Does it really matter if I sin? I know I shouldn’t. But Jesus has already paid for all my sins at the cross. If I trust in Jesus, my good works are not necessary for me to be accepted by God, and my sins can’t condemn me. Christ has set me free from sin and death and the hell I deserve. I know the Bible tells me I should use that freedom to love and serve Jesus, but what damage does it do if – when – I sin?
Does it really matter if I still get angry when I don’t get my way, and lose my temper with my wife sometimes? Does it really matter if I look at porn occasionally? Does it really matter if I spend far too much time thinking about money and financial security, and I don’t give as much to gospel work and the poor as I should? I know I shouldn’t make peace with my sins, but it’s not like I go around killing people or nicking stuff. If my sins aren’t out of control and obviously disgraceful, are they really such a big deal…?
Indwelling sin is a major theme in the Bible, but it tends to be a small theme in our thinking. The Bible teaches about it at length and in-depth because we will not grow mature, stable and joyful unless we understand the danger posed by sin. The most important thing we need if we are to grow as Christians is an ever-deepening relationship with the Lord Jesus, and an ever-richer experience of the forgiveness and hope his death and resurrection bring us. But we also need to understand how lethal sin is.
Think of it this way: imagine there is a beautiful paradise garden, with lush lawns to play on, a river to swim in, tasty fruit bushes to eat from, beautiful flowers to smell and look at, and soaring trees to climb. It is a place of wonder and beauty, and delight. That garden is life in Christ. Next to the garden, there is a forest wetland. It looks as attractive as the garden, but it is filled with poisonous plants and infested with venomous snakes and spiders. It might appear fun to play there, but it’s a place of danger and misery. This forest wetland, a swamp, is sin. If this is the case, then we need to do more than just tell people how wonderful the garden is. We also need to warn them about the dangers of the swamp.
This brings us to Psalm 107, which celebrates God’s rescue of his people from exile. The previous psalm, and Book IV of the Psalms, ended with the cry, “Save us, Lord our God, and gather us from the nations” (Psalm 106:47). Book V begins:
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
2 Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story –
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,
3 those he gathered from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south.
As the psalm continues, it gives us four pictures. These four different perspectives explore how we experience the miserable reality of sin, and the wonder of God’s gracious rescue, prompted by his unfailing love. The psalmist longs that you and I would understand the nature of our sin, so we give thanks to God for rescuing us from it, rather than secretly wish he’d let us keep indulging it.
There are some differences between us and the Israelites described in Psalm 107. (For example, we have been born again by the Holy Spirit as we put our trust in Jesus. They looked forward to those blessings but did not experience them.) However, the nature of sin has not changed. Sin remains for us today just as it is described here: miserable, enslaving, destructive and wrath-deserving.
1. Sin leaves us hungry and homeless (verses 4–9)
4 Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
5 They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
6 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
7 He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle.
8 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
9 for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.
Here are two evocative pictures of the lostness that comes when we pursue sin. First, lost, searching, and yearning for a place that feels like home. A place where I’m known, where I am loved and accepted for who I am. A place where I have a right to be, and a place where I want to stay. Second, thirsty and hungry, desperately longing for something that will satisfy. You can picture the person wandering lost in the desert. Mouth parched and hunger gnawing at their stomach. Eyes searching the horizon for something familiar, for a way back home.
As in each section, hope comes as we cry out to the Lord. Jesus came as living water (John 4:13–14), living bread (John 6:35) and our eternal home (Psalm 90:1; Psalm 62:1–2). Jesus brings us to a city and a feast! When we who know Christ indulge our sin, we are turning from the fountain of living water, and seeking to satisfy the aching thirst our souls have for God by drinking instead from a used toilet.
2. Sin chains us in darkness (verses 10–16)
10 Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness,
prisoners suffering in iron chains,
11 because they rebelled against God’s commands
and despised the plans of the Most High.
12 So he subjected them to bitter labour;
they stumbled, and there was no one to help.
13 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.
14 He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness,
and broke away their chains.
15 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
16 for he breaks down gates of bronze
and cuts through bars of iron.
To do what I want, indulging my sins “free” of God’s control (Romans 6:20), is to be a slave, chained in darkness. We end up enslaved by the very desires we wish God would leave us free to indulge. It’s fascinating that the psalmist links slavery to sin with darkness. Always the slavery of desire leads to darkness, not light and life. The more I give in to my sinful desire, the more I feel the need to avoid the light and hide from others.
But Jesus came to set us free: “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34 and 36). The lived-in reality of our daily failure to resist temptation can make us believe that we are still slaves to our sinful desires. Colson Whitehead’s harrowing slavery novel, The Underground Railroad, has a character named Homer who is a former slave. He is now free but each night he puts shackles around his wrists and neck before he goes to sleep. They feel a part of him. We former slaves of sin do the same thing. We slip the familiar old chains on day after day. We feel like they will always be part of us. But Jesus has broken the bars and brought us into the light! We. Are. Free. We may feel the chains every day as we fail to resist those same temptations, but they are no longer locked, and one day we will leave them behind for good.
