You Don't Sin as Much as You Think

The more you think you sin, the more you probably will.

On the surface, sin seems relatively recognizable. God gave us his top ten which means we have a nice, simple checklist for our daily sanctification. Except for number ten, of course. Murder, adultery, and perjury are all pretty straightforward, but coveting is where it gets complicated. While all of the preceding nine commandments imply an action, this is the only one that suggests that our thought life can be sinful.

Jesus took it even further when he said that hating people was as bad as murder and lusting after them was like committing adultery. As he said to his disciples, "For out of the heart come evil thoughts--murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander." This isn't very comforting for those of us with intrusive thoughts. And it doesn't seem very fair that every hint of jealousy or every flash of anger that enters our minds is damning. There could be moments, hours, even days where we're living in non-stop sin. 

If that isn't a recipe for despair, I don't know what is.

But that's what I was taught. I was taught to, like Paul, "take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ." No one told me this would be easy but that it was expected. They also didn't tell me that this verse was referring to theology, not sin. Instead, I was taught to believe that the mind obedient to Christ was one free of temptation.

Feeling anger at a careless driver was yielding to the temptation of hatred. Feeling attraction to a beautiful woman was yielding to the temptation of lust. Even the smallest desire to fudge on my taxes couldn't possibly be an obedient mind. They all represent the evil desires that Jesus talked about and the fact that they are still very much a part of my thought life.

However, we can't forget that Jesus was tempted too. And being tempted doesn't just mean that someone else was tempting him; it means that he actually had desires. Like when Satan tempted him with bread. After fasting for nearly six weeks, anyone would long for something to eat. Or when Satan tempted him with the entire world. We know for a fact that Jesus desired to take up the rule promised him without having to endure the painful death it required. And since Jesus didn't sin when he was tempted, that means that there's a difference between sin and temptation.

Temptation is a battle that we haven't lost until we've acted on it. Which means that if a thought doesn't lead to action, it isn't sin. Remember, Jesus tied hate to name-calling when he called it murder. In fact, the Bible frequently follows coveting with taking because the desire isn't the problem as much as unlawfully acting upon it. 

Sin has to actually produce evil for it to be sin. And much of what the Bible considers evil involves harming other people (you could argue that all of it does because anything that distracts us from God distracts from his desire for us to love each other). Thus, the metric for sin must be whether or not anyone gets hurt. Thoughts don't hurt people; they can only lead to actions that do. Or said another way: the only sinful thought is one that causes another harm.

Feeling anger at a careless driver isn't sinful, it's the natural response to injustice. Flipping them off or cutting them off--those are things that cross the line. Feeling attracted to a beautiful woman isn't sinful because God created beauty to be attractive. Flirting with her or preferring her time to my wife's is where it takes an ugly turn. And until I start moving decimal points in my 1040, you can't blame me for wanting a better life for my family. Or more bacon.

But you might blame me for insinuating that our thought life doesn't matter or that temptations should be ignored. It only sounds that way because I'm sick of a sanctification model that causes more sin. I'm sick of feeling guilty simply for having thoughts and desires. Temptation shouldn't be an opportunity for guilt but for accountability. Guilt like this produces shame and shame keeps us insular and alone. Instead of seeking the help and counsel of trusted friends, we make ourselves even more vulnerable to sin by living in self-inflicted disgrace.

The irony, of course, is that the more we realize we're not sinning, the more we probably won't. Because when we share our temptations with others, we're no longer the only ones fighting to keep them from turning into sin.

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