This morning I received an excellent question and I decided to share both the question and my answer with the blogosphere. Please note, I said the question was excellent, I make no claims to the quality of the answer.
The question relates to a statement I made during a lecture that I gave on Christian sexuality. In addressing homosexuality, I said that we need to distinguish between same-sex attraction and homosexual acts. The latter is sin while the former is temptation.
“I am wondering about the verse that says that if a man lusts after a woman in his heart, he has already committed adultery. (Matthew 5:28) Is having thoughts about sin also a sin? If we deny the temptation to sin (and temptation is in the mind) then have we avoided sinning?”
In the passage cited above Jesus explains the kingdom ethic—the standards of moral purity that God expects of his people. They are quite demanding to say the least! In verse 28, Jesus states that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Is this sin a reference to temptation? Does this condemn anyone who has felt the tug of illicit attraction, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual?
No, and no.
We must not confuse temptation and sin. Temptation is the desire to taste forbidden fruit while sin is the act of eating it. There is no guilt in temptation. How could there be? Jesus experienced temptation but remained sinless. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, ESV).
How then do we understand the mental acts described in Matthew 5 as being sin? At what point did desire become transgression? The ESV helps up with its translation by describing the sin as ‘lustful intent’, emphasizing the involvement of the will. There is a choice involved and this person has chosen wrongly. The NET says it differently, but equally well, “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28, NET).
The lusting that is being denounced is not some momentary attraction; it is an active nurturing of forbidden desire. This lustful intent begins with temptation but then drifts into sin when the imagination is freed to take sexual pleasure from the occasion.
To notice someone as being attractive is not sin, it’s merely being observant. To feel a stab of attraction is not sin either, but this is the moment of temptation, it’s very dangerous and escape measures need to kick in immediately. To allow that attraction to metastasize into some form of sexual gratification is the act of sin. Our responsibility to avoid sinful fantasizing is cleverly summarized by Martin Luther. The famous German Reformer said, “I cannot keep a bird from flying over my head. But I can certainly keep it from nesting in my hair”
Temptation is common to all humanity. We are all tempted. We are not, however, all tempted in the same way. Some are especially tempted by sexual opportunity and for some of those it will be homosexual opportunity. What happens next determines whether there is guilt involved. Paul advises us well, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” (1 Corinthians 6:18, ESV). When temptation stirs within us there is no place for bravado, it time to tuck our tail between our legs and make a hasty break for safety.