Doug Wilson has said that virtues, like vices, come in bunches. The fruit of the Spirit (and the fruit of unrighteousness) can be more likened to a bunch of grapes than an apple. When we grow more holy, we tend to do so in multiple areas. Increased humility should make us more kind, which means being more willing to love people, which means being bolder in confrontation, and so on. Likewise, the exercise of lust makes us lazy, which makes us ungrateful, which makes us angry– you get the point. The similarities between virtues and vices, however, may end there. While virtues are bolstered by addition and collectively wane by subtraction, vices are excited to greater exercises when one of their number is attacked. You may find that you were not much prone to anger when you were enslaved to lust; now, however, that you are fighting lust, your anger seems to have manifested itself in a hitherto unseen way in your life. In fact, it may seem reasonable to continue in service to lust just so that you don’t have to deal with your anger. This is a lie– a damned lie. In reality, anger was just as virulently present in your soul before you began to kill the sin of lust by the Spirit. The reason it seemed to slumber was that you dealt with all your anger by lusting. Having a happily fed and therefore docile lion should not be confused with not having a dangerous beast in your home.
Or let’s say that your pet sin is pride and boasting, but you don’t find it within yourself much of a temptation to lust. Then, when you begin the hard and Spirit-led work of putting off your pride and boasting, you suddenly find yourself falling uncontrollably into lust. Should you be surprised by this? No more than a chain-smoker should be surprised when, upon giving up their habit, they gain 40 pounds. You had a need for significance which you sinfully chose to meet by indulging in arrogant boasting. Now, you’ve chosen to meet that need in a different way.
There are a few directives which arise from this knowledge. First, don’t become discouraged when you find yourself beset with new sins because you’re fighting the old ones; this is an evidence of growth, not blight.
Second, prayerfully and analytically discern which needs you were meeting sinfully; in this way, the new “data” from the excitement of other sins can help you to pinpoint where you are not leaning into Christ. Let me explain using one of the examples above. You find yourself enslaved to lust, but virtually untouched by anger– until you take up arms against your lust. Having done so, you discover within yourself deep reserves of anger. What does this tell you? It may indicate that the way you dealt with your anger in the past was to engage in lust. Each time you were denied something you thought was yours by right, grew frustrated with circumstances beyond your control, or experienced conflict of some kind, you reestablished your own authority and control by indulging your lust. The excitation of anger at the denial of your lust reveals that you haven’t been dealing with your anger righteously; instead of giving your timetable, relationships, project goals, etc. to the Lord in submission to his will, you have sought to reestablish dominance in a world of fantasies where every player acts according to your will.
Third, be prepared. As you go to make war on sin in your soul, know that this will likely happen to you. Surround yourself with accountability and rich fellowship, with men or women who know you and will be able to point out to you new areas of sin, of which you yourself may not be aware.
The battle against sin may at times seem like a game of whack-a-mole, where every time we attempt to put one sin to death by the Spirit, two more pop up. But rich fruit does not spring up overnight, nor do deeply rooted weeds wither in the space of a day. By submitting to the Spirit today, and tomorrow, and the next day, you will find as the years go by that “that which is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5) has grown pale and weak, and that the exercises of grace in your soul have strengthened. In this way, you will “still bear fruit in old age” and be “ever full of sap and green” (Psalm 92:14).