Breaking the Cycle of Sin
Rev. Brian Bill
[Take phone call] Excuse me for a moment while I take this call. It must be pretty important. You couldn’t hear it ring because I have it on vibrate – I’m assuming that your phones and pagers are set this way too.
“Hello, this is Brian…no, it’s OK, I’m not busy…you’re having a meltdown? What’s happening…is everything alright? I see…you feel miserable…you’ve been drinking and you feel bad about it…it sounds like you feel stuck and you’re in a downward spiral…you don’t want to live like this any longer…I can tell you feel guilty…no, God hasn’t left you…and He can break the cycle of sin in your life – if you’ll let Him… you’ve been trying to do everything on your own? How’s that been working for you?...I didn’t think so. Let me ask you a question: “How bad do you want to get better?” Tell you what; I’m going to put you on hold while you think about your answer to that question. I have something I need to do and then I’ll be right back with you. It may be a few minutes. Hold on.”
Like my friend, do you ever feel like you’re in a cycle of sin that you can’t seem to break? If so, then this message is for you. God’s Word comes to us as many different types of literature. We find poetry and proverbs and prophecy as well as letters and laws. In addition, much of the Old Testament is history. This history is not to be read as just dates, names and places however. We must see it as “His-Story” as God weaves His redemptive thread through these events which end up at the Cross and culminate in the righteous reign of Christ in the world to come.
As we read His Story, we can find at least two points of application:
• Encouraging examples. When we discover what happened in the past, we can find models to mimic and examples to emulate. Listen to Romans 15:4: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
• Wise warnings. Sometimes when we read the Bible we come across people who did not obey and did evil. This kind of behavior, and its consequences, serves as a warning for us as stated in 1 Corinthians 10:6: “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.”
The Book of Judges is the second book of history and is full of wise warnings with just a few encouraging examples. This book chronicles a very tough time in the history of Israel, serving as a hinge between the successes of Joshua and the establishment of the monarchy in 1 Samuel. Covering around 400 years, God’s people progressively drift away from the Lord. Judges 2:18-19 summarizes the spiritual situation: “Whenever the LORD raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived…But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers…” They were on a slippery downward cycle of sin.
The very last phrase of this book gives us insight into why things were going south for them: “…everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25). And because of that, on seven different occasions we read of God’s people cycling through a period of rebellion which led to retribution from God. After suffering for some time, they would eventually cry out to God and then be restored to a time of rest and peace. But then they’d begin the process all over again. This diagram of their dilemma is from the Ryrie Study Bible:
Do you see yourself somewhere in this cycle right now? We’re all prone to drift downward because our bent is toward backsliding. Bill Hybels often says that without attention our spiritual lives will head south, not north. Sometimes when our lives are too comfortable we start to coast. I’d like to suggest seven steps that often mirror our own slippery slope.
1. Conquering. In the opening verse of the book we read that after Joshua died, the people asked the Lord: “Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites?” Under Joshua the people had conquered thirty-one kings and after his death each tribe traveled to the place of their inheritance. However, there were still a lot of enemies to be extracted. I want to pause here and consider why God instructed His people to wipe out the wicked Canaanites. In the second century Marcion had such a hard time reconciling the loving God of the New Testament with the violent God of the Old that he did a cut-and-paste job and just removed the Old Testament from his Bible. That’s not an option for us because God is the same in the both testaments. Perhaps you’ve wondered why the Israelites were told to annihilate the nations around them. It seems pretty severe, doesn’t it?
Let’s go back to an important statement found in Genesis 15:16: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” God had given Abraham the promise of a people and the promise of a place in Genesis 12. John Ortberg points out that during Abraham’s time the Amorite culture was defiled but God was still going to offer mercy to the people of Canaan. Later on, once God’s people go into the area of the Amorites, their sin will reach its full measure and God will judge them accordingly. God is merciful and is offering them a way out as we saw in Joshua 2 when Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, repents and comes to faith in God. However the Canaanite people in general refuse to repent and their sin finally reaches its full measure during the time of Joshua and Judges.
Leviticus 18 catalogs the depths of their depravity which included sacrificing children to a god named Molech. The Israelites were given a warning in Deuteronomy 18:9-13: “When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.”
