We each have our own “favorite sins” that, for some reason, we can’t seem to shake. So when we lose hope and feel like change is impossible, how do we conquer the weaknesses that hold us back?
While I was serving as a missionary in South Carolina, a member shared a secret he had learned after serving 14 years as a bishop: “We all narrow our sins down to the few we enjoy.” This bothered me. Did believing Latter-day Saints truly enjoy certain sins and deliberately repeat them regardless of their consequences? I thought “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10)?
Yet, I have spent most of my life repeating the same sins over and over. Let’s be real—don’t we all? The Bible and the Book of Mormon both proclaim that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) and “all we, like sheep, have gone astray” (Mosiah14:6). And though we don’t all commit every sin, we each have our own “favorite sins” that, for some reason, we cannot seem to shake.
Why? This behavior makes no sense and is spiritually dangerous. It can also lead us to feel like meaningful change is impossible. So how do we stop?
Why can’t we seem to stop repeating the same sins?
Let’s start by understanding why we sin. First, we need to realize that we don’t just “make mistakes”—a common LDS euphemism—and sins are not accidental. From time to time, each of us deliberately acts against the will of God. We sin because we want to. Maybe at first we were curious what something felt or tasted like. Maybe short term pleasure seemed appealing, peer pressure high, and negative consequences non-existent. We knew the act was wrong, but we still chose to do it.
Ironically, that choice reduces our ability to make a different choice the next time. As Nephi observed, when we repeat the same sins, those imperceptible flaxen threads become “strong cords forever” (2 Nephi 26:22). Elder James E. Talmage explained this powerful concept: “Repentance is not always [p]ossible. As the time of repentance is procrastinated, the ability to repent grows weaker; neglect of opportunity in holy things develops inability.” So though at first we sin because we want to, eventually, we repeat the same sins because we literally cannot help ourselves.
This inability to change is the result of a hardened heart. We don’t want the Spirit to keep making us feel uncomfortable, so we stop listening to Him. And eventually, to our detriment, He withdraws.
When repetitive sin hardens our hearts, willpower is not sufficient.
When Gideon’s 32,000 men were already overmatched by 135,000 Midianites, the Lord said Gideon’s army was too large (see Judges 7:1–3). “The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands,” He said, “lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me” (v. 2). So the Lord commanded that Gideon’s army be reduced twice until it consisted of only 300 soldiers. Finally, with the Israelite army less than one percent of its original size, this left only one Israelite for every 400 Midianites.
With such dramatically reduced troops, God ensured that Gideon and his men would trust in Him and not their own “arms of flesh.” Gideon and his men did not save themselves, and they knew it; God had saved them.
Why was God so concerned that Gideon’s men recognize Him as their only effective source of strength? For the same reason He wants us to: God does not need our praise, but He wants us to recognize, for our own sakes, that we cannot spiritually survive without His help. As President Henry B. Eyring put it, we “need strength beyond ourselves to keep the commandments in whatever circumstance life brings to us.” Because no matter how hard we try, our own discipline will never be enough.
Unfortunately, we talk a lot about willpower and obedience as if “trying harder” was the key to personal righteousness. It’s not. Like Ammon, we need to recognize that we are “nothing” because “as to [our] strength [we are] weak” (Alma 26:12). And that’s okay! Even Christ did not make it alone. At times, He withdrew from the multitudes to pray to His Father. And in Gethsemane, as He prayed, an angel came to strengthen Him (see Luke 22:43). Even our sinless Savior needed strength beyond His own and power from our Heavenly Father.
Perhaps willpower alone will suffice when it comes to obeying many commandments. But when we are faced with those sins we repeatedly “enjoy,” personal discipline is not enough. If you could have overcome your habitual, repetitive sins by yourself, you would have done so already. You didn’t, and you couldn’t, because you can’t. Alone, you are just too weak.
God can transform our most severe weaknesses into our greatest strengths.
