All of us have to deal with sin and its tragic consequences in our lives. Understanding why we sin is a first step in overcoming and avoiding sin.
Sin is a universal human problem. It's something we all do. But have you ever stopped to ask why? Why can't we make a studied decision not to sin and then never again disobey God?
The apostle Paul eloquently expressed our frustration with sin: "For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do" (Romans:7:15).
Not everyone wants to sin. But everyone does. Again, why? Why do we so often fall short of God's standards and our own expectations?
Here's the reason
The Greek word most commonly translated "sin" simply means "to miss the mark"-to fail to adhere to the righteous standards God has set for us. Paul expressed the same concept, lamenting that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans:3:23, emphasis added throughout). Through His Word, God reveals the proper standards for our behavior. When we miss the mark, or fall short of those standards, we sin.
Because he was a physical being just like us, Paul knew that sin "dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find" (Romans:7:16-18). We have limited natural ability to properly live up to right standards and values. We repeatedly fall short of the honorable conduct God expects of us.
Paul explained why. We sin, or miss the mark, because of something that dwells in us, in our flesh. Jesus identifies the most significant characteristic of the "flesh," or our nature, that causes sin. "Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew:26:41). It is the weakness of the flesh that gives birth to sin. Let's understand just how this works.
Like Paul, Jesus explained that we may be willing-have the desire-to do what is right, yet we fail because our resolve is weak; our flesh is susceptible to temptation. We capitulate to sin when inappropriate enticements are sufficiently appealing. What is the nature of our "flesh" (our physical existence, including our mind) that makes us so weak, that stimulates us to cave in to those desires?
Before we can fully appreciate the answer to that question, we must understand our own nature-exactly what we are. We are physical beings created with a material constitution similar to that of animals. We share with animals a biochemical composition. Our life-support systems of breath and blood are essentially the same (Ecclesiastes:3:18-20; Genesis:9:4-5). God created us as living souls-breathing physical beings-from the dust of the earth (Genesis:2:7).
The translation of the Hebrew nephesh as "living soul" doesn't mean we humans have some sort of "immortal soul" in a physical body. Nor does it imply that man is some type of spirit encased in a material body. In plain language, living soul means we are living, breathing fleshly beings, biochemical entities fashioned from the dust of the earth.
Our physical bodies subject us to weaknesses that can lead to sin. Jesus and Paul both said so. Our flesh is not inherently evil, but it is inherently weak. As a result, our pulls and appetites tempt us to sin.
James also plainly states that sin is generated through our human desires, because "each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin . . ." (James:1:14-15).
Deliverance only through Christ
Paul alluded to the magnitude of the problem when he said, "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans:7:24). Paul's own answer: "I thank God-through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin" (verse 25).
Paul makes it abundantly clear that sin springs from uncontrolled desires. Our only hope for deliverance is the help and strength we receive through Jesus Christ. "Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren . . . For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted" (Hebrews:2:17-18).
Is desire always bad? When Paul said, "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells" (Romans:7:18), did he mean that every desire of our fleshly bodies is evil? Certainly not!
He could have said, just as accurately, "I know that in my flesh dwells nothing that is inherently evil," because the flesh, in and of itself, is neutral in regard to sin and righteousness. After God had finished His creation, including Adam and Eve, whose bodies were no different from ours, He observed "everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good" (Genesis:1:31). Nothing that God made was inherently evil.
Even our own observations should confirm that the appetites and needs that are natural to our bodies have good and healthy purposes. If we felt no hunger for food, we would die of starvation. But that same desire, when not properly controlled, can lead to overindulgence and gluttony. The natural desires or appetites of the flesh are not in themselves sinful; the way we direct, manage or control our appetites makes them good or evil. Without desires, our lives would be boring and practically useless. Desires serve as motivating forces in our lives. That is why God created the bodily mechanisms that stimulate desires within us. They are much needed.
Our challenge, then, is to manage our desires. God expects us to seek and use His help to direct them into legitimate channels. While defending himself before the Roman governor, Felix, the apostle Paul "reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come" (Acts:24:25). The need to maintain self-control is one of the major teachings of the gospel. Paul admonishes us to "make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts" (Romans:13:14). Rather, we must properly control our desires so they do not become sinful lusts.
John summarizes the scope of the problem as "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" (1 John:2:16). Improperly managed, unrestrained desires stimulate these basic categories of sin.
What is lust?
Lust is nothing more than misdirected or improperly controlled desire. All lust is desire, but not all desire is lust. Lust is harmful desires that break principles of God's law. The law of God defines proper limits, for our behavior as well as for our thoughts, "for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans:3:20). Commandments forbidding us to steal or commit adultery place boundaries on our behavior. The command not to covet places limits on how we think, how we control our desires.
Taking your neighbor's car without permission-that is, stealing-is a sin. Even desiring to take your neighbor's car without permission is a sin, that of coveting. Conversely, wanting to own the same type of car as your neighbor's is a legitimate desire, provided you desire to acquire it legally and responsibly.
Likewise, desiring your neighbor's mate is a sin. But it is not a sin to desire to be married-provided, again, your approach is lawful and responsible.