God not only wanted the crooked Canaanites judged, He wanted them removed because of the evil influence they would have on the Israelites if they were allowed to stay in the land. Exodus 23:23-24: “My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces.” And verse 33 tells us why they were to kill the Canaanites: “Do not let them live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.”
There was no way the people of Israel could worship the one true God and also bow before the Canaanite gods. It’s impossible for someone to be monotheistic and polytheistic at the same time. An example of this evil influence is found in Numbers 25:1-3: “While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.” Commentator G. Campbell Morgan summarized it this way: “God is perpetually at war with sin, and that is the whole explanation of the extermination of the Canaanites.”
With that as background, let’s come back to Judges 1. The tribe of Judah is selected to take the lead, which is interesting because it’s out of the tribe of Judah that Jesus eventually comes. In verse 3 we see that Judah teams up with the tribe of Simeon and they conquer some of the Cannanites. Drop down to verse 20 where we read that Caleb, whose name means “wholehearted,” drove away “three sons of Anak” from Hebron. This was no easy task because the sons of Anak were the Nephilim, the “giants in the land” that had caused the spies from Numbers 13 to say that they couldn’t take the land. It was only Caleb and Joshua who believed that God could do it. And now, over 40 years later, Caleb is able to conquer these giants!
[Back to phone call] “Are you still there? Yes, I know you were raised in the church. I know you’re a Christian but the problem is that you’ve become complacent…you haven’t been reading your Bible; you’re no longer going to places that will encourage you. You can’t stay in neutral and think things will get better by themselves. I come back to my question. How bad do you want to get better? Think about that some more while I take care of something. Hold on.”
2. Complacency. With the exception of the tribes of Judah and Simeon and the courage of Caleb, the other tribes became complacent. Instead of living as conquerors, they coasted spiritually. Perhaps they thought everything would be fine because of all the victories that took place through Joshua. They were probably cheering Caleb on, but when it came time for them to fight, they folded. In verses 21-34, we see a series of incomplete conquests:
“The Benjamites, however, failed to dislodge the Jubusites…”
“But Manasseh did not drive out the people…”
“Nor did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites…”
“Neither did Zebulun…”
“Nor did Asher…”
“Neither did Naphtali…”
“The Amorites confined the Danites to the hill country…”
The tribe of Dan was so complacent that they just stayed up in the hills, not even claiming their own inheritance. They end up doing some really bad stuff in Judges 17-18. Are you settling into a lukewarm life, becoming passive instead of proactive? Do you find that you have a double-minded heart? I’m reminded of the words to that great hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
Fellow family members, guard your heart so that spiritual entropy doesn’t set in. The same people who made this promise in Joshua 24:16: “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods!” cycle into the cellar in Judges 3:7: “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and Asherahs.” Don’t be a spiritual slacker.
3. Compromised. Instead of living as conquerors, they became complacent which led to some significant compromises. When Judah and Simeon caught a Canaanite king named Adoni-Bezek, verse 6 says that they “cut off his thumbs and big toes.” While that would render him unable to fight, this was actually a pagan practice that they copied. Isn’t it true that sometimes we’re so enmeshed in the culture around us that we often don’t even notice when we adopt the ways of the world? James 4:4 says: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
One other compromise is evident in these early chapters. Instead of conquering the Canaanites and destroying them, the tribes let them live in the land. Look at verse 28: “…they pressed the Canaanites into forced labor but never drove them out completely.” Verse 29: “…but the Canaanites continued to live there among them.” Asher and Naphtali are said to “live among” the Canaanites, as if to say that they are indebted and indentured to them. This is a very dangerous and all-too-common step that many of us take as well. They thought they could keep them under control and use their resources. Maybe they believed they were strong enough to handle them but we’re always weaker than we think when it comes to sin. Genesis 4:7 paints a graphic picture of the great power of sin: “…But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” Jesus said in John 8:34 that “…everyone who sins is a slave to sin”
These compromises eventually led to spiritual bondage. Turn over to Judges 3:5-7 where we see the slippery slope of compromise: “The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. They took their daughters in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods. The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD; they forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs.” Friends, even little compromises can lead to big problems. Little by little they eat away at us until we fall into sin. That reminds me of the college student who was speaking to a missionary and asked, “What do you do when you can’t take the superstition and the violence and immorality any longer?” The missionary replied, “That’s simple. We just get on a plane and go back to the mission field.”
