One of the paradoxes I face in my own life and a source of discussion in our community of believers is how to reconcile my label of righteous and saintly with my experience with sin. That is, if holiness is my new default mode, why is sin the first thing that crosses my mind when I face a moral situation? Let me give you a small example, recently shared with me by a friend.
My friend was in the produce section of the local grocery store when she noticed an unattended cart complete with an open purse and wallet sitting on top. Her first thought was, “I could take that wallet and no one would know. I think I could get away with it.” Her question to me was, “If my new nature is so powerful, why is this my first reaction?” A legitimate question. My response to her was a question in return. “What did you do? Did you take the wallet?” She answered, “Of course not. In fact, I stood close by making sure no one else took it until the customer returned to her cart.” So was the thought sinful, but the action holy?
Based on the biblical progression of sin, I believe the first thought was a temptation, not a sin. Now the action we take next based on that thought is either a holy response or a sin. My friend’s first thought about the wallet was a temptation. The decision to stand guard over the wallet was a holy response.
The Bible explains it this way. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished it brings forth death” (Jas 1:13-15).
Do you see the progression? The temptation is not sin. The first thought is not sin. Sin is what we do next. When we resist the temptation, all is well. When we fertilize the temptation – “lust has conceived” – we enter into sin. Our two enemies, the flesh (enticed by our own lust) and the devil (ruler of this fallen world) are the authors of temptation. And if we “walk by the Spirit”, i.e. make choices in line with the Holy Spirit who indwells us, “we will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal 5:16), i.e. not succumb to the temptations of the flesh. Similarly, if we “resist the devil” (Jas 4:7), his temptations will not lead to sin. (I realize this is way too short of an explanation of our spiritual enemies, but hopefully it is a helpful start.)
This distinction between temptation and sin is an important one. If you think of these initial reactions as sin, you will feel discouraged and weighed down and find difficulty experiencing the power of your new nature. But if you see these reactions for what they are; temptations that you have the power to resist, you will experience the power and the joy of the Christian life.