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*Frequently asked questions*
The Bible, the written word of God, is our sole authority in answering all questions pertaining to our spiritual life. However, in reading the Bible, we must keep in mind that the Bible is not written like a book of science where each statement is exact and complete in itself, nor like a book of law where the goal is to elaborate matters in sections and sub-sections so as to avoid loopholes. The Bible is written for the heart, and can be understood in its proper sense only by those who are spiritually minded (1Co.2:14), and who desire to do the will of God once it is revealed (Jn.7:17). Those who want to argue against the word of God can always find arguments, and those who do not want to obey what God says can appear to find words of God themselves to support their stand. Please read the following with an open heart and a willingness to know God's ways and obey them. - Jacob Ninan
Temptation and sin
1. What is sin?
Sin can be explained in several ways. But probably the simplest way to describe it is to say that sin is to do something that God doesn't want us to do. This includes doing, saying and thinking things that God doesn't like, and also keeping attitudes that are displeasing to God. So you see that God is the standard. Our holiness (separation from sin) must be like that of God (Le.19:2). It doesn't matter what we think or what other people think about things. If God thinks something is wrong, it is sin if we do it, even if we don't think so, or "feel" so.
2. How can we know if something is sin?
At the lowest level, we can know we have sinned, when our conscience troubles us. Christians have God's Holy Spirit living in them, and He convicts us when we go wrong and warns us when we are likely to go wrong. But in both these cases the accuracy of our "hearing" depends on our sensitivity - to the voice of our conscience and the Holy Spirit. If we keep neglecting what our conscience tells us, it becomes hardened, and then it is possible for us to think that something is alright even when it is wrong. If we have not learned to identify the voice of the Holy Spirit as distinct from other "voices" or thoughts that come into our mind, we could make mistakes. So God has given us written instructions in His word, the Bible. If we read and obey what is written there, then we shall get to know more and more clearly what sin is (Ps.119:9,11). Then we shall also become more sensitive to the Holy Spirit who will be able to tell us about things that are not specifically written in the Bible. God promises us that if we "want" to do God's will, He will give us understanding of what He wants (Jn.7:17).
3. What is temptation?
Temptation is nothing but a suggestion to sin, a prompting to do something wrong. It comes to us as a thought in our mind. Temptation can come to us from what we see, hear, feel, or even as a suggestion straight from the devil, who can put such thoughts into our mind. Many things can provoke - tempt - us to sin.
4. I don't want to sin. But all these wrong thoughts come into my mind. It looks as if I have no chance to avoid sin.
You mustn't think that you have sinned just because you have been tempted. Actually there are four steps in temptation and sin.
1. The temptation comes into our mind, and we feel a strong pull towards sin.
2. We choose to yield to that temptation.
3. We do what the temptation was prompting us to do.
4. We suffer the consequences of sin.
But suppose we go through a different set of four steps ...
1. The temptation comes into our mind, and we feel a strong pull towards sin.
2. We struggle against that pull of temptation, crying out to God to save us.
3. We don't do what the temptation was prompting us to do.
4. We have overcome the temptation! We become spiritually stronger!
So you see that temptation is not sin. It is only when we yield to temptation that we sin (Jas.1:14,15). But we have the possibility of not giving in, with the help of God. Almost at the beginning of man's history, God told Cain that sin was crouching at the door, but that he should master it (Ge.4:7).
5. So when do we actually sin?
When we choose to yield to the temptation. We haven't sinned just because we have been tempted. We haven't sinned even when we are struggling against sin. But we sin when we yield in our heart, that is, choose, to sin.
Now sin can be in the form of an action. We can say or do something wrong. But it will also be sin, even if we don't actually do anything wrong externally, if we yield to the temptation in our heart. For example, if we suddenly happened to see a dirty picture and we continue to look at it and enjoy dirty pleasures, it is a sin. But even if we turn away from the picture but continue to enjoy it in our imagination we sin. Or take another example. Imagine somebody who did something wrong to us. If we go and let him really have it - tit for tat or more - we sin, of course. But even if we don't actually do or say anything to him but carry on with unforgiving attitudes or malicious thoughts we sin.
6. You gave this example of looking at a dirty picture. I turn away from looking at it. But this picture lingers on in my mind even while I am struggling to get rid of it. I can't honestly say that I don't get some pleasure from those moments when the picture keeps coming back to me. Have I already sinned, even though I ultimately get away from those thoughts?
