I get discouraged I get defeated, I’m disconsolate. Often they’ll say, “That may mean I’m really not a Christian, maybe I sort of misunderstood the Gospel, maybe I’m not, in fact, in actuality, delivered from my sin. So my assurance seems to be so elusive.” But remember Gospel facts. Gospel facts tell us that Jesus died and that he died for sinners like us. If we would but put our faith our confidence, our trust, the whole of our lives in His hands by acknowledging our sin and seeking Christ’s forgiveness of our sins and to then say, “I want to live for you the rest of my life and however faltering I may do that, I’m still saying that my assurance is not based on my feelings. It’s not based upon some kind of quantitative analysis of how much sin I’m battling and vanquishing on any one day. Some days, I do. Some days, I don’t. I’m in a topsy-turvy world. It’s not based on those things. It’s based on the cross.” There’s an objectivity to it. If I become so subjective in my elusive claim to be assured of my salvation, I will surely have those days where I say, “Okay, forget it. I’m not in Christ.” But you’re in Christ because God initiates the opening of your eyes. You repent of your sins. You place your faith in Christ solely. It’s not your work. As you begin to work as a Christian having been saved, you will continue the work of salvation by mortifying sin however you will grapple with it and at times seeming to be getting the better of you than you getting the better of it. But don’t believe that in those moments when sin seems to be uppermost, that it takes you back to the question, “Well, of course, it probably means I’m not a Christian.” Those are Satanic onslaughts. Those are the things that you have to grapple. That’s why Ephesians 6 says what it says about the armor of the Christian. That’s why Paul, when he talks about in Philippians 4, “Think on these things.” He gives an incredible list of, “Are they true, are they beautiful, are they excellent?” So you and I, we don’t measure whether or not we have the assurance of our salvation by looking inward or looking outward to certain signs and seasons. I look at the promises of God and what they say and then I look at what Romans 13 says at the very last verse of the chapter, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” That’s what you and I are doing in the here and now.

Dale Johnson: This is such an important topic. You’ve been a pastor for a long time. You serve people both in the pulpit and in personal ministry. As a shepherd, how do you tenderly encourage, exhort, admonish these counselees who seem bewildered they seem beset with sins they’ve been battling for long lengths of time? How do you approach them? How do you encourage them? How do you exhort them? How do you admonish them?

Lance Quinn: In one sense, I think you need to do it one sinful matter at a time, whether it’s called a besetting sin or some kind of habit that’s been formed. You just deal with those one by one. On a more generic or general level, I have often been so very helped by 1 Thessalonians 5, which gives three things in rapid-fire succession as commands, I call them RPG. Rejoice in the Lord always again, I say rejoice. Pray about everything. Give thanks in all circumstances. Those staccato-like commands that are given in short, snappy verses in 1 Thessalonians 5 are ways that you and I can grapple with besetting or sins that are dogging me and in the regularity of my Christian life. When things come up that I don’t understand, when someone injures me, hurts me, I need to take every thought captive to use Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, “Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ,” and I do that by not just some ditty of RPG, but it’s a kind of pneumonic device that says, “I want to take an “R” rejoice attitude, I want to pray about everything and then I want to use all that’s coming at me as a way to give God thanks in every circumstance, even when those circumstances are quite onerous in the moment.

Dale Johnson: This has been so helpful as we think through these things that are very real to us. As we wrestle truly in our soul, they’re not far away from physical expressions. We have to keep clear in our biblical thinking on this subject and I’m really grateful that you’ve helped us to do that today.

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