How Do You Help Students Fight Their Sin?

Posted on Posted in Blogathons, Spiritual Formation

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you…” – 1 Corinthians 15:1

How do you help college students fight their sin?

As a Christian campus minister, this is a question I have often asked as I’ve seen the deep struggles that students have shared with me. Many feel helpless and discouraged as they fail often with porn, food, cutting, drinking, depression, drugs, anger, and workaholism. Students are frustrated and broken over their repeated failures after months or even years of trying to grow, and they are looking for help and hope. Some become cynical and jaded, wondering if God really knows or cares. Some feel isolated, as if they are the only ones struggling in this way. Others  sense that God is so displeased with them that they can never recover His favor, and think that they should just throw in the towel.

When a student comes to you confessing a struggle, what is your first response? What about when they come to you the second time? What about the 30th time in a semester? How do we usually respond to a struggle with a besetting sin?

I’m ashamed to say that often I respond with frustration. It usually comes out by emphasizing the law of God “Let’s look together at Proverbs 7…” and giving them a proverbial slap on the wrist. Most of the time I respond with recommendations of tactics and better discipline, like sharing with them a new strategy that I just read in a book. Or I challenge them to get accountable with a close brother or sister. Maybe they should pray more, or commit to a regular Bible study. Ya know what, maybe they should just harder! What do you usually do?

Brothers and sisters, we have something better to offer our struggling students! The Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps this sounds trite? Maybe some roll their eyes, and think this is elementary, even regressive. Shouldn’t Christian students already know this? Yes they should, but they need to be reminded. They need YOU to remind them of the gospel! Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you…” We need to be reminded of the gospel, even if we already know it.

Remind them of their forgiveness, that in Christ ALL their sins have been paid at the Cross (Colossians 2:13). Remind them that God doesn’t love them on the basis of their work (Romans 4:5), but on Christ’s work, so they can rest secure in grace no matter their performance. Remind them that they are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and this sin no longer defines who they are. Remind them that they are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6:6) but have been set free in Christ. Remind them that they no longer have shame from the sins done by them or against them, because Christ has cleansed their shame (1 John 1:7). Remind them of the gospel!

What does this practically look like? Consider three applications:

  • Remind them of the gospel before they sin: Make it a constant practice to remind students of Jesus, of what He has done, their new identity in Christ, and the resources that God has given to them in the gospel. Shoot them a text of 2 Corinthians 5:17 sometime during the day, reminding them that they are a new creation in Christ! Or consider teaching through a series in your large group meetings about the blessings of the gospel. Start up an in-depth Bible study through the book of Romans. Point them to Jesus as the answer, not themselves. What would this look like in your ministry context.
  • Remind them of the gospel after they sin: Make it your first response, when a student shares of a recent failure, to remind them of the gospel. Over coffee, over text, over the phone… may the FIRST thing out of your mouth be a word of GRACE, not condemnation or shaming or moral tid-bits. Keep encouraging them in the gospel until you SEE that they are encouraged. When someone is happy in Christ, they WILL fight their sin, out of love and gratitude for their Savior. Practically, memorize a few good gospel passages that you can share with students, like Galatians 2:17-21, or Titus 3:4-7, or the simple but powerful promise in Romans 8:1. What would it look like to incorporate this into your conversations this week?

  • Remind YOURSELF of the gospel: Brothers and sisters, you will fail. You’ll forget the gospel and revert to moralism, slapping them on the wrist, and leaving them even MORE discouraged after coffee with you. That’s hard. But remember the gospel. YOU are not their Savior, and YOU are not the Holy Spirit. Remember that the work of the kingdom is accomplished by God through flawed vessels. It’s not all riding on you! God will redeem your failures, and HE will use you to advance His kingdom DESPITE your failures and weaknesses. So remember the gospel! And then work hard in the freedom that you have in Christ. Practically, is there a recent ministry failure that has you feeling down? Cheer up, Christian! How can you remind yourself of the gospel?

 

May God grow in us a deeper and richer love for the Cross of Jesus, and may we hold it out as our hope and salvation to struggling college students – not just for the first time they repent, but for every step of repentance along the way, until we reach glory.

[ BACK-TO-SCHOOL HOMEPAGE ]

 

  • Thanks, Andy! KEY reminder!

