By Luke Scallon

Do you find yourself in a cyclical battle with sin? Have you found that your efforts to amputate your sin are met with rapid regrowth and recurrence of that sin? Do you find yourself crying out, “O wretched man [or woman] that I am!” Is victory over your sin apparently in reach but elusive in practice?

“I do what I do because I want what I want.”

“I do what I do because I want what I want”: this principle is a helpful diagnostic test in the midst of sinful responses, helping us to examine our hearts in order to navigate confession, repentance, restoration, and a proper response in future trials. It was one of the first principles we learned in Biblical counseling training, and the idea was reiterated continually throughout the various issues we studied. To understand our struggles with a Biblical lens, we must be able to identify the underlying desires.

Still skeptical? Consider a child who received instructions to change for bed: “I don’t want to.” Sometimes, our sin struggles are blatantly obvious. Why didn’t we do what we knew God has told us to do? We didn’t feel like it. Other times, we may be desperate to do better, only to be battling ourselves in the repetition of sinful habits and tendencies. Why?

Murder and adultery are the first two sins that Jesus addresses while emphasizing the heart (Matt. 5:21–30). Take a look at the following passage, where James identifies both murder and adultery:

1 Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:1–4)

It’s true: if you don’t control your feelings and desires, they will control you.

Just as Jesus attributes the problems of murder and adultery to the heart, James also counsels his readers with a warning: the problem is in the heart. Our outward sin struggles are the fruits that spring from roots that are feeding on our desires and feelings. Why do I do such foolish things? I do what I do because I want what I want. Those desires and feelings are controlling me. James 4:2a shows that we are willing to sin to get what we want. James 4:2b shows that we’re willing to sin when we don’t get what we want. When we do so, we elevate those desires above obeying God (adulterously), deciding that our desires are worth the cost of sin in our pursuit of them.

Examine yourself!

Next time you sin, stop yourself, and walk yourself through James 4:1–4. When I sinned, what was I wanting? Perhaps I wanted happiness, and I believed the lie that I could find it in another woman, or in overeating, or in escaping through drugs, or in having a possession that I stole. Perhaps I wanted appreciation, and since I didn’t receive that desire, I responded sinfully with rude behavior. Perhaps I wanted compassion, and I was willing to sin by pouring out complaints in order to receive that desire.

Wait . . .

Notice that good desires can turn into heart idols when we let them control us and prompt sinful decisions. That word lust, or desire, simply means “over-desire.” We have given place to people or things that are out of order with the place God has given them in our lives. This happens because of the anticipation we get for pleasure or passion: that which we anticipate will make us feel good in some way, whether physically or emotionally.

We too quickly surrender control to those feelings and desires, leading to our ruin. God is not withholding good but giving a greater good. We must believe the truth about the things of this world, both the good things He has provided and the bad things He has forbidden. We must believe the truth about God; about His Son, Jesus, Whom He sent to redeem us from sin; and about the growing satisfaction we can enjoy now as we know Him more! Thus we study and obey His Word so we will not be lured by Satan into dangerous appetites. Instead we hunger and thirst for Jesus’ righteousness.

May we live each day by His grace. To God be the glory!

Luke Scallon is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Laurel, Md. This article first appeared on his website and is reposted here by permission.