This article is an excerpt from Freedom From Sinful Thoughts.
Where does temptation end and sin begin? If we are plagued or tempted by evil thoughts, that in itself is not sinning. For instance, if we feel tempted to lash out at someone who has wronged us, yet then find strength to forgive him, we have not sinned. But if we refuse to let go of our hurt and hold a grudge against him, that is sin. In the same way, if we are aroused by a lustful thought but reject it, we have not sinned. Naturally it is quite different if we willingly pursue that thought, for instance by buying a pornographic magazine.
It is always a question of what we do when temptation comes. Martin Luther once wrote that evil thoughts come like birds flying over our heads. We cannot help that. But if we allow them to build nests on our heads, then we are responsible for them.
We will never be completely free of temptation; we should not even expect it. Even Jesus was tempted. Satan came to him in the wilderness disguised as an angel, and used words from scripture to tempt him – and only after the third temptation did Jesus recognize him and say, “Be gone from me, Satan! For scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him alone.’” When the devil realized that he had been recognized, he left Jesus; and then angels came to Him and brought Him food (Mt. 4:10–11).
At one time the idea of Jesus being tempted like an ordinary human being seemed blasphemous to me. Yet there is no question: he was, although he never sinned. This is of crucial importance, in the first place for our own inner lives, but also in the way we treat others who battle severe temptations:
As we children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. And because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted (Heb. 2:14–18).
The writer of the Letter is so concerned that this is clear to the reader, that he says it again in chapter 4, verse 15:
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 sinning.
Jesus never sinned. Even in the most severe battle of his life – at Gethsemane, where he must have contended with forces of darkness beyond our power to imagine, with whole armies of evil spirits fighting for his heart – he never swerved from his love to his Father. He remained obedient and loyal.
For us, the struggle against darkness in our hearts will remain as long as we live. That is the bitter truth, and it means that we can never overcome the evil besetting us with our own strength. The issue is not merely thoughts, feelings, or images, but warring spirits – Paul calls them “powers, authorities, and potentates of darkness.” We will need to pray for God’s protection again and again; and when temptations come in spite of our prayers, we will have to ask for an answer to each of them. Yet there is no reason to despair:
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way of escape so that you can stand up under it (1 Cor. 10:13).