I think there’s an expectation that if you’ve had a true conversion, you never really struggle with sin again. That Jesus acts like a magic genie and poofs away all your problems as soon as you honestly commit yourself to Him. That you may feel the temptation, but you’ll never, ever fall into that sin again.
Oh, how I wish that were true. Sadly, it isn’t so simple. In fact, even people with the greatest conversions or the closest encounters with Christ still struggled once they turned their life around and followed Him. The guy who wrote the song “Amazing Grace” sure did. John Newton was a slave trader and sailor who, when faced with the near certainty of his ship sinking, prayed that God would save it. The ship was miraculously saved, and Newton was converted – he read the Bible, gave his life to God, and was even ordained an Anglican priest. Despite all this, he fell back into slave trading as the captain of slave vessels and invested his money in the trade.
It was not until 34 years after he retired from slave trading that he publicly renounced it as wrong. In his own words: “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” In fact, he published a pamphlet describing the horrors of the slave trade that set Britain on fire. It was so influential that every member of Parliament received a copy, and jut before Newton died, Britain made slave trading absolutely illegal. He lived to see the sin he struggled with completely conquered. (You can read the story in-depth here.)
I think that’s the lesson to be learned here: I don’t believe God promises you instant freedom from all sin, so that you’ll never so much as be tempted by it again. I do believe, however, that you will live to see that sin conquered in your life because God’s mercy is a healing process. When He forgives you, He doesn’t grant you the complete inability to commit sin again; what He does is promise you all the help and grace you’ll need to overcome it. And it often takes a lifetime.
Paul wrote about this, in reference to his own struggles after his conversion: To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)
See, in the Bible, when Jesus forgave a person of their sins and said, “Go and sin no more,” He didn’t just say it and not do anything to help, leaving the person with a few nice words. Jesus is the Bread of Life who gives food to the soul (John 6:35). He never leaves us hungry or wanting of the things we need. He knows our struggles better than we do and understands that we can’t overcome them on our own. He Himself admits that things that cause sin will inevitably occur (Luke 17:1-4). But that’s precisely why He promises us help:
I will ask the Father, and He will give you another advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. The advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in My name – He will teach you everything and remind you of all I told you. Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14: 16-18, 26-27)
He knows we need divine help; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41). So once we humbly admit that we are struggling with sin and can’t get over it on our own, the Holy Spirit helps us.
I went through a process a few years ago of ridding my life from sins that I knew separated me from God. During that time, through His help, I developed a process that really got me out of a lot of damaging sin. But, similar to John Newton’s story, it was a process that occurred after my conversion.
My junior year of high school, I transferred to a new school where I didn’t know anybody. I had just had my conversion that summer, a few months earlier, and I was on fire for Jesus. However, just a couple weeks into the school year a charismatic, popular boy caught my attention and started pursuing me in a very casual, flirtatious way. I didn’t know him too well, but I was flattered; I had just escaped a school where my former boyfriend and all his friends had sexually harassed me for months, so this new guy’s attention was a welcome change. Eventually we started dating, and I was on Cloud 9; I thought everything was finally falling into place and that I was living every teenage girl’s dream.
Then the manipulation and subtle pressure started. My new boyfriend, who I thought was a nice Christian guy, started setting us up in compromising situations. He would get anything physically out of me that he possibly could. Eventually, he tried convincing me to have sex with him. I didn’t understand what was going on – I just knew that all of a sudden I’d found myself in an increasingly impure relationship that was causing major sin and separation from the God I’d just fallen in love with.
I was heartbroken, so ashamed, and so guilty. I hated myself for what was happening, but it seemed out of my control. I was trapped – until I finally worked up the guts to end the relationship. (Good thing, too; he’d been cheating on me the whole time.) But that left me with nothing but feelings of unworthiness; I thought the sins I fell into because of him had destroyed the relationship I had with God, and that I was too disgusting to be in His presence anymore. I truly believed He had abandoned me because of my sins.
My perspective completely changed because of a talk chastity speaker Jason Evert gave at my church around that time. I realized that even though I couldn’t change what I had done or go back and stop myself from dating him, I could start pursuing purity anew. Through that experience, these are the steps I learned that led to finding freedom from the sins in my life:
- Acknowledge what you’re struggling with. Be honest with yourself and God. Don’t hold back. Write down everything you did wrong in a list or letter to Him.
- Admit your sins to God. Don’t be afraid to approach Him in you sinfulness. He delights in this bold humility. Tell Him that you’ve done wrong, but that you’re truly sorry for them and want His help to overcome them and start over. Commit to overcoming them through His grace.
- Don’t get overwhelmed. It may feel like you’ve done so many terrible things that you can never make up for them in your lifetime. I know. I’ve been there. Just know that no one was ever made a saint in a day – it’s a lifelong process, so be patient with yourself and your baby steps. And never forget that anything bad you’ve ever done already hung on the cross with Jesus. So give your sins and burdens to Him – that’s what He died for. He wants to take them from you.
- Make the conscious decision to avoid situations that lead you into sin. Ex: If you know going to that party isn’t going to lead you to anything good, don’t go. If you know bringing up the topic of a certain person with the school gossip is only going to get you into trouble, choose to keep those lips closed.
- Cut people and things out of your life that only influence you to sin. Sometimes that means saying good-bye to a relationship or a close friend. It’s hard, but you gotta do what you gotta do. It’s the best thing for your soul and your relationship with Jesus. For me, this not only looked like completely cutting that ex out of my life, but also cutting out overtly sexual music that reminded me of him/how he made me feel. I couldn’t listen to regular FM radio anymore – it was plagued by dirty songs with disgusting lyrics, like Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty to Me”.
