This past Tuesday, Major League Baseball held its annual Midsummer Classic, the All Star Game. I am a big baseball fan and I love watching the ASG. This year the game was played in San Diego, so there was understandably a lot of celebrating the life of Tony Gwynn, often called Mr. Padre. Gwynn played his entire career with the Padres and then, after retirement, was the baseball coach at San Diego State University, his alma mater. He was a (relatively) local guy (born in LA) who became a hero for the local team. Gwynn was well-liked, a fierce but clean competitor who worked hard and gave his best. He was a 15-time All Star and an eight-time batting champion, ending his career with a lifetime average of .338 and 3,141 hits. Perhaps most amazing of all–he never struck out more than forty times in a season over his twenty-year career. By all accounts he was also a devoted family man. He was a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame, receiving over 97% of the vote. When he was inducted in 2007 I was in the crowd–because he went in with my favorite player, Cal Ripken, Jr. Both Gwynn and Ripken had clean images, clean careers and played their entire careers for their local team. Derek Jeter may well become the last player to be join the HOF having played his entire career with one team when he is inducted, but I can just about guarantee that there will never again be two players inducted in the same year who played their entire careers for one team.
I wanted to give Gwynn his just due, but this is not really about Gwynn ultimately. Instead it is about the example that Gwynn sadly left–an an example that was clearly described in a USA TODAY article in the July 11, 2016 issue. In it, Gwynn’s 2014 death from salivary gland cancer is described. His daughter Anisha is quoted in the article saying, “We tried so hard over the years to get him to quit [using chewing tobacco].” Their efforts were in vain, however. According to the article,Gwynn’s last days were unpleasant to say the least:
Gwynn had growths removed from his cheek in 2001 and 2007 and was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. He had surgery, only for the cancer to return two years later. Again in 2013, the cycle of tumors, surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments started anew. Then came the seizures. Ultimately, Tony Gwynn Jr. said, there was an inoperable brain tumor.
Gwynn was in and out of the hospital for the last two months…the right side of his face paralyzed, his right eye taped shut at night so he could sleep and a walker required for him to leave the house….
Still, the article also states this: “Gwynn refused to listen, still dipping after all the tumors, seizures and radiation treatments, up until the day he died.”
As someone who has never smoked or used tobacco in any way that was hard for me to imagine when I read it. Then. though, I began to think about how I am the same way–as are so many of us. We have a natural tendency to keep doing those things we like even when we know we should not. That is really what sin is, after all–behavior from which we, for whatever reason, derive happiness, contentment, pleasure or satisfaction.By definition sin is coming short of God’s perfect standard of holiness and righteousness. Sin is missing the mark. We sin, though, because we want to. Sin is a choice we make, and it stems from pride, from wanting to do things our own way even when we know we should not. The first sin was committed when Satan tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit by telling her that it would make her like God. That was a lie, of course, but Eve thought yielding to the temptation would result in pleasure or satisfaction that would not come by obeying God’s command. And that, whether we like it or not, is why we all sin today.
Thanks to the sin of Adam and Eve we are all born with a sin nature, and when we behave in the natural we do things our own way–read, not God’s way. Everyone one of us is guilty of sin; the Bible makes that explicitly clear. Thankfully, God loves humankind enough that He sent His Son Jesus to pay the just penalty for our sin, and that forgiveness is available to all who accept His sacrifice in their place. Then, sin is forgiven and bondage to sin is severed. Some people like their sin too much, though; they do not want to repent of their sin and give it up because they think that the benefits of the sin are worth it–the pleasure and satisfaction sin provides outweighs the consequences they think. Or maybe they simply deny that the consequences of sin exist, though I assure you they do. God told Adam that if he and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit they would die and they did. They died spiritually immediately and physically eventually–and death entered the world.
