“Sin blinds you, then it binds you, then it grinds you.” I don’t know who first said those words, but they ring true. Disobedience to God leads to a downward cycle. “After desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15)—and that’s true on both a personal level and a societal level.
Someone observed, “First we overlook evil. Then we permit evil. Then we legalize evil. Then we promote evil. Then we celebrate evil. Then we persecute anyone who still calls it evil.” There are two keys to breaking the cycle.
Remember Who God Is
The Israelites fell into a downward cycle because a generation grew up “who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). Not long before, God gave them the Ten Commandments, but they already forgot the first two: serve only the one true God and never worship graven images/idols (Exodus 20:3, 4). A mere two generations later, “They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors . . . . They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them” (Judges 2:12).
You can substitute margarine for butter, and you can replace old shoes with a new pair, but nothing can substitute for God. Even good things like work, family, and hobbies cannot take God’s rightful place. The Canaanites should have been coming to the Israelites to learn about the true God, but instead, the Israelites imitated their neighbors. They worshiped Baal, the male god of power, and Ashtoreth, the female goddess of lust. Power and lust continue to be two popular substitutes for God. Tim Keller says, “The real danger is not atheism, but that we ask God to coexist comfortably with the idols of our heart.”
Idolatry looks foolish when we remember what the true God is like: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:6, 7).
Remember Who We Are
All kinds of degradation result when we trade “the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25). Confusion about God leads to confusion about our own identity.
Henri Nouwen listed Five Lies of Identity—flawed ways we view ourselves:
- I am what I have. But what if you can’t buy the right car, house, or clothes? What if the stock market crashes and your money slips away?
- I am what I do. But where will you find your significance if you lose your job, retire, or get sick and can’t work?
- I am what other people say or think of me. But if you derive your identity from others’ opinions, what will happen if they neglect or misunderstand you?
- I am nothing more than my worst moment. Must you be tortured throughout life by recalling your biggest blunder?
- I am nothing less than my best moment. Can you really measure your worth by reviewing your life’s highlight reel?
Sin drags us down, and we won’t break the downward cycle unless we remember who God is and who we are. We are created in God’s image, so our true identity is inseparably linked with his.