Let’s start with a story. Rocky is the man. You’ve met few people like him. He has great potential as a leader. He is truly seeking to grow in his faith and has a strong desire to influence others. He is socially adept and well-liked.
Despite his leadership capabilities, Rocky has one seemingly minor problem. It’s really a bad habit that he can’t shake. Rocky is addicted to Charms Blow-Pops. While it started as a harmless pleasure, his habit is starting to exact a toll on his life. The cost of eating two-dozen Blow-Pops a day is adding up. A trip to the dentist reveals six cavities, which are not only painful but expensive.
Physically, his once chiseled frame is turning sloshy. What is more alarming is how his habit is beginning to affect his relationships. His roommates are getting increasingly annoyed at finding used Blow-Pop sticks all over their room. Every time Rocky tries to quit, he gets irritable and angry. His friends notice that he is spending more and more time alone. Things hit rock bottom when Rocky is caught rummaging through his roommate’s Green Bay Packer piggy bank looking for change to support his fix.
Humiliated, deflated and disillusioned, Rocky comes to you for help. He relays to you that he’s been keenly aware that his habit has become a real problem, but he’s been too embarrassed to talk about it with anyone. He says he has asked the Lord countless times to remove his compulsion, has tried to memorize Scripture, and has even promised God he would completely swear off his sweet sensations. But while he might get a few days of freedom, nothing he’s tried has brought lasting change.
In the Psalms, King David prayed, “Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me” (Psalm 19:13, NIV).
Unfortunately, this tongue-in-cheek story about Rocky illustrates an all-too-real experience for sincere believers. Like Rocky, many seeking Christ are frustrated, disillusioned and perilously close to despair because they are burdened by habitual sins that “rule over them.” And often these sins are kept hidden because of the fear of judgment and rejection.
Let’s step back and use Rocky’s experience as an example. Rocky’s got a problem. In this case, his Blow-Pops represent an area of a person’s life where he has lost control and feels a sense of powerlessness and defeat. Hebrews 12:1-2 offers us some insight here. In light of “the great cloud of witnesses” — those who have demonstrated exemplary faith in the past, the author exhorts his readers to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (NIV).
Let’s look at Blow-Pops through this grid. Sometimes a person’s Blow-Pop is an obvious manifestation of the sin “that so easily entangles” — lust, pornography use, alcohol and drug abuse, fits of rage, lying, gossiping. Other times it’s a little less obvious — “everything that hinders,” like dependent relationships, addiction to work or academic success, consumption of time by movies, video games or TV shows, food addiction, sports obsession, internet use, and so on.
Regardless of the form of the destructiveness, several common characteristics are often true of people struggling with habitual sin. First, there is a sincere desire to stop but an inability to do so despite their best efforts. They feel trapped in their behavior. Think about it in terms of addiction: addicts feel powerless to stop the controlling behavior.
Second, the sin and the extent of its destructiveness remain in the dark. Consequently, they experience tremendous shame and guilt. It begins to define their walk with Christ and becomes THE ISSUE of their lives.
Third, there may be a Jekyll and Hyde quality to their lives. When the pattern of behavior kicks in, they become someone else. In addition, they may do really well in achieving victory and then have a sudden slip or relapse, seemingly out of nowhere.
Fourth, the behavior almost always isolates people from true relationships. And both the cause and the solution of the behavior have, at their roots, a relational component. Thus, the solution has to focus on the relational and not just the moral. But more on that later.
Finally, acting out the habitual sin has an idolatrous aspect to it. Whatever they use in seeking to get their needs met is taking the place of God in their lives.
Yet in the midst of the mess and heartache flowing from this failure, there is hope for change — not just in the way one behaves, but deep, lasting heart change. Let’s look at a fresh view of habitual sin.
To be sure, God has a holy hatred for sin and is never responsible for directly tempting anyone (James 1:13). However, isn’t it just like the Lord to use Satan’s insidious schemes as an actual opportunity for His outlandish grace and power to be displayed? As disciple-makers, we have precious few windows into the hearts of people. Our Blow-Pops represent one window God can use for His glory as it relates to long-term heart and character change.
The following are some principles for us to apply as God makes a way for us to move into people’s lives and join them on their journeys. For these principles to work, it is assumed that the person in view here has a desire to change. Many aren’t convinced that what they are doing is sin or that their seemingly innocent habit is becoming a destructive force in their lives. We can love those folks, be available to them, share our own stories with them, but God needs to work in their hearts before they are ready to do the hard work necessary to truly change. There is a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous that fits here: “Half measures availed us nothing.”
However, in this context, we’re talking about people who truly want to change. They are sick and tired of being strangled and suffocated by habitual sin. They have tried to be free but have not found lasting answers. It is to these people we have the privilege of offering hope.
First, by way of perspective, habitual sin needs to be addressed. But the behavior itself isn’t the main issue. In other words, the struggle this person faces is not primarily moral but relational. As John Ortberg has stated, ultimately, we are to be growing in love for God and others. This is the essence of maturity and godliness, not whether we “acted out” last week.