Still, some–sorry, all–who accept Christ continue to sin. The frequency and severity of that sin should diminish over time but it will never go away completely. Even the apostle Paul described, in Romans 7, that he continued to do those things he did not want to do and did not do those things that he did want to do. I did not know Tony Gwynn, but I suspect it would be true that he wanted to stop chewing tobacco in a rational, detached way but he could not do it because he was hooked. Like a fish jerked from the water by a hook implanted firmly in its cheek, Gwynn was hooked on tobacco. Whether it was the flavor of it, the feeling it provided or just the act of doing it, Gwynn could not stop. In an of ourselves, none of us can. Sometimes, even when we know in a rational, detached manner that we should, we keep doing it anyway.
So what do we do about this persistent sin?
In a 2008 column in Christianity Today Kevin Miller wrote that God can still work through our “unconquerable imperfections.” Pondered Miller, “Could it be that our frustratingly persistent sins, which abound, lead us to a greater awareness of God’s grace, which so much more abounds?” Sure, that could be. However, Paul also made it abundantly clear (in Romans 6) that we are not to continue sinning in order to produce more of God’s grace. The fact that God will forgive our sins is not permission to keep committing them.
Miller also suggested that persistent sin can produce humility. “So when struggling with persistent sin, take heart. God is at work, and even your persistent failings may work to your good and his glory. Let yourself be humbled by your falls.” That, too, is true; when we keep doing those things we do not want to do we should be humbled by it, frustrated by it and grieved by it. “Wretched man that I am!” Paul laments in Romans 7:24.
This past May Gavin Ortlund wrote, on the Desiring God web site, the following:
Many Christians struggle with “nagging sins” — those entrenched, persistent, difficult-to-dislodge sins that continually entangle us in our efforts to follow Christ. Sometimes we struggle for decades, with bouts of backsliding and despair recurring. Most godly Christians, who have made true progress in their pursuit of holiness, can sing with feeling “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” or share the lament of Augustine: “I have learned to love you too late!”
I appreciate the way Ortlund stated this because he reminds us that even godly Christians struggle with sin. Like Paul did. Ortlund does not leave it at that, however. He goes on to provide four steps for eliminating those nagging sins from our lives. The first of those steps is simple: hate it.
I have no reason to believe that Tony Gwynn hated chewing tobacco. Quite the contrary, in fact. I have no reason to believe that Lot hated the sin he was surrounded by in Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, until his angelic visitors were in danger of being gang raped by an angry crowd we have no indication that he hated their sin at all. Even then Lot offered his virgin daughters to the mob. And when the time came for Lot to get out of town before its destruction, Lot “lingered” according to Genesis 19:16. Even after Lot and his family are dragged from the city by angels Lot pleads with them to let him go to the little city of Zoar rather than flee to the hills, and more than a few scholars and commentators think Lot was referring to the fact that Zoar’s sin was not as great as that of Sodom and Gomorrah. We are all good at rationalizing sin and thinking it is not as bad as someone else’s or some other sin we could commit.
The next thing Miller said must be done is to starve sin. Gwynn kept dipping. That means, necessarily, that he kept acquiring it, keeping it handy, having it at the ready when he wanted it. We do ourselves no favors when we say we want to stop a specific sin but we keep putting ourselves in situations to yield. Recovering alcoholics don’t hang out in bars, for example. Matthew 18:9 says that if the eye causes on to stumble the eye should be gouged out. That is a dramatic and unquestionably clear reiteration of the idea of starving sin.
Ortlund goes on to talk about cornering sin and overwhelming sin. That last part, thankfully, we need not do on our own. In fact, we cannot do it on our own. In Romans 7:18 Paul writes, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” Bad news… The good news is in the previous chapter, where Paul writes, “But you have been set free from sin…” (6:22).
The point of this is not to pick on Tony Gwynn. I am just like him. To my knowledge he was not a believer. But his life, which ended with him continuing to use the product that killed him right up until the day that it killed him, is an excellent example of where we will go if we try to live life in our own strength. We will continue to do that which harms us, trading the ultimate consequence for the temporary pleasure. May Gwynn’s demise be a lesson to us that we must hate and starve our sin, yield to the work of the Savior in our lives and overwhelm that sin which so easily besets us.