Temptations batter us from every side. No human being gets through this life unscarred by sin. Even with our best efforts, we often relapse into the very sins from which we were rescued. We learn quickly that we can’t save ourselves, make ourselves right with God, or even overcome besetting sins on our own. That’s why we need Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:57; Romans 8:37).
Before we answer the question “how can I avoid a relapse?” we must reconsider the statement that precedes it: “I overcame ______ sin.” If you overcame a sin by your own strength, then that same strength will keep you from a relapse. However, if the power of Jesus delivered you from that sin, then it will be His strength that holds you in victory. Jude 1:24 says, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy . . .” (ESV). Notice it is the power of God that keeps us from stumbling. It is the blood of Jesus that presents us blameless before God. So this would be a more accurate statement: “Jesus gave me victory over ________. How can I avoid a relapse?”
The root of the word relapse is lapse. A lapse is a temporary failure of concentration, memory, or judgment. Using this definition, we “lapse” into sin when we stop being vigilant. We become lazy, distracted, or forgetful of just how bad the consequences of that sin were. When we relapse into an old sin, it is because we have stopped feeding our spirits with the things that will keep us close to Jesus. We have begun to take for granted the gifts of freedom and forgiveness, which is the first move away from them.
Psalm 119:9–11 addresses the issue of relapsing into sin: “How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”
There are several golden keys in this passage that, if heeded, will keep sin strongholds far from us. In order to avoid a relapse into sin previously overcome, we must first have a desire for purity. If we still consider certain sins exciting or classy, our heads may be telling us not to go there, but the pull of our hearts will win. We must be honest with ourselves about our own desires and bring them in line with God’s desires for us (Psalm 37:4). When we begin with a desire for purity, we’ve made the decision to recognize and turn away from fleshly invitations.
Second, to avoid a relapse into sin we must dive into the Word of God and stay there. Psalm 119:10 says, “I seek you with all my heart.” God is not interested in riding to the rescue of a compromised, half-committed Christian who needs to repent (Revelation 2:15–16). Our spiritual connection to the Lord is as vital to our lives as insulin is to a diabetic. Someone with a lung disorder does not fear forgetting his oxygen tank. It has become crucial to his existence. Likewise, when we consider fellowship with God as crucial to our existence, we don’t make excuses for neglecting it. When we seek Him with all our hearts, He is eager to be found (Deuteronomy 4:29; Jeremiah 29:13; 1 Chronicles 22:19). We seek Him by studying His Word. Learning what pleases and displeases God helps us to know God Himself.
Third, to avoid a relapse into sin we must continually ask God to keep us from stumbling (Luke 18:1). His power is available to everyone who calls upon His name through His Son (Psalm 145:18; Romans 10:12). By continuing in a state of surrender and supplication, we keep ourselves in a posture of obedience. Very few sincere saints leave their knees to march toward sin. When we have been in the presence of a holy God, we are able to see sin for what it is: a vile trap that caused Jesus’ suffering (see Isaiah 6:5).
Fourth, to avoid a relapse into sin it is not enough to merely read God’s Word; we must memorize and mediate on it day and night (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1–2). It is when God’s thoughts and words become part of the fabric of our souls that they give us power. Then, when temptation knocks, truth answers the door. The amount of truth that has been read, memorized, meditated, and personalized will often determine the amount of wisdom that responds when the flesh calls. God’s Word is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). It will illuminate life’s questions and give us confidence about God’s answers (Psalm 119:105). For example, if someone has wronged you and lied about you, your flesh wants to tell him off and cut him out of your life. But as you pray and seek God, His words that are hidden in your heart come floating into your spirit: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27–28).
Fifth, to avoid a relapse into sin never give your flesh more credit than it deserves. This is often the biggest mistake we make in staying on the right path. We assume that we are stronger in our flesh than we really are. So we allow ourselves to be caught in compromising situations and then act surprised when our flesh could not resist. Romans 13:14 says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (ESV). We “make provision” when we set ourselves up for failure, with only our weak, sinful flesh between us and the sin. A young couple romantically involved, lying alone in the dark “watching a movie” is making provision for the flesh. A recovering alcoholic going out to the casino with old party friends is making provision for his flesh. A struggling porn addict who keeps that one device away from his accountability partners, assuring himself that he can handle it, is also making provision for his flesh. God has called us out of this world to be citizens of another realm (Philippians 1:27). When we say “no” to what everyone else is saying “yes” to, we are living as trustworthy ambassadors of our Father’s kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:20).
And last, to avoid a relapse into sin it helps to make a list of all that sin has cost you. Such a list may include names of loved ones, educational goals never reached, money wasted, and lasting scars caused by chasing sin. Remember why you desired to overcome that sin. Where had it led that you did not intend to go? Keep the list handy and add to it as God reveals more of what sin cost you and His Son. When feeling weak, re-read the list. Let yourself remember the pain, the despair, and the trap into which you had fallen. Then thank God for each item on the list and the ways He has healed you from the wounds.
God has made us “more than conquerors” through Him who loved us (Romans 8:37). But relapses will occur when we grow cold to God’s Word or choose to walk in the flesh instead of the Spirit. God expects His children to “be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). When we cling tightly to our Good Shepherd, no lion—and no sin—can ever defeat us (John 10:10–11).