If we were to state my philosophy of sin theologically, I would have said that there were largely two classes of sin: sins of omission (failing to do what I ought) and sins of commission (doing what I ought not do). Both sins of omission and commission have the same premise—they flow from a root of pride (my thinking on this matter was influenced by Francis Schaffer). If a man struggled with porn, ultimately that is a sin rooted in pride. So if we are to attack porn we must attack pride. Some pastors I know would say that your sin of pride/porn is ultimately a problem rooted in your failure to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But the problem is, the broader we try to define the root of sin, the more unhelpful we become when dealing with sin. Is repeatedly looking at porn a failure to comprehend the gospel? What if you teach clearly the gospel and the guy still looks at porn (though he claims to be a Christian)? Now do we say that they are unregenerate because of their persistent sin? Is looking at porn really rooted in pride? What if the man is truly hating the porn and yet cannot seem to break away? What if the man’s esteem and image is absolutely destroyed? Can we still say he is prideful? Also, while sins of omission and commission might be helpful in a broad way, how do they really help us when prescribing a remedy? Do we simply tell the man to start doing the right thing? That seems, at the very least, like the philosophy of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.
I think my realization that we might have all the theological training in the world but no clue how to apply it came when I asked my professor of New Testament how the Holy Spirit helped men who were addicted. What role do we play and what role does the Spirit play? His response? He didn’t really give one.
Recently, my thinking concerning sin has changed a bit from a book I am about to finish called Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice by Kent J. Dunnington. This forthcoming book by Baker Academics is a profound book in the sense that Dunnington advocates the area of “habit” when discussing sin. In other words, our sinful choices lead us into sinful habits that affect our imagination, memory and cogitative estimation. Our sinful habits impact our imagination/thinking (or the way we see the world) can become habitually good or sinful. Likewise, cogitative estimation is a sort of “tacit knowledge” that impacts our decision making. This is formed by watching others, learning and perceiving the world. Finally, memory impacts the other two for it is through memory that we are able to perform acts that we have previously learned. In essence, sinful habits can impact each sphere.
This shows us clearly how a man can hate his sin, be hating it while doing it, and yet still do it—in essence, the above is the dichotomy of an addict. When a man is passionately pursuing sex what he is doing is something habitual to him. Maybe certain stimuli trigger the habitual response in him—a feeling of loneliness, being alone in a room with a computer, a sexy image of a woman—whatever (cogitative estimation/memory). At this same time, the man might justify or think his way into continually looking at the porn (or maybe his mind is screaming at him “you need this!”). Also at the same time, because his memory is trained, he instantly feels overwhelmed by all of the senses kicking in at once. Perhaps he is feeling quite at home at this point…”I’ve done this before.”
As Dunnington points out, repetition doesn’t produce habits alone—it also requires intensity of intent and focus (Dunnington, 77). We can become conditioned but not habituated (77-78). As Aquinas states, “So, too, repeated acts cause a habit to grow. If, however, the act falls short of the intensity of the habit, such an act does not dispose to an increase of that habit, but rather, to a lessening thereof” (Dunnington, 78 quoting Aquinas 1-2.52.3). There are external and internal factors going on at all times.
This should, if anything, make us aware of the fact that simply commanding someone not to do something isn’t going to work and neither is giving them a guilt trip. Lordship salvation is helpful in reminding us that persistent, unrepentant sin is a key sign in unbelievers. However, it can be misleading in the fact that it tends to treat too severely those who struggle with addictions and strongly formed habits. Sin is not something you kick with enough mental power. Often those struggling mighty with addiction and habits are Christians who are being told they are unbelievers! I can think of no clearer example of this than Mark Driscoll’s own book Death by Love. While I am perhaps the biggest fan of this book, I have also come to realize that telling a guy who is constantly struggling with a sin that he is an unbeliever might not be the right answer. Sin is complex and far reaching.
The longer I work with students the more I realize that there are earnest students who love Jesus and yet who constantly make bad choices. I have found the clearest answer to students like this is that they are influenced mightily by sinful habits. It is a great word—you are still held responsible for your actions and yet at the same time it accounts for the fact that, yes, we fighting a major war.
Some might ask, “Isn’t what we call the sinful nature the same thing?” Not really—the sinful nature explains why we make sinful habits. In essence, sinful nature is a broad category that is incredibly helpful in describing our disposition but is less useful when describing individual sins. “Well of course I do what I don’t want to do—now how do I fix a sinful nature?” The answer is, you deal with a by-product of sinful natures—sinful habits. Your sinful nature never will go away this side of Heaven but the Spirit does deal with our sinful habits, replacing them with righteous habits or “fruits” if you will.
While at this point we could sketch out an idea of how the Holy Spirit works (a theology of “weeds and seeds” as I like to call it—the Spirit pulls out our weeds and plants new seeds), my main point was to simply point out that we need to clarify our thinking when it comes to sin. Often we provide shallow answers to complex questions and the result is frustration. I say this as a youth pastor who has often underwent much pain when counseling sincere men of God struggling with deeply ingrained sinful habits.