65501 1. The Heart of the Problem

Frank sat behind the wheel, fuming. It was bad enough that every light was red, but then the guy in the pickup had changed lanes without using his turn signal. Frank checked his rearview mirror, hit his turn signal, and whipped into the left lane, accelerating past the slow-moving truck. As he picked up speed, exceeding the limit and barely making it through the intersection before the light turned red, Frank remembered the fish on the back of his car and felt the conviction of once again losing his temper.

It had been a bad night at the slot machines. Where had the hours gone, and more importantly, where had her paycheck gone? Maria tried to come up with a believable story on her way home. But then, she realized it was no use; her husband had heard them all before. She had tried to quit gambling several times and had even gone to one of those twelve-step groups at church for a while. Nothing seemed to work. She just could not resist dropping quarters into the machines.

His face was hot, and Donald knew it was red. There was no place to hide and no use denying what had just happened. He had been checking out the new girl in the jewelry department, and his imagination was running wild when his Bible study partner, Jerry, caught him at it. Jerry and Donald both looked down, embarrassed. On the way out of the store, Donald kept telling himself that his fantasizing was harmless, but he knew better. He just could not seem to stop.

Frank, Maria, and Donald have something in common with each other, and with many other Christians—they have a sin habit. They do not just slip up occasionally, in different ways, and then correct themselves. No, they all have a particular sin of mind, heart, or action that causes them to go back again and again—even though a part of them would like nothing better than to be free from the prison of their habit. Can you relate to them?

You may not have a problem with rage, gambling, or sexual fantasy, but you may find yourself in another type of sin rut and want desperately to be free. What is it for you? Do you repeatedly drink past the “safe limit” you had set for yourself and wind up drunk? Are you the prickly type of person who is always starting arguments? Are you bearing a grudge because you just could not stand to let the other person off the hook?

You do not have to admit your habitual sin to us. God knows the truth, the whole truth about who you are and what this sin is doing to your life. He also sees the problems that sinners bring upon themselves, including self-loathing, guilt feelings, discouragement, damaged health, ruined reputations, broken families, impaired relationships with God, and diminished ministry effectiveness. (And that’s a partial list!)

Having learned a few things about the defeat of sin problems over the years, both in our own lives and through the experiences of those we have counseled, we wish to share our insights through the vehicle of this book. Consider what you find on these pages—the fruit of two long lives of ministry. We hope and believe that here you will find help for your sin problem, not because we are so wise, but because we will point you to the only One who offers healing to the soul.

We do not promise that this book will lead you into sinless perfection. After all, each of us remains vulnerable to temptation throughout our lives on this earth as the sinful nature we were born with strives to manifest itself in many different ways. Nevertheless, we do believe that we can help you if you are struggling with a particular sin, especially those that you repeat again and again almost as if it were involuntary (it really is not). This book will also be helpful to you in informally counseling a friend or loved one who is also struggling with particular sin areas.

If you are serious about healing from sin, please read carefully all the chapters in part 1 of this book. Here is where we lay out the spiritual healing process. Then, when you get to part 2, you can pick and choose among the chapters, reading the ones that most clearly apply to your own particular struggles. That is where you will be able to personalize the process for yourself.

Our primary tool throughout the book will be the unchanging Word of God, the Bible. Why? “For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires” (Hebrews 4:12). The use of this tool may be painful at times, but it is effective like no other.

If you have struggled mightily against sin with little to show for it and have lost hope, now is the time to hope again. Victory really is possible for the Franks, Marias, and Donalds of this world. God loves us and does not want us to suffer the harm we bring on ourselves through our sin. He eagerly helps those persons who want to stop sinning. One such person was named Harry.

Feeling Miserable?

Harry gave every indication of being a joyful, fruitful Christian. He was active in every major event of his church and in many citywide Christian efforts. He always maintained high visibility, and because of his outgoing personality, he came across to many as a model Christian. But then one day I (Bill) got to see the real Harry.

In a private conversation, Harry confessed to me his struggles with habitual sin. He had real integrity problems. For instance, he embezzled money from a major evangelistic campaign that he served as treasurer. (He was actually pulling money out of the till while the choir was singing its altar call hymn!) He was also having an affair with his secretary.