[Pick up phone again] “I’m back. Sorry for the wait. Have you been able to ponder that question? How bad do you want to get better? You’ve been sliding south spiritually, haven’t you? That’s cool that you no longer want to live like this and that you realize that your friends are having a bad influence on you…that’s good you recognize that you’ve been complacent and that you’ve compromised what you know to be true. Here’s the question. Would you rather fit in with your friends or be faithful to God? 1 John 2:15 says, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” What’s that? You got another call coming in? That’s cool…I can hold.”
4. Consequences. When we move from conquering to complacency to compromise there will be some consequences. Look at Judges 2:1-3: “The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, ‘I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? Now therefore I tell you that I will not drive them out before you; they will be [thorns] in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.” Thorns hurt and snares are designed to trip and trap. I think it’s true that some of the most miserable people in the world are complacent Christians who are living a compromised life. As Charles Spurgeon often said, “God does not allow his saints to sin successfully.”
[Pick up phone again] “Was that one of your friends? You just got invited to a party? What are you going to do? OK…that’s good you’re not going to go…but how are you going to stay strong when you’re trying to go life alone? You’re saying that God feels far away?...you’re right, He’ll never leave you…that’s true, you’re the one who has drifted from Him…you’ve moved…not Him…it sounds to me like you’re miserable and you’ve hit bottom…that’s a good place to be because God loves a broken and contrite heart…hold on again if you don’t mind.”
5. Contrition. Many different times in Judges God’s people cry out to Him when they can no longer bear the consequences. We see this in 2:4: “When the angel of the Lord had spoken these things to all the Israelites, the people wept aloud.” Unfortunately, they were contrite because of the consequences but not truly sorrowful about their sin. This pattern is repeated in the book and exemplified in Judges 3:7-9: “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD; they forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs. The anger of the LORD burned against Israel so that he sold them into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim, to whom the Israelites were subject for eight years. But when they cried out to the LORD, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, who saved them.”
God is so compassionate that when He hears His people cry out to Him, he sends them a deliverer. Would you notice how long it took for them to finally cry out, however? Eight years. A generation later they waited 18 years before crying out (3:14). Later, it ballooned to 20 years before they cried out and God called Deborah to deliver them (4:20). We’re often the same way. We know things are not going well and yet something keeps us from coming back to the Lord. Among other things, it’s our proud will that struggles to surrender. We put off and procrastinate, even though we’re miserable. As we learned a couple weeks ago, once the will falls, then the walls will fall.
We read that the angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bokim. Gilgal was the place where they crossed the Jordan, where they renewed their covenant through circumcision, where they celebrated the Passover and where the angel of the Lord appeared to Joshua. Gilgal represents victory. Bokim on the other hand, means “weeping.” Here’s the lesson. The path of partial obedience leads to disobedience which leads to defeat. Sorrow, not victory becomes our portion.
[Take phone call] “What’s keeping you from fully surrendering to Him? You’re afraid He won’t forgive you because you keep on sinning? I understand…listen, the reason you’re struggling now is because God does not let His children sin successfully. It’s time to come back to Him. He’s breaking you because He wants you to come back to Him. He loves you so much that He’s allowing you to feel the full effects of your sin… God’s not mad at you…He’s waiting for you to return, just like the prodigal son. Remember that story? The son finally says, “I have sinned,” repents and realizes he must return home. The Father is watching and waiting and when He sees His son coming home He’s filled with compassion and runs to meet Him. Why don’t you find a Bible and read Luke 15? I need to put you on hold again. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
6. Confession. Let me say that most of us stop after these five steps. We feel bad about what we’ve done and we hate the consequences but we often don’t move to the final two steps. That’s because there’s a difference between godly grief and shallow sorrow. This is spelled out in 2 Corinthians 7:10: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” In our brokenness, God wants us to confess our depravity to Him and then repent. Judges 10:10-14 shows the process God took them through: “Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD, ‘We have sinned against you, forsaking our God and serving the Baals.’ The LORD replied, ‘When the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you and you cried to me for help, did I not save you from their hands? But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!’”
