The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:6 -7)
From the time of St Augustine, Christianity, especially in the West, saw humans being fallen, sinful beings. Humans were viewed as being sinful by nature. Yet, that is not the total picture found in the Scriptures. Humans are presented in the Bible as having free will, which was not lost through the sin of Eve and Adam. This means humans must continue to make choices, and sin is merely one choice (albeit a wrong one) that we can make.
“See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you this day, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
Biblical scholar Dale Allison in his book, THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT comments:
“lt is crucial to observe that Matthew’s construction … implies that the sin lies not in the entrance of a thought but in letting it incite to wrongful passion… One could translate: ‘Everyone looking upon a women in order to lust after her . . . ‘ [Matt 5:28]. Jesus is talking not about feelings but about intentions, and so the sin he condemns lies not in the entrance of desire but in what one does with that desire. . . . Evagrius observed: ‘It is not in our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions’ (Prakitikos 6). Matt 5:27-30 is really about controlling the imagination – not about the eyes so much as the soul that uses them.” (p 74)
It is not sin when sinful thoughts enter our minds. It is what we do about those those thoughts or with those thoughts which can become sin. Even if we can’t stop such thoughts from springing into our minds, we can resist such thoughts or ignore them. Or we choose to entertain them and they become our passions. That is when they become sin. We see a sexually attractive person – it is not sin to think of the person as sexually desirable. That really can be nothing more than observing the truth. The sin occurs only as we allow the lust to take over our thinking. We let the passion control our thinking and this becomes our sin. Jesus teaches in Matthew 15:17-20 – “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” All manners of thoughts may pop into our heads, just like food entering the mouth, but the sin occurs only with what we do with these thoughts – how we act on them or allow them to act on us. Or as Allison notes in his translation of Matthew 5:28 – if we look at someone in order to lust after them – this is not lust popping into our head, but our looking for someone to lust after.
“…Maximus the Confessor: ‘It is not food which is evil but gluttony, not the begetting of children but fornication, not possessions but greed, not reputation but vainglory. And if this is so, there is nothing evil in creatures except misuse, which stems from the mind’s negligence in its natural cultivation’ (Four Centuries on Charity 3.4).” (p 75)
Sin occurs when we misuse our thoughts, feelings, ideas, possessions, relationships, friends, others, or our self. We allow our passions to misuse things or people or relationships. We cease seeing the goodness or godliness in others or other things and see them as a means to fulfill our passionate desires. As St Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:4-5 – “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”
“Jesus knows as well as Paul that the problem is not the body as such but the sin that dwells in it (cf. Rom 7:17,20). As Matt 15:17-18 has it, ‘Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this what defiles.‘ The Christian ‘amputates the passions of