When Is It Sin? Mapping the Divide Between Attraction and Lust

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When Is It Sin? Mapping the Divide Between Attraction and Lust

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own passionate desire. Then passionate desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” James 1:12-15[1]

In the great controversy in my heart, sometimes the fighting is fierce. I can’t let my guard down; I can’t lay the armor of God down. “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8, NASB). This lion, my adversary the devil, tailors his snares just for me. How can I live my life from day to day, care for my responsibilities, and still have the energy to fight this fight?

Enter my Champion, my Commander-in-Chief, the One who fights for me, my Savior victorious. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). That puts my fight in perspective. God “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6), so this is what is needed: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). When I am humble and submitted to God, the devil flees because we resist—God in me, God holding me, me not by myself, me following Him and being rescued by Him—we resist that lion and he flees.

Don’t you love that picture too? The lion no longer prowls; the lion flees!

But sometimes I don’t run straight to my Deliverer, and the lion does not flee straightaway. Sometimes I spend some time—a second or much longer—thinking about that thing my adversary has put in my way to ensnare me. And I wonder: Even if I do not yield to that temptation, when does temptation stop and sin begin?

When is it sin? Is it ever sin to think about temptation? Maybe I’m a guy, a senior in high school, at home some afternoon flipping through TV channels. On the screen comes the image of a young woman with too little clothing. I have made a covenant with my eyes (Job 31:1) and a commitment to God to flee lust, so I flip to another channel. After two seconds—two seconds of admiring how beautiful and womanly she looked. Did I resist temptation, or yield to it?

Say I’m a mom who argues with her husband about how to raise the kids. Later, at a kids’ Bible study, I chat with a dad I haven’t seen before. He’s friendly and kind and shares similar parenting values. I wonder what he’s like as a dad and a husband. I don’t lust after him, but I feel drawn to him. But, sensing my weakness, I vow to avoid him in the future—after contemplating the whole experience for a week. Did I resist temptation, or yield to it, or both?

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). This “blessed” (μακάριος) is written in the style of the beatitudes. It does not condemn one who is under trial or temptation (both trial and temptation are translations of the same Greek word πειρασμός). In fact, it blesses the one who patiently endures them.

Even more, this “patient enduring” (ὑπομονὴ) is a hallmark of the saints, as seen in Rev. 14:12: “Here is the patient enduring of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (KJV).[2] When this patient enduring has proven the person to be genuine, God gives a magnificent reward—a crown of victory, the crown of life. This reward of a crown (στέφανος) reminds us of Rev. 2:10: “‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested [πειρασθῆτε, which is related to the πειρασμόν of James 1:12], and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life’” (NASB).

Certainly the Bible indicates that there is no condemnation associated with being under trial/temptation. To the contrary, there is the ultimate reward of the crown of life promised to those who endure these things patiently.

Temptation and Desire

It is important to remember, however, that while temptation comes from Satan, temptation is made possible because of our human nature. “But each person is tempted when he is lured [drawn aside from the right way] and enticed [baited] by his own passionate desire” (James 1:14). Certainly this is especially true of our fallen, sinful nature. But it is also true of human nature that is merely finitely human, and not even fallen (think of Adam and Eve’s temptations, and Jesus’). “Passionate desire” is part of human nature, and plays a large part in temptation. It seems to smack of sin, but in fact this word (ἐπιθυμία) is morally neutral and can refer to anything from the passionate desire of lust to the passionate desire that Jesus had to eat that last Passover supper with His disciples (Luke 22:15). Basically, temptation comes when the devil exploits any of our human passionate desires (even if they’re not inherently sinful) and tries to use them to lure and bait us, to draw us away from God and His way.

So is it sin yet? No. When is it sin? “There is no sin in having temptations; but sin comes in when temptation is yielded to,” Ellen White wrote (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, p. 358). “Then passionate desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15). It seems that passionate desire “conceiving” corresponds to yielding to temptation. Another translation of “conceive” in this verse is “seize,” in which case temptation works by drawing away, baiting, and finally seizing its prey (James 1:14, 15). When Satan’s temptations seize and join up with human passionate desire, the result (the child) is sin, “and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15).

Sin is yielding to temptation. Satan tempts, but the choice to yield to his temptation, the choice to sin, is my own. In Ellen White’s words, “The strongest temptation is no excuse for sin. No matter how severe the pressure brought to bear upon you, sin is your own act” (Adventist Home, p. 331). Also, “By faith and prayer all may meet the requirements of the gospel. No man can be forced to transgress. His own consent must be first gained; the soul must purpose the sinful act before passion can dominate over reason or iniquity triumph over conscience. Temptation, however strong, is never an excuse for sin” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 177). And once again, “There is no sin in having temptations; but sin comes in when temptation is yielded to” (4T 358).

Now back to the examples given earlier. Neither the high school student nor the married mom committed any sin of immorality that anyone else would have noticed. Yet Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount makes clear that sin can just as surely take place in the mind and imagination. After quoting the seventh commandment against adultery, He takes it further and expands its meaning: “I say to you that everyone looking upon a woman in order to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28, author’s translation).

Did the two people in the examples above succumb to the sin of lust when they were thinking about the persons who attracted their attention? Only they and God know. The young man may have engaged in two seconds of lust before shunning it, or he may have merely momentarily admired the beauty of the woman without yielding to the temptation of lust. Same with the mom. If she lusted after the acquaintance she made, she would be yielding to temptation and would have sinned. However, if she spent the whole week wholeheartedly submitting to God and fighting against temptation, gaining the victory at the end, she did not sin.

