The Bible teaches us about sin mainly through stories, and its most complete story of sin involves a national leader. That biblical sin began as a moment of simple, everyday lust. It ended in adultery and murder, and cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers. And the villain was arguably the greatest leader in the history of Israel: King David.

The Bible records the sin in all its seamy details, and from it we can learn a lesson about the complete cycle of sin. I have identified five stages in this cycle that we must move through on the way toward spiritual health. We can easily bog down in any one of the stages; the point is to keep moving forward.

Sin. It is common to view individual sins as nuisances that, like parking tickets, will cause problems only if you accumulate too many. A few niggling little sins may not matter, but eventually you will reach a crisis point and have to face the consequences. The Bible, however, has a far different perspective on sin, as King David’s story demonstrates. The Bible views sins more as cancer cells. One or two here and there do make a difference—often the difference between life and death. Cancer cells grow, multiply, and take over, and they may ultimately require major surgery.

You can read David’s story (2 Sam. 11–20) as an account of the spread of a moral cancer. After the lust for Bathsheba came the adultery and the cover-up lies, and then Uriah’s murder. But the effect of sin did not stop there. As a result of the whole sordid process, David seemed to lose his grip on his family. One son raped his half-sister. Another committed a murder of revenge. Eventually that same son launched an armed revolt against David and nearly brought down the kingdom.

The same pattern can appear in my life or your life: Sin, no matter how insignificant on the surface, can lead to terrible consequences. That is why the Bible takes each individual sin so seriously.

Guilt. False guilt occurs when a person punishes himself or herself for not measuring up to somebody else’s standards: a parent’s standards, perhaps, or the church’s, or society’s. True guilt occurs when a person does not measure up to God’s standards.

There is a healthy place for true guilt. It follows sin as naturally as pain follows injury. When we feel a twinge of conscience, we should first ask whether we have done something deserving true guilt. In other words, have we committed sin? If the answer is yes—as it was in David’s case—then we dare not avoid or repress that guilt. Guilt is not a “state” to cultivate, like a mood you slip into for a few days. It is directional, first pointing backward to the sin, and then pointing to the next stage.

Repentance. After his sin, David recorded his thoughts and emotions during the act of repentance, a record that has come down to us as a permanent legacy in Psalm 51. Although a public psalm, prayed by the people of Israel, it confesses a horrible private sin committed by the king.

To David, restoring a right relationship with God was far more important than maintaining his reputation as a ruler. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,” he prayed, even though his sin had affected many people. He understood that the object of repentance was to bridge the gulf between the sinner and God.

Punishment. It would be unfair to hold up David’s story as a model of the sin cycle without mentioning the aspect of punishment. He, the anointed ruler of God’s people, had failed God miserably, and deserved punishment. The prophet Nathan announced that calamity would come out of David’s own household, and 2 Samuel chronicles exactly how that calamity worked itself out—through the normal process of sin eating away inside the royal household.

The Bible records some instances of God’s direct intervention in punishment. But more often the punishment flows naturally as a result of the sin. Get drunk enough and your liver will bear the punishment. Live a life of debauchery, and you may end up with venereal disease. Tell lies, and you’ll find yourself isolated and untrusted. If you flout God’s rules, you risk bringing down punishment on yourself, whether it takes the form of physical harm, fractured relationships, or a spiritual void.

Forgiveness. After his sin, David followed the cycle of guilt, repentance, punishment, and forgiveness in textbook fashion. “A man after God’s own heart,” he was called, though he had committed adultery and murder. His life defines the boundaries of forgiveness.

None of us can avoid sinning. But when we do sin, we face choices on how to respond. We can yield to the temptation and sin for all we’re worth, risking our self-destruction in the process. We can wallow in remorse and live under a constant cloud of guilt. Or we can advance from guilt to repentance and then forgiveness, and take God at his word.

“This is how we shall know that we are children of the truth and can reassure ourselves in the sight of God, even if our own consience makes us feel guilty. For God is greater than our conscience, and he knows everything. And if, dear friends of mine, our conscience no longer accuses us, we may have the utmost confidence in God’s presence” (1 John 3:19–22, Phillips).

By Philip Yancey.

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