It makes big news when a prominent leader in church, business or politics is exposed for committing sins behind closed doors. Inappropriate relationships, misuse of funds and bullying all thrive under cover of secrecy. Technology now offers everyone many previously unimagined opportunities to sin without anyone else needing to know what we’re doing. Sinning in secret also includes the sins which remain in our thoughts or our attitudes. Unspoken they may always remain, but they are not unseen from God’s vantage point. Nor are they innocuous simply because they do not come to outward expression. As the Westminster divine Obadiah Sedgwick points out, secret sins are sometimes more harmful to our souls than what we do openly. In the following updated extract from a set of sermons he preached on Psalm 19 (“Cleanse me from secret faults”), Sedgwick offers seven suggestions for what we can do to combat our secret sins. Although we cannot change our own nature and give ourselves integrity, this is something that God can and does do in regeneration and sanctification.
Sins may be called secret either when they are disguised with some semblance of virtue, or when they are kept out of public view, or when they are kept within the thoughts or the heart so that they are not visible to anyone.
Beloved, there are two sorts of people. Some are dissembling and evasive: their concern is not not to sin, but to be cunning in sin. Others are conflicting and agonizing against inward impulses, outward opportunities, and strong temptations: the desire of their soul is to fear the Lord and to do no iniquity.
Secret sins are in some ways more dangerous than open sins. By artfully keeping your sin hidden, you deprive yourself of help for your sinfulness, like someone who keeps their wound covered, or who bleeds inwardly. Help does not come because the danger is neither described nor known. If someone’s sin breaks out openly, there is a minister at hand, or a friend near, and others to reprove, to warn, to direct. But if a person sins inwardly, they prevent all public remedy and work towards their own damnation by covering their secret sins with some plausible varnish.
But, you will say, it is fearful to sin in this way! What means can be used to get and keep my soul away from secret sins?
What I would commend to you are the following.
Be humbly penitent for what you’ve done
If you have been guilty of secret sins, be humbled and repent. You will hardly stave off a new sin, if you have not been humbled for an old sin of the same kind. Future carefulness seldom manifests itself without former sorrow. If you have been a secret adulterer, fornicator, thief, backbiter, oppressor, liar, drunkard, then, O hasten, hasten in by speedy sorrow, by speedy repentance. Bewail your secret wickedness deeply – to the extent of tears of blood, if that were possible! if you do not judge yourself, God will surely judge you, and don’t think that because your sinnings were secret, therefore your compunctions can be small. You ought rather to abound in self-reproach, and be in more floods of tears, and of bitter contrition, considering you dared to provoke God in this way.
Avoid opportunities to keep sinning
Why are you saying, “O this bad nature of mine, O this heart I’ve got, O that wicked tempter Satan”? Yes, you’ve shed many tears, you’ve felt many sorrows and troubles, you’ve made many vows and resolutions, you’ve put up many prayers and petitions. Yet you are still continuing in your secret sinnings. Why? What could be the reason? Do prayers do nothing against sin? Do tears do nothing? Troubles? Vows? All of these will indeed achieve something, as long as something else be added: if the leak is stopped, if the windows are shut and the doors are locked. I mean, if occasions and provocations are conscionably and carefully avoided. Otherwise they are pointless. If you pray and then test your strength against what draws you into your secret sin, what are you doing in effect but seeking God one minute, and the next rising up and tempting Him? Keep close to heaven, and keep away from the opportunities, and then tell me whether God will not keep you from your sinnings.
Crush temptations at the root
Although you can turn away from opportunities and the things which prompt you to sin, yet you cannot get rid of your self. There is something in the self which can fetch in an opportunity to sin by representation, by inclination, by contemplation. Sometimes someone else provokes you to sin, which happens when you are in company. Sometimes your own heart provokes you to sin, which is when you are solitary. One moment the thoughts steal out, now imaginations confer with your mind, with your will, with your affections. So if you want to free yourself from secret actings, you must free yourself from secret thinkings. David prays, “Let the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
Two strategies will never fail you in your attack on secret sinnings. One is to dig up the root of all sinnings. The other is to stifle the first conception of sins.
Beloved, to tie Samson’s arm was pointless, because his strength didn’t lie there. It was only if the hair of his head was cut off that his strength would be gone, and he became weak. To tamper only with the acts of sin is not the way to be rid of sinful acts. The one and only way to be rid of bad acts is to be rid of a bad nature.
If you could only get a holy nature, which would be at defiance with sin in its throne! Don’t you realise that a new nature and daily combat will greatly help against secret sinnings? The sin which is most of all combated within the heart is the sin which is least lively of all, for sin has least practise where it has most opposition, of all oppositions those that are inward are most weakening to sin.
Get a hatred of sin, the kind of hatred which will oppose sin in all kinds, and all times, and in all places.
Fear the sin-avenging God
Get the fear of God implanted in your heart. This fear will preserve you against three kinds of sins. (1) Pleasant sins, which entrap your senses with delight. (2) Profitable sins, which entrap the heart with gain. (Although, what shall it profit me to win the whole world and lose my soul?) (3) Secret sins of either kind. Joseph was tempted to a sin that could have been kept secret, and which could have resulted in him being promoted. But he didn’t dare to sin that great sin of uncleanness, and why? Because the fear of God kept him away from it. He had an awe-filled regard for God, he knew the greatness of His holiness and His power. “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9).
Brothers and sisters, if we fear the Lord, it is not the night which the thief takes that will prevail with us, nor the twilight which the adulterer takes, nor seasons of secrecy or places of obscurity. Instead our prevailing principle will be, “But God sees me.” “The great judge of heaven and earth, the holy one, the God who hates all sin, whose eyes are brighter than the sun and purer than to behold sin, who is mighty in power and just in his threatenings – He sees and beholds, therefore I dare not.”
Believe in God’s omniscience
Believe God’s omniscience and omnipresence. Believe that the Lord is everywhere, and that all things are naked and open to His eye. You can’t intend to think – you can’t whisper out your thoughts – you can’t finger the closest bribes – you can’t incline yourself to the most abstracted kind of secrecy in the world – but God sees you clearly, perfectly.
If you could believe that God is always right here with us, and that there are two which constantly go around with us, both the judge and the recorder, God and conscience, and that God is acquainted with all our thoughts, paths, ways, this would put an awe on you. Would a wife cheat on her husband in his sight and presence? would a servant filch out of the box if he saw his master’s eye on his hand?
Be upright in your heart
Get your heart to be upright. Uprightness is an inward temperament, while hypocrisy is an outward complexion. Psalm 119:2–3: “Blessed are they that seek him with the whole heart. They also do no iniquity …” Sincerity makes the inward self its business, it employs itself in forming and fashioning the heart. Sincerity knows that God delights in truth, and indeed truth in the inward parts: it endeavours to please God in all things, and to be most to God in the very place where others can observe the least, that is, in the secret and hidden frame.
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