A friend of mine recently called with a confession. Though married, he had gratified himself after fixating on a tantalizing visual image he came across while at work. He was broken. He was frustrated. And he was confused about where he was to go from here.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever wrestled with how to manage guilt and grace in the wake of failure? You know God offers forgiveness, but isn’t what I just did terrible? It feels cheap to claim forgiveness and move on. And yet we don’t want to lose sight of the gospel. How does it all mix together?
How do we faithfully handle failure?
1. Fly, fly, fly to the gospel
No matter how grievous our sin is against others, it is always first and foremost against God. Though guilty of lust, theft, adultery, deceit, and murder, David declared to God, “Against you, you only have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). What does God say about my sin?
Here is what he says: “And [Christ] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 2:24). “If anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus the righteous; he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 2:1-2). Christ has removed every sin. Never let your failure drive you to despair. The grace of God in Christ washes out with floods of mercy the guilt of even our deepest failures.
Sing with Augustus Toplady, “Complete atonement Thou hast made, and to the utmost farthing paid, whate’er Thy people owed; nor can His wrath on me take place if sheltered in Thy righteousness, and sprinkled with Thy blood.”
2. Bring sin out of the darkness
Sin thrives in secrecy. It roots itself in unconfessed corridors of the heart. Confession before God is not enough if you are serious about overcoming besetting sin. That doesn’t mean you have to have a Luther-like compulsion to name every single sin to someone. But someone who knows and loves you needs to know about recurring sin in your life.
To whom, then, should you confess? First, you need to confess your sin to all those who have been wronged by it. And, yes, if you are married, you should confess sexual sin to your spouse. That doesn’t mean they need to know all the gory details, but you have wronged them and you should confess to them. Second, confess to a pastor/elder in your church. They are praying for you and laboring for your growth in holiness; seek them out for confession and counsel.
3. Pluck your eye out
Jesus instructs us to identify what consistently leads us into sin and then take measures, even painful ones, to remove them.
Are there friends from whom you need distance? Do you need accountability software on your computer? Consider whether you can get rid of devices in your home that constantly lead to sin. Despite common belief, it is not necessary to own a television. It is not necessary to own a gaming system. Do you find that you are more irritable with your children when scrolling through things on your phone? Search where you see repeated connections to sin then make changes where necessary.
4. Get back up, and fight again
Don’t be defeated by your failure. It is common for you to think that you’re back where you started. That you’re back to square one. You’re not at square one. If you have gone through the first three steps mentioned here, you’re nowhere near where you started.
You’ve rehearsed the gospel and rested in it by faith. That alone puts you in step with the Spirit who fights against your desires and produces joy, patience, and self-control in your life. You’ve refused to let sin grow fat in secrecy. You’ve sought out cracks in your defenses and moved to make changes, even painful ones. You’re miles away from where you started!
So get back up, fight again, and strive, strive, strive. The One who called you is striving with you. And you will, one day, have complete victory. The one who began a good work in you will take you all the way home.