He needed a refill of his Lomotil, the message said. Had he seen the gastroenterologist like I advised? No, but if I could just send some pills to the pharmacy, he’d appreciate it. I wanted my patient to feel better, but I knew that diarrhea can be a symptom of something much worse. Like the older gentleman who came in for loose stools and ended up with a twelve centimeter mass in his colon. My patient wanted a quick fix and–when it comes to sin–so do we. We want the discomfort go away without having to face an underlying diagnosis. But sin–like colon cancer–is easier to treat when we diagnose it accurately, and early.
Jesus came so that we could enjoy life to the full (John 10:10), but sin drains the abundance out of our lives. If we want abundant life with God–and aren’t experiencing it–we might want to check if we’ve been complaint with God’s treatment plan for sin:
1. Own the diagnosis
Something in humans dreads a diagnosis; we’d rather take a pill to make the diarrhea stop. If a hard day at work leaves us short fused and we snap at a family member, we might try to brush off the unease that creeps into our nervous system by grabbing an excuse about how much work drained us, offering a vague apology for being sorry if we hurt them, or distracting ourselves from the fact that we blew it by turning on Hulu.
But glossing over our failure is as effective as taking Lomotil for colon cancer. It might relieve our psychosocial angst, but the underlying tumor will just keep growing.
We’ve got to name our sin. A vague apology lets us keep our sense of pride intact, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. We need to name how we blew it–to ourselves, God, and the person we’ve hurt. No one wins when we minimize the ugliness we’ve put into the world. So take a deep breath and say, “I gave into anger and hurt you. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
Until we name our sin and ask for forgiveness, we’re just treating symptoms. No one wants a colonoscopy, but if that’s the best way to diagnose cancer while it can still be treated, then let’s sign up.
2. Sign up for surgery
Once we name our sin, we need to assess the damage and see if any surgery is needed. A pre-cancerous polyp can be snipped off during a colonoscopy, but a twelve centimeter mass requires more invasive surgery. Depending on the nature of our sin, getting back to abundant life might require more than asking forgiveness.
When the tax-collector Zaccheus met Jesus, he suddenly saw his life through God’s eyes. He recognized the hurt and financial strain his extortion had caused others. He didn’t just feel bad, he wanted to undo the brokenness he’d caused. So he vowed to give half his wealth to the poor and more than repay anyone he’d cheated (Luke 19:8).
If we find ourselves posting angry comments on social media, we might remove some apps from our phone. If we find ourselves gossiping about someone, we might go back to all the ears we told and–in addition to confessing–replace our gossip with genuine compliments. If we caused deep emotional or physical wounds, we might offer to pay for the counseling or health care bills we caused.
If we want to reclaim the abundance that sin drains from our lives, we need to put ourselves under the Holy Spirit’s knife and do whatever it takes to cultivate wholeness in the place where our sin caused damage.
3. Fill God’s prescriptions
Our DNA bends away from God and ongoing sins require more than a one-time surgery. Many cancers require chemo and radiation to prevent a tumor from growing back, and the same is true with us. When we see repetitive sins in our lives–envy, lying, lust–we need more than surgery if we want our cancer to go into remission.
Constant radiation from God’s word helps shrink our sin. As James put it, “Whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it–not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it–they will be blessed in what they do” (1:24). Putting ourselves under the beam of God’s presence, through regular time in his world, will transform us into his image (2 Cor 3:18).
And like chemo drugs hitting our blood stream, constant prayer (1 Thess 5:17) makes it difficult for malignant tumors to grow. Jesus knew this as he spent the night before his betrayal praying. His disciples opted to sleep instead. “Get up and pray,” Jesus urged,” so that you will not fall into temptation” (Luke 22:46).
When God writes his prescription for prayer, he gives us two doses–private and communal. He wants us to be fighting sin with both his help and the help of others. “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16, see also 1 John 5:16).
If we want God’s abundance for the longterm and don’t want some straggling cancer cells to grow back, we need to expose ourselves to the radiation of God’s word and take both of his prescriptions for prayer.
4. Attend rehab for sin
Sin often weakens other areas of our life by proxy. When the elderly gentleman returned after having the adenocarcinoma removed, he was frail from anemia and could barely walk from the waiting area to my office. He needed physical therapy to regain his strength and stamina.
Depending on the nature of our sin and how long we’ve let it grow unchecked, our rehab might take moment or months or years. We might need longterm, intensive therapy, like the elderly gentleman who spent weeks in rehab after his surgery. We might need to replant ourselves away from a certain set of friends. We might need to indefinitely remove alcohol or a certain TV show from our lives.
Or, perhaps our sin requires less intensive therapy. We might memorize a couple verses on anger and pray them out loud when we get cut off on traffic. Or we might drive to a coffee shop once a week to meet with a friend for accountability, and give them the permission to ask hard questions, pray specific prayers, and watch us closely for relapse.
God wants to treat the cancer in our lives before it steals more of our abundance. He gives us a treatment plan for sin, but sometimes that plan can feel like a lot of work. Realistically, taking a pill to make the diarrhea go away is just plain easier. But being cancer-free is a whole lot better.