Last week, we discussed John* (name changed to protect privacy), a man who abused alcohol when he felt rejected. When people are ensnared in life-dominating sins, they often have seasons of victory but slip back into old patterns. When this happens, what is going on? I would argue that, in many situations, true heart change has not happened. There may have been attempts to stop a particular unwanted behavior but there has not been change at a heart level. “If the heart doesn’t change, the person’s words and behavior may change temporarily because of an external pressure or incentive. But when the pressure or incentive is removed, the change will disappear” (Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands pg. 62).
At this point, I do want to acknowledge that not everyone who struggles is ensnared due to a lack of heart change. Sometimes, people continue to struggle but are clearly headed in a good direction as evidenced by quick repentance and seeking help when they stumble. Those people need to be encouraged to keep persevering. However, John’s indulging of the flesh followed by hiding, lying, and covering indicated there was not change at a heart level.
Foundation #3 – The heart is the target of our counsel
If lasting change happens at a heart level, we need to guard against giving counsel that does not address the heart. We must do more than give people Bible verses that tell them to stop doing a sinful behavior. For example, if a father consistently has an anger problem simply telling him to memorize James 1:19-20 is insufficient. We must do more than tell him to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. We must help him see what he is thinking and wanting in those moments that his anger gets the best of him. Turning our attention back to John and his alcohol abuse, we must do more than just warn him that God says “drunkards” do not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). In our time together, I helped John to see that the most significant influence in his struggle with alcohol came when he was not receiving the acceptance he craved. John was encouraged to rest in the truth that those who put their faith in trust in Christ are accepted into the family of God (John 1:12). In addition, using a cycle of temptation that was introduced last week, John was helped to see the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs he was having that led to the choices he was making. In this article, we will examine ways in which the Word of God was used to address the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of his heart that led to his struggle with alcohol abuse.
If lasting change happens at a heart level, we need to guard against giving counsel that does not address the heart.
Before addressing John’s temptation cycle we first examined a passage of Scripture for the purpose of stirring John’s heart to know, love, and pursue greater fellowship with Christ. I desired to stir John’s affection for Christ because that is what will lead to growing Christ-like character. John Piper discussed the importance of stirring affections when he wrote:
“It is astonishing to me that so many people try to define true Christianity in terms of decisions, and not affections. Not that decisions are unessential. The problem is that they require so little transformation to achieve. They are evidence of no true work of grace in the heart. People can make ‘decisions’ about the truth of God while their hearts are far from Him” (Desiring God, pg. 299).
My desire was to use Colossians 3:1-17 to stir John’s affections for Christ before working our way through his temptation cycle. In this passage, it can be broken down into three parts:
- Life with God (3:1-4)
- Conquering sin (3:5-11)
- Life with others (3:12-17)
Without walking through the whole passage, my basic goal was to help John set his mind on things above (v. 2) and see his life hidden with Christ (v. 3). I was inviting John to examine the character of God while at the same time helping him to consider that knowing Christ is the greatest joy and privilege in life (Philippians 3:8). The primary aspect of God’s character I wanted to highlight was God’s goodness (Psalm 145:9; James 1:17). John believed the same lie that Adam and Eve believed in the Garden of Eden, that God was withholding something good from him. If I could help John to be stirred in his affections for Christ and desire Him above everything else in his life, that would lead to growing victory over sin as discussed in Colossians 3:5-11.
I was inviting John to examine the character of God while at the same time helping him to consider that knowing Christ is the greatest joy and privilege in life
Then, as John had growing affection for Christ and increasing victory over sin, he would live life with others the way God outlined in Colossians 3:12-17.
Within the backdrop of seeking to stir John’s affections for Christ, let’s begin by reminding ourselves of the temptation cycle that Sinclair Ferguson described:
After I had helped John identify the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in his temptation cycle, we addressed each stage of the cycle and contrasted it with truths from the Word of God. John was encouraged to challenge the lies he believed, and instead focus on what God had to say in the pages of Scripture.
Attraction – as John spoke of the physical comfort and distraction from pain the alcohol provided, I invited him to consider how he was allowing his thoughts and feelings to lead him astray. I challenged him instead to interpret reality through what the Word of God has to say. Psalm 119:76 says: “Let your steadfast love comfort me according to your promise to your servant.” John was encouraged to take God at His Word and trust that God could comfort him in moments of temptation.
Deception – after addressing John’s attraction to the alcohol, we moved on to discuss the many lies he believed. The first lie was the alcohol will help. I talked with him about how when he needed help or comfort he was turning to alcohol and not God. He was invited to consider Psalm 46:1 – “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Another lie he believed is that he could keep it a secret and no one had to know about his alcohol abuse. The truth is God already knew (Psalm 139:4) and that in His grace He was exposing John’s sin so he could get help (Numbers 32:23). Another lie he believed was that his sin of alcohol abuse didn’t hurt anyone. In the moment of temptation that seemed like a plausible thought, but as we were working through his cycle he knew his sin was causing a massive separation between him and his wife because sin separates (Isaiah 59:2).
