Winning the War Within
Why is it so hard to be good?
A young man filled out an application for admission to a university. In a space which asks “List your Personal Strengths,” he wrote, “Sometimes I am trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” Where the form said, “List Your Weaknesses,” he wrote: “Sometimes I am untrustworthy, disloyal, unhelpful, unfriendly, discourteous, unkind, disobedient, gloomy, wasteful, cowardly, unclean and irreverent.”
Most of us are not so eager to talk about our dark side. We’d rather show the world our respectable Dr. Jekyll, and do our best to keep our ugly Mr. Hyde hidden. Nobody wants to admit how really hard it is sometimes to be good.
And yet just like Mr. Hyde, that part of us rears its ugly head from time to time. No matter how calm and even-tempered you seem, your ugly anger sneaks out on occasion, maybe at home, showing your dark side. You have a clean-cut reputation for being a good family man, but nobody sees how lust lurks just beneath the surface of your smile. Everybody talks about how sweet and kind you seem, but they’ve not been around when you’ve backstabbed your friends with ugly gossip. Mark Twain was right when he said
Everyone is a moon and has a dark side, which he never shows to anybody.
This is why it’s so hard to be good. Every one of us struggles with our dark side, with our troubling desire to do what’s wrong instead of what’s right. You may think you’re the only person who fights this fight, or you may try to convince yourself you are above this battle. I want to assure you that everybody-everybody fights a war within between what they ought to do, and what they ought not to do---even giants of the faith like the apostle Paul.
In Rom. 7:14-25 Paul openly shares his war within. He doesn’t make excuses for sin, nor does he suggest we just give in and give up. Instead, he shares 3 secrets about how he is winning the war---3 secrets that can help you and I win our own war within.
Since Paul’s never been to the church in Rome, one of the purposes of this letter is to summarize the message he preaches, which is simply the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This letter is one of the most systematic explanations of what it means to be saved from sin found anywhere in the Bible. Paul explains how salvation doesn’t come from obeying the Law, but from believing in Jesus Christ. He goes to explain the difference this salvation makes not only in your eternal destination, but in your everyday life.
Over and over he stresses we are saved only by faith in Christ. But if we’re saved by faith and not works, how can we win this war within? Is there no way for a person to overcome his sinful desires and live to please God? This prompts Paul to share his strategy for slugging it out with sin. He begins by saying
1. I know the right thing to do.
The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do…- General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
Paul would agree. In this war within, the problem is not confusion about what’s right and wrong. Paul makes this clear when he writes
v. 14 For we know that the law [God’s command] is spiritual…
v. 16 …I agree with the law that it is good.
v. 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.
In other words, Paul says I know the right thing to do. How can he be so sure?
Our society says he can’t be sure. Our postmodern mindset tells us nobody really knows for sure what’s right or wrong because there’s no such thing as right and wrong---only what’s right for you, or what’s wrong for me. It’s your opinion vs. mine.
Paul says that’s rubbish! Not only can we know what’s right and wrong—we do know what’s right and wrong. How do we know? Earlier in this same letter Paul wrote in
Ro 1:18-19 18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.
Paul goes on in the next verses to list various sins which people know are wrong because God placed this knowledge of right and wrong within them. His moral law is written in the heart of every human being; people can suppress this knowledge, but they cannot truthfully say they don’t know the right thing to do, because God has shown it to them.
Think it through. If people don’t really know the difference between right and wrong, why do we put criminals in jail? Maybe the poor things don’t really understand killing or stealing is wrong. You can’t blame terrorists for killing innocent people if they really don’t know any better. Paul emphatically declares we know the right thing to do because God has revealed it to us in our hearts.
But there’s another important way we know right from wrong: God has revealed it to us in the Bible. In our hearts we have a general revelation of right and wrong, but in Scripture we have a specific revelation of right and wrong.
Ps 119:11 Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You.
From the 10 Commandments to the Sermon on the Mount, God reveals how we ought to behave, how we ought to think, how we ought to live. I know the right thing to do---if I want to know the right thing to do.
