Monday, June 6, 2011

What is a "besetting sin?"

The man just couldn't control his temper, and his impulsiveness. He could go for days or weeks without losing his composure, and he knew Jesus Christ face to face, and walked with Him. He was loyal and steadfast and brave: there wasn't an ounce of cowardice, or infidelity, in his entire character. But when his temper flared up .... or he became impatient ... even the physical Presence of Jesus wasn't enough to keep him under control. And this one "little" flaw in his personality led him to violence and bloodshed ... and then to actually turning his back on Christ, and angrily denying that he even knew him.

The woman was what we'd call, today, a "control freak." She knew exactly what needed to be done at all times, and, to her credit, she was always willing to do it. She was the "go-to" woman if you had a job to be done, or if daily tasks had been ignored by others. She didn't necessarily try to control people, but she was constantly involved in arranging her environment and "taking care of things" and doing the little jobs that others overlooked. From a human standpoint, she was a good person to have around! But her compulsive nature led her to neglect the things that were really important - - - to the point that it became a liability to her spiritual life. She was even too busy to see her problem: it had to be pointed out to her by Jesus Himself.

And there are so many others, some seen in characters from the Bible, some seen in our daily lives - - - especially in the mirror. The man or woman who loves to gossip: not necessarily because they want to hurt someone, or slander them, but simply because they can't keep their noses out of everybody's business. (Some Christians try to disguise this behavior by couching their gossip in terms of "prayer requests:" "Oh, isn't it terrible about Brother Jones running around with that secretary of his? We need to pray for him!") The Christian women or men who try, really try, to live a life pleasing to God ... but they simply can't do without that daily can of beer, or that daily fifth of whiskey. The young man or woman whose healthy physical instincts have been twisted into a pattern of chronic, almost helpless masturbation. They're grieved by their own behavior, and they pray about it, and stop it for awhile ... but the temptation always comes back. Sometimes it remains a temptation; sometimes they succumb. But oftentimes, a single "weakness" like this, whether gossip or a wild temper or lascivious thoughts, continues to tempt them all their lives.

It goes without saying, of course, that we all have a variety of sins. I might be tempted to lose my temper, and be a glutton. You might be tempted to use foul language, and harbor resentment toward your mate. We all have plenty of temptations to deal with: the world, the flesh, and the Devil provide them in abundance.

But Christians often speak of "besetting sins." What does this mean?

Paul, inspired by God, writes: Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1, 2).

In verse one, the word "sin" can refer to sin itself: our sinful natures, the "old man."  But it can also refer to a single sin, a particular, individual sin that tempts and torments us on a habitual basis.  (I didn't say that we habitually succumb; I said that the temptation is habitual, or continuing through the years.)  It is probably the universal experience of every genuine Christian that there's one temptation, one sin, that hangs on, and hangs on, and never seems to go away - - - except for brief periods of time.  It doesn't torment us 24/7 (although it can, if we're not keeping up our prayer and time in the word), but it's frequently with us for a lifetime.

Sound familiar?  I certainly know what my "besetting sin" is, although I have several others that hang on pretty tenaciously!  If you're honest with yourself, you probably know yours, too.  But the point of this post is not to look inward, at our own sins; and it's certainly not to try to make you "meditate" on your sins, trying to figure out which is the besetting one!  Looking inward, in that sense, is not productive at all, to say the least.

What's your besetting sin? There's a hint in Heb. 12:1: the sin which doth so easily beset us.  Your besetting sin is the one that pops up with very little provocation, sometimes with no provocation at all.  Here's an example: I'm not a thief, by the grace of God, and stealing is not a big temptation for me.  In fact, it would take very drastic circumstances to drive me to steal: like feeding my family (and even then it would be a sin).  So, since stealing doesn't really tempt me, since it doesn't easily beset me, it's probably not my "besetting sin."  If it were, I'd be like a shoplifter, compelled to steal just for the sake of stealing.  It would be a regular temptation.

But my besetting sin is a different matter.  It was there the day after I came to Christ, and it's been there ever since: the temptation, I mean.  It pops up very easily.  It pops up for no reason at all; and it may be this way for the rest of my life.  I've let it trip me up on many occasions, and it still tries to trip me up.  It's like a weight that's shackled to me - - - exactly the metaphor that Paul used.

I heard a very wise preacher say, "There are three things that, once they've got their hooks in a man, almost never let him go: drugs, sex, and money."  I'd add a fourth: the desire for power.  The preacher wasn't saying that Christ can't deal with these temptations; he was saying that you simply don't drop them in a month or a year.  He was right; but those are only a few examples of what might be "besetting sins."

