This side of heaven, though God is sanctifying the hearts of His children day by day, we do not have a magic cure to get us out of the daily struggle with our own sin. So what habits can we develop to kill that sin in our hearts and lives?
First, we must recognize the deadly seriousness of our sin and declare war on it. The second habit to develop is this: Flee AND Pursue.
In I Timothy 6:11, the apostle Paul tells the young pastor Timothy to “flee these things,” namely the “love of money” (vs. 10) and discontentment (vv. 7-8). He is to flee from sin. Other places in Scripture tell us the same: “Flee the evil desires of youth” (II Tim 2:22), “Flee from sexual immorality” (I Cor 6:18), and “Flee from idolatry” (I Cor 10:14). Clearly we are to run away from sin. That’s the obvious part–we know that.
But Paul doesn’t stop with that. Right after he tells Timothy to flee from those sins, he also tells him to “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” I think there’s an important principle here: fleeing from sin is not enough on its own to kill indwelling sin. Rather, killing sin requires an active pursuit of righteousness.
We see this principle in athletics all the time. In a football game, if a running back has the ball, his objective is not merely to evade the tacklers, but to cross the goal line. If he were simply trying to evade tacklers, his focus would be behind him and he might run in any direction. But he is not only fleeing from the tacklers, he is pursuing the goal line because his objective is to score. Thus his focus is primarily on what’s in front of him between him and the goal line.
In a similar way, a runner in a 100m dash slows herself down if she is turning her head to look behind her at how close her competitors are–instead she must focus fully on the finish line ahead. This is the imagery Paul uses in Philippians 3:13-14 when he says “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
This is a key strategy for fighting sin. With many sins–sins of lust especially–the more I think about how to overcome the sin or avoid the sin, the greater the hold that sin has on me, simply because I am thinking about it. There is a place for considering the ugliness of particular sins and for strategizing how to defeat them, but I should not linger in that process, but move quickly on to a pursuit of righteousness. Especially when temptation comes, it hardly ever works to say to myself “I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it” because in that my mind is focused behind me on the sin I’m trying to flee from. But if instead, by the mercy of God, I’m able to turn my mind to pursue God rather than thinking about the sin, I may be more likely to avoid that temptation.
What does it look like to pursue righteousness? It may mean turning on some worship music and singing along. It may mean turning to Scripture to study a passage. It may mean calling a friend to hang out or pray together. It may mean starting work on a service project. It may even mean working out at the gym or reading a book or some other seemingly “unspiritual” activity, simply because that activity will help to turn your mind and your affections away from the temptation to sin.
So when sin comes your way, by all means, flee! But as you are fleeing from that sin, turn your focus away from the sin and put it on the One whom you are pursuing. Let your mind and your heart be captivated by His beauty and His glory, that your affections for Him would drive you further and further from the sin that so easily entangles you.