“I don’t know how this happened. It’s such a mess.”

Over the last couple of decades of ministry, I’ve listened to people utter words like these as they suffer from the fresh and painful wounds of self-inflicted sin. Building a fulfilling life takes a million tiny decisions, but only one bad choice can wreck it.

Listening to the painful stories, I noticed a common theme: no one sets out to bring misery upon themselves. Quite the opposite. They are looking for fulfillment. They want happiness. They are chasing the dream.

But remember, every nightmare starts as a dream.

Eve pursued what she thought was good for her in the Garden, only to find it laced with death (Genesis 3). David’s wandering heart fixed his eyes upon Bethsheba and promised exactly what he desired, but what it delivered killed others and nearly destroyed himself (2 Samuel 11–12). Judas hatched a plan to sell out Jesus for some cash, but when he saw the consequences of his actions, his reward became his executioner (Matthew 27:3–5).

Every nightmare starts as a dream.

The shiny wrappers of sin have death and destruction packaged inside.

If we aim to prevent the nightmare scenario, there are some practical steps that we can all benefit from.

Pray that you don’t enter temptation. Jesus teaches us to live and pray with eyes wide open. This is not a prayer asking God not to tempt us (he doesn’t tempt anyone James 1:13). Instead, it’s a prayer asking God to help us not succumb to temptation. We likely pray according to our assessment of our weakness. And we probably need to pray more. Listen to Jesus and pray that you don’t enter temptation.

Become more reliant upon God’s Word. Sin is ultimately about authority. Who’s voice will we listen to? It’s either the authority of God or the authority of self. Who has the authority to say what is true, good, and beautiful? We need the Bible to speak into our daily circumstances because we are constantly being conformed, either by the patterns of the world or the Word.

Grow suspicious of what you want. We tend to give ourselves and our desires the benefit of the doubt. We should be more skeptical of ourselves than this. Just consider your own track record. Are you more likely to instinctively lean toward what God or your flesh desires? Be honest. It’s better to admit this upfront than when you find yourself neck-deep in sin. Second guess yourself and cross-examine your desires with the Bible.

The shiny wrappers of sin have death and destruction packaged inside.

Open yourself up to a caring community. Sin loves the darkness. It thrives in anonymity and isolation. If you avail yourself of the care and counsel of people who genuinely love you and want what’s truly best for you, then you can begin to shine some light in the room. This is best found in a church family where everyone knows they are weak and prone to wander. In this context of weakness, we can find strength through the regular encouraging words of our brothers and sisters (Hebrews 3:12–13). Join a church where Christ and his life-giving, sin-atoning, guilt-removing gospel are preached. And dig in there!

Remember the autopsy from sin. Look at how this happens: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14–15) No one falls out of the tree; we climb up because we want to and, through the folly of our wisdom, walk out onto shaky branches. We fall because it’s a fool’s errand.

Life is short. Cling to Christ and his Word.

You can wake up from a bad dream but can’t undo a bad decision.