If we want to to be talking about genuine Christianity (and we do) then we have to talk about sin. Without the reality of sin, there would be no need for forgiveness, and thus no need for a Savior in Jesus Christ. Just as boats wouldn’t be needed if there weren’t bodies of water to drown in, Christ’s saving sacrifice would be pointless if sin didn’t pose a fatal hazard to our souls.
But sin is a slippery topic! What kind of behavior rises to the level of sin? The natural human tendency is to consider ourselves blameless unless guilty of something approaching criminal behavior! But when Jesus preached His famous Sermon on the Mount, He contrasted the narrow way people interpreted God’s commandments against His much broader and deeper intent (Matthew 5:21-48.) Let’s focus on one item from that list that will help us discuss an important point about what sin is, and is not:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)
To many, this seems like an impossible (even ridiculous) assertion: you don’t have to be an expert in human physiology to know that sexual impulses are necessary for the survival of the human race! Visual cues are an important part of the machinery that God built into humans so they could fulfill His command to “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) – and they’re also part of what made God’s creation “very good.”(v. 31). Let’s be clear: God created sexual attraction, including those powerful visual triggers! So how could Jesus pronounce it a sin equal to adultery to have those reactions?
He didn’t! Sexual attraction is not the same as lust!
The problem is that we confuse experiencing natural impulses with harboring sinful longings. What does that mean? The distinction was memorably expressed in one of Martin Luther’s colorful sayings:
“You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair!”
Indeed! The birds (impulses) are constantly flying about, and we shouldn’t waste energy trying to deny they’re present: that’s not only deluded, but probably isn’t even healthy; a preoccupation with an unwanted impulse can easily turn into repression or obsession. Besides, it’s not the ‘birds’ themselves that are bad – it’s how we handle them. For example:
|‘Birds’||God’s Intent||Sinful ‘Nesting’|
|Sexual Attraction||Marriage & Family||Lust|
|Appetite||Nutrition & Health||Gluttony|
|Tiredness||Rest & Restoration||Laziness|
|Desire for things||Motivation & Success||Coveting|
|Fear||Prudence & Safety||Cowardice|
|Anger||Justice & Correction||Hatred|
The list could go on: in each case, the ‘birds’ are good gifts that God has provided to enhance and sustain our lives. For each gift, there is an associated payback of pleasure or utility by which we are encouraged to use it to achieve God’s loving purpose for us. But it’s part of mankind’s fallen nature that we are tempted to experience the reward for its own sake. It’s when we harbor the ‘birds’ inappropriately and nurture them for our own selfish gratification that we sin.
Luther’s metaphor wonderfully captures the daily challenge of living God-pleasing lives with all those pesky (but necessary) birds flying about. No, we can’t (and shouldn’t even try to) live in a bird-free environment. We shouldn’t feel guilty that they are overhead. And we should, in fact, be ready to welcome them into our lives for the wholesome purposes for which God has given them.
But be assured of this also – in this fallen world, the birds of temptation are always going to be trying to make unapproved landings (and sometimes they will succeed). That’s why we need God’s help to be vigilant in shooing them away before they take over our lives and raise messy families on our heads! (And that’s also why we live in gratitude for the forgiveness won for us by Christ.)