“Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” So wrote John Owen, the seventeenth-century English Puritan, in his masterful instruction manual for putting sin to death called Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. The Puritans of Owen’s generation were intensely concerned with winning the battle against temptation and sin. Books such as Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies for Satan’s Devices and William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armour sought to provide practical guidance for Christian readers on how to resist temptation.
Our generation largely lacks such an emphasis. “Try not to do it,” seems to be the prevailing wisdom on the topic of sin and temptation. We are more comfortable swimming in the ambiguity of psychological categories than in the Bible’s stark contrasts between sin and righteousness, darkness and light, death and life. “Girl, wash your face” has replaced “Christian, put sin to death.”
We don’t emphasize the need to battle sin because we have largely lost the Bible’s militant perspective. In our reduction of reality to only what our eyes can see, we live daily unaware that our enemy prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8-9). We forget that we are embroiled in a war for our souls, and that God has supplied weapons for us to use in the fight (Ephesians 6:10-11; 2 Corinthians 10:4-5).
In this war, we cannot afford to take prisoners. We must put our enemy completely to death. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).
Closer to us in time than the Puritans but no less insightful, C.S. Lewis also wrote on the topic of sin and temptation. His classic Screwtape Letters, made up of fictional letters from one demon to his apprentice, imaginatively examined the strategies employed by the other side in this battle. Thus, reading Lewis’s book invites the reader to ponder best strategic practices to meet the challenge of the enemy.
After writing Screwtape Letters, Lewis was once asked how he knew so much about temptation, and he replied, “I just looked into my own mind and heart.” Indeed, a close examination of our own weaknesses and habitual failings will teach us much about the strategies employed by the enemy of our soul. Your greatest areas of vulnerability are likely the same areas of your greatest frustration. The enemy has studied you for a lifetime.
In one letter written in 1931, shortly after his conversion to Christianity, Lewis wrote to his lifelong friend Arthur Greeves about a particular moral failure. Even at this early stage of his Christian life, Lewis expressed uncanny wisdom. Particularly, Lewis’s letter reveals three strategies that any sinner today can employ in our own struggle.
First, Lewis understood the danger of pride. Lewis realized that his failure came after he had begun to pat himself on the back over recent success in the area. The Proverb says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18). When we transfer our trust away from God toward the self, we should expect to fall flat on our faces.
Second, Lewis refused to lose heart after failure. Once Satan has succeeded in tempting us to sin, he begins feeding us the lie that we are not worthy of grace. The fresh guilt of failure makes us susceptible to throwing in the towel altogether. Lewis refused to do that. He wrote, “I feel grateful that the enemy has been driven to resort to strategems…whereas he used to walk boldly up to me for a frontal attack in the face of all my guns.” Without excusing his sin, Lewis didn’t allow his setback to discount the progress he had made. At least Satan had to try harder this last time, and Lewis saw that as a sign of progress.
Finally, Lewis sought to defeat sin by transferring his longing instead of denying it. Lewis understood that all unfulfilled longings in this world signal that we were created for a better world. He would have heartily concurred with Augustine’s observation that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Instead of denying his heart’s longings, Lewis determined to transfer those longings in the direction of their proper destination—“the One, the real object of all desire, which…is what we are really wanting in all wants.”
You will never succeed against sin by trying hard not to sin. Those longings don’t need to be suppressed; they need to be turned toward their proper end. Nothing in creation can fulfill the deepest longings of our hearts. Sin lies to us, again and again, with promises that it can never fulfill. Only Christ can quench the thirst of our souls, and only in Christ can sin be put to death.