Today’s question is from Katie Elias who listens from Canada: “Pastor John, I recently read your blog post about embracing weakness as a means to show God’s strength. How can I discern between a weakness that needs accepting and a besetting sin that needs eradicating? How do I know if I am making excuses for a besetting sin by saying it is just a natural weakness?”
That is such a good, penetrating question. It calls for the only way I know how to make those really difficult distinctions in our souls and in our motivations: the revealed word of God. And isn’t it remarkable how Hebrews says that in relation to making distinctions? It says in Hebrews 4:12, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Immersed in the Word
Isn’t that exactly what she is asking about? “How can I discern my thoughts? How can I discern my intentions?” And I would say the summary answer is, Let’s immerse ourselves in the word and let the word permeate us like a bath of swords, penetrating and separating weakness from sin so that we don’t deceive ourselves and justify our behaviors or our attitudes that are sinful by calling them mere weaknesses. But the reason I appreciate this question so much is that it causes me to go a little deeper.
Here is the painful reality: Our sins typically worm their way into our weaknesses. One of the reasons weaknesses are called weaknesses, I think, is that they are so vulnerable as places where sin can insinuate itself. So people often say, for example, that our greatest strengths are part of our greatest weaknesses. And when they say that, I think they are getting at the same thing.
“Disentangling sin from weakness is possible only by the work of the Holy Spirit using the amazing, sharp word of God.”
For example, let’s just say John Piper may be prone to see in every circumstance something that needs changing. Now you may be the kind of person that almost never sees anything that needs changing. Well, they are two opposite weaknesses, or strengths, perhaps. But both of those weaknesses are spring-loaded to be infected by sin at any second. The first one is almost certainly going to be infected with a critical spirit: short on patience, lacking in mercy, lacking in tenderheartedness, all because there are things here that need to be changed, you know?
And the second one is almost certain to be infected with carelessness and failure to take sin seriously and lack of boldness to confront people when there are changes that need to be made. And disentangling the sin from the weakness in these is a lifelong challenge and possible, I think, only by the work of the Holy Spirit using this amazing, sharp word of God.
Our Sin and Christ’s Glory
So how does God’s word about Christ being glorified in our weaknesses (see 2 Corinthians 12:9) apply to these complex cases? And I would say, Not by saying with the false teacher in Romans 6, “Well, let’s continue in sin that grace may abound, because if grace abounds in my weakness, and my weakness is vulnerable to this kind of sin, and God can even get glory from showing grace to my sin, well, let’s not just worry about this and go on and let the sin be, because God gets grace from overcoming or overlooking my sin” (see Romans 6:1).
That would be exactly the opposite of what Paul said there. Even if we believe that Christ will be magnified in overriding our sins — which I do — I must never, ever exploit that mercy of God by saying, “Well, let’s let some sin go, because then he will have more to override.” No, no. Here is what we do. We pray earnestly for humility and discernment. We make war on the sinful entanglements of our weaknesses, we don’t make excuses and turn God into a guilty party in our failure, and we repent. We turn away from every sinful failure even if we have to do it every day. And we ask the Lord Jesus to purify our weaknesses and turn them for the glory of his name.