Following Jesus requires embracing that uncomfortable, un-American thing called self-denial. Some people view Christianity as being able to have all the worldly cake you want as long as you wash it down with a tall glass of Jesus. But the Bible describes no such life. Striving to turn away from sin is not an optional aspect of faith; it is inseparable from saving faith. Denying the flesh is an inescapable reality of every true Christian’s life.
But sometimes, I am really terrible at it.
I praise God that by his power and grace toward me in Christ, I am no longer dominated by the “big” (more destructive) sins that once plagued my life. Though I am by no means immune to their seduction and could this very afternoon fall into their grip, drunkenness and sexual immorality are not the sins with which I struggle most in this season. But I’ve got plenty of “smaller” sins that I am prone to make peace with—sins that I so easily justify, look over, or deceitfully convince myself aren’t a big deal to God.
I started smoking at the age of sixteen and thoroughly enjoyed it until the Holy Spirit made me his dwelling place six years ago. At that point, my nicotine delight started to be accompanied by the discomfort of conviction. I know heroes of the faith like Spurgeon, Bonhoeffer, and Lewis had no problem smoking it up, and neither do a lot of contemporary believers. But my conscience just won’t let me puff in peace. And as Paul wrote in Romans 12, anything that does not proceed from faith (faith never defiles a conscience) is sin. So for me, smoking is a sin. I wish it were not—‘cause I really, really like it! But it is.
In 2012, after eight years of one to two packs a day, I quit cold turkey. A year later, I relapsed for three months, and then quit again cold turkey. And then one day this past winter, after three years smoke-free, I picked up a pack at the gas station and have seriously struggled to put them down ever since. Though it may not be totally comparable, I battle in the same way with food. I am so inclined to look to pizza, queso, and Oreos for comfort. Long story short, if I don’t diligently keep in step with the Spirit, my flesh quickly becomes an idolatrous vacuum that sucks up all the worldly comforts it can. And over the last year or so, the vacuum has been on full blast.
I haven’t sailed through this smoky season of calorie surplus without a care; though I’ve suppressed it most of the time, I have experienced God’s gracious conviction every day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought a pack of cigarettes, smoked one, and then threw the rest away (huge waste of money!). There was a three-week span when I didn’t take a single drag, but I inhaled all the tasty food I could get my hands on during those three weeks—which is no better. Idolatry is idolatry, regardless of its object.
I knew these fleshly pleasures hindered my daily experience of God. I knew they were cheap substitutes for the joy Jesus gives. I knew this. But every time I tried to quit these sins, I just couldn’t get them out of my head! When I tried to stop smoking, all I thought about were the cigarettes that were off limits to me. When I tried to stop eating the world, all I thought about were the scrumptious foods I couldn’t enjoy. And over and over, I caved. After a short stint of self-control, I would pick my carnalities back up and hold them tightly in arms . . . only to again be burdened by a defiled conscience, convicted by the Holy Spirit, and ready to quit.
I continued round and round in this miserable cycle until the Holy Spirit smacked me upside the head and reminded me of something he has repeatedly taught me, but I’m obviously slow to learn: I will never quit these sins if quitting these sins is all I keep thinking about.
Something I have noticed about myself—and something I think is true of human nature in general—is my affections wrap around the object of my focus. Over the last year, I slowly stopped looking to Jesus for daily comfort and joy and began to gaze upon worldly pleasures instead. Why? Because it was easier! It was much less work to access the delight found in cigarettes and food than it was to access the delight found in Jesus. I could mindlessly light up a cigarette or chow down on a Big Mac, but I had to actively set the ever-wandering eyes of my heart upon Jesus. The joy he gives is better, and I knew that. But experiencing it takes discipline and diligence—and I had gotten spiritually lazy.
The reason my numerous attempts to repent were futile was because I continued to be spiritually lazy. Though I would physically lay my sins down, I wouldn’t embrace the hard work it was to divert my eyes away from my sins and focus on Jesus. I read my Bible and set aside time to pray every day (and I thank God I did because, if not, I probably would have been struggling with sins much more destructive than Marlboros or too many tacos), but I didn’t lift my eyes continually to Christ throughout the day. I kept thinking about the fleshly pleasures I so wanted but couldn’t have. And because my mind remained fixed on these things, my affection for them was sustained . . . while my affection for Jesus continued to dwindle.
But about a month ago, I heeded the Holy Spirit’s head-smackery and began to shift my gaze back to the One whom it never should have left. And it was not easy! Whenever I started to crave some pleasure or comfort—which is not, in and of itself, a bad thing—a big part of me wanted to look to my worldly delights. “If I could just have one cigarette,” I would think to myself. But by the power of the Spirit, I began to crush these thoughts and actively set my mind on Jesus. I would pull up the Bible app on my phone, read a book or article about Jesus, or inwardly preach the gospel to myself—whatever it took to get my mind’s eye on Christ.
And let me tell you guys, this has changed everything about my fight against the flesh. I’ve stumbled a few times—a cigarette here, one too many pieces of pizza there. My repentance hasn’t been perfect (is anyone’s?). But I have seen in my life lately an exponential increase in freedom from these sins. As I continue to look to Jesus throughout the day and experience more and more of his joy, he has become more and more desirable to me than a pack of Marlboros or a $5 box from Popeye’s. These fleshly vices only offer temporary pleasure and eat away at my soul, leaving me anxious and dry and thirsting for relief. But the pleasure Jesus gives me isn’t shallow and short-lived; it is enduring and satisfies the deepest parts of my being. The joy I experience in Jesus isn’t accompanied by the discomfort of guilt and shame but by the peace of an undefiled conscience.
If you are struggling today to quit some sin—“big” or “small”— the best advice this gluttonous, cig-loving guy can give you is to stop letting your mind be consumed with quitting this sin; rather, let Christ consume your mind. Seeing and savoring him is the only way any of us will rightly and effectively quit our sins. Only he can and is willing to give us the pleasure and joy for which we were made.
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”- Colossians 3:1-3