The ability to intentionally form habits sets humans apart. Animals can form habits, but they're generally powerless to direct their formation.
In moral philosophy, good habits are called “virtues,” and bad habits are called “vices.” Everyone I know, including me, has a fair distribution of both.
When someone has a vice, how should we treat them? Or, more relevant to my daily life, when I have a vice, how should I expect God to respond to me?
Well, here's what Jesus has to say about mere human interactions:
"Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven."
- Matthew 18:21-22
"Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him."
- Luke 17:3-4
If this is what he expects from us, how much more will he, a good and perfect God, grant forgiveness to us?
If you're living through or dealing with a vice (a habitual sin), you might feel shame and condemnation. You might feel unloved or hopeless. You may feel alienated from God, your father. All of those feelings are real, but they are entirely out of line with the truth.
Let's look at it this way: let's pretend you're an evil villain in training. You picked the super cool super-villain name of “Wormwood.” Your goal in life is to convince a person, let's call him “Lewis,” to reject God's love and forgiveness.
Yes, you would try to tempt Lewis to indulge his vices: you'd want to make him drink, and smoke, and chew; you'd want to make him impatient, irritable, and mean with his friends and family; you'd want to make him commit every adultery and hide it from his loved one.
But that's not your end goal! You know that God has already forgiven all those things. But if Lewis accepts that forgiveness, you've lost the battle. You want him to think, “I'm not good enough,” or “I need to break this habit before I really live for God.” You tempt him to indulge in these vices, not for the sake of the vices themselves, but because of the condemnation you can make him feel. And when he believes in your condemnation, that's when he rejects God's love.
But here's the good news: in the kingdom of God, there is no condemnation. There is only forgiveness.
Don't believe me? Here's Matthew 18:15-17
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Matthew, the guy who wrote this, do you remember his occupation? Yep, he was a tax collector, the most vile form of humanity. He was paid by the oppressive government to steal from and oppress his own family and everyone who loved him. When he was still a tax collector, sitting at his booth, doing his pathetic, traitorous job, Jesus called him and included him among the most important people in history. So when Matthew say, “Let him be to you as a tax collector,” what do you think was going through his mind?
But that's just one example. Surely it means something else!
Well, let's see what Luke (a Gentile) has to say about how to treat tax collectors:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
- Luke 19:1-7
If you know the story, take note of when Jesus calls Zacchaeus. Jesus didn't wait until radical change had happened in Zacchaeus' life. The people were right: Jesus went to be the guest of a sinner, plain and simple.
So, in the meantime, give up and give your vices to God. They have no power over you. They can't harm you. If you follow God, the one who began the good work in you, he will be faithful to complete it.
And don't let Wormwood whisper in your ear. You know that no matter what, God will at least treat you as well as the tax collectors.