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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Things You Don’t Know You Know

The question came right out of the blue.

It was entirely ingenuous, I think. There was nothing calculating about the teenage girl who asked it. I don’t think she was looking for a pass on any particular sin; she was just curious how God works.

It was Sunday School, and I was discussing Matthew 5:28 — the part where the Lord says, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I wasn’t trying to be especially relevant or anything, but you know teenagers.

So she says, “But if you’re already guilty before God just from looking, why wouldn’t you just go ahead and act on it then?”

Good question.

The answer — which seems obvious to me today — is that indulging lustful thoughts and acting on your lust are two different sins.

Sin That Stays in My Head

If I indulge a lustful thought, I sin against God and I contaminate my own mind. Let’s not minimize it in any way: it’s wrong, and it’s very much to be avoided, so much so that the Lord goes on to tell his audience, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” Like other, more visible sins, nursing illegitimate sexual desire in the heart puts a sinner in danger of hell and spoils a believer’s enjoyment of his relationship with his Saviour. It calls for repentance and needs forgiveness.

But assuming it ends there, well ... it ends there. Thankfully, the object of my thoughts hasn’t the slightest clue what’s going on in my messy head. She remains quite unaffected by my sin. The train wreck that is adultery happens on someone else’s track.

Sin Loose in the World

Alternatively, if I act on the contents of my thought life and it turns out the feeling is mutual, that’s another story entirely. Now someone else starts sinning, and it’s my fault. On top of that, we violate the trust of any spouses involved and break vows made before God. Perhaps I provoke her husband to acts of violent revenge. If so, that is on me, not just him. Are there kids involved? If there are, you can bet they’re sinned against and deeply affected as well, even if they never find out about it: the secret hypocrisy of their parents is sure to taint the parent/child relationship. Further, when we become liars and cheats, we begin to believe others capable of lying and cheating too. We erode our own ability to trust, and we sabotage relationships in which the other party is often entirely unaware of what is motivating our suspicions and accusations. And don’t even get me started on sexually transmitted disease.

Sin that stays between my ears certainly makes me guilty before God, but there remain a number of very compelling practical and spiritual reasons not to act on my impulses. Once my sin gets out into the world to wreak its havoc, who knows where the damage ends?

Back to Sunday School

Back to the Sunday School class. This happened a lot of years ago, and I probably didn’t respond to the question as clearly as I am able to do today, but it was close enough. I think the girl who asked the question found my answer helpful. I hope so anyway.

But I found it even more helpful, and the distinction between sins of thought and action — at least in terms of the domino effect of cascading consequences — has been useful to me ever since. You see, until she asked the question, I had never given the subject a single thought.

Sometimes you know things you don’t know you know.

But it takes interaction with other believers to bring them out, doesn’t it?

More on this with Immanuel Can in Saturday’s Too Hot to Handle.

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