The behavior is important not because it is a moral failure but because it hinders and even cuts off relating with God and others in holy and intimate ways. And as Dr. Henry Cloud explains, the behavior must be dealt with. Otherwise, there is no hope of getting to the deeper issues of relational sin and need that will lead to more lasting and profound heart change.
Relationship needs to be primary, but one must also have a strategy to deal with behavior. Successful plans for lasting change always include these actions:
These ideas are clearly not exhaustive. In fact, there may be some issues beyond your training and experience to handle. That’s okay. One of the things that’s important for you to become familiar with is the other resources for growth available in your geographic area — pastoral resources, counseling resources and support groups.
Focus on the one-day-at-time nature of the struggle. And avoid dramatic one-time commitments. It is unwise and unrealistic to commit to such things as purity (whatever that is) or not masturbating ever again (or this month). Most of the time, people who sincerely want to walk with Christ have made countless commitments in areas of habitual sin.
These can often be counterproductive in that they ultimately lead to disillusionment and despair. A more effective approach is to take things one day at a time. This is a biblical concept. Remember God’s provision of manna for the Israelites on a daily basis? (Exodus 16; see also Matthew 6:11; Hebrews 3:7; 4:7).
This perspective also highlights the relational nature of growth. We invite God into our daily struggles and temptations and receive, moment by moment, His gracious power and presence. Rather than thinking in terms of victory, think of it as a process of growth and change and be grateful for the benefits of the journey.
So many think they are the only ones who struggle. Do you know of some mature believers who are honest with their struggles and are walking in the light? Give them a platform. This is a huge opportunity to bring others into light and relationship and out of isolation.
Think about ways you can encourage one another, especially in small groups. Existing Bible studies are an excellent place to start. One reason twelve-step recovery groups are successful is the fellowship shared over a common experience of brokenness. Thus, the meetings and group members become a major component God uses to break people of destructive habits and set them on a course of developing more mature and healthy relationships.
Let’s talk about a specific Blow-Pop at this point. With the explosion of internet access, more and more young people, both men and women, are finding themselves caught in the snare of pornography. This stronghold is incredibly powerful and will affect more and more of our culture as time goes on.
There are an increasing number of resources to help people ensnared by sexual sin and addiction. For group and campus settings, two excellent resources are the companion books written by Rick James called “Flesh” (for men) and “Fantasy” (for women). They are available through CruPress and will help people move out of isolation and into community with one another.
This principle goes far deeper than simply how you lead others. Perhaps the heading should read “Live From Weakness.” Some reflective questions at this point are in order:
Am I living in the light myself (1 John 1)? Am I embracing my own weakness and brokenness so God’s power might rest on me (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)? Am I embracing the fact that apart from Christ I can do nothing (John 15:5)? Am I appropriately opening up my life and my heart in my daily experience with others?
When it comes to leading others, you should simply be living out who you are. Ultimately it’s not an issue of thinking, “How can I get others to share their ‘uglies’ with me?” Rather, it’s about a natural dynamic borne out of a lifestyle of authenticity.
Obviously, there is a need for some Spirit-directed discretion here. It is inappropriate to share things that would unduly damage a relationship or compromise other relationships in which you are involved. You’ll need to make those distinctions as the Spirit directs and guides.
However, as you practice authentic living, God will naturally give you insight into how to enter another’s life. Then, you simply take advantage of opportunities to go deeper. Practically, it means looking for ways to empathize with disciples. Over time, you earn the right to enter in.
Elements of what we commonly refer to as “accountability” are helpful in dealing with habitual sin. Accountability offers the opportunity to come into the light and confess our sins to others.
However, accountability groups or partners run the risk of simply becoming a “tracking device” for sinful and destructive behavior. They can easily focus on the negative of avoiding certain behavior rather than on the positive of moving out of isolation and into authentic, real relationships. Accountability relationships can become somewhat artificial in nature. People might come to the group meeting, confess sins and, yes, be accepted, but there might be little interaction or connection outside of the meeting itself.
Perhaps a new paradigm is needed here. Ask yourself some tough questions:
And, of course, we need to help anyone we’re leading ask these same questions. This might be setting the bar high, but, again, it’s crucial to think relationally, not just morally.
Finally, never give up when it comes to seeking relationships characterized by grace and truth. There may be a few false starts in developing intimate connections that will last. Sometimes group members don’t mesh well. Sometimes people start strong but eventually lose focus and commitment to the group. People graduate or move away or go through life transitions.
You need to convince others and yourself that the relationships and the victory over sin are worth the risk and worth the blood, sweat and tears. As a wise friend once said to me, “Even if the group doesn’t work, you can still grow because you’ve trusted the Lord in stepping out of isolation and toward relationships with others.”