    Especially resonated with this quote: “When someone is happy in Christ, they WILL fight their sin, out of love and gratitude for their Savior.” In fact, I’ll be quoting you in a future installment of Inspiration For Saving Sex (https://twitter.com/search?q=%23InspirationForSavingSex&src=typd).

    • Andy Cimbala

      Thanks Michael! Glad you were encouraged by it.

  • Anonymous

    Why did you think it is appropriate to list cutting and depression alongside porn, drugs, alcohol, etc.? I work in the mental health field, and I find it extremely disrespectful that you’ve chosen to refer to mental illness as “sin”. Clearly you are unfamiliar with the epidemiology of these illnesses. This is no different than saying that “having cancer” is a sin. Those individuals inflicted with these conditions are merely the victims of their own genetics, a developmental influence which one has no control over. The struggles associated with these illnesses have absolutely nothing to do with how much faith you have in God. Shame on you for suggesting something so uneducated and discriminatory.

    • Andy Cimbala

      Anonymous, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It sounds like you’re concerned that I am condemning those who struggle with cutting or depression, heaping on MORE guilt and shame, and foolishly advising them to “just trust in Jesus more” to overcome these. Am I hearing you correctly?

      I agree that this is cause for concern! Certainly the wrong response towards hurting people is to hurt them further. We should instead be offering them hope, comfort, and whatever resources we can bring to bear to aid them in their suffering. This is why I am advocating that the gospel should be what we encourage hurting people with, NOT moralism and self-help. Nothing is more frustrating to a hurting person than pat answers, quick fixes, and a squinty-eyed “well maybe you’re just not trying hard enough”. Not only does the Gospel of Jesus Christ address our sin issues, but it also brings deep comfort to our suffering, demonstrating through the Cross that our Savior knows pain personally, and there can be meaning and purpose even amidst seemingly meaningless suffering.

      If I’m understanding you correctly, it also sounds like you believe cutting and depression are completely rooted in genetic causes. (We could even extend this illness-motif to the other three mentioned issues of porn, drugs, and alcohol; some consider these three to be caused by genetics or at least to be addressed from an illness paradigm rather than a behavioral deviancy.) This is a view held by some, but there are disagreements over this question of causal factors, and other views can be considered. Mental illness is one of the most complex problems humans experience, but I don’t think it needs to be reduced to a single cause, particularly a genetic one. Various factors (chemical, social, genetic, emotional, and spiritual) can play into the complex issue of depression and cutting.

      Perhaps on this point we disagree, and that’s okay. But if you would like to learn more about this other perspective, I would recommend a resource on cutting and self-injury from Ed Welch through CCEF : http://amzn.com/0875526977 and for the multiple factors that can play into depression, I would suggest looking at Christians Get Depressed Too: http://amzn.com/1601781008

      I hope this is helpful in offering you a different perspective to consider!

      • Anonymous

        You are correct in pointing out that, of course, there is a social component that contributes to mental illness, just as there is a social component related to the development of cancer. However, as demonstrated through clinical trials and fMRI research throughout the past several decades, there are significant differences in neural correlates and neurotransmitter levels between healthy controls and depressed (or self-harming) patients. Faith in God cannot undo what your body has physiologically chosen for you.

        It is dangerous to suggest that the key to recovery is religion. While I will not argue that faith in a higher being can contribute to health, that is absolutely no substitute for medical treatment, and suggesting so is out of line.

        Mental illness is not a sin; it is not something people choose. People do not choose to contract the flu; people do not choose to develop Parkinson’s disease; people do not choose to suffer from depression. Porn, alcohol, and drugs are paraphernalia that can be abused and are deemed by some to be sinful. Depression and self-harming behavior are not objects to be consumed; mental illness is not a tool to increase personal pleasure.

        If you are in a position to counsel college students suffering from depression, self-harming behavior, or other mental illnesses, I can only hope you put their well-being before your religious beliefs and refer them to a mental health specialist. If you are unable to distinguish between religious belief and medical necessity, then I truly feel sorry for you.

        • Andy Cimbala

          Thanks Anonymous, I really do agree largely with what you’re saying. For students that are suffering from depression, self-harming behavior, or other mental illnesses I would advise them to seek help from a mental health specialist. I appreciate your thoughts!