A past Fish Hooks (https://teamfishhooks.com/birds-in-the-hair/ ) dealt with the distinction between experiencing natural impulses (e.g., sexual attraction) vs. indulging in sinful behaviors (e.g., lusting), and cited a memorable saying of Martin Luther’s:
“You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair!”
That little saying memorably expresses a profound truth that volumes of theological ruminations often fail to capture: the distinction between that which is an unavoidable aspect of how God made us (physical impulses and emotional reactions) and our temptation to harbor and nurture such sensations for our own sinful self-gratification (e.g. lusting or hating). This earthy metaphor is then a helpful way of navigating the twin traps of feeling guilty for the wholesome gifts with which God has blessed us without being indulgent of sinful behavior because the temptation is ‘natural.’ Birds are beautiful natural creatures that become unwholesome plagues when they roost and multiply where they don’t belong!
Comments elicited by that earlier Fish Hooks suggested that there is another dimension to this topic which is also worthwhile to explore, namely, our own role as those who can intentionally or unintentionally create temptation for others – acting as ‘bird launchers’ as it were.
When Jesus said: “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Luke 17:1) He was speaking to this issue, but honestly, doesn’t that seem to raise more troubling questions than it answers? Are we truly held complicit in the moral failures of others?
Now, few would argue the applicability of Jesus’ warning when we are talking about activities that are deliberately structured to tempt others into sinful behavior (such as dealing drugs, producing pornography, or inciting violence). But are we then to extrapolate from this to every situation where someone might conceivably find temptation to sin in something we do or say? Surely not! By that standard, we would be forced to retreat from all human contact, to repress all the good gifts with which we have been endowed, and to live lives under a cloud of perpetual guilt and uncertainty.
Perhaps we can again gain some guidance from Luther’s little saying by recognizing the wisdom that there is a big practical difference between that which we cannot reasonably control, and that which we participate in willingly! Of course, that still leaves a very large gray area of behaviors wherein Christians will struggle to make the right decisions. On the one hand, each of us is called upon to care for our neighbor, and that means moving beyond simple issues of legal culpability: though yielding to temptation is solely the fault of the sinner, love often requires us to consider his/her weakness and willingly forgo our own freedom (e.g.: not ordering an alcoholic beverage when having dinner with someone struggling with addiction). But it’s also apparent that this can be taken to ridiculous extremes – as ridiculous as trying to keep birds from flying over our heads! So how do we consistently straddle the moral middle?
We actually can’t! Unlike our worldly culture which is concerned with rigid rules, Christian morality is concerned with doing the will of our Heavenly Father, and because of our fallen nature, that’s a standard that we are not well equipped to discern, much less practice. But the good news is that in Christ we live not under guilt but grace. This gives us the freedom to live boldly, doing our best, knowing that though we will surely fail to live perfect lives, Christ has done this for us. Our freedom is not license to behave irresponsibly, nor is it immunity from the struggle of temptation, but it is the assurance that, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our inevitable failures are fully covered by His cloak of righteousness.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14)