Let's be very clear, however: I'm not saying that a besetting sin is one that we constantly commit. I'm saying that the temptation is always there: that's what besets us.  I'm not saying that these sins can't be avoided and resisted and beaten, by the grace and power of Jesus Christ; I'm saying that the temptation hangs on.

My maternal Grandmother may have been the Godliest woman I ever knew.  She was the kindest, and most selfless, and most patient, by the grace of God.  A preacher's wife, she always had an encouraging word for everyone, whether socialites or prostitutes (literally).  But do you know what her "besetting sin" was?  I do.  It was a sharp, sarcastic tongue.  I know this because my Mother told me.  But I never heard my Grandmother speak an unkind word in my life.  She had a besetting sin for all of her 83 years, but Christ gave her victory over it.

So, how do we deal with it?

I try to use a lot of scriptures in these posts, but these two little verses from Hebrews are so rich that we really can find our answers right here.  The way to deal with a besetting sin is given in verse two: Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.  Don't concentrate on yourself, or on the sin, or on strategies for beating it: look unto Jesus!  That's where the power and the liberty and the victory lie.  Concentrating on our own sins only makes us more likely to commit them, because we get discouraged.  But who can get discouraged looking at the Lord Jesus Christ?

If you're a drunk, don't read the stories of drunks who've beaten the bottle.  Look unto Jesus!  If you're a fornicator, don't read about fornicators who have become chaste.  Look unto Jesus!  If you have a sharp tongue, like my Grandmother, don't take psychology lessons on how to control your words. Look unto Jesus!  It's not weird or mystical: just open your Bible, and read about Him!  When the besetting temptation comes, think about Jesus' eyes.  Think about Jesus' nail-scarred hands.  Think about what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman.  But look unto Jesus!

The weight won't disappear ... but Jesus will have lifted it for a time, and you'll be ready to resume the race.  But the only way to win the race  - - - not salvation, which has already been won at Calvary, but the race every Christian runs - - - is looking unto Jesus!

Come on!  So, you've got a besetting sin.  Who doesn't?  If you've come to Christ according to John 1:12, you also have a victorious Lord and Saviour!  Let's go!


  1. A lot to meditate on there! Great food for thought and encouragement too! Thank you!

  2. Thank you, Laura! God bless you!

  3. God bless you, brother. You have, again, let the Lord use you and your gift to communicate to others what the Lord would have them remember, those things which we need to remember.

    Just keep our eyes on Him...

  4. Thanks, sister. That's the only way I know to get through!

  5. Great post brother. We look at it the same way. I always tell people, that you become like those you hang around with. A person from the Western States, if they move to the South, start talking like a southerner. It is just part of our nature. So if we hang out with Jesus, His character and nature start becoming ours. We start acting like Him, and those things that beset us, start falling off.

    Blessings to you Bro!

  6. Thank you for your comments, Duke! I appreciate your encouragement!

  7. Great post William, as you said the only way is to look to Jesus as He is the only one who can help you defeat your sin. Reading scripture, praying, surrounding yourself with godly Christians who will pray for you and point you to Jesus, will all help but ultiamtely only Jesus can help, thanks for this,


  8. Thanks, Mike. The longer I live, the more I realize how relevant John 14:6 is to us. We think of it as a salvation verse, which it is, but it's also a "how to live" verse. There's only one way to beat a besetting sin: Jesus!

    Thanks for your comment!

  9. Great post! This is the second blog post I've read today mentioning John 1:12....hmmmm! Time for some scripture study!!!

  10. Oh, Lisa, I could preach you a sermon on John 1:12! I mention it so frequently because it's so crucial. You can believe the Gospel, and not be saved. (Judas did.) You can obey the Law, and not be saved. (The Pharisees did.) You can do mighty works, and not be saved. (Pharaoh's magicians did.) But you cannot receive Jesus Christ without being saved! It's such a powerful verse!

  11. Very inspiring post, William.

  12. Thank you, A. Marie! God bless you!

  13. Major WOW and you hit points that are sometimes just carefully swept under the rug and ignored...Great post!

  14. Thank you, Twinkle Mom. It's easy to sweep certain things under the carpet, isn't it? But, unless we sear our conscience (1 Timothy 4:2), the Lord always lets us know about it. Thanks for your comment!

  15. That was a huge encouragement and solves the Romans 7 dilemma: oh, the things they don't teach you in SS!