Knowing the difference between temptation and sin is vital for coming to an overcoming life. Especially when it concerns the thought life.
“Flee youthful lusts!” is the exhortation from the apostle Paul to the young man Timothy. (2 Timothy 2:22) Though this encompasses many different areas in a young person’s life, perhaps the strongest and most common is in the area of sexual desire. While this natural drive is not sin in itself, and is a blessing God has given within the framework of marriage, the Bible also makes it clear that following up on these desires outside of marriage is sin, even in our thought life. This drive is so strong, however, that “fleeing” sometimes just seems impossible.
A distinct line
But even in the vast sphere of impulsive feelings, emotions and impure desires which the Bible calls “youthful lusts,” there is a distinct line between temptation and sin. There really is! If you are struggling with these lusts and feelings and have difficulty in overcoming them, then recognizing the difference between temptation and sin is vital. It’s also the key to an overcoming youth time and a genuinely happy life.
Perhaps until now, the line between temptation and sin has been more of a vague blur for you than anything else. Well, the only one that wins out on that state of affairs is the devil himself. He won’t waste the opportunity to accuse you of sinning anytime you happen to see an attractive guy or girl. His aim is to convince you that you have sinned the moment something catches your eye or the split second a thought appears in your head. What he’s actually doing is removing any motivation you might have had to wage a war against your youthful lusts! After all, if you have already “sinned,” why bother fighting?
Distinguishing temptation from sin enables you to differentiate victory from defeat, and for someone who has been awakened to their heavenly calling, only victory is good enough!
“And you He made alive …”
“And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.” Ephesians 2:1-3.
To be “made alive” is truly grace from a compassionate and loving God! Not only are your trespasses and sins forgiven, but being made alive means God Himself has reached out and awakened you to your high and holy calling! This doesn’t result in your sinful nature disappearing, or your natural desires magically fading away until you get married. But it gives you an awareness of the fact that the sins you were bound by all start off as temptations. In James 1:14 it says that “each one he is tempted when he is drawn away by his desires and enticed.” It sounds terrible doesn’t it? To be drawn away and enticed almost sounds like you’ve sinned already. But it’s a temptation, a glimpse into what your human nature is full of. And, most importantly, it’s a crucial window of opportunity.
Redefining what you find acceptable
Before delving into the million-dollar question of “when does temptation become sin,” it’s important to note that, concerning the youthful lusts, there is an extra degree of zeal and urgency that’s required to break free, especially if it’s something you sense you’ve been bound by for some time.
After a sincere and wholehearted conversion to God, it’s time for you to redefine what you find acceptable. This demands honesty toward yourself, in terms of what you will now permit yourself to watch, read and listen to. You may ask, “But don’t I have the freedom to watch what I like?” The simple answer is: “No!” Peace in this area can only be earnt through battle. By being humble enough to take a radical approach in this soul-searching stage, you not only show God you’re serious, you also spare yourself from many, many unnecessary temptations! After all, if you stop and think about the corruption your lusts have brought you up until now, what have you got to lose?
So when exactly does temptation become sin?
The above step has removed, for instance, temptations that result from you going out of your way to watch movies filled with impurity etc., but say an electronic billboard flashes up in front of you out of nowhere, displaying a provocative advertisement. Does it become sin after one full second of looking at it? Three seconds? Five …?
Jesus said explicitly, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28. He doesn’t say, “Whoever sees a woman…” The adultery in the heart is a conscious decision: to look at a woman to lust for her. Adultery in the heart is the first step on the road to committing it in real life. Even if you never go so far as to commit physical adultery, being a slave to your eyes and your selfish lusts in general is hindering you from being a true disciple – because discipleship requires an undivided heart!
Attempting to set a specific timeframe on temptation is kind of like asking God, “How long can I enjoy this without it actually being sin?” For a wholehearted disciple, a more relevant question would be: “What do I do the moment it dawns on me that looking at this billboard after I first see it is optional?”
This is that crucial window of opportunity; the moment you realize you don’t have to keep looking! You have an option, a choice! If you heed the words of Jesus, and drag your eyes away from the billboard, you have not sinned! And you will know about it, because your lusts have been ignited and will be screaming for the gratification that the “new you” is denying them!
Your immediate obedience causes God to act. He won’t delay in sending you the Holy Spirit which will give you the strength to see the temptation through so that you don’t fulfill that desire, or as it’s written in Galatians 5:17, “so that you do not do the things that you wish.”
It’s in regular, everyday temptations like this where you will realize why Jesus had to offer up prayers to God with vehement cries and tears, and you will find yourself doing the same. (Hebrews 5:7-8) Prayers in the middle of battle are not always as well formulated as at other times. “Dear God, I do not want to sin! I do not want to sin!” might be the spontaneous, desperate cry of your heart which you repeat until you sense the battle is over and the victory is won. But it is a prayer according to God’s own heart!
The “first thought” battle tactic
As you actively deny the craving of your youthful lusts, you’ll notice how what used to be a blur of temptations and sins becomes more and more clearly defined. Previously, you would be transfixed by the flood of impure thoughts streaming into your head, at a loss to separate temptation from sin. Now you have a renewed mindset and a heightened sense of alertness, not to mention the full armor of God at your disposal and God’s Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 6:10-18) A spirited resistance to that “random” first thought which pops into your head is essential to prevent it becoming a secret sin you nourish in your heart.
Godly fear improves reaction time!
The more alert and God fearing you are, the more rapid your “temptation response times” will become. You will be one of those “who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” Hebrews 5:14.
“Children of wrath” on the other hand, have their senses exercised in how best to fulfil the desires of the flesh and mind. (Ephesians 2:1-3) This is clearly evident in the way some men will brazenly crane their necks, merely at the sound of a pair of high heels approaching. In a situation like this, you as a young man for example, and a disciple of Jesus Christ, should be waging war against the unchaste curiosity that is aroused and crush it in the power of the Holy Spirit, before it potentially becomes a “lust of the eyes” temptation.
People who are aware of their weakness and are humble enough to avoid placing themselves in needless temptations have an upright attitude of heart. God gives such people grace, not only to discern temptation from sin, but also grace for it to succeed in their fight against youthful lusts – lusts that are the source of so much misery and which the majority of people are slaves to, long past their youth time.