I once thought that mighty changes of heart only happened to ancient prophets. Yet, Elder Bednar explained, “To have our hearts changed by the Holy Spirit such that ‘we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually’ (Mosiah 5:2), as did King Benjamin’s people, is the covenant responsibility we have accepted.” Each of us has covenanted to receive this change at least once. And when, by this change, we no longer desire to choose evil, our weaknesses will do more than just decrease. They will become powerful tools for good.
With God’s grace, specific weaknesses can become their diametrically opposed strengths. In fact, many—if not all—of the greatest recorded spiritual strengths were once weaknesses.
In the Old Testament, Christianity’s foundation is formed by the words of two prophets: Isaiah and Moses. The Savior declared, “great are the words of Isaiah” (3 Nephi 23:1), and He quoted Isaiah more than any other prophet. From the mouth of Moses came the Law of Moses, including the Ten Commandments. Ironically, both of these men had previously been ashamed of their weaknesses in speech (Exodus 6:30; Exodus 4:10; Isaiah 6:5). Speech was also a humbling weakness for Enoch. Measured by the effect of his words, however, Enoch’s prophetic ability to inspire could be considered unparalleled (see Moses 7:69).
Similar to Isaiah, Moses, and Enoch’s difficulties in speaking, the prophet Moroni was humbled by “the awkwardness of [his] hands” and “weakness” in writing (Ether 12:24, 25). Despite this weakness, the Lord chose Moroni to edit many chapters and the title page of the “most correct of any book on earth.” And the introduction to the Book of Mormon contains only one scripture: Moroni 10:3–5—the most quoted scripture by missionaries and the promise whereby we determine the truth of the Book of Mormon and the restored gospel.
The list goes on. The Apostle Paul, Alma the Younger, and the sons of Mosiah were all powerful missionaries who started out with weak faith. Even the Brother of Jared acquired his strength of faith by first being humbled with a weakness. No matter the apparent simplicity or gravity of the repetitive sins we struggle with, we all can have our weaknesses turned into their opposing strengths.
The Lord grants a mighty change of heart through humility and faith.
Moroni wrote: “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men. My grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27; emphasis added). Thus, scriptures reveal the following two prerequisites to a mighty change of heart: strong humility and firm faith in Christ.
Although we cannot fix our own damaged hearts, the Lord can “take away the stony heart” and replace it with a “heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). And, like any item with a manufacturer’s warranty, hard hearts need to break before they can be replaced. Our divine “factory recall” requires broken-hearted, rock-bottom humility. Like Gideon’s soldiers, we must realize that our strength is insufficient and that we must completely rely upon our Savior’s empowering grace to overcome repetitive sin.
This depth of submission and humility comes easier when we realize that the Lord knows better than we do how we can be happiest and most at peace. Human nature is obsessed with predicting the future. We all want to know where different paths will lead in order to make informed decisions, but we have no clue. Yet—because the past, present, and future are always before the Lord—He knows, which means following the directions of an infinitely loving and all-knowing Father just makes sense.
Strong humility is also more attainable when we recognize that Christ shares our burdens. We do not have to suffer alone. When we submit to the Lord, He can ease, and in some cases remove, our burdens if we humbly ask for His help (Mosiah 24:15).
Firm Faith in Christ
The second prerequisite, firm faith in Christ, is closely related to humility. While humility constitutes recognizing our dependence on the Lord, faith is one step further. Faith is acting upon that reliance. Perhaps because “it is by faith that miracles are wrought” (Moroni 7:37; Ether 12:12), many of us emphasize ways to “earn” faith. We find comfort focusing on what we can quantify and control, which means sometimes while climbing that ladder to heaven, we focus on our own discipline and strong-willed obedience.
To be clear, obedience is important. It is an expression of humble submission—a condition necessary for a mighty change of heart, and the fundamental expression of our love for God (John 14:15; D&C 42:29). But we have to be careful, because focusing on our own strength to obey is spiritually dangerous. Even a well-intentioned focus on obedience can become reliance on the “arm of flesh,” an act of pride, and a precursor to repetitive sin (2 Nephi 4:34). When we focus on our own strength to obey, we either feel overly confident in that ability or depressed over our own inability.