Cru believes there are many facets of a person’s journey toward growth: the importance of God’s Word, prayer, God’s love and forgiveness, and worship. But two models are at the forefront when it comes to what it means to walk with Christ and grow in faith: the Spirit-filled life and what’s been called the Growth Model.
Here is a brief sketch of what these two terms mean.
First, the foundational principles of the Spirit-filled life are:
Second, while there are many facets to the Growth Model, its basic principles include the recognition that a person grows best in an environment of grace and truth over time (John 1:14).
Thus, in our struggle, we desperately need grace (full acceptance in brokenness), and we desperately need truth (Scriptural direction). And we need to see heart and character change as a long-term journey, not an overnight fix. Our model for growth places a heavy emphasis on moving out of isolation and into relationships with others.
Now, let’s make some connections between our discussion about Blow-Pops and these two models for growth.
The Spirit-filled life is the essence of admitting our powerlessness before God and our need to surrender to Him moment by moment. Consider a model from the world of addiction recovery. First, notice the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous adapted for our purposes:
Compare these steps to John 15:5 (NIV): “I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing.” The two keywords that a person hears upon entering the “program” are that they are powerless (“apart from me you can do nothing”) and that they need to surrender (“abide in me”) to God on a moment-by-moment basis.
Isn’t this the essence of what it means to walk in the Spirit? In order for people to see behavioral change as it relates to their Blow-Pops, they need to embrace that they are utterly powerless to change on their own. God must be invited into each temptation in order for the behavior to change over time and the heart and mind to be renewed.
Admitting powerlessness actually becomes a blessing, for it is the only way for God’s power to be manifested in a person’s life. Recall Paul’s boast in 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV): “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
Second, as mentioned above, the Growth Model emphasizes the relational dynamic that must be present for a person to grow and change. In AA, participants are told that their only hope for recovery and healing is to attend a lot of meetings, make a lot of phone calls to other members, and get immersed in “the fellowship.” Developing relationships with other recovering people is essential to putting aside the “drug” (the Blow-Pops).
One of the most powerful dynamics of a healthy recovery group is the recognition that there is a level playing field. It doesn’t make a bit of difference whether one enters the door of a meeting as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or as an ex-con recently released from the local penitentiary. There is a connection between participants that everyone is powerless and their lives are a mess because of the addiction. There is a tremendous amount of acceptance based on a common struggle.
A person also receives truth, or direction, in two forms. First, there is honesty that flows from truth. If we hope to recover, we must be brutally honest about our Blow-Pops and our “sin history.” In AA, people are told upon entering the program that their chances of recovery are good if they are willing to be brutally honest about their addictive behavior and their sinful attitudes.
Second, people receive the truth by “working the program.” They must work through each of the twelve steps with a sponsor (which is loosely comparable to a discipler or mentor) who can help them navigate what it means to recover and learn to live a healthy and mature lifestyle. They do not get coddled and told they are okay. Instead, they are presented with a strategy and the tools to grow and mature.
The goal of making comparisons to AA is not to convince you to start a twelve-step group but rather to show how a relatively successful program of recovery actually mirrors biblical principles in many ways, such as walking in the Spirit and moving into relationships of grace and truth. But how does the Spirit-filled life and the Growth Model directly apply to a person’s Blow-Pops?
In closing, let’s look at how you can take at least one practical step out of isolation and into relationship.
First, read Rocky’s story with someone, either in a small group or one-on-one. (If you are struggling with Blow-Pops, confide in a trustworthy friend; if a friend or a disciple is, read the story with them.) Feel free to embellish and edit it as needed. Then, take some time to think through some questions to help break the ice and begin living in the light. Here are just a few suggestions:
At the conclusion of your discussion, suggest an exercise. Give them each a Blow-Pop. (Yes, a literal Blow-Pop.) Invite them to put the Blow-Pop in a conspicuous spot — next to the computer, the nightstand, a bathroom sink. Suggest that each time they look at the Blow-Pop, it should serve as an opportunity to quickly express their powerlessness to God over their named struggle and offer a brief prayer of surrender. In the morning when they look at the Blow-Pop, it can be a reminder to ask the Lord to help them overcome sin and temptation just for that day.
Most importantly, suggest to them that the Blow-Pop is not a reminder of their sin but a reminder of God’s love and an invitation into relationship. First, it can help them remember that, as they are tempted throughout today, they can invite God into the temptation and into relationship with them. Second, it can serve as a reminder to move into relationship with others who are walking the journey with them.
As we share the gospel, we will be most effective when we experience the reality of the gospel ourselves. What a privilege it is to help others embrace the gospel’s power in areas where they’ve felt the greatest failure! What profound evidence of God’s power being manifested in weakness and in the most unlikely places!
© 2010, CruPress. All Rights Reserved. Adapted with permission from Nick Decola, “Blow Pops: Finding Life and Growth out of the Ashes of Destructive Sin,” in
“Postcards From Corinth: Revisiting Discipleship.”
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