3. Sin is foolish self-harm (verses 17–22)
17 Some became fools through their rebellious ways
and suffered affliction because of their iniquities.
18 They loathed all food
and drew near the gates of death.
19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.
20 He sent out his word and healed them;
he rescued them from the grave.
21 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.
22 Let them sacrifice thank offerings
and tell of his works with songs of joy.
We like to think we have grown up out of primitive religion to live by the light of reason. So we congratulate ourselves on our wisdom and maturity as we reject God’s ways. I remember the response of a friend when I mentioned the Bible in relation to sexual ethics: with sneering disbelief he exclaimed, “You can’t live your life today according to the dictates of a 2,000-year-old book!” But we reap the whirlwind of misery when we ignore God’s wise instructions. To ignore God’s laws and live by the light of our own reason is as foolish as it is wicked, and it always leads to real suffering in this life. Sin is always an act of self-harm.
We see this in the porn addiction that rots and rewires our brains, rendering us incapable of relating properly to the opposite sex. The greed that shackles us to a job that makes us utterly miserable and hard-hearted. The drinking that empties our wallets, robs us of our self-control. Sin is self-harm.
How interesting that the psalm says, ‘He sent out his word and healed them.’ It is God’s word that brings healing sanity to our disordered lives. Most New Testament letters have a similar structure: first they explain the good news of Jesus’ free forgiveness in the gospel; then they give instructions of how to live in the light of his grace. Do you realise that those instructions are part of the good news? What a blessing they are as they teach us how to live lives free of the destructive misery of sin!
4. Sin brings the wrathful judgement of God (verses 23–32)
23 Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
24 They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.
26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.
31 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.
32 Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people
and praise him in the council of the elders.
Why is the last of the four sections so much longer than the others? Why is this image given more emphasis than the others? There is something more serious than the harm and misery that sin causes us: the impact of our sins upon God. Sin provokes the rightful, unbearable wrath of God, the holy judge. In the Bible, the raging seas are a picture of God’s judgement. In Genesis 6, God undoes creation in judgement by sending a terrible flood. As the prophet Jonah disobeys God, a terrifying storm comes down on his ship. At the end of the sermon on the mount, Jesus urges us to build our lives upon the rock, so that we can withstand the wind and waves of God’s coming judgement.
So even if pursuing sin has never caused us to feel empty and lost; even if we have never felt enslaved by our sinful desires; even if we don’t feel that we have suffered due to our rejection of God’s wisdom, every one of us still faces what one writer calls the “the wild waves of God’s wrath”; the storm of God’s unbearable judgement.
We should hear in verses 29–30 an echo of Jesus calming storms in Mark 4 and John 6. Soon after he would calm a worse storm, not in a wooden boat but on a wooden cross, as he absorbed the tempest of God’s judgement so there is none left for us to face. No matter what besetting sins you are struggling with, no Christian ever needs fear the wrath of God. However, we should remember that God’s blazing, white-hot fury is still aroused by sin. The Lord Jesus stands between us and judgement, and God’s heart is moved with pity for his guilty children, but the nature of God’s response to sin has not changed. When we toy with sin, we play with something that provokes the wrath and revulsion of our holy God.
5. Blessing and curse/misery flow from us to others (verses 33–43)
33 He turned rivers into a desert,
flowing springs into thirsty ground,
34 and fruitful land into a salt waste,
because of the wickedness of those who lived there.
35 He turned the desert into pools of water
and the parched ground into flowing springs;
36 there he brought the hungry to live,
and they founded a city where they could settle.
37 They sowed fields and planted vineyards
that yielded a fruitful harvest;
38 he blessed them, and their numbers greatly increased,
and he did not let their herds diminish.
39 Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled
by oppression, calamity and sorrow;
40 he who pours contempt on nobles
made them wander in a trackless waste.
41 But he lifted the needy out of their affliction
and increased their families like flocks.
42 The upright see and rejoice,
but all the wicked shut their mouths.
43 Let the one who is wise heed these things
and ponder the loving deeds of the Lord.
The last verses feel like an odd anti-climax. It’s easy to skip them. But they show that the pattern of sin and suffering carries on for God’s people even after we have been rescued. They also teach us that our sins bring curse and suffering to others – even to the land itself. Given my sin damages others, it’s not an exaggeration to say that every sin is an act of hatred against others. I should follow Jesus in loving my neighbour. To sin is to act as if I hate them.
So the question comes to each one of us: which way are you going to live? A source of sin spreading misery to others; or following Jesus, overflowing in blessing to our friends, family and communities?
Stay away from the snake
Sometimes we think of sin as a viper whose fangs have been removed. That’s not right. It’s more accurate to think that in Christ we have the antivenom, which means the bite is no longer fatal. But the venom in its fangs is still toxic and damaging. We should do all we can to stay away from the snake. Let the light of God’s word shine into our lives so we see sin as it truly is: miserable, enslaving, destructive and wrath-deserving.
But don’t finish there. Having seen the lethal reality of sin, look up and see the glorious beauty of our saviour Jesus. The angel told Joseph, “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Praise God that Jesus does more than just save us from the punishment our sins deserve. He also saves us from sin itself!