Winning the war within begins by acknowledging that you know the right thing to do. You know you ought to tell the truth and not lie. You know you ought to forgive instead of holding a grudge. You know you ought to control your temper instead of losing it. You don’t win the war within by ignoring the truth God put in your heart, or the truth God reveals in the Bible. You have the power to suppress the truth, but that won’t help you win the war within. You begin to make progress when you remind yourself: I know what I ought to do.
The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.- General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
Paul would agree with the 2nd part of the general’s statement because he goes on to admit
2. Sometimes I can’t seem to do what I know is right.
Have you ever noticed how doing wrong can come so much easier than doing right?
A preacher was bargaining with a young man over a used push mower. “Are you sure it still works well?” asked the preacher. “Oh, yes sir. It’s in good working order.” So the preacher buys the mower, gets it home, and decides to try it out. With the hot sun blazing down, he pulls the rope, but the mower doesn’t start. He pulls it again, a little harder, it sputters, but doesn’t start. He pulls 5 more times, 10 more times, each time sweating a little harder, and getting a little more frustrated. Finally, he pushes the mower all the way back to the young man’s house and says, “Young man, I thought you told me this lawn mower was in perfect running order. “Yes, sir, it is.” “Well I’ve pulled and pulled and can’t get it to turn over.” “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you---you have to cuss at this mower if you want it to start. Sometimes you have to cuss at it a lot.” The preacher straightened up indignantly and said, “Young man, I gave up cussing a long time ago. I’ve forgotten all the cuss words I ever knew.” The young man replied, “Preacher, you just keep pulling that rope, and you’ll be surprised how they’ll all come back to you!”
No man knows how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good.- C. S. Lewis
This is the essence of the war within: I know what I ought to do, but sometimes I just can’t seem to do it. Paul expresses this several times here:
v. 15 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.
V. 18-19 18For 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. 19For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.
v. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
Paul isn’t saying I never do anything good. What he says is I cannot seem to stop doing bad. He isn’t saying all he ever does is sin. What he says is that too often he lacks the power to say no to sin, because there is a law in my members= a power working in me that enslaves me.
Paul isn’t trying to wiggle out of his personal responsibility. He is sharing a genuine struggle of a person who really wants to do right, but keeps doing wrong. These desires are at war within him, and he honestly shares the frustration of dealing with them.
There is some question about whether or not Paul is describing his life before he came to Christ, or after he became a Christian. I think the present tense of the verbs he uses strongly suggest the latter. James clearly tells us even Christians still struggle with sinful desires.
Jas 4:1 Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?
But for the sake of argument, let’s look at the problem from both angles.
Suppose Paul is describing the war within before he believed in Jesus. Then his words describe the dilemma of the human heart perfectly. The world is full of people who know what’s right, but keep doing what’s wrong. They blame it on their genes, or how they were raised, or the fact they don’t have enough money, or a good job, or psychological ailments. I can’t help myself Paul says in one sense, they’re right. He echoes Jesus’ words in
Jn 8:34 …Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.
Neither Jesus nor Paul are promoting the idea that we aren’t responsible for our sins. (Poor sweet baby, you can’t help it!) What they are saying is addressed to those who really try hard to resist sin and end up losing the battle. I believe this includes not only good people who aren’t saved, but saved people who are truly committed to follow Jesus Christ.
Which is why I think the point Paul is making is: you don’t have the power in yourself to successfully win the war within.
Have you ever experienced the frustration Paul describes here? Do you ever try real hard to do right, and end up doing wrong anyway?
You want to be a good person, you really do, but for some reason it doesn’t always happen. It’s almost as if there is some power working in you, urging you and seducing you until you end up saying “no” with your mind, but “yes” with your hands.
This is exactly where Paul is trying to lead us in these verses. He’s trying to take us to the place where we realize that by ourselves, we cannot win the war within. He’s not telling us to give up the fight, to just give free reign to our sinful desires, to do wrong and never worry about it.