After confessing these wrongs and others, Harry blurted out, “I’m a hypocrite—miserable, defeated, frustrated. I’ve lived a lie and worn a mask all my life, never wanting to reveal my true self. But I need help. I’m seriously thinking of committing suicide. I just can’t live the Christian life, no matter how hard I try.”

At this, I pulled out my Bible and began reading Romans 7:15–24, a passage in which the apostle Paul agonized over his own sinful tendencies in words so raw that we can almost hear the frustration in his voice:

I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?

Harry was nodding in agreement by the time I was done reading this passage. “That is my biography, the story of my life,” he said. “I’ve done everything I know to find victory—to live the Christian life as I know I’m supposed to live it. But everything fails for me.”

In spite of Harry’s evident distress, I could not help smiling at his response. I have seen it time and again: people who feel trapped by sin find their condition accurately reflected in the way the Bible describes the struggle against sin. Paul’s anguish is their anguish. “Oh, what a miserable person I am!” they cry together. Healing begins simply by knowing that God understands our predicament. He must! The book He gave us is so realistic about the human condition. A part of us wants to do what is right, but we go ahead and do what we know is wrong anyway.

An important question for us to consider is, what causes us to do wrong?

The Blame Game

If we listen to the “experts” or even to the ordinary folk we live with every day, we hear many different explanations for why people do bad things. What most of these explanations have in common is a tendency to say that the behavior is not really the fault of the one who does it.

  • Do you have a problem with rage? Maybe you can lay the responsibility for it at the feet of your father, who mistreated you when you were a kid.
  • Do you feel a desire to engage in sex with persons of your own gender? It might be that you have a “gay gene.”
  • Do you steal things? Maybe the fault lies less with you than with a society that stacks the deck against the poor.
  • Do you drink too much? It could be that you have alcoholism disease.
  • Do you have a hatred for men? Maybe it is all due to the date rape you suffered when you were younger.

We do not mean to make light of the hardships that people endure—not in the least. Victims of abuse and misfortune deserve our concern and support. And we should recognize that they really do have to deal with the consequences of what has been done to them through no fault of their own.

On the other hand, we do mean to point out the ways that people tend to shift some, if not all, of the blame for their behavior problem away from themselves. This all-too-human tendency goes back to the first couple, for when God tried to get Adam and Eve to fess up to the fruit-eating incident, Adam blamed Eve—and Eve blamed the serpent!¹

The practice of blaming bad behavior on a variety of factors other than sin is certainly understandable—who would not like to avoid responsibility for their behavior problems if they could? But it is an unfortunate manifestation of the sinful nature nevertheless.

In some instances, the blame is completely misplaced. In other instances, the blaming does manage to identify a contributing factor to someone’s poor behavior. But even in such cases, the contributing factor does not constitute the heart of the problem. The blaming misses what is really going on.

Sadly, everyone loses at the blame game. Worst of all, blaming poor behavior on secondary factors results in reliance upon solutions that do not work.

Coping or Cure?

People naturally seek treatments suitable to the causes they believe are driving their bad behavior. Today, people seem to rely most upon such methodologies as medical treatment, psychotherapy, and education.

Coping skills like those offered by such treatments can be effective in the sense that they may squelch the conscience and help people feel better temporarily. But a cure, not coping, is what you want, is it not? Certainly, a cure is what we want to help you find.²

In Soul Prescription, we refer to sin frequently as “sickness.” But we do not mean by this that our sin is something for which we do not bear responsibility. We are not victims of our sin; we are the perpetrators. The analogy of sickness is useful because it describes the way our spiritual system becomes disordered through sin.

We are not interested in helping you live with your problem—we want you to be fundamentally transformed. And a cure like this is possible only if we get to the heart of the problem.

Long ago, when Israel’s prophets and priests failed to deal with the people’s rebellion against God, the Lord said of these religious professionals,

“They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
—Jeremiah 6:14, NIV

Learning a lesson from this, we must do more than administer superficial treatments for our chronic behavior problems expressing our sinful nature. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking we are at a place of spiritual peace when actually war is raging in our hearts.