Do you see what God is doing here? Words are cheap. He wants to move them to deep heart-felt confession. Look at verse 15: “But the Israelites said to the LORD, ‘We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.’”
[Come back to call] “I’m back. I can tell you’re crying…you’re the prodigal son, aren’t you? What do you need to own up for? The key is to confess everything to God. It’s not enough to just feel sad about your sin. OK, now that’s a start…you’ve also tried smoking pot…is there anything else that you need to confess? Call it sin and throw yourself on the Savior…I know this is hard. Why don’t you take some time right now and just spill all your sin to Him. I’ll be right back with you.”
7. Commitment. Verse 16 shows us what God is really after: “Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the LORD. And he could bear Israel’s misery no longer.” Once the people fully surrender by getting rid of their gods and commit to serve Him fully, then God took them seriously. They had drifted from an experiential relationship with Him and now they were coming back to Him on His terms. God sees our misery and is so moved that He wants to alleviate it…but only after we commit ourselves completely to Him.
[Pick up phone again] “Are you still there? Good…You’re ready to return to the Lord? Are you sure? Last time we talked you said you were on the fence…now you want to jump off…God wants your whole heart…and then you’re going to have to make some changes starting with getting back into a church…and finding some new friends…and reading the Word everyday…you need to cut off those things that are causing you to compromise…this won’t be easy to do but if you don’t you’ll start sliding again…but the most important thing you can do right now is to fully surrender to Christ and recommit your life to Him. Are you ready to do that? I’m not going to pressure you but I want you to do some business with God when we hang up. It’s time to surrender to Him. I’ll keep in touch.”
Incidentally, this is a summary of a real conversation I had with someone this week. I ended the phone call by praying for my friend and then I called him back the next day. I could tell immediately that something had changed and he told me that he had completely surrendered to the Lord and rededicated himself to Christ. Here’s a question for you: How bad do you want to get better?
1. Ask Jesus to deliver you. When God’s people would cry out He would send a deliverer. They would do alright while the deliver was alive but then they’d slide right back into sin. Likewise, you and I can’t do it on our own. Sin is too strong. Our wills are too stubborn. We need a deliverer who will never die. Matthew 1:21 says that Jesus will “save [or deliver] His people from their sins.” Colossians 1:13: “For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves.” Jesus is both Judge and Deliverer. Have you ever asked Him to deliver you from judgment? You can do so right now.
2. Identify your spot on the cycle. What pattern do you normally follow? Stop the cycle now and ask the Holy Spirit to break the bondage. The tribe of Judah lived as conquerors while Dan was complacent and compromised. How would you rate your relationship with Christ right now? It’s time to confess and commit. Where are you headed next? Do you want to go in this direction?
3. What “enemy” have you allowed to remain in your life? It’s time to recover some ground. Don’t let the “ites” move into your inheritance. If you don’t deal with disobedience now the cycle will last longer and grow more intense and the consequences will become more severe. Get rid of anything that’s tripping you up. Call out to God with a sincere heart and expel those enemies of your soul; that will begin to break the cycle.
4. Allow the Lord to occupy every area of your life. It’s time to start living as conquerors again! We’ve been given an amazing inheritance; but we have to claim what is ours. We have the victory. Our daughter Emily called this week and told me that one of her profs was teaching through Matthew 16:18-19 which says that the “gates of Hades will not overcome” the church. Gates are defensive. That means Satan is on the defense because the church is on the offense. He’s losing and will lose. We’re winning and will win!
He also told the students that when Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” He was telling the church to open doors. We’ve been given the authority to claim that which is ours. We don’t have to shrink away in fear, living lives of complacency and compromise because we are called to be conquerors. He then had the students take out their keys and shake them as a reminder that they are called to be conquerors. Let’s do that right now. Take out your keys, hold them up, and start shaking them. Use your authority. You are on the offense. Emily was pretty amped up at the end of the conversation she said, “Dad, we are lethal weapons in the hands of Jesus!”
Romans 8:37-39: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God will never put you on hold…and He wants you to call out to Him right now. Jeremiah 33:3: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”