The Church

Understanding the “Sin Complex”

Jemar Tisby

When most people think of sin, they picture an individual thought, word, or action that is contrary to God’s word. This is a true definition, but it doesn’t go far enough. Sin is more than the particular behaviors that do not line up with God’s will. Those behaviors are really just the visible expression of a deeper problem.

How can a person stop sinning? First, accept the fact that no one will never be completely sin-free in this life. No one will be morally perfect until death or Christ’s return. But the questions remain, “How can I sin as little as possible?” and “How can I stop committing the same sins time and again?”

The “Sin Complex”

Part of the problem in the war against sin is that we don’t know our enemy.  There’s, “The Enemy”, Satan, but there’s also the enemy within. Our own hearts rage against the Holy Spirit’s work in us. Even though Christ has claimed us for His own and will never let us go John 17:12, we still wrestle against the flesh Galatians 5:17. We have to comprehend the depth of sin in order to combat it effectively.

In his book, Dynamics of Spiritual Life; An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, Richard Lovelace gives insight into the complexity of sin. He says,

“But the structure of sin in the human personality is something far more complicated than the isolated acts and thoughts of deliberate disobedience commonly designated by the word. In its biblical definition, sin cannot be limited to isolated instances or patterns of wrongdoing; it is something much more akin to the psychological term complex: an organic network of compulsive attitudes, beliefs and behaviors deeply rooted in our alienation from God.”

Lovelace likens sin to having a “complex.” While the psychological jargon is a bit dated, the notion still has merit. A “complex” describes more than an isolated behavior. It refers to an entire mindset. To have a complex means a person has a disposition toward certain patterns. A complex is an inclination to perform particular actions and avoid others. The “sin complex” is an attitude or disposition that inclines the heart toward self and against God.

The sin complex gives a deeper understanding of sin than one that focuses on specific actions. These actions—whether sexual immorality, greed, gluttony, or any other—provide necessary information and need to be addressed. But the fundamental problem of sin is not our discrete acts of disobedience. It is our entire stance toward God.

The Sin Complex and Worship

At its root the sin complex is about worship.  As descendants of Adam, we are fundamentally inclined to worship the creature rather than the Creator Romans 1:25. The “creature” may be ourselves, a spouse, children, work, achievement, money, sex, or any other created thing. The point is that worship is only properly given to God, but we give our worship to anything other than God. The false gods are called idols, and our hearts love them.

So how can knowing that we don’t just sin but we have a sin complex help us in our daily battle for holiness? I think it makes us recognize that individual sins are heinous and harmful but they are, at most, barometers of what’s really going on in our herts.

Embezzling money is a particular act of sin that must be addressed, punished, and discontinued. But what’s at the heart of the theft? What is a person who embezzles really looking for? It’s not just money. Maybe that person is looking for a sense of worth and he believes that having lots of stuff—bought with the stolen money—will give it. Perhaps the person lacks a sense of God-given mission and so he’s looking for a thrill and challenge in life. It could have any number of causes, but the individual sin stems from an entire disposition away from God and toward created things. So the question is, “What am I looking for in this created thing that only God can give?”

The Sin Complex and Christ

I have not yet mentioned Christ and the Holy Spirit. Although we are in a daily fight against sin, the war has already been won.  Christ is victorious. He has freed us from the penalty of sin (justification) and the power of sin (sanctification), and one day He will free us from the presence of sin (glorification). But while we remain on this side of heaven, we will have to struggle. And yet we struggle not in our own power, but in the power of Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s victory over sin, Satan, and death is already ours. We both strive and rest. We struggle against the flesh while abiding in Christ’s definitive triumph over it.

Do not be dismayed when you seem to be losing the battle against sin. It happens to every Christian, even great biblical models like the Apostle Paul Romans 7:18–19. Understand that through each small victory and simply by persevering as a Christian, Christ the Lord is turning your heart away from idols and toward Himself. The Holy Spirit Himself is destroying the sin complex in us.

Although the progress may be imperceptible at times, in faith we believe that we are becoming more like our Savior each day. As John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” 1 John 3:2. That is our blessing. That is our promise. We will be like Jesus—perfect, holy, joyful, peaceful, and restful.

3 thoughts on “Understanding the “Sin Complex”

  1. John Richards

    Good catch. It should be fixed now. Sorry you had to pull a Soul Train and try to put it all together. 😉

  2. Art

    Forgot to add my positive feedback, great article. The perfect, sinless, and righteous life of Jesus and His due reward imputed to us by faith is our only hope.

  3. Art

    I am trying to make sense of this sentence from the article, but I am having trouble reordering the words (like the Soul Train puzzle) to make it work. Please let me know if it is just me…….

    So the question is, “What I am a looking for in this created thing that only God can give?”

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