As Jesus approached the end of His time on earth, He told His disciples, “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give isn’t like the peace the world gives” (John 14:27). In part, He was saying that there is a kind of worldly peace. This is the peace that can come through coping strategies that make us feel better for a while. But Jesus’ peace is qualitatively different. It is based on a real, heart-level change that can come only through the work of the Holy Spirit. In the words of one Old Testament prophet, “righteousness will bring peace” (Isaiah 32:17).

Unfortunately, it is easy to mix up the two kinds of peace: worldly and godly. I (Henry) know a Christian businessman who was furious when he lost his job. To deal with his anger problem, he took up knitting. And do you know what? He started to feel better. He has gone on to start a new business, and he credits knitting with giving him the peace of mind to do it. “Peace is peace,” he says. We are not interested in helping you live with your problem— we want you to be fundamentally transformed. But is that right? Was the peace he got from knitting the kind of peace God wanted him to have?

You may find that going to a counselor or a doctor will give you some relief or help you address contributing factors to your problems. But what we are doing with Soul Prescription is something much more basic and direct: we want to help you deal with the heart of your problem. And you know what that is. It is sin.

Sin really is the heart of the problem, because in the end each of us is responsible for our own behavior. Regardless of the influences that may be acting upon us, sin is an act of the will. We choose to do what we know is wrong. As John Bunyan—author of The Pilgrim’s Progress—said, “There is no way to kill a man’s righteousness but by his own consent.” This is true even when the sin has become habitual.

We have to tell you (in case you do not already know) that it is never safe to try to live with a sin problem. Sin is like cancer: it grows in seriousness over time. A little entertaining of lust, for example, can grow to encompass pornography use, adultery, and even crimes like rape. Furthermore, sin is like a contagion: it spreads from one person to another. If your problem is a quick temper, your lashing out at a coworker might cause her to overreact to her child at home. Then the child becomes upset and acts cruelly to a playmate. And so on.

If you throw a rock in a still pond, the ripples spread out and gradually die away. But if you commit a sin, the ripples it sends out may not die out; they may continue spreading within your own life or the lives of those around you. The harm they can do is incalculable. Now, we ask you, is this not a good reason to seek real healing for your sin problem and not just learn to live with it?

Soul Prescription is not for people who want to dodge their sin problem or merely cover it up or make it better but not get rid of it. It is for people who are sick and tired of their sin problem and are filled with a drive to get rid of it once and for all. They are ready, at last, to say, “I can’t do this on my own. I need God’s help to deal with my sin.” This approach requires courage and faith, but it has the virtue of dealing with the real problem.

The Real Problem You Face

While society looks to DNA or abuse or social conditions as causes for bad behavior, the Bible gives a completely different explanation. Why is the world so messed up? Why do people hurt themselves and others? How can an evil tendency become so ingrained in us that we cannot seem to get rid of it no matter how hard we try? It is all because, at the beginning of human history, a change came over our race that marked us with sin.

Read Genesis 2 and enjoy the picture of human beings who knew the delight of living in untroubled communion with God and nature. Linger over it, because it does not last for long. By the next chapter, we see how Adam and Eve chose to violate the one restriction God had placed upon them. As a result, God decreed that they and their descendants would struggle with sin and its consequences as a captured bird struggles in a net. “Because one person [Adam] disobeyed God, many people became sinners” (Romans 5:19).

Sometimes we will hear someone say, “I believe human beings are basically good.” Don’t you believe it. A scan of the headlines should be enough to disabuse a person of this notion. Think of rape. Think of torture. Think of terrorism. In fact, think of your own troublesome sins. Paul had a realistic outlook on humanity:

“No one is righteous
—not even one.
No one is truly wise;
no one is seeking God.
All have turned away;
ask gave become useless.” —Romans 3:10-12

Human nature after Adam and Eve includes a bent toward wickedness that we can never straighten out on our own.

When God formed a special nation on earth—the Hebrews—to advance His plan of redemption, He gave them tools for dealing with their sin problem. First, He gave them rules to live by, collectively known as the law. We find the law preserved still today in the first five books of the Bible. Second, he gave them guidelines for burning sacrifices on an altar as a symbolic means of expressing repentance and receiving forgiveness. But of course, the deaths of lambs and goats could not really eliminate guilt; something more was needed.

