Most of us feel regret, to some extent or another, after we sin. Whether it’s being rude to a friend, fantasizing lustfully, envying a neighbor’s car, or gossiping, we all know the way our conscience pricks us in the aftermath. We often respond – rightly – with regret over our actions.
Then, having regretted our sin, we call it a day. We move on.
And a day, or an hour, or a minute later, we’re doing the same thing again.
Regret, as it turns out, is not the same as repentance.
Regret is a good thing, of course, but it only takes us part of the way. Regret alone does not produce any change, because it is simply an emotion, and a relatively short-lived one at that. (Otherwise, how would people so readily plunge back into their sins, be they gossip or lust or envy?) Repentance, by contrast, entails not only emotion but action. The regretful person might go so far as to apologize, but he or she will never cut off a hand to keep from sinning again.
That Jesus puts it in such stark terms ought to catch our attention, but I think for most of us, the Sermon on the Mount is so familiar as to feel comfortable. God forbid. Look at the relevant passage again:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
If your hand makes you sin, cut it off. If your smartphone makes you sin, throw it away. If your friends make you sin, get new friends. It really doesn’t get any more clear cut. The reality is that most of us don’t get rid of the temptations to sin in our lives because, while we may regret having sinned, we have yet to repent. We have yet to see Christ himself as better than whatever sin we commit. We would rather not get rid of the source of temptation, because the truth is we don’t really mind sinning all that much.
Temptation can look different for different people. Some young men have what is now being called a “video game addiction.” I call it sin – laziness, usually. Some young women spend hours pouring over fashion magazines, inculcating envy. Many of these parties recognize they have a problem – but suggest that the easiest solution is to simply get rid of the gaming console or to stop reading the magazines, and resistance flairs quickly. These are easy examples; I doubt an example from our own lives is far from most of us.
Of course, even this is simply symptomatic of the deeper issue. I knew plenty of guys in college with porn addictions – and their problems didn’t vanish simply because they installed a filter on their computers or phones. That alleviated the temptation, and it was the right thing to do. It didn’t change their hearts, though, and sin is first and foremost an issue of the heart. They could fantasize all day long if they so desired. In some cases, putting the filter on their computer was indicative of a real heart change. For others, it was just a band-aid, a way to halfway deal with the issue – to smother the regret and salve the conscience – without really getting at the sin.
Look: sin is persistent and it doesn’t go down without a fight. If you want pride dead, you’d better be prepared to battle for humidity for the rest of your life, and it won’t be easy. You will face temptation to consider yourself better than others at every turn. As this is one of the cardinal areas in which I have struggled, I know this all too well. The moment I start to feel like I’m doing well at that battle, and especially if I let down my guard, I’m in for a rude shock. That enemy I’ve spent the last decade and a half hacking away at will come back in a hurry, and in the places where I least expect it.
There is, from what I can see in Scripture and have found to be true experientially, only one sure cure for sin. We have to see the reward God has promised us as really, truly better than the pleasures sin offers (Hebrews 11:24-26). We have to see Christ himself as better than whatever we get out of our sin. That doesn’t come easy, either: our sanctification is a constant struggle between the new and old man in us. Part of us still loves the fleeting happiness we get from indulging our sinful desires, even while the better part of us knows that Jesus really will make us happier.
We need more prayer, fellowship, and worship if we are going to beat sin. If you’re surprised that Scripture reading isn’t in that list, it is. But it’s folded into fellowship and worship. We don’t beat sin alone, and we don’t beat sin by compiling facts. We beat sin by loving God more, which means we beat sin by worshiping him. Rehearsing, both alone and with our believers, God’s goodness and his great deeds is enormously helpful. Prayerfully seeking the Spirit’s aid in changing our hearts is an absolutely necessity.