Think of the other example I gave. We are trying to forgive this man who has done us harm. But the thought of what he has done keeps coming back, and we can't help thinking momentarily how much harm he has done to us.
This is in the nature of temptation itself. If a little boy's mouth doesn't water at the sight of the chocolate bar in his mother's cupboard, he is not tempted to steal it. But if he, after many moments of struggle, finally decides not to steal it, he has overcome. As long as we are battling against sin, we are all right. We are not perfect, but we are making progress. In a strict sense, of course, our momentary slip-ups in the midst of our struggle are also sins. We can ask the Lord to forgive us. But they don't need to make us discouraged. We are making progress, aren't we?
But, having said that, it is also good to know that the more we battle against a temptation and overcome, our struggle will become less and less difficult. Finally when we have become mature in that area of life, we can say that it doesn't tempt us any more.
7. Why do I feel temptations to be so strong, sometimes too strong for me to resist?
It is because we have what the Bible calls "the flesh." This is a part of us that has a strong tendency to sin. We have all inherited this flesh from our ancestors, Adam and Eve, because they sinned (Ro.5:12). The Bible says that this flesh has strong desires and passions (Ep.2:3).
8. If I have such a flesh, how can I ever avoid sinning?
We can't. But that is why Jesus came, to set us free from sin, not only from the punishment for our sins but also from the power of sin (1Jn.3:5,8).
9. I thought when someone becomes a Christian he becomes a new man and he doesn't have the old flesh any more?
What happens when a man is born again is that his "old self" is moved out of the way and he gets a "new self." The old self is not the same as the flesh. The flesh is something we will have to carry with us as long as we live in this world. We are tempted because there are desires in this flesh (Jas.1:14). We have to crucify the flesh (Ga.5:24). The new self is a new mind that does not want to sin.
10. Are you sure we have to struggle? My Christian friend says that we don't have to struggle, but just to hand over the battle to God.
I used that word - struggle - deliberately. The Bible mentions this struggle, fight or battle in many places e.g. He.12:4; Ep.6:12; 1Ti.1:18;6:12. But - this is one of the paradoxes of Christian life - it is also true that as we struggle and realise that we can't handle it, we learn to hand over the battle to the Lord in an expression of human helplessness but confidence in God, and we experience victory. The example of King Jehoshaphat in the Old Testament is quite revealing in this connection (2Ch.20).
Also, this struggle can take various forms. It can be against an old habit, strong temper, sexual desire or it can be a struggle to forgive someone who has done us great harm, or to overcome anxiety about the future. It may be that we have received victory by faith over certain sins in our life, but we are finding it a struggle in some other areas. In all these things and in every other temptation, the more we learn to have no confidence in ourselves and to have confidence in the Lord, the less our struggle becomes. But it can be quite misleading to many people if we said that there was no struggle involved.
11. I don't want to sin. I want to enjoy the victory that Jesus has come to give me. But why do I still find it a big struggle?
Paul said, "When I am weak, then I am strong" (2Co.12:10). It is a bit difficult to understand unless we have experienced certain things ourselves. Perhaps you think that you are not strong enough to overcome temptation. You think you are too weak! You think you ought to become stronger - make stronger resolutions, grit your teeth harder, read the Bible, pray or fast more, etc. But the more you try, the farther away victory seems to be. You hold out successfully for some time. But suddenly one temptation comes and down you fall.
The problem is, you are too strong - in yourself! You still have confidence in yourself that if only you try harder you will get victory. But finally one day you give up, realising that you just can't make it. You have become weak - in yourself. But now if you can believe that even if you can't save yourself, God can, and go to Him in faith, He will save you! When you are weak - in yourself - you are strong - in the grace of God.
12. I have been a Christian for many years. But I am so discouraged because there is so much of struggle in my life against sin. Why can't I have the life of rest which the Bible promises?
You know, the Old Testament story of the people of Israel and their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan has many things to teach us. But one thing we can think of in this context is that before they could enter rest in Canaan, they had to fight the Canaanites and overcome them. This fight, or struggle, in seeking to overcome, is not sin. Actually it proves that you don't want to sin. Just persevere, and you will also come to rest. If you didn't feel the pressure of temptation, it wouldn't be a temptation for you! And remember, temptation is not sin. If you struggle against temptation, you are doing well, because after some time, you will get the victory (1Pe.5:10).
Read also my illustrated article on "Dealing with temptation."
Use the form below to write if you have questions or comments about this subject.
FAQ on spiritual warfare