Temptation is a word that is used to describe the enticement to sin against God or another human being. One can be tempted to do only something that one wishes to do. That is, while I can be enticed to eat chocolate cake, I can never be enticed to eat liver. Temptation is not sin; only giving into the temptation is a sin. Genuine temptation requires that the enticement be for something that is desired, and that there is an actual opportunity to do it. Sin occurs only if you give in to the temptation.

James writes:

…but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:14-15)

Sin is given birth to. It is sin when it comes out, not when it is, as it was, in the womb. Resisting temptation can be thought of as a kind of spiritual abortion.

Jesus, according to Hebrews 4:15, “has been tempted in every way, just as we are” but, says the passage, Jesus remained sinless.

And yet, it remains quite common in the Christian community for people to be condemned for being tempted: condemned for what they think. Passages will be quoted, such as: “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”

However, as is too often the case, the context has been ignored, and the quotation is not quite exact, though it most closely resembles what appears in the King James Version of 1611. It comes from Proverbs 23:7. Let’s take a look at it in its full context, in a modern translation:

Do not eat the food of a begrudging host,
do not crave his delicacies;
for he is the kind of person
who is always thinking about the cost.
“Eat and drink,” he says to you,
but his heart is not with you.
You will vomit up the little you have eaten
and will have wasted your compliments. (Proverbs 23:6-8)

That’s from the New International Version. You’ll no doubt notice that the famously quoted phrase–or even anything like it in meaning–fails to make an appearance. So let’s take a gander at the same passage in the old King James:

Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye,
Neither desire thou his dainty meats:
  For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he:
Eat and drink, saith he to thee;
But his heart is not with thee.
The morsel which thou hast eaten shalt thou vomit up,
And lose thy sweet words.

Ah, so now the modern translation makes sense–and the way the phrase gets bandied about in the modern church–well, it just doesn’t say that, now does it? Although the phrase is in the passage, even in the King James, it obviously doesn’t mean what people have been taught to think it does. Context really matters. Yanking it out of context and ignoring what it is actually all about, well, that creates some problems, right?

But then there’s the old standby that gets trotted out if that passage in Proverbs doesn’t work:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28)

It is most commonly used to beat adolescents over the head, but is often generalized and applied to things beyond just sexual urges. The problem, obviously, is that it seems at odds with making a distinction between temptation and sin, at least the way it is commonly used: that if you’ve thought it, you’ve as good as done it. Which makes little sense when you, well, think about it. If you think about murdering me, that’s not at all the same thing as putting a knife through my heart, now is it? You won’t get arrested, and I will continue on my way, oblivious–alive and cheerful. Not at all the same as being six feet under.

But what I find especially interesting is the very next two verses after Matthew 5:28 (that whole context thing again):


If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)

Oddly, while verse 28 will be taken absolutely literally so we can make adolescent boys feel guilty, most Christians–if they even talk about Matthew 5:29-30–will recognize that Jesus is using a common literary technique called “hyperbole.” As in such familiar phrases as “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times” or “He always does that” or “there must have been a million of them!” Very few Christians imagine that Jesus, in Matthew 5:29-30, is suggesting that people should maim themselves. But they insist in the previous verse that Jesus was being literal and is equating temptation–thinking about a woman, or whatever the temptation might be–with the sin that sometimes comes from it.

And see, that’s the actual point, I think: sin indeed has its origins in our thoughts. Elsewhere, both in Matthew and Mark, Jesus is quoted as saying the following:

But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them. (Matthew 15:18-20; see parallel account in Mark 7:20-23).

While our thoughts may give birth to a variety of evils, the operative term here is “come out.” If the thoughts don’t come out, if they don’t escape, if you don’t give birth to them, then they are, in fact, resisted temptations. And only temptations. We shouldn’t be making folks feel guilty for being tempted and resisting . In fact, that’s kind of counterproductive: too often people–those adolescents I mentioned above–might think to themselves, “well, I thought it, so now I’m guilty, so I might as well have the fun of doing it.” or “I thought about eating that chocolate cake so I might as well chow down.”

See the problem? If you don’t eat it, it won’t put pounds on your thighs. Notice the difference between a thought and a deed: think about eating cake–you weigh the same as before you had the thought. Eat the cake–that’s when you gain weight.

Hmm. Didn’t James write something along those lines, though looking at it from the other end: that is, good thoughts versus good deeds:

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)

So let’s look back at Matthew 5:28 again. Perhaps Jesus is merely warning as clearly as possible, by using some hyperbole, that temptation is a slippery slope and the distance between thoughts and actions is very thin. I really don’t think he was arguing that thoughts and deeds are the same thing, or that you’ve sinned just by being tempted.

Remember: Hebrews tells us, Jesus was tempted, just like any other person–but he didn’t slip down the slope and sin.

So a bit of good news then: you, too, don’t have to move from temptation to sin.

And remember, there really is a difference between the two.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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