How to Fight When You Fail

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Pastor, St. Charles, Illinois

I’m not writing for those who think they’ve got little sin problems. If you imagine you’re getting an A-, or at least a C+, in self-sanctification, you probably won’t resonate with what I’m saying.

I’m writing for the Christian who’s reading this a few hours after you’ve fallen sexually. I’m thinking of the deacon who has just exploded in anger at his children. Or the campus ministry leader who went to college with every intention of following Jesus, but is now waking up with a hangover and can’t remember what she did the night before. I’m writing for the pastor who told a lie in last night’s elder meeting. Or the Bible study leader who became Peter-the-Denier when her upper-class neighbor asked her if she really thinks that everyone who does not believe in Jesus Christ will go to hell.

For all who are weary of struggling with sin, I want you to be able to face your most disappointing failures without drowning in despair.

Gutsy Guilt

Let me tell you about gutsy guilt. John Piper first introduced me to this idea — and his teaching on this has sustained and strengthened me for over a quarter of a century of being “tempted, tried, and sometimes failing.” Piper found an example of “gutsy guilt, bold brokenness, confident contrition, rugged remorse” in the words of the prophet Micah, who teaches us how to fight when we have fallen.

But as for me, I will look to the Lord;
     I will wait for the God of my salvation;
     my God will hear me.
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
     when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
     the Lord will be a light to me.
I will bear the indignation of the Lord
     because I have sinned against him,
until he pleads my cause
     and executes judgment for me.
He will bring me out to the light;
     I shall look upon his vindication.
Then my enemy will see,
     and shame will cover her who said to me,
     “Where is the Lord your God?”
My eyes will look upon her;
     now she will be trampled down
     like the mire of the streets. (Micah 7:7–10)

Do Not Delay

It seems counterintuitive to sin and then immediately to fall on your knees and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” We harbor in our hearts the false belief that, somehow, we have to pay for our sins — just a little.

But repentance isn’t groveling. You repent when you agree with God that your sin is wicked and flee to the only one who can do helpless sinners any good. So, what if after you’ve sinned you didn’t grovel for a week, but instead ran immediately to the Savior who “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15)?

Micah shows us that even at our very worst, there remains a God in heaven who will not reject repentant sinners. “Look to him,” Micah says — “the sooner, the better!”

Satan loves to tempt you, trap you, and then taunt you with your guilt. He loves to watch you wallow in the mire of your misery. He wants you to embrace failure as your identity. Micah says, “Don’t listen to those lies. Call on the Lord. Do not delay. Fight when you fail.” And he shows us how in verses 8–10.

Talk Back to the Enemy

Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
     when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
     the Lord will be a light to me. (Micah 7:8)

Here is a vivid and dramatic rebuttal to Satan’s prosecution — a complete reversal of his accusatory strategy. The heart of faith defies despair. Faith refuses to believe that our sin is the end of God’s story for our life.

The tempter is a cruel tyrant who wants to terrify you with the greatness of your sins. Learn to turn his own weapon back on himself, like Martin Luther did:

When you say I am a sinner, you give me armor and weapons against yourself, so that with your own sword I may cut your throat and tread you under my feet, for Christ died for sinners. As often as you object that I am a sinner, so often you remind me of the benefit of Christ my Redeemer on whose shoulders and not on mine lie all my sins. So when you say I’m a sinner, you do not terrify me, but comfort me immeasurably.

Submit to God’s Discipline

I will bear the indignation of the Lord
     because I have sinned against him,
until he pleads my cause
     and executes judgment for me.
He will bring me out to the light;
     I shall look upon his vindication. (Micah 7:9)

Gutsy guilt doesn’t shrink from the real-life consequences of sin. The fiery wrath of God’s holy condemnation of our sin has been extinguished at the cross, but the fatherly anger of God’s displeasure at our sin is a sign of our adoption into his family. When God disciplines us, he treats us as his sons and daughters (Hebrews 12:7). His anger is bathed in love, aimed at restoration, and results in what is good for us.

God’s discipline is also temporary. Notice the hope-filled word until in Micah 7:9: “until he pleads my cause.” Here’s where Satan’s theology and the gospel collide. Satan says, “See how God is disciplining you? That’s proof he’s against you.” But the gospel says, “He will champion my cause and establish justice for me. He will bring me into the light; I will see his salvation.”

Yes, God is able to keep you from stumbling when you look to him for strength in the face of temptation. But when you do stumble, he is able to keep your stumbling from destroying you. He will “present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24).

In the end, the enemy is going to witness the vindication of God’s blood-bought children. By grace, through faith, we will be righteous and shine like the sun in our Father’s kingdom (Matthew 13:43). And we will look upon the enemies of our soul, and see them trampled down like dirt and mud on the streets — it doesn’t get any lower than that. That’s Satan’s destiny (Micah 7:10).

Fuel for Our Fight

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
     and passing over transgression
     for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
     because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
     he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
     into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18–19)

When you fail, fall on him. He won’t resent your repeated returns to his throne of mercy. He’s not sighing or sulking when he sees you trembling at his feet. He delights to show mercy. As Richard Sibbes writes, “He is more ready . . . to forgive than you to sin; as there is a continual spring of wickedness in you, so there is a greater spring of mercy in God.”

Imagine being with Moses and the children of Israel on the far shore of the Red Sea. You’ve just watched Pharaoh and his army disappear into the depths of the sea, never to torment you again. Someday that’s what’s going to happen to your sin.

Thrown into a sea without bottom or shore,
Our sins they are many, his mercy is more. (“His Mercy Is More”)

Many a preacher has repeated this memorable saying — but when you’ve failed, it will do you great good to preach it to yourself: When God throws your sin into the sea of forgetfulness, he puts up a sign that says, “No fishing allowed.”