Imagine a man who has no feeling in his feet. Unbeknownst to the man, chunks of broken glass litter the floor of his house. This man without feeling in his feet continually walks on the floor barefoot, and it lacerates his feet quite fiercely. Now imagine that this man, when he notices that his feet are bloodied, wonders not what bloodied them, but becomes frustrated with his feet for bleeding. He knows his feet are not supposed to bleed, so he binds them up, imagining the problem to be solved. Of course, they will inevitably be cut and bleed again until he figures out the root problem and either moves houses or vacuums.

How foolish we think this man to be. Yet, in our efforts at sanctification, we are often this man. We’re continually leaking sin from our heart but without proper self-knowledge we continue to bind the outward wounds with willpower and spiritual disciplines, hoping that the wounds won’t open again or pour out from a different place. And, much like the man’s feet, our hearts are numb to the true cause of the bleeding.

From our heart flows our sinful behavior, yet we tend to focus on controlling the outward manifestations of the behavior rather than fixing the source.

When we see negative patterns in our lives — strings of broken relationships, worries and disengagement, even annoying traits that sidetrack us from loving God and loving others — too often our focus remains on those negative patterns and our frustrations with them. We might even berate ourselves for our behavior but not do the hard work of identifying its root. Even if we quit the behavior somehow, it morphs and shows up somewhere else. Through white-knuckled willpower, we stop overeating but then we start and can’t stop smoking cigarettes. This is why AA members are strongly encouraged to avoid romantic relationships too early in sobriety: the addiction might just transfer to the other person. That’s a very true spiritual principle as well.

If we’re not careful, Christian sanctification can look more like a game of moral Whack-A-Mole than a deep work of the Spirit. We wonder why the stupid rodents keep popping up in different holes after we’ve dealt them what we thought were death blows, but the problem isn’t the moles; the problem is that the machine is still plugged in. The key is to unplug it.

Why are you overeating? Why are you looking at porn? Why do you struggle to make conversation without saying bad things about people behind their backs? Why can’t you stop being negative? Maybe there’s some pain, emptiness, or fear you’ve not dealt with. Sure, the link might not be obvious, but don’t discount this idea too quickly. Maybe there really is something below the surface.

At some point, we have to stop simply modifying our behavior and get at the root of some things in our hearts. Often our sanctification mops up the puddle on the floor but fails to plug the leaky pipe. The good news is that the Holy Spirit will plug the pipe if we will let Him.

Next time you fail in whatever ongoing sin or struggle you have, don’t just deal with the surface; don’t just confess and run away. Ask God to show you what’s really going on down deep. Is this scary and hard? Sure. It’s tough to find out that we’re not as good as we think we are. But God loves us for who we actually are, not who we pretend to be. That’s good because we don’t even know the full extent of our badness.

So stop yelling at your bleeding foot. Start picking up the glass.

Like what you’re reading?

Each Thursday we send out our Training Resources Newsletter, which shares a new ministry tool and an encouraging story about God’s Spirit preparing someone for service.

Danny Nathan grew up at Grace participating in the music and worship ministry. He’s currently a worship leader at Grace, ushering people into God’s presence through song in a variety of venues, including our Sunday worship services and Grace Students gatherings. Danny is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a degree in English. In June 2016, Danny married his high school sweetheart, Alli.

For more reading on this topic, see Larry Crabb’s book Inside Out.