Surviving the trenches: killing sin before sin kills you
The first day of the Battle of the Somme, in 1916, was the worst day in the history of the British Army. It was meant to be the big offensive that would end the vicious stalemate of trench warfare and win the Allies the war. Overnight the British artillery bombarded the German positions, and in the morning the call came to go ‘over the top’. The British Tommies charged through no man’s land only to be mown down by the German machine guns. 60,000 men dead or wounded. In one day.
Yet there is another adversary even deadlier than German machine guns that takes many more millions of casualties every day. I speak of sin. Our war with sin often seems like a fight we’re losing. We must fight back, but not like the disastrous advance that cost so many thousands of lives. Too often Christian men gaily skip into the world more equipped for cream tea on a summer’s day than for spiritual combat. But the reality is that spiritual warfare’s no picnic; it’s a brutal fight to the death. And so sin makes mincemeat of Christian men and they – we – are mown down as on that fateful July day. Small sins, big sins, church members, elders, pastors, celebrities – sin takes no prisoners.
Sin and the Somme
In his new book, Surviving the Trenches: Killing Sin Before Sin Kills You (Christian Focus, 2022), Joe Barnard compares spiritual warfare to that fateful day in 1916. Distilled into 130 pages is an accessible and biblical manual for men (although women can benefit too) embroiled in this spiritual deathmatch. The author pulls no punches, so reading the book is a challenge for those who are comfortable living in their sin. The First World War with all its horrors of chemical and trench warfare was the most brutal conflict the world had ever seen. Comparing the two is apt: there are no easy victories in our fight with sin, it’s a long, hard slog and it often seems like we make so little progress.
Barnard starts by laying down the rules of war, Sun Tzu-style. Ten points to remember about the war we are engaged in. The first is that we need the Holy Spirit living in us, putting sin to death, without whom we can do nothing. He quotes John Owen from that classic little book The Mortification of Sin:
‘A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.’
This quote is one of many that the author draws from the best of three millenia of writings on sin, psychology and society. Due to a weird editorial decision, many of these quotes and some of the juiciest tidbits were to be found in the footnotes, easily missed. So if you read the book (and you totally should!), don’t forget to read the footnotes!
Barnard goes on to talk about the deceptiveness of sin. The lies that we believe which allow sin to walk right over us. This is often indifference or negligence which in any other area of life would be criminal.
‘[You can’t talk about sin in] the relaxed tone of a travel guide or with the emotional detachment of a professor speaking on the mating habits of earthworms. […] No man feels at ease chatting to his doctor about prostrate cancer. […] Sin is a ‘pig that will eat anything before it.’
To get out from these lies he sets out the way of watchfulness, primarily about seeking the presence and help of our Redeemer God, focusing on ‘the prism of the cross’ where ‘the light of holiness is refracted such that perfect justice and perfect mercy are seen to flow from a single heart’. Fighting sin is both a defensive and offensive war, the author quotes Owen again:
‘Fill your affections with the cross of Christ so that there may be no room for sin.’
By the power and enabling of the Holy Spirit, we must hate and kill sin, yes, but also replace sin’s space by loving and practising holiness.
I found ‘How to kill an entrenched passion’ to be the most helpful chapter (one which I will read again!). How to deal with those sins that are so deeply rooted they are part and parcel of our lives? Here we must get away from condemning self-talk to pouring out our heart before the Lord. The author’s analysis game is on point in so many places. Some of his more practical methods may not work for you (e.g. praying St Patrick’s breastplate each day), but I’d advise you take what you can.
The author closes with a word on four common sins wreaking havoc among men today:
- Vanity, the ‘social desire to fit into the empty values and practices of the world’.
- Sloth, not so much laziness as a dangerous numbing weakness that dampens a man’s communion with God.
- Lust. His advice here is particularly helpful, suggesting that ‘to be pure, men must change not only what they look at, but how they see’.
- Pride, what he calls the ‘big daddy of sins’.
My only real criticism is that Barnard recommends so many books that I’ve had to exercise great self-restraint to avoid buying them all!
This book is a call to arms for men to walk together along the straight and narrow path in the fear of the Lord. Sin is our ever-present companion, yes, but there is One even more constant, One who has paid the penalty of our sin and defeated its power. Sin’s a defeated foe; Jesus Christ’s the victor. And in Him, victory will be ours too. But until we reach the celestial city, we must not lose heart or lower our guard. As God warned Cain, ‘if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it’ (Genesis 4:7b). We all know what happened next… Let this be a warning to us all.