Today’s post is by guest writer Lucas Ward.
I often hear people pray, “Forgive us our sins because we know we sin everyday.” This bothers me a lot, not because I believe they sin everyday, but because I believe that they believe they sin everyday. That kind of perpetual guilt and depression leads to dismay and causes one to wonder why he should even bother to try. I should know, because I used to believe that I sinned everyday, multiple times daily. It wasn’t that I was evil; it was a misunderstanding of what sin and temptation are, and the boundary between them.
We all know that being tempted isn’t the same as sinning. Temptation isn’t sin. This is evident because Heb. 4:16 states that Our Lord was tempted just like we are, but he didn’t sin. So there must be a difference between the two. James 1:14-15 is a step by step breakdown of temptation and sin and how the first becomes the latter, and so is the best place to start any discussion of what it means to sin.
Each man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed. Then the lust, when it has conceived, bears sin; and sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death.
So temptation is a product of our own lusts. In the original Greek, there is no difference made between the English concepts of good “desires” and evil “lusts.” The translators tried to fit the English concepts by using the contextual meaning of the original inspired writers. Technically, it would be correct to translate Our Lord’s speech as he instituted the Lord’s Supper as, “I earnestly lusted to eat this with you” or Paul’s admonition as “Flee youthful desires.” Desires/lusts are not wrong in and of themselves. All the desires/lusts we have are creations of God and all have good, God-given means of expression. It is only when we allow sin to debase our desires/lusts and pervert their expressions that they become sinful.
So, notice that in verse 14 there is no mention of sin. All that is spoken of is temptation, which James has defined as the desire/lust to do something one knows is wrong. Therefore that desire/lust, in and of itself, is not sin. Let’s make this as clear as possible. James, as the inspired writer of God’s Word, gives us this definition of temptation: the desire to do something one knows to be wrong. Then turn to Heb. 4:16 where the inspired writer of God’s Word says that our perfect Lord and Savior was tempted just like we are, but without sin. This means that on occasion Our Lord must have desired/lusted to do things that he knew to be wrong, but he exercised self control and overcame. He remained perfect. Being tempted to do something isn’t wrong. Wanting to do it, having desires/lusts, isn’t wrong.
So where does sin come in? Vs 15. Then the lust, when it has conceived, bears sin; and sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death. Sin enters the picture when lust conceives. Conceive is a verb; it implies action of some kind. So sin happens when one decides to take that desire and do something with it. The desire isn’t wrong, only the action.
Wait! How do we square this with Matt. 5: 28 where Our Lord says, “I say unto you that every one that looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” It sure seem like he is saying that the sin is in the lust/desire, not the action. This is where understanding the original audience can help a great deal in understanding the point being made. Our Lord was speaking to a people who made a great show of righteousness while not caring at all about their inner man. They would speak of purity and fantasize about every woman who walked by. They would condemn murderers while holding grudges and slandering enemies. Our Lord was trying to get them to understand that great importance should be placed on who they were inside: that the heart matters. That is why he says in vs 22 that being angry with a brother is sin, though we read elsewhere that it is possible to be angry without sin. In verse 28 the lesson is that the intention is as good as the deed. Look at the verse again. Why did this hypothetical man look at the woman? “Everyone who looks on a woman TO lust after her in his heart. . .” The reason he looked was to lust, to fantasize perversely about her. The sin here is not being attracted to members of the opposite sex; it is the decision to actively fantasize or to pursue a tryst with that person. If being attracted to members of the opposite sex were a sin, then all you married people sinned the whole time you were courting your spouses! (Either that or you were courting someone you found physically repulsive.) Sin does not occur until we allow that healthy desire to conceive something perverse, whether it be the actual deed or just the fantasy. Being attracted is not the sin. Wanting to get to “know” the person is not the sin. Carrying that beyond the basic impulse into involved fantasy is a sin, as would be the attempt to actually carry out the fantasy, whether or not the other person said yes. Being angry with a brother is not a sin. Fantasizing about how you would love to knock him down a peg is a sin, as would be the attempt. So would be slander or malicious gossip. Wanting something you can’t afford is not a sin. The decision to steal it is, even if you back off when you notice the store management watching.
Once I came to understand how James 1 and Matt 5 interacted, and understood that desires/lusts are not sinful in and of themselves, my faith was greatly strengthened. I actually came to have a Hope instead of a Dread. I began to understand that His yoke really is light, not the horrible burden I had thought it to be. My days became much more joyful. With the proper understanding of the difference between temptation and sin, that being tempted is not sin, I am happy to say that I DON’T sin everyday, and that the periods between sins are continuing to grow as my strength in God increases. I hope this discussion helps someone else as much as the years of meditation eventually helped me.