The final two lies were: 1) “I won’t let this get out of hand,” 2) “other people can drink alcohol; I can too.” In moments of sobriety he could easily acknowledge that others are able to use alcohol in moderation but he had almost never stopped at “moderate” drinking. We then looked at Jesus’ warning in the Sermon on the Mount to help him reconsider what God had to say about this substance that had been ruling his life for years. Matthew 5:29-30 says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” John was encouraged to resist all of these lies and cling to and meditate on the truths of God’s Word that alcohol needed to be removed from his life.
Preoccupation – as John embraced the lies mentioned above he began to become preoccupied with getting alcohol. He fixated on devising a plan to get alcohol so much so that he began to crave alcohol. Once he began to crave alcohol he started to think about what he had to do to manipulate or lie to keep his consumption hidden. After the fact, in moments of clarity, John knew that being pre-occupied with alcohol was leading to destruction. He needed to understand more fully the power of setting his affections on something. “The things we set our hearts on never remain under our control. Instead, they capture, control, and enslave us” (Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands pg. 73). Rather than setting his affections on alcohol, he was invited to set his mind on things above (Colossians 3:2). He was further encouraged to remember the character of God we discussed above and cultivate a capacity to crave God. Psalm 42:1 says, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.”
Conception – while John was pre-occupied with alcohol he felt powerless to withstand the temptation. He concluded “I need to hurry up and finish so I can hide it.” In this moment of choosing to sin through getting drunk, John was called to repentance. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” John was again encouraged to not only believe what God had said, but to look at his life and see how his circumstances were affirming the truthfulness of the Word of God – he was not prospering when he was hiding his sin. John was further encouraged by this verse to see the abundant mercy awaiting him when he does repent. In addition, he was challenged to see the foolishness of trying to hide his sin. Galatians 6:7 says, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”
Subjection – John’s repeated pattern of believing lies and giving in to the temptation of alcohol eventually resulted in him feeling enslaved. He enjoyed the temporary pleasure associated with the alcohol consumption and said things like: “this is like a reunion with an old friend,” “that really satisfied,” and “that was so good, another one would be even better.” Again, I encouraged John to take God at His Word and heed the warnings of Scripture. Hebrews 11:25 speaks of the fleeting pleasure of sin while Psalm 16:11 promises fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore walking on the path of life God has for him. Furthermore, John was encouraged to consider that he does not have to be enslaved but Jesus provided wonderful words of encouragement to a pathway to freedom. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:31-32, 36).
Another helpful passage when considering being in subjection to sin is Romans 6:12-14:
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
This passage provides great encouragement that John does not have to obey his passions and desires for comfort through alcohol. Instead he can be mindful of God and His grace, rehearsing the gospel that God forgives repentant sinners and empowers them to say no to sin (see also Titus 2:11-14).
Desperation – completing the temptation cycle is the idea that nothing is going to change. What this lack of hope for change looked like in John’s life were the following statements: “Why do I keep putting my loved ones through this?; they would be better off without me; this is who I am, this is my identity; and I am weak, it is easier just to give up.” In response, I encouraged John to remember that we serve a God of hope (Romans 15:13). He was then reminded that if he is in Christ he has the same power that raised Jesus from the dead living inside of him (Romans 8:11).
To further encourage and give hope, John was reminded that God is faithful and He will always provide a way of escape from sin in the moment of temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). Finally, John was encouraged that his weakness will not keep him from overcoming sin, but his delusions of strength will (Proverbs 28:26). He was reminded what the Apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
As we look back over the ground we have covered, one thing becomes quite obvious; we didn’t really talk about alcohol. While the abuse of alcohol was the presenting problem, the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of John’s heart is what led to the choices he was making. He was repeatedly called to repentance for his wrong thinking, misdirected feelings, and ungodly beliefs along with his ungodly behavior. The Word of God provided the truths to reorient his heart. Romans 12:2 challenges us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
While the abuse of alcohol was the presenting problem, the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of John’s heart is what led to the choices he was making.
As we close, I would like to suggest three responses to this article. First, help the people you counsel be aware of the temptation cycle. Help them to identify the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that lead to sinful choices. Sinclair Ferguson argues this cycle is a common cycle all of us face after seeing this pattern with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3; Achan in Joshua 7; and David with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11. Second, help those you serve have a settle trust in the goodness of God. We are all incredibly vulnerable to temptation when we doubt the goodness of God. Finally, make time to cultivate in everyone you come alongside a growing affection for Christ. Thomas Chalmers was right centuries ago when he spoke about the expulsive power of a new affection. When Christ captures our affections, we will have the power to turn from sin, and be motivated to live for the One who redeemed us (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). Next week we will turn our attention to the importance of our disposition towards those we counsel but for now let me close with a few questions to ponder.
Questions for Reflection
- How well are you doing at counseling toward the heart and not just behavior?
- Prayerfully consider some things you can do this week to cultivate a growing affection for Christ in your own heart and in the people you disciple or counsel.
- The Bible warns us that we can all be blind to our sin (Hebrews 3:12-13). How are you doing at allowing others to speak into your life to help you not believe lies?