- Replace them with positive alternatives. Because I couldn’t listen to FM radio anymore, I got a few of Jason Evert’s chastity talks on CD and started listening to them every single time I drove myself to and from school. I swear, I had those talks memorized by the time junior year was over – but it worked. My mind was filled with purity and hope because of them.
- Saturate yourself in the Word. I decided to read a chapter of the Bible every day during that time, and I made it through all four Gospels. It really opened my eyes to who Jesus is and made me fall in love with Him even more. Plus, it aligned by life with His will so I could get back on track.
- Pray daily for freedom from those sins. I’d also received a prayer book from Jason Evert called Pure Faith. Every morning I would pray for purity using the prayers in it. I would ask God to protect me from any temptation, to create in me a pure heart, and grant me the gift of self-control. If you have a specific intention, I guarantee there’s a prayer for it in that book. Or just pray in your own words. Whatever is easiest.
- Forgive those who’ve hurt you. I had to choose to pray daily for my ex, for his soul, for his future wife, and for the forgiveness of his sins. By praying for forgiveness for the one who caused me to sin, I was able to forgive him for what he’d done to me. This, I believe, is the best way to prevent your heart from becoming bitter and hardened – by praying for those who’ve hurt you.
- Forgive yourself. The greatest lesson I had to learn was not to beat myself up over it. At church today, the priest mentioned two huge points in his sermon that struck me as relevant to this topic: sin builds humility in you, and it makes you more empathetic towards other struggling sinners. So whenever you feel guilty or ashamed, recognize that God makes all things new, and He is capable of turning your sin into something good.
- Confess your sins to someone, out loud. Why? Because there’s freedom in it. The Devil wants to keep you shackled in shame and secrecy because sin festers in the darkness. Bring your sins to the light because vulnerability is courageous. It smashes the fear that the Devil wants to keep you in. When you admit out loud what you’ve done, fear no longer has power over you. You are free from its bondage.
- If you stumble, get right back up. On your journey to overcoming sin, you may find yourself slipping back into your old ways. This is not a sign that you’re a failure or that you should give up! Do you realize that the only difference between Judas’ sin and Peter’s, is that Peter went right back to the Lord and started over? Judas gave up, but Peter didn’t. So don’t give up. Keep going back to Jesus for forgiveness every time you fall. Keep pursuing the path of holiness, despite what obstacles may flatten you amidst your journey.
- Understand why a sin-free life is crucial. I’m not going to get into the whole “Jesus died because of what you did!” thing. I’m only going to leave you with this Bible verse: If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15) . . . Enough said.
- Remember that God wants to set you free more than you do. You are His child, and He wants nothing more than to spend eternity with you in Heaven. He will do everything in His power to get you there. He is fighting for you and working miracles in your life, especially when it doesn’t feel like it. Through Him, you will conquer the sin in your life. If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but handed Him over for us all, how will He not also give us everything else along with Him? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through Him who loved us. (Romans 8:31-32, 37)
Additional (For Catholics):
- Go to Confession. Yes, that sacrament where you confess your sins to a priest. Why? Because Jesus told St. Faustina in a vision: In the Tribunal of Mercy…the greatest miracles take place and are incessantly repeated. Were a soul like a decaying corpse, so that from a human standpoint, there would be no restoration and everything would be lost, it is not so with God. The miracle of Divine Mercy restores that soul in full. Oh, how miserable are those who do not take advantage of the miracle of God’s mercy! (Diary of St. Faustina, 1448). Here the misery of the soul meets the God of mercy. I Myself am waiting there for you. I am only hidden by the priest…I Myself act in your soul (1602). Make your confession before Me. The person of the priest is, for Me, only a screen. Never analyze what sort of a priest it is that I am making use of; open your soul in confession as you would to Me, and I will fill it with My light (1725).
- Pray the rosary. I cannot overstate how much this helped me overcome my sins. I prayed this every night before I went to bed, and my heart and mind were slowly but surely transformed. St. Josemaria Escriva wrote, “Love our Lady. And she will obtain for you abundant grace to conquer in your daily struggle. And the enemy will gain nothing by those foul things that continually seem to boil and rise within you, trying to engulf in their fragrant corruption the high ideals, the sublime determination that Christ has set in your heart.”
- Ask for the intercession of the saints. This is another one that cannot be overstated. My go-to saints to get through that time were St. Augustine, St. Monica, St. Raphael, St. Joseph, St. Maria Goretti, and of course Mother Mary. Each morning I would say a daily prayer to Mary and ask all those saints to pray for me to overcome sin and become pure. Whatever sin you’re struggling with, I GUARANTEE there’s a saint you can find who struggled with the same thing, or is the patron saint of people struggling with that sin. Ask them to pray for you – the more people praying for you, the better.
I want to leave you with this Scripture passage that a person I love shared with me. I hope it encourages you as much as it did me:
For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. You were running well; who hindered you from following the truth? That enticement does not come from the one who called you. For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I say, then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Now those who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:1,7,13-14,16-17,22-24)
Recommended Scripture: John 21:1-17
Recommended Songs: This is Now by Casting Crowns, You Are More by Tenth Avenue North, Your Grace is Enough by Matt Maher
Recommended Prayer: Divine Mercy Chaplet
Recommended Read: Divine Mercy in My Soul