Joshua 7 recounts the story of how the Lord’s anger burned against Israel because of Achan’s sin (Josh 7:1). Achan took for himself some of the treasures of Jericho, which the Lord had expressly forbid his people from doing, demanding rather that all of it be wholly devoted to him (Josh 6:17-19).
After the Lord spotlighted Achan’s transgression as the reason for his anger toward the camp of Israel, Joshua demanded a confession (Josh 7:16-19). Achan’s response provides an amazingly perceptive description of the progression of sin:
“And Achan answered Joshua, ‘Truly I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath’” (Josh 7:20-21).
I saw, I coveted, I took, I hid. That’s the exact same progression we find in the Garden of Eden, in humanity’s first sin (see Gen 3:6-8). This four-stage progression is common to much of our sin as well.
The first stage, “I saw,” is the external temptation. That’s when circumstances outside of you present an opportunity to sin. The second stage, “I coveted,” is the internal temptation. An evil desire is at work in your heart. You want to sin. The third stage, “I took,” is doing the deed, or saying the word, or indulging in the thought of bitterness or lust or greed. And then if we aren’t walking in the light (that is, if we don’t respond to sin like a Christian should), then we complete the progression and enter stage four, “I hide.” We cover up.
I want to suggest that we almost certainly will lose our battle against sin if we focus on fighting it mostly — or perhaps even only — at that third stage, just worried about doing the deed or not.
The real battle against sin is won by fighting at the other stages: 1, 2, and 4.
Fighting Sin at Stage 1: “I Saw”
Jesus taught us to ask God, “Lead us not in temptation” (Matt 6:13). In this request we implicitly acknowledge our sinfully weak resolve to obey. We pray, “Lord, please direct my path away from as many external, circumstantial temptations to sin as possible.”
Along the same lines, we are commanded to “Put on the Lord Jesus, and make no provision for the flesh” (Rom 13:14). We are to strive, as far as we’re able, not even to let ourselves reach the first stage of sin’s progression: “I saw.” In this verse we’re commanded to plan our lives in a way that minimizes the opportunities we have to act on sinful desires that may arise in our heart. We should be intentional to try and do nothing that might fan the flame of our sinful desires.
Counselors often call the pursuit of holiness that occurs on this first stage “taking radical measures.” It’s the hand-cutting and eye-gouging part of Jesus’s life-giving teaching (Matt 5:29-30; Jn 6:63, 69, 10:10, 17:3).
Fighting Sin at Stage 2: “I Coveted”
Achan’s confession, “I coveted,” could alternatively be translated, “I desired.” Before Achan took the devoted things, he desired to take them. The translation “I coveted” helps to highlight that the desire to take the devoted things, in and of itself, was sin. The Lord commanded, “You shall not covet” (Ex 20:17; Rom 13:9). Achan’s story, then, illustrates a very important but oft-neglected truth: All desire for sin is itself sin. That’s how deep the tenth commandment reaches.
Listen to how the Heidelberg Catechism puts it:
What does the tenth commandment require?
That not even the slightest desire or thought contrary to any of God’s commandments should ever arise in our heart. Rather, with all our heart we should always hate all sin and delight/take pleasure in all righteousness.
The tenth commandment slays all of us, no matter how much growth in holiness we’ve already achieved in this life by God’s grace.
Whenever we, who are still sinners, “feel” tempted, we have almost certainly already reached the place where we have sinned and need to repent. We feel tempted because part of us desires whatever sin we’re contemplating. The circumstantial opportunity (“I saw”) is not sin. But it is sin when part of your heart likes the thought of taking that opportunity to sin. James 1 puts it plainly: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jas 1:14).
Our war against sin should not just be against “doing” such and such sin. It should focus even on our wanting to do such and such sin. We will make great headway in our fight for holiness when we learn that we need to repent not merely after we’ve looked at woman with lust; we need to repent the moment we desire to do so. We need to repent not merely after we’ve been harsh with our kids; we need to repent the moment we desire to do so. We don’t need to repent after we’ve lied or hedged the truth; we need to repent the moment we feel inclined to do so. We don’t need to repent merely after we’ve cut ourselves or engaged in some other kind of self-harm; we need to repent the very moment that idea comes to us and seems like a somewhat attractive option. Growth in holiness will come when we realize that God wants to free us not just from committing sin, but from desiring sin in the first place (because, once again, that is sin).
If we don’t repent of our sin of covetousness and evil desire, we’re headed down a very slippery, very steep slope toward the third stage in the progression, “I took;” “I did it;” “I said it;” “I indulged the thought.”
Fighting Sin at Stage 4: “I Hid”
Finally, breaking the power of sin will require that we fight against it, by his grace, at stage 4. When we sin, we have two options: confess or conceal. Bring it to the light, or bury it in darkness. If we commit ourselves to hiding our sin, we put it in a petri dish where it will multiply into more sin. Of course, many times the very reason someone hides sin is because they want to cling to it and leave the door open to doing it again. In many other cases, the desire to hide sin is simply a strategy to nurse an even more fundamental sin of ours: pride (Job 31:33-34).
If you characteristically respond to sin by hiding it, God’s Word would tell you that you’re missing one of the hallmarks of what it looks like to be born again (1 Jn 1:5-10). And if you are a believer, hiding sin will make you miserable. The new birth of the Holy Spirit makes one allergic to hiding sin. It won’t sit well in a born-again person’s stomach. It will have to come up and come out in confession to God and/or to others. David expressed this powerfully in Psalm 32:
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Ps 32:3-5)
David found that when he humbled himself and confessed his sin, he could walk in the joy of God’s mercy (Ps 32:1-2, 5). The same is promised to all of us (1 Jn 1:9-2:2). Putting off concealment and putting on confession is a necessary part of forsaking sin, and it is a means by which we take hold of (cf. 1 Tim 6:12) God’s forgiving and empowering mercy:
Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.
If we want to avoid following after Achan in his sinful “taking,” we must be on guard against imitating his “seeing,” “coveting,” and “hiding” as well.
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