The truth is, we are unable to overcome repetitive sin by relying on our own willpower, our own understanding, or even our own heart. Instead, we must trust unwaveringly in Him.
As Mormon wrote, faith sufficient to precede a change of heart must be “firm” (Helaman 3:35). We need to make a real, true decision. After all, if we don’t really want the Lord to change our hearts and attitude toward temptation, He cannot do so! The Lord will not override His gift of agency.
As a missionary, I had many opportunities to teach a “Stop Smoking” program. Over time, a pattern emerged. I began to see a feature that distinguished those who quit from those who fell back into addiction.
First, everyone who started this program seemed determined to quit smoking. I’ve seen mothers cry and promise their children that they are done filling the trailer with second-hand smoke. I’ve seen fathers tell everyone in their lives to never give them a cigarette if they ask. People bought bags full of hard cinnamon candies, gallons of orange juice, and posted reminder notes around their homes and offices. From an outsider’s perspective, every person who joined this program wanted to change.
All of the steps provided were usually followed, except one. Whenever somebody started smoking again, my companion and I asked them where they got their first cigarette. Inevitably, the answer went something like this: “Just in case, I kept a few cigarettes in my sock drawer.” When you make a true decision—when you “cut off” all other options—you don’t leave cigarettes in your sock drawer.
In other words, if part of you hangs onto the possibility of repeating any sinful behavior, you didn’t decide. The Lord will go above and beyond to help us, but if we don’t exercise our agency to at least firmly decide what we want, He cannot give it to us.
The Lord will strengthen our faith when we honestly desire it.
Unwavering faith—that invariable commitment to follow the Savior instead of our own inclinations—sounds daunting, to say the least. Yet, remember the father who wanted Christ to save his child from an evil spirit that was “cast[ing the boy] into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him” (Mark 9:17–27). Instead of pretending to have sufficient faith, this doubting father “cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark9:24). Regardless of the insufficient level of his faith, his desire was honest and sincere. And on that basis, Jesus immediately cast out the evil spirit (Mark 9:25–27).
As is often the case, our merciful Lord focuses upon our desire, not our supposed ability. Remember, King Benjamin did not say that we must be “able to submit” to the Lord’s divine will; we must be “willing to submit” (Mosiah 3:19). Those who were baptized at the Waters of Mormon covenanted to be “willing to bear one another’s burdens” and “willing to mourn with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:8–9; emphasis added). Our blessing on the sacrament bread (the only one that mentions commandments) similarly asks that we be “willing to . . . keep his commandments.”
After the Savior instituted the sacrament among the Nephites, He again emphasized the desire or willingness to obey, as opposed to achieving perfect obedience. “Blessed are ye for this thing which ye have done, for this is fulfilling my commandments,” He said, “and this doth witness unto the Father that ye are willing to do that which I have commanded you” (3 Nephi 18:10; emphasis added). This focus on our will or desire is fundamental.
When we humble ourselves and have “sincerity of disposition,” we can receive His comfort and enabling strength. Of course, we must repent immediately and often, but this, too, demonstrates our humble heart, our sincere desire, and our true willingness to follow Him.
Ultimately, the key to overcoming your repetitive sins is to want to. You must want it enough to decide that, from now on, you will not rely on your own flawed, mortal reasoning and physical inclinations—that “arm of flesh.” You need to quit relying on your own weak willpower to overcome repetitive sins. You need to definitively—once and for all—want those sins you once enjoyed to not even be tempting. Instead of trusting your own conflicted desires and insufficient strength, you need to repent and learn to humbly seek the Lord’s help in changing your hardened heart so He can give you His enabling power.
The Lord can and will change our desires and our hearts. We are supposed to have Him grant us mighty changes. In the end, the secret to getting on and staying on the path of overcoming repetitive sins is to want it.
So be honest—do you?
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