How do you stop committing a certain sin?
Some suggestions may involve putting guardrails up around areas of temptation or being held accountable by trustworthy friends. Others include conditioning your mind to be better or avoiding anything associated with the sin. Some may even suggest that you mentally berate yourself when you mess up until your will relents and you stop the sin.
Some of these might be helpful; others destructive. But none of them can stop you from sinning. Because none of these strategies gets to the heart of sin — namely, your heart’s desires.
So the question we have to ask first is not, “How do I stop sinning?” but rather, “Why do I sin at all?”
The Bible and the Heart
The Bible consistently holds the same view of why humans do what we do. We only ever do what we want. We only ever do what we desire.
I’m not saying we only ever do what we like, wish, or prefer. For example, we can do things under coercion. You may not want to give a mugger your wallet. But your desire to save your life will overpower your desire to save your money when he has you at knifepoint.
Everything you do flows from your heart (Proverbs 4:23). That is because you can only perform an action if the desire is initially in your heart (Psalm 119:11; Matthew 12:33–34). In fact, even if you do the right things with your hands, it is of no value to God if your heart is not right as well (Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8; 23:27).
So why do we do what we do? We only ever follow what our heart’s desire.
Follow Your Heart’s Desire
I assure you, I am not advocating a Disney version of Christianity where you simply follow your feelings. Nor is this a relativist version of Christianity where you just do what feels right for you. In fact, saying “follow your heart’s desire” is not a suggestion for a way to live; it is the description for how you live, whether you know it or not.
The biblical view of what it means to follow your heart may be best presented by the book of Deuteronomy. In it, God is calling his people to obey his law once they enter the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 6:1). But before God gives his law, he emphasizes repeatedly the people’s need to love him with all their hearts (Deuteronomy 5:10; 6:5–6; 7:9; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 13:3; 19:9; 30:16, 20). This is because God knows something fundamental about human nature: we obey what we love.
Where Love Comes From
Deuteronomy opens with a brief record of everything God had done for Israel. These mighty and gracious acts of God then are peppered throughout the whole book. Why? The answer comes in one of Deuteronomy’s most frequent commands: “Remember” (Deuteronomy 5:15; 7:18; 8:2, 18; 9:7; 15:15; 16:3, 12; 24:9, 18, 22; 32:7).
If the people of Israel would remember what God did for them, something would happen to their hearts: their hearts would love God. Love is revived by remembering, rehearsing, and treasuring.
But when love is stirred up in the heart, what results? Obedience.
So, for the Israelites in Deuteronomy, love for God in their hearts, and keeping it alive by remembering what God has done, would cause them to walk in obedience. Obeying God would naturally result from their loving God. That’s what love in the heart does: love incites obedience.
The opposite is also true. Forgetting what God has done causes love for him to shrivel and die in our hearts, causing us to disobey (Deuteronomy 4:9, 23; 6:12; 8:11, 14, 19).
Remember. Love. Obey.
Forget. Hate. Disobey.
This is why we do what we do.
Why Do We Do What We Do?
Now we can circle back to where we started. Why do we do what we do? We obey what we love, and we love what we remember.
That’s why we sin. We sin because we love sin. And we love sin because it’s familiar. Our hearts have been trained to remember what the world offers, to trust that sin can provide, and to rehearse the story that we can provide for ourselves.
So how do we stop sinning? How do we stop loving sin? We need to remember a different story. We need to become familiar with what God has done for us.
As Israel was called to remember their story of God rescuing them from Egypt, we need to remember the story of Jesus rescuing us from sin and death. We must continually remind ourselves of the gospel story.
As the people of Israel had regular feasts to help them remember what God had done for them, we must regularly feast on what Jesus has done for us (Deuteronomy 16).
How Do I Overcome Sin?
At the end of the day, Israel could not hold enough feasts or remember because God had not given them a heart to understand (Deuteronomy 29:4). They did not have the circumcised heart that God commanded of them.
But God promised that a time was coming when he would circumcise their hearts and cause them to remember, love, and obey him (Deuteronomy 30:6). We have those hearts. We are those who must keep the story of Jesus constantly on our lips and in our homes because we, by the Spirit, can remember God and love him with all (Deuteronomy 6:6–9).
How do you overcome sin? Remember what Jesus has done for you. Recall his blood on the cross, his grace toward your sin, his Spirit inside you, his promises to you, and his kingdom to which you’re called.
This will revive in your heart love for God, and the shine of sin will begin to fade. You will not trust sin’s lies, buy its narrative, or accept what it’s offering. Not because you have resolved to stop up your ears, sequester your body, berate your mind, or blind your eyes, but because you have reminded your new heart what it really desires.