Temptation and Sin: Where’s the Line?
In the early days of my personal struggle for purity, a wise man reminded me that I should not expect to attain a place where I was impervious to temptation. Even Jesus was tempted, he reminded me. Yet we also know that Jesus was without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) Experiencing sexual temptation, by itself, is not sin, nor is it evidence that we are not living in victory. Indeed, there are times when we need to reject such false condemnation. But that leaves us with the critical question: where is the line between temptation and sin?
For some, this issue of temptation versus sin may be nothing more than an academic or theological exercise. But, for those of us battling for purity in a sexually explicit society that promotes lust and exalts sensuality, recognizing the difference between encountering the daily onslaught of temptations versus engaging in sin is a crucial matter.
The problem for most of us, however, isn’t fighting off unwarranted condemnation because we’ve confused experiencing temptation with committing sin. No, the far more prevalent problem is that we’re indulging in sin long before we know it! We’re often clueless that we’ve crossed over the temptation line into sin. Later, in the aftermath of giving over yet again, we stand wringing our hands in frustration, wondering how in the world this could keep happening to us. Whether we’re “addicted” or not, the final outward fulfillment of our lust is always the last step in a process. But the line separating sin and temptation is regularly crossed before the very first visible step is taken.
In other words, once a person’s heart is set on his or her object of desire, sin is already being committed. The steps down into the actual activities of our routines and the consummation of our lust have already become inevitable, and the desire of our hearts will be carried out in due time. James’s epistle describes this well: “When desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” (James 1:15) No matter how long the gestation period turns out to be, once we have let desire conceive, sin will be birthed.
King David’s Sin
Consider King David and Bathsheba. The opening verse of this account in the Bible suggests that the venerable monarch is already in trouble in his heart before he ever lays eyes on Bathsheba. David’s choice to remain in Jerusalem at the time of year “when kings go out to battle,” portends trouble ahead. Then it happened, Scripture says, that David got out of bed one night, presumably unable to sleep, and took a walk on the palace roof. “And from the roof he saw a woman bathing, and the woman was very beautiful to behold.” (2 Samuel 11:1-2)
I’m sure we all know the sad outcome of this familiar story. David’s heart was already set on enjoying the pleasures of palace life over the field of battle. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.” (Romans 8:5) With his mind already set on the things of the flesh at the time he encountered Bathsheba, David was unprepared to resist the temptation he faced on that fateful night.
David was evidently oblivious to the actual point in time when he crossed the line into adultery and later murder. But Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount makes it very clear that the line is first crossed in our hearts long before it is manifested by our sinful behavior. (Matthew 5:28)
Jesus repeatedly tried to teach His followers that sin occurs first in our hearts, and then makes ts ugly appearance in our outward behavior. (Matthew 15:19) Therefore, if we intend to take a stand against sin, the supreme consideration for us is what is our heart set on?
There is another man in the Bible who was similarly tempted to commit adultery. In fact, Potiphar’s wife relentlessly pursued the handsome young Israelite who oversaw her household, daily casting her longing eyes upon him, repeatedly making her brazen appeal: “Lie with me… lie with me… lie with me.” Truly such a powerful temptation would be the undoing of many men. But Joseph stood firm. “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” he responded. (Genesis 39:9) Because Joseph’s heart was set on God, he was able to resist this potent temptation.
It would be wonderful if we all had a testimony of unwavering resistance to sexual temptation like Joseph. And I do believe it is God’s desire to bring us into that level of victory. But one of the Bible’s many attractions is its openness in portraying even the weaknesses and failures of its heroes; which brings us back to David. His story does not end with the account of his dual failures of adultery and murder. Rather, he is confronted in his sin by his loving, merciful God. And in his great psalm of repentance, David pleads: “Create in me a clean heart, O God. And renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” (Psalm 51:10-11) By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, David was enabled to re-set his heart on God. Consequently, when David is spoken of in the New Testament, he isn’t derided for his egregious sin, but is esteemed as a man after God’s heart. (Acts 13:22)
Like David, if you and I are ever going to walk in victory over sexual temptation, we have to confront the ungodly desires of our heart head-on. Moreover, if we accept the Bible’s demarcation of sin primarily as an attitude of the heart rather than just a behavior, we’ll quickly realize two things: we’ll see that we commit many more sins than we thought, and we’ll also be increasingly aware of our need for daily repentance. When this happens, we’ll be right where God wants us!
Repentance will be our permanent state rather than a one-time experience. We’ll live in sight of our need for a Savior. Jesus will become very personal and ever-present to us. As those who have been forgiven much, we will love much. Our hearts will perpetually overflow with gratitude and worship.
And sexual sin? With our hearts, firmly set on God, we will recoil from such temptation: “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” We will be established in victory, and the glory will belong to the Lord!
Ed Buch is Director of Counseling for Pure Life Ministries. He previously worked as a counselor in a nationally known drug & alcohol addiction ministry, and holds a Master’s in Religion from Evangelical Theological Seminary. He has served at the Ministry since 2005.
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