Enter the Lamb. “He is Jesus Christ, the one who pleases God completely. He is the sacrifice for our sins. He takes away not only our sins but the sins of all the world” (1 John 2:1-2). Since we were unable to defeat sin on our own, God became one of us in the form of Jesus and took our sins upon Himself, paying the penalty for them on the cross.

The forgiveness available in Christ does not, however, automatically go into effect. We must each individually climb off the throne of our lives and invite Christ to take His rightful place there. If you have never done this, you must do so if you ever want to be free of sin and be accepted by God. All it takes is a sincere prayer of confession and commitment to God. (see Know God Personally)

Once we are believers in Jesus Christ, God does a remarkable thing: He accepts Jesus Christ’s righteousness as our righteousness. “We are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins” (Romans 3:22). That is how we can experience God’s offer of forgiveness.

But of course, in practice, we are not as righteous as Jesus. We sin. Usually, it is like entering a revolving door: we first entertain the idea of sinning. This is the point of temptation. At this point, we can choose to enter into the sin or to keep going around in the revolving door until we exit. All too often we choose to enter. This is where individual sins and sin habits start. “Temptation comes from the lure of our own evil desires” (James 1:14).

Despite our failures, however, we can work at bringing our behavior into line with our position before God. “Dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete purity” (2 Corinthians 7:1).

In this we have one great advantage: we are not at the mercy of sin like we were before our salvation. Why? Because “the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin” (Romans 8:2). To repeat: the power of sin over us is broken. It is a tiger with its teeth and claws removed.

At the end of the American Civil War, some African Americans kept on living as slaves. In some cases, they had not heard about the Emancipation Proclamation, because at that time news spread slowly. In other, still sadder cases, they had heard about the ending of slavery, but they would not believe it at first. They were so used to the slavery system that they could not imagine themselves as free.

That’s similar to our position. We can be free from sin through the power of Christ if we will believe it—and will act on our belief.

The Answer

Repenting and turning to God for help are the first steps toward the freedom from sin that we so desperately desire. But as we have said, that requires facing up to the fact that sin is at the heart of our problem. We have to come to grips with sin.

Christians in earlier centuries identified what they called the “seven deadly sins,” namely anger, sloth, gluttony, envy, greed, lust, and pride.³ In Soul Prescription, we have done something similar in defining what we call “parent sins.” These are sins that seem to be widespread in the human population in every generation. If you check out the list, chances are that you will find some of your own thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors reflected there.

Actually, each of these ten parent sins is at the head of a family of sins. For example, along with the parent sin of pride, we find the related sins of conceit, boasting, and vanity. The sin families will help you zero in on your sin problems.

For now, just begin thinking about how the different parent sins correlate with your own sin problem. Those are the areas where you will need to seek God’s help to free you from the chains that bind you. And as you think about your sin, do not be discouraged! We are just beginning this journey of soul healing together. There is hope for you.

Our next step, though, is to redirect our attention temporarily away from sin and onto its opposite: holiness.

Do you remember Harry—the man who so identified with Paul’s anguish over doing wrong when he wanted to do right? I (Bill) did not leave him in his quandary. I turned to Romans 7 a second time and repeated the question with which Paul concluded his cry of anguish: “Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?”(Romans 7:24). Then I went on to read verse 25: “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The answer for Harry—and for us—is in Jesus Christ.”This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for He faced all of the same testings we do, yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). At the same time, He is God, and so He has the power to heal us of sin.

Throughout this book, we will connect you with the aid Jesus wants to give you. With Paul, you can be praising Christ for supplying the answer to your tough sin problem. Soul Prescription will help you get there. Our next step, though, is to redirect our attention temporarily away from sin and onto its opposite: holiness.


1. What sin (or sins) do you habitually commit?

2. In what ways have you tried to cope with your sin problem instead of seeking a cure for it? Do you understand the difference between coping and curing?

3. Do you have a personal relationship with God? If not, are you prepared to receive Christ today through faith? If you already know Christ, how can your relationship with Him serve as the foundation for dealing with your sin problem?

Visit www.SoulPrescription.com for more insights and resources, and to download a free leader’s guide for small group Bible studies.