How to Deal with Phantom Sin

Posted on March 8, 2018

by John E. Thomas

A few years ago, a friend of mine was in an accident in Africa and his leg was torn off above the knee. After multiple surgeries, he has a stump where his leg used to be and can get around pretty well with a prosthetic. As odd as it sounds, he sometimes feels sensations below the stump—in the leg that is missing.

Amputees often find themselves struggling with a phenomenon called phantom limb. It’s when someone like my friend starts to feel pain, itching or other sensations in the limb that is no longer there.

Phantom limb can be a serious problem because to the person’s brain, the feelings are real. The person “feels” real pain—but there is no body part and no nerves sending signals to the brain, so there is nothing the person can do about it. Painkillers do no good. You can’t scratch a leg that isn’t there. You are stuck with this sensation you can’t do anything about.

As believers we go through something similar. When we meet Jesus, our sinful nature is cut off. It is killed and we become new creations: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
— Galatians 2:20

We have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised.
— 2 Corinthians 5:14–15

But we have a problem. Even though the sinful nature is dead, we keep having an itch in the “limb” that is no longer there. We find ourselves struggling with temptation and responding to sin as if it were still alive in us. What can we do?

The Secret of Spiritual Mirror Therapy

In an article published in PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, Dr. Mark Borigini wrote about a study presented at the American Neurological Association. Amputees experienced less phantom pain when they were able to “visualize” the missing limb with the help of a mirror. A mirror is placed next to the existing limb and the amputee moves the limb, watching the movements in the mirror while picturing the missing limb. This is called mirror therapy.

Both Paul and James talk about the Bible being a mirror. Paul described it as a mirror through which we see Christ. When we begin to feel “phantom sin” in our lives, the answer is not to try to fight it directly. Why not? Because it’s an itch we can’t scratch! We can’t medicate it, and there is nothing we can do to fight the pain in our own strength. We need His strength instead. All of us are in need of mirror therapy!

When we are struggling with sin, we can run to the Word of God and see the image of Christ in us, which is “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). As we stare into that mirror, we find we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). We are becoming like Jesus.

God put His very own life inside of us so we can live as free men and women. He isn’t far away from us, cut off and held separate—not at all. In fact, He has chosen to make us “one spirit” with Him (1 Corinthians 6:17). How can we practice spiritual “mirror therapy”?

Study His Word

The doctors who conducted the mirror therapy study discovered that when the mirror was concealed, it didn’t do the amputees any good. In order for them to benefit from the mirror, they had to use it in a specific way.

Our mirror is the Word of God, and like those in the therapy study, we have to use the mirror the way it was intended. It isn’t enough for us to have a mirror in our possession or to glance into it from time to time and then walk away. We need life, and we need it today, and we get it from His Word—because through it we see Him.

Move Beyond Knowledge

True change doesn’t come from knowledge. It isn’t a matter of mental power. Dr. Borigini also wrote, “But the pain was not reduced . . . in another group whose members were asked to imagine moving an amputated foot.” In other words, the desired outcome did not happen when the amputees relied on simply imagining the movement.

If we want to see change in our lives, we don’t need to psych ourselves up and fill our heads with “positive vibes.” It isn’t enough just to hear about what’s available to us in Jesus. The power is not in knowledge; that would be Gnosticism. The power is in Scripture because it is God’s Word—it is the revelation of Jesus Christ.

How Do We Leave Sin Behind?

Since the Spirit who originally “breathed out” God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16) is the same Spirit breathing life into our private study of the Word, we have a “means of grace” that allows us to partake of God’s divine nature:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
— 2 Peter 1:3–4

Through the promises of God, we get to partake in His divine nature and escape corruption. When we realize that His promises are what allow us to leave behind the sin and filth of this world, all at once we are set on fire to diligently pursue the character of Christ in every aspect of our lives. We have found what will set us free from the phantom pain of sin.

The power of holiness is in the transformation that occurs as we saturate ourselves in God’s Word, which is life and spirit. It is a living word (Hebrews 4:12). “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter asked Jesus. “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

It is time to get out the mirror.