Lenten Classics - Conquering Bad Habits


During each week of Lent this year, we will post an excerpt from a classic writing on Christian spirituality, followed by some questions for personal reflection.

This week’s post is a letter written by John Newton to a fellow pastor, Rev. Thomas Jones, on January 7, 1767. Newton was an Anglican minister in the 18th century, whose story of conversion from slave trader to abolitionist has touched people’s hearts for generations. In this letter, Newton counsels his friend in how to deal with his on-going struggle with bad habits. 

Dear Sir, 

You seem sensible where your most observable failing lies, and to take reproof and admonition concerning it in good part; I therefore hope and believe the Lord will give you a growing victory over it. You must not expect habits and tempers will be eradicated instantaneously; but by perseverance in prayer, and observation upon the experiences of every day, much may be done in time. Now and then you will (as is usual in the course of war) lose a battle; but be not discouraged, but rally your forces, and return to the fight. There is a comfortable word, a leaf of the tree of life, for healing the wounds we receive, in 1 John ii. 1. If the enemy surprises you, and your heart smites you, do not stand astonished as if there were not help, nor give way to sorrow, as if there were no hope, nor attempt to heal yourself; but away immediately to the throne of grace, to the great Physician, to the compassionate High Priest, and tell him all. Satan knows, that if he can keep us from confession, our wounds will rankle; but do you profit by David’s experience, Psal. xxxii. 3-5. When we are simple and open in abasing ourselves before the Lord, though we have acted foolishly and ungratefully, he will seldom let us remain long without affording us a sense of his compassion; for He is gracious; He knows our frame, and how to bear with us, though we can hardly bear with ourselves, or with one another.

The main thing is to have the heart right with God: this will bring us in the end safely through many mistakes and blunders; but a double mind, a selfish spirit, that would halve things between God and the world, the Lord abhors. Though I have not yet had many opportunities to commend your prudence, I have always had a good opinion of your sincerity and integrity: if I am not mistaken in this, I make no doubt of your doing well. If the Lord is pleased to bless you, He will undoubtedly make you humble; for you cannot be either happy or safe, or have any probable hope of abiding usefulness, without it. I do not know that I have had any thing so much at heart in my connexions with you, as to impress you with a sense of the necessity and advantages of a humble frame of spirit; I hope it has not been in vain. Oh! To be little in our own eyes! This is the ground-work of every grace; this leads to a continual dependence upon the Lord Jesus; this is the spirit which He has promised to bless; this conciliates us good-will and acceptance amongst men; for he that abaseth himself is sure to be honoured. And that this temper is so hard to attain and preserve, is a striking proof of our depravity – For are we not sinners? Were we not rebels and enemies before we knew the gospel; and have we not been unfaithful, backsliding, and unprofitable ever since? Are we not redeemed by the blood of Jesus? and can we stand a single moment except He upholds us? Have we any thing which we have not received? or have we received any thing which we have not abused? Why then is dust and ashes proud?

I am glad you have found some spiritual acquaintance in your barren land. I hope you will be helpful to them, and they to you. You do well to guard against every appearance of evil. If you are heartily for Jesus, Satan owes you a grudge. One way or the other he will try to cut you out work, and the Lord may suffer him to go to the length of the chain. But though you are to keep your eye upon him, and expect to hear from him at every step, you need not be slavishly afraid of him; for Jesus is stronger and wiser than he, and there is a complete suit of armour provided for all who are engaged on the Lord’s side.                                             

I am, etc

John Newton

Personal Reflection:

  • Where have you experienced an on-going struggle with sinful behavior or attitudes?
  • Newton told his friend that the most important factor in our struggle with sin is to have a heart that is humble before God. For you, what are the indicators that your heart is humble before God?
  • Newton warned his friend against the attack of the devil. To what degree have you sensed opposition from spiritual forces of evil in your struggle with sin?