Still, in our struggle against sin, it is dangerous and unwise—although not in itself sinful—to spend time contemplating the temptation when what is needed is quick resolve and an immediate fleeing to Christ for aid. Ellen White speaks to the best and most successful plan for resisting temptation:

If we would not commit sin, we must shun its very beginnings. Every emotion and desire must be held in subjection to reason and conscience. Every unholy thought must be instantly repelled. To your closet, followers of Christ. Pray in faith and with all the heart. Satan is watching to ensnare your feet. You must have help from above if you would escape his devices. (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 177)

And again,

Temptation, however strong, is never an excuse for sin. ‘The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and His ears are open unto their prayers.’ Cry unto the Lord, tempted soul. Cast yourself, helpless, unworthy, upon Jesus, and claim His very promise. The Lord will hear. He knows how strong are the inclinations of the natural heart, and He will help in every time of temptation. (5T 177)

Attraction vs. Lust

So we have seen that sin is yielding to temptation, whether in actions or merely in the imagination. In the case of immorality, sin is either committing an immoral act or yielding to immoral thoughts by lusting after someone (Matt. 5:28). Being tempted is not sin. Being attracted to someone is not sin, as long as the beholder does not yield to the temptation to lust.

There is a difference between attraction and lust, as most anyone who has ever been attracted to someone will know. Except, perhaps, for me at the tender age of 8, and probably any other child who like me felt attracted to someone before having any knowledge of the birds and the bees. Eight was the age when I first felt attracted to a member of the opposite sex. But it certainly was only attraction, because with my lack of knowledge of anything sexual, I can’t imagine that I would have even been able to conceive a lustful thought.

Now some people report that from the time they can remember, from childhood before they ever knew of the birds and the bees, they felt an attraction to members of the same sex. Not lust, but attraction. We may deny that it is possible for children to have these feelings without actually choosing them. I will not argue whether it is possible or not. But I will argue a hypothetical point: If it is true that some children’s first experience of attraction is that of same-sex attraction, and if it is true that those feelings came before the child had any knowledge of the “facts of life,” then certainly for them there must be a difference between attraction and lust (just as there was for most of us who as children were attracted to members of the opposite sex).

This is a germane point, because not long ago an article was published here at Compass that denied any difference between same-sex attraction and same-sex lust. However, in the Bible immorality is described as an immoral act or a lustful thought. Lust is sin; yielding to the temptation of lust is sin, but being tempted to lust is not sin. From what we have seen from the Bible and Ellen White, there most assuredly is a difference between being tempted and sinning.

To repeat, “There is no sin in having temptations; but sin comes in when temptation is yielded to” (4T 358). There is no doubt that the devil fiercely tempts those who have same-sex attraction; he tempts them to lust, and thus to sin by yielding to that temptation. We as heterosexuals have also experienced his temptations to heterosexual lust. Thank God that sin comes only when temptation is yielded to!

This truth applies also to the hypothetical child who is surprised by his or her first feelings of attraction, and confused as to why that attraction is to the same sex as opposed to the norm. There is no sin unless there is lust. If it is possible for this child to experience same-sex attraction without same-sex lust, it is also possible for that child as an adult to differentiate between same-sex attraction and same-sex lust (just as heterosexual adults can be capable of discerning between attraction and lust in their own lives). Once again, to all those who are tempted, it is welcome relief that “there is no sin in having temptations; but sin comes in when temptation is yielded to” (4T 358).

For those who have same-sex attraction but love the Lord and do not want to sin, the Lord is near to them as they cling to Him in the fight against same-sex lust. It may not seem fair that they must fight this battle against what feels like their own natural inclination. And especially if you think of an innocent little child feeling same-sex attraction for the first time, it certainly does not seem fair that they have such a path ahead of them. But this is what happens in a world of sin. Sin is usually not fair.

This is why Christ made a choice that didn’t seem fair for Him: He allowed Himself to be crucified as the basest criminal for our salvation. He wants to make it possible for everyone who chooses Him to live in justice and perfection with Him forever. He not only shed His blood so we can live, but He even now is interceding on our behalf, making His blood efficacious for our redemption. “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:1-4). “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).

We, struggling with temptation, are always covered by the blood of Jesus and buoyed by His grace. So long as we cling to Him, Satan flees and the fight against sin is won.

Our chief danger is in having the mind diverted from Christ. The name of Jesus has power to drive back the temptations of Satan and lift up for us a standard against him. So long as the soul rests with unshaken confidence in the virtue and power of the atonement, it will stand firm as a rock to principle, and all the powers of Satan and his angels cannot sway it from its integrity. The truth as it is in Jesus is a wall of fire around the soul that clings to Him. Temptations will pour in upon us, for by them we are to be tried during our probation upon earth. This is the proving of God, a revelation of our own hearts. There is no sin in having temptations; but sin comes in when temptation is yielded to. (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, p. 358)



[1] Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts are from the ESV. In James 1:14, 15 (quoted here and elsewhere), I have used the term “passionate desire” in place of the ESV’s “desire” to provide a more accurate and nuanced translation.

[2] I have used the term “patient enduring” in place of the KJV’s “patience,” again to provide a more accurate and nuanced translation.

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