The Secret to Breaking Free from Habitual Sin

We keep falling into the same sin when we fail to believe that holiness really will make us happier than giving in again. Many other factors may influence us, but at the root of habitual sin is a battle not for self-control, but for happiness. What we believe and want, deep in our hearts, really matters.

When my two oldest children were younger teens, they did what most younger teens do (including my three remaining teens). They ransacked the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer for empty, sugar-based carbohydrates. If they didn’t find them, they would run to fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. My wife and I would urge them toward more balanced diets and cite the science-based negative effects of such foods on the body and mind, but with little success.

“We will keep choosing to sin as long as we believe that choosing not to sin is choosing less happiness.”

Then, around ages 17 or 18, suddenly they began to eat healthy, nutritious food and eschew junk food. In fact, they began to excel their parents and exhort the rest of the family regarding the importance of eating well. Now in their early twenties, they eat far better than I did at their ages.

What happened to them? It really wasn’t that they went from being ignorant to being informed. They knew, even as kids, that junk food was “bad” for them and veggies were “good” for them. What they lacked was a belief that eating veggies would really make them happier in the long run than eating junk food now. Then they experienced an “awakening” that nutritious food would bring greater long-term joy, on multiple levels, than empty carbs. That is when they began to change what they ate.

Their awakenings provide a helpful illustration of why we often live in defeat before a habitual sin: we will keep choosing to sin as long as we believe that choosing not to sin is choosing less happiness.

Sin Can Be Quite Simple

Now, I’m a very experienced sinner (like you are), so I know how reductionistic this can sound. There are many factors contributing to why we keep giving in to sin, even if we think we don’t want to. Sin is quite complex, isn’t it?

Actually, no. Sin can create complex illusions, and it can result in all kinds of complexity. But at its essence, sin is quite simple.

The apostle John says it in four words: “All wrongdoing is sin” (1 John 5:17). Yes, but aren’t our motivations and influences to do wrong a big tangled mess? Well, the apostle James says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin” (James 1:14–15). Not a lot of qualifications. Not a lot of rationalizations. Not a lot of complications.

If we’re tempted to think that this was due to James’s ignorance of psychological, sociological, biological, or family-of-origin factors influencing us to sin, we’re mistaken. He may have lacked the extent of scientific data available in our day, but he knew human beings. His epistle is full of penetrating insight into our inner workings. In fact, I think he saw more clearly into us than most twenty-first-century Westerners do. James simply saw what sin is at its core.

Sin at Its Core

Every sin, every wrongdoing, no matter what kind — whether acted out in behavior or nurtured secretly in some dark place of our heart (Matthew 5:28) — is a manifestation of something we believe. Every sin is born out of a belief that disobeying God (wrongdoing) will produce a happier outcome than obeying God (right-doing). Whether or not we’re conscious of this, it’s true. Nobody sins out of duty.

“Every sin, every wrongdoing, no matter what kind, is a manifestation of something we believe.”

Every sin is some repeat version, some re-run, of the original human sin, when our ancient parents ate the forbidden tree’s fruit. Why did they do it? Were they ignorant? No. God told them directly that eating the fruit would be wrongdoing and they would be far happier if they refrained from eating (Genesis 2:16–17). But Satan put a different spin on God’s words and motives, and told them they would be far happier if they ate.

They weighed both assertions and made their choice. They saw the tree was “good for food” (“the desire of the flesh”), “a delight to the eyes” (“the desire of the eyes”), and “desir[able] to make one wise” (“the pride of life,” Genesis 3:6; 1 John 2:16). They ate for the joy they (wrongly) believed was set before them.

We Choose What We Believe

It wasn’t wrongdoing for Adam and Eve to be motivated by joy, any more than it was wrong for Jesus to be motivated by joy (Hebrews 12:2). That’s why we choose to do, or not do, anything.

If given the choice, we choose what we believe will make us happier than we are, or less miserable than we are — even if the knowledge in our head tells us our choice is “wrong.” As Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” And Pascal knew what drove the heart’s reasons: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception.” God made us this way.

What made it wrongdoing was where Adam and Eve tried to find joy, where they placed their faith. They believed Satan’s promise of joy over God’s promise of joy. For “whatever does not proceed from faith [in God] is sin” (Romans 14:23). And “whoever would draw near to God must believe . . . that he is the rewarder of those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Getting Free from Habitual Sin

When we are caught in habitual or besetting sin, our problem, at its core, may be simple. What’s holding us captive is a deceptive belief about what will make us happy.

I know the objections that might come. We do often “know” that a sin is destructive to us and others. We might loathe the sin in certain ways and feel shame over it. We may have a sincere longing to be free, and just feel like we can’t, like we’re enslaved to it — which, in a sense, we are (John 8:34). These are the complex consequences and illusions sin produces.

“Sin is not fundamentally defeated through the power of self-denial, but through the power of a greater desire.”

The truth is, however, that we are enslaved as we believe that to give up the sin is to embrace living with less happiness or more misery. Like my now-adult kids once believed: eating junk food might be “bad” for them, but life was more happy eating “bad” food than eating “good” food. This didn’t change until their belief about nutritional happiness changed. Once that changed, the power of junk food began to lose its hold on them.

Habitual sin is not fundamentally defeated through the power of self-denial, but through the power of a greater desire. Self-denial is of course necessary, but self-denial is only possible — certainly for the long term — when it is fueled by a desire for a greater joy than what we deny (Matthew 16:24–26).

How to Break Free

The secret to getting free from the entrapment of habitual sin begins with a prayerful, rigorous, honest examination of what satanic promises we have believed — and the better promises God has made. Which promises will really produce the longest and best happiness if true? And which source of promises has the most proven credibility?

Then we must renounce the lies we have believed, repent to God for having persistently believed them, and begin to exercise faith in God’s promises through obeying him — “[bearing] fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).

As I said, this is just the beginning. I make no promise of it being easy from there. It is often very hard, because insight into our false beliefs does not itself unseat those beliefs. Often, entrenched false beliefs have shaped our perceptions and instinctive behaviors and therefore take significant time and intentional effort to change. It is not called the “fight of faith” for nothing (1 Timothy 6:12).

But I will say this: the more convinced you become that God is the source of all superior joys for you, the more resolved you will become to fight for those joys, and the easier the fight will become over time. But unless you become convinced, in some measure, that this is true, the power of your habitual sins will keep their hold on you.