Cancer! It’s a dreaded word, a word that often invokes a sense of despair and sometimes even hopelessness. For me, cancer was always something that happened in other families. But in 1987, it came to our family when my wife was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I remember my reaction: This can’t be happening to us. But it had, and seventeen months later, my wife died after a debilitating and even humiliating illness.
Another term for cancer is malignancy. Medically, the word malignant describes a tumor of potentially unlimited growth that expands locally into adjoining tissue by invasion and systemically by metastasizing into other areas of the body. Left alone, a malignancy tends to infiltrate and metastasize throughout the entire body and will eventually cause death. No wonder cancer and malignant are such dreaded words.
Sin is a spiritual and moral malignancy. Left unchecked, it can spread throughout our entire inner being and contaminate every area of our lives. Even worse, it often will “metastasize” from us into the lives of other believers around us. None of us lives on a spiritual or social island. Our attitudes, words, and actions, and oftentimes even our private unspoken thoughts, tend to have an effect on those around us.
Paul must have had this concept in mind when he wrote, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). Our speech, whether it is about others or to others, tends to tear down or build up. It either corrupts the minds of our hearers, or it gives grace to them. Such is the power of our words. If I gossip, I both tear down another person and corrupt the mind of my listener. If I complain about the difficult circumstances of my life, I impugn the sovereignty and goodness of God and tempt my listener to do the same. In this way, my sin “metastasizes” into the heart of another person.
Sin, however, is much more than wrong actions, unkind words, or even those evil thoughts that we never express. Sin is a principle or moral force in our heart, our inner being. Our sinful actions, words, and thoughts are simply expressions of the principle of sin residing within us, even in those of us whose hearts have been renewed. The apostle Paul calls this principle the flesh (or sinful nature in some Bible translations). This principle, called the flesh, is such a reality that Paul sometimes personifies it (see, for example, Romans 7:8–11; Galatians 5:17).
Now, here is the unvarnished truth that we need to lay to heart. Even though our hearts have been renewed, even though we have been freed from the absolute dominion of sin, even though God’s Holy Spirit dwells within our bodies, this principle of sin still lurks within us and wages war against our souls. It is the failure to recognize the awful reality of this truth that provides the fertile soil in which our “respectable” or “acceptable” sins grow and flourish.
Jerry Bridges, Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2007), 17–19.
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