A misunderstanding of Jesus' words when He said that "whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew:5:28) has brought about much unnecessary and hopeless frustration. Some have misinterpreted Jesus' words to mean that any type of sexual attraction is a sin. That is not what Jesus meant. Let's make sure we do not misinterpret what He said.
Jesus condemned lust-out-of-control, unlawful desires. He did not condemn men or women who, having a legitimate desire to marry, find members of the opposite sex attractive and desirable. Jesus condemned sinful desires for sexual immorality, not the legitimate sexual attraction that leads to courtship and marriage. Desire is lust when it rages out of control.
Emotions and pride
Our human nature affects far more than do our conscious desires. It stimulates powerful feelings or emotions, some good, some evil. For instance, we are capable of intense love or bitter hatred. Our emotions can be beneficial and wonderful, or they can be destructive and sinful. Feelings such as bitterness, envy, malice and jealousy are listed among the sinful works of the flesh in Paul's writings (Romans:1:29; Galatians:5:19-21).
Pride, the feeling or perception that one is superior in some way to others, destroys human relationships. The desire for self-exaltation lies at the root of an impressive array of sins.
Paul alerts Timothy to the destructive influence that people who are motivated by pride have on the attitudes of others: "If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself" (1 Timothy:6:3-5).
We are told, "Everyone proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD; though they join forces, none will go unpunished" (Proverbs:16:5). And "pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (verse 18). Peter exhorts that "all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for 'God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble'" (1 Peter:5:5).
Temptations to sin are not limited to our ineffective human ability to control our desires. Our weaknesses can be manipulated, and they are-to a degree that astonishes most people when they discover the extent of the machinations. The great manipulator is Satan. He has successfully deceived the whole world (Revelation:12:9).
Satan the tempter
How does Satan take advantage of our weaknesses, our vulnerability to temptation? "But I fear," said Paul, "lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ" (2 Corinthians:11:3). Satan is a master at maneuvering the human mind, actually influencing the way we think. He persuaded Eve to believe that God had lied to her and forbidden her to acquire something that could give her understanding of good and evil, making her as wise as Himself. The devil aroused her emotions and kindled resentment and rebellion in her. Suddenly self-willed, she took matters into her own hands (Genesis:3:1-6).
Satan did all this by directing and influencing emotions, feelings and desires. That is how human sin began: through a combination of human weakness and the pernicious influence of a master manipulator. And Satan has not decreased his efforts!
Peter admonishes us to "be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world" (1 Peter:5:8-9).
Paul told exactly how to resist Satan: "Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians:6:11-12).
Jesus indicted the religious leaders of His day: "You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do" (John:8:44). Satan knows just what to concentrate on: human desires. He even tried to entice Jesus, seeking to control the Messiah Himself (Matthew:4:1-10).
Notice Satan's technique in this attempt. First the devil, as the tempter, endeavored to exploit Christ's physical hunger (He had been fasting for 40 days) to persuade Him to place His desire for food ahead of the purpose of His fast. Next Satan appealed to pride, tempting Jesus to prove that He enjoyed infinite protection from physical harm. Then Satan made a direct bid for Jesus to worship him in exchange for "all the kingdoms of the world and their glory" (verse 8), appealing to the all-too-common human tendency to grasp for power and prestige.
A blinded world
Satan, the de-facto god of this world, has succeeded in blinding humanity (2 Corinthians:4:4; Revelation:12:9). Except for the few who have turned to God through repentance, that blindness is universal. Paul said one who wants to obey God "should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart" (Ephesians:4:17-19).
The mind of a blinded man or woman-confused and influenced by both the lusts of the flesh and the wiles of the devil-is what is referred to in the Scriptures as a "carnal mind": "For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be" (Romans:8:5-7). Notice that Paul defines a carnal mind as a mind set "on the things of the flesh."
To illustrate the degree of human subjugation to the pulls and desires of human nature, as they are influenced and manipulated by Satan, Paul uses the analogy of slavery. "Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness" (Romans:6:16-18).
Not saved by the law
God's law is a perfect law (Psalm:19:7). It is holy, just and spiritual (Romans:7:12, 14). It defines sin (verse 7), but it cannot prevent it. It gives us knowledge of the weaknesses of human nature, but it provides no power to subdue the flesh; that is, the carnal mind.
The power to rule over our human impulses and desires comes only through the Spirit of God. "I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish" (Galatians:5:16-17).
"So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you" (Romans:8:8-9). "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death" (verses 1-2).
We all occasionally succumb to the temptation to sin, even after we surrender our wills to God and work as active servants of Jesus Christ. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John:1:8). But we should strive never to sin again.
Therefore "let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls" (Hebrews:12:1-3).
Paul reveals the effort he put into disciplining his own body: the source of the desires that tempted him to sin. "Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified" (1 Corinthians:9:24-27).
Later Paul admits and explains that he had never attained perfection in his efforts to discipline himself not to sin. But he gives us a perspective we should adopt: "Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13-14).
Not only must we resist sin; we must also be willing to assist others in their efforts. "Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins" (James:5:19-20).
We should take care to avoid conceit and overconfidence, deceiving ourselves about our vulnerability to sin. We should forever be aware that we are easily tempted by carnal desires, but never surrender to discouragement or defeat. We, like Paul, should always press forward toward the goal of being like Jesus Christ.