Bill was really upset. His carefully planned campaign for overcoming had just fallen apart.
He had been baptized only a few weeks earlier, and he was full of enthusiasm to grow spiritually. He realized that sin was a powerful enemy, but he was sure that with diligent planning he could make steady progress.
So he made a list of his most obvious sins, which he recognized as being pride, anger and envy.
"OK," Bill said to himself, "we'll take them one at a time. Envy this week, pride the next and, with those two out of the way, I'll concentrate on anger during week three."
All went well at first. Bill always had been competitive — he wanted to be the best at everything. It really upset him when others got recognition and he didn't. But now he went to work on solving the problem. His workmates noticed the difference: "What's the matter with Bill? He's so easy to get along with these days." "He must be sick or something."
At the end of week one, Bill felt he had the sin of envy under control. Now it was time to work on pride. He hated to lose, and when he won, he wanted everyone to know about it. All that would have to stop, he told himself.
During the second week, he had several temptations. He made a breakthrough at work that saved his company several thousand dollars. But to the astonishment of his supervisor, he refused to take all the credit, explaining that others had helped him. By the weekend pride was licked. Two down and one to go.
Bill was known for his fiery temper, which could flare up when things didn't go his way. His wife, children and workmates knew this only too well. But now Bill began to control his temper.
"That's OK, we all make mistakes," he told his wife when she lost a whole week's grocery money. "Could have happened anytime," he consoled his teenage son after the son had broken the lawn mower. "Just try to make the time up," he told his fearful secretary, who had come back late from lunch.
Toward the end of the third week of his overcoming program, Bill was prouder, better make that "well pleased" — with his progress.
And then, suddenly, it had all fallen apart. At church, of all places. And over such a stupid little thing.
Human nature resurfaces It had happened after the service, when everyone was standing around talking. Bill was chatting with Ted, a young man who had recently gotten married, when the minister walked up. The minister greeted them both, and then said to Ted: "Say, Mrs. Smith told me that you and your wife helped her clean up her yard last week. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate what you and your wife are doing." Then he went off to greet someone else.
Bill felt the blood rush to his face. Why didn't the minister say anything about him? What was so special about Ted? Didn't the minister know that Bill was making progress, too? Why, in only three short weeks he had overcome envy, pride and anger. And yet here was Ted (a blue-collar worker Bill secretly looked down on a bit) getting publicly congratulated.
It just wasn't fair! Bill stomped off to sulk by himself in the parking lot.
And there it hit him. He had just undone three weeks work, and was once again the victim of envy, pride and anger.
Most of us can identify with poor Bill, can't we? We work on overcoming something and feel it is safely out of the way. Then one day, unexpectedly, it flares up all over again.
A downward pull Human nature, it seems, doesn't play fair. Once it is seemingly licked, it doesn't just stay down. It is so frustrating! How can we ever make progress?
Take heart. This is a problem that dogged the footsteps of even God's most diligent servants.
Surely if anyone should have thought he was making progress, it was the apostle Paul. And yet, look what he wrote to the Christians in Rome, after he had been trying to live a Christian life for more than 20 years: "I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.... I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice" (Romans 7:14-19).
It seems that Paul had the same problem as Bill — he worked hard to overcome his human nature, but it wouldn't stay overcome. But he did understand what was wrong: "Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me" (verse 20).
Those long years of experience taught Paul some things about himself. He showed us that the downward pull of human nature is still strong, even though you are determined to overcome sin and obey God's law.
How Paul must have hated that nature, which still led him to do things he did not want to! Paul even became discouraged sometimes: "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (verse 7:24).
Needed: constant vigilance Paul's experience shows that we must not underestimate the problem of overcoming. Once you have overcome an aspect of your human nature, you must continually be watchful. Otherwise, like a weed that you can never quite kill, it will start growing back.
Our friend Bill (we left him kicking himself in the parking lot, remember) could not give up trying to overcome just because he had badly underestimated the power of sin. What he had to do now was repent (perhaps more deeply than before) and start again. Only this time, he needed to watch out for his envy and his pride while working on his anger.
Well, Bill's a pretty determined guy, and so he squared his shoulders, apologized for his bad manners and began trying to overcome again.
And lived happily ever after?
Not quite. That might be the case if anger, pride and envy were the only faults he had. But there were many other problems that he hadn't even seen yet. Mercifully, God doesn't show us everything that is wrong all at once. We couldn't take it.
Jesus listed the kind of things that could be lurking in our hearts (Mark 7:21-23). And if that is not enough, you'll find another list in Galatians 5:19-2l. These things are part of our natures and, given a chance, will be expressed. Overcoming can become quite a complicated business. There are so many things to concentrate on, it sometimes seems that we need to be some kind of acrobats.
Spiritual acrobats Last year, a wonderfully talented team of Chinese acrobats came from Beijing to give a performance at Ambassador College in Pasadena. There was one act I can never forget.
A man stood behind a long table on which was a row of about 30 plates. He picked up the first one and started it spinning. He repeated this with the second, then the third and a fourth.
By now the first one was beginning to wind down, so he quickly ran back and gave it another spin. Then he got a fifth, sixth and seventh spinning. But now the second and the third had nearly stopped, so he had to go back and spin them some more. He gave the fourth a boost for good measure. And then he got the eighth and ninth plates going, and was about to spin the tenth when he noticed that the fifth was about to fall down, and the first needed some help again.
He continued until he had the entire row of plates spinning along the length of the table! By the time the last plate was spinning the poor fellow was really working. He had to keep running up and down the length of the table, watching every plate.
Overcoming is like that. You need constant vigilance. Once you relax for a while, you find yourself losing ground.
It is a struggle, but it can be done. And you don't have to do it alone, you know. You should ask for help — from God. He understands the problem.
Jesus Christ spent many years on earth, struggling against temptations and trials. He knows what it is like (Hebrews 4:15).
When Jesus returned to heaven to sit down once again at the right hand of His Father, He was especially well prepared to help people like Paul and Bill and you overcome. As verse 16 says, "Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
That help, of course, is the Holy Spirit — spiritual energy from God. When you go before God's throne in prayer to ask for help, Jesus Christ can literally think back to the time when He had a similar — perhaps the very same — problem. He can remember how He had to call out to His Father for the spiritual energy to resist sinning (Hebrews 5:7-8).
And then, from that throne of grace, your Father in heaven and your elder brother, Jesus Christ, can send you that same help. With that help, you'll keep going and you'll make progress.
You'll still make mistakes, and there will be times when you'll feel like asking, as Paul did, "Who will deliver me from this body of death?"
But you'll also understand Paul's answer: "I thank God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:24-25).