He’s trying to lead us to the point where we cry out in frustration the words of vs. 24: O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Who will help me win this war within? The answer comes in vs. 25:
3. I need Jesus Christ to win the war within.
Paul’s only hope for this hopeless situation, his only light at the end of the dark tunnel is
Christ. He cannot win the war within without Christ.
He can know the right thing to do, he can desire to do what’s right, he can choose to do what’s right. In fact he must do all of these things. But even if you do all these things, it’s not enough. He needs the presence and power of Jesus Christ. Why?
Jn 15:5 I am the vine, you are the branches… for without Me you can do nothing.
Php 4:13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
You cannot win the war within without Jesus Christ. What do you need Christ to do?
You need Him to forgive you for your sins. You cannot fight this battle with the heavy guilt of your own sins weighing you down. If you don’t know you are forgiven, then you really aren’t ready to fight the war within. The Bible makes it clear there is one and only one way to find forgiveness for your sins:
Ro 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
Only faith in Jesus Christ can deliver you from condemnation before God, and equip you to win the war within. You need to know Jesus forgives your sin.
You need Christ to give you the power to overcome sin. You can’t break the chains of your sinful habits, by yourself. You can put forth the effort, make the right choice, but without the power of God, you cannot win the war within. It doesn’t happen automatically; it requires effort on your part, and sometimes it takes time to get victory over some of those habits that have been with you for awhile. But you can have victory—if you want it—through the power of
Jud 24 …Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, And to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy,
You cannot win the war within without a fight, but it takes more than a fight. It takes the power of Christ. Do you have His power living in you right now? Do you know for absolute certain that you stand forgiven before God? Do you trust in your own power to change you---or in His power for victory? This makes all the difference between winning and losing the war within.
After a revival meeting, a young man stopped the preacher and asked, “Sir, I heard you speak tonight about living right. Tell me, how can a fellow keep his life straight?”
The preacher pulled a pencil from his pocket and laid it in the palm of his hand. “Can that pencil stand upright?”
“No, of course not” said the young man.
The evangelist grasped the pencil in his hand, and held it in an upright position. “Is it straight now?”
“Of course it is. You’re holding it up straight!”
The minister replied, “Young man, your life is like this pencil, helpless to stay straight unless you are held there by Christ.[i]
The message here is not that you and I should just passively sit by and expect Jesus to do it all. The message is not you cannot live a holy life, so don’t bother trying. The message is you can’t live a holy life without Jesus Christ. You have to make your own choices—He won’t make them for you. You have to fight this fight against sin—He won’t fight it for you. But if you choose to do what’s right, and you make the effort to do what’s right, and you ask Him for the power to do what’s right, He will give it to you and you will begin to win the war within.
Some of you really want to do what’s right; you really want to live to please God, but you’ve been frustrated and discouraged because you keep losing those battles. It’s time for you to get back in this fight to win.
I am not going to promise you a life free from struggle. What I am going to promise you, on the basis of God’s Word, is that today you can begin to experience a turning of the tide in your struggle to do what’s right. I am offering you hope that you don’t have to stay beaten down with guilt and condemnation—you can be forgiven by God’s grace. I am saying you can live a life that pleases the Lord, and experience the blessing and peace that comes from living a holy life. The only question now is: will you believe it?
D. L. Moody once wrote: When I was converted, I made this mistake: I thought the battle was already mine, the victory already won, the crown already in my grasp. I thought the old things had passed away, that all things had become new, and that my old corrupt nature, the old life, was gone. But I found out, after serving Christ for a few months, that conversion was only like enlisting in the army--that there was a battle on hand.[ii]
The Christian life is not a playground—it’s a battleground. But you can win the war within if you will fight in the power of Christ.
If you have never trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord will you step out and do it right now? Will you surrender your life to Him, be forgiven and begin winning the war within?
If you’re a Christian, and you are struggling with a particular sin in your life, will you come right now and ask Christ for the power to win this battle, to overcome sin in your life, to live a life that pleases Him?
Come and let Jesus help you win the war within.
[i] Ted Sutherland
[ii] D. L. Moody, Leadership, Vol. 3, no. 3.