The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it. (Proverbs 22:3)
I’ve heard the same question over and over recently: how do people fall into the really big sins? Some of us have a hard time understanding how it is even possible for seemingly mature believers to give in to what might be considered life-altering sins like adultery. How does that happen?
I think the reason we have a hard time understanding it is that we envision temptations to these kinds of sins coming out of nowhere, as if one minute a person can be living a life of complete faithfulness to the Lord and the next minute they are destroying their lives with an outrageous act of rebellion. But this isn’t really the way it happens. Big sins are usually the result of the toleration of long series of smaller sins.
(Is it really fair to categorize sins as big and small? Some folks would say no, that all sin is the same. And that is true in the sense that all sin is sufficient to condemn us to hell. However, all sin is not the same in terms of temporal consequences. The consequences of an unkind thought are not going to be the same as the consequences of murder. This is demonstrated in the OT treatment of various sins. There were some sins that were punishable by the death penalty and others that were not [Lev 20]. The NT echoes this by indicating that there are some sins that are more serious than others, like sexual sin or creating division in the church [1 Cor 5:1-13, 6:18; Titus 3:10-11]. This is the distinction I am making by using the terms “big” and “small.”)
The Bible teaches that our enemy is cunning (Gen 3:1; 2 Cor 2:11,11:3). He’s no idiot. He disguises himself as an angel of light to deceive us (2 Cor 11:14-15). He’s not going to spook us with a temptation to a huge sin out of nowhere. He will seek to lead us there slowly. We could think of lesser sins as training wheels for the bigger sins. We give in to relatively small things and those sins train us to tolerate sins that are a little more serious. And those sins prepare us to tolerate bigger sins. Sin is a progressive thing. Slavery to sexual sin or compulsive lying or rampant gossip doesn’t happen over night. We tiptoe into it slowly.
And all along the way, there are signs warning us, “Hey! Look out! Danger!” As the proverb above indicates, we are wise to see danger and hide from it. The Scriptures promise us that for every temptation we face, there is a way of escape (1 Cor10:13). When we sin, it is because we did not take advantage of that escape. We saw the warning signs and intentionally walked right past them into our sin.
The most obvious warning sign is the Holy Spirit convicting us of sin. But are other warning signs? Here are just a few:
(1) A gradual shift from a focus on godly influences to a focus on secular influences. Sin degrades my appetite for truth. When I find myself not interested in godly influences the way I once was, but secular influences are taking up more of my time, it may be an indication that I am avoiding godly influences so that I can remain comfortable in some sin.
(2) A progressive appetite for certain smaller sins. This may not even mean giving in to those sins, but may just be a ramping up of the intensity and frequency of temptation to those sins. That is a warning sign. You need help.
(3) A progressive tolerance for certain smaller sins. By “tolerance” I mean actually giving in to the temptation and not repenting and seeking help. If there is a sin in your life that used to be completely out of bounds, but with which you have now become accustomed and even comfortable, that’s huge red flag. Your conscience is becoming insensitive and you are progressing toward bigger problems.
(4) A cooling of my pursuit of Jesus. The Lord taught us in Matt 6:24 that no one can serve two masters. A decreasing passion for Jesus is a sign of an increasing passion for some other god or sin.
(5) A progressive difficulty spending time in the Word and in prayer. This is tied closely to the previous one. We all have days when we don’t feel like praying and when the Bible seems like its written in another language. But a long season of dryness can be a warning sign that we are in spiritual danger. There may be sin that is pulling us away from the Lord. At the very least, these are times when we are more susceptible to temptation.
(6) Pulling away from meaningful fellowship and accountability. We’ve heard it a million times, but that’s because it’ s true: God gave the church to the church to help the church be the church. We need each other. But sin likes to hide: For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed (John 3:20). If we are avoiding other believers, it may be a sign that we are motivated to hide something.
So, if you see one of these warning signs in your life, what should you do? TELL SOMEBODY! QUICKLY! Grab a brother or sister and tell them you need help fleeing from a certain sin or reinvigorating your walk with the Lord. 2 Timothy tells us that when we flee from sin and pursue holiness, we need to do it with others (2:22). Sanctification is a team sport! We must be in the Word and in prayer with others by our side.
If you feel like you are entrenched in something or even in danger of heading down the wrong road, tell someone immediately. The elders are always available and our church is full of believers who will encourage and help you.
We’re all capable of the worst of sins. That’s why we need to pay attention to the warning signs and take advantage of the tools God has given us to combat sin.