The young man entered my office to have what had become a familiar conversation. He hated his sin and was actively working to kill it, but he had fallen yet again. He was ashamed and broken. I celebrated his passion to rid himself of the sin that plagued him, but also saw that he lacked any discernible joy in Christ. His paralyzing self-condemnation was stripping him of joy, and in so doing, undermining his ability to fight the sin which entangled him.
Set this man against a different man, who made peace with his sin long ago. He knew the gospel and claimed to love Jesus, but at some point in his life, he gave up fighting. Whether lulled to sleep by the allure of sin, or worn down by a fight he found impossible to win, he was content to maintain a truce with evil. The truce, however, made war on his soul and robbed him of joy.
The first man was appropriately discontent with his sinfulness, but lacked joy in Christ. The second might claim to have joy, but lacked the desire to fight sin. What both failed to realize is that you cannot truly have one without the other. You cannot truly repent from and defeat sin without joy in Christ. And our satisfaction in our Savior is severely crippled if we allow sin to grow in our hearts. As his followers, until he returns, we will always be joyfully discontent. Joyful in Christ. Discontent with sinfulness.
Joyful in Christ
As we abide in Christ, we have peace in our hearts. There is nothing more satisfying to our spirits than fixing our gaze upon our Savior. He who came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He who was made to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). He who brought life to our dead hearts (Ephesians 2:5) by nailing our stained record of debt to his pure hands on the cross (Colossians 2:14). He who, though he was clothed in righteousness, wore the sins of mankind, so that we can be clothed in a pure white robe (Revelation 7:13–14). There is nothing more satisfying to the human soul than fixing our eyes upon him.
What is at stake if we do not find our joy in Christ? If we are not finding our joy in Christ, but feel the weight and seriousness of our sin, we will constantly swing back and forth between pride and shame. Pride when we feel successful in our fight. Timid and ashamed when we are failing. When our joy is not in Christ, sin will always win one way or another. The error of the young man in my office is not that he was grieved by his sin (we should be!), but that his fight against sin was not anchored in a deeper joy in Christ.
Joy in Christ fuels and shapes how we fight sin. We press on to make the realities of the resurrection our own, because Christ has made us his own (Philippians 3:12). The fuel for the fight is Christ himself. We are being made holy, because through Christ we have already been made holy (Hebrews 10:14). We do not need to forfeit our joy in Christ when we’re confronted with our remaining sin, withdrawing from God and pouting over our failures. Joy in Christ arms us to face our sins with humility, seriousness, and hope. If we want to win the battle, we fight sin and temptation with joy.
Discontent with Sinfulness
A poisonous attitude creeps in and pits grief over sin against joy in Christ, suggesting the two are at odds with one another. Out of a fear of being legalistic, we can fail to fight sin and end up ignoring its dark devices. Rather than implement strategies to wage war on sin, we allow it to grow. What we fail to see is that picking the weeds of sin out of the garden of life does not threaten the beauty of the flowers, but enhances their splendor.
Being discontent with our sinfulness and employing means to fight it does not undermine our joy in Christ. Godly guilt clears a path for us to enjoy him and his grace all the more.
Paul appeals to us, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13). Our war against sin is not waged on our own, but it is God who works in us. He delights to see his people formed into the image of his Son. Just as God finds pleasure in us when we work out our salvation, we are called to rejoice in what he is doing in our sanctification.
If we are content with our lack of holiness, we will undermine our joy in Christ. As we make peace with sin, it will eventually choke out our joy. We will constantly search for something new to fill the void. One form of discontentment — godly discontentment with our sinfulness — leads to everlasting joy; the other will lead to despair.
Killing Sin with Joy
Like a novice at the grill, who overcooks his steak out of fear that he will serve raw meat, we have a nasty habit of overcompensating spiritually. We may be so overwhelmingly grieved by our besetting sins that we lose the ability to behold the one who died for them. And we may become so allergic to grief and cavalier about grace that we do not take sin seriously enough.
God does not call us to paralyzing self-condemnation, nor has he offered us a cheap alternative to grace that excuses sin. We have joy because we have all we need in God through the gospel. We are discontent, not because we need to do more to earn his love, but because his love compels us to grow in our holiness and to never be satisfied to let sin lurk in our heart.
Like any other discipline in life, we learn through patience, training, and practice. As we are trained by the voice of God in Scripture and reminded of the gospel, we will begin pursuing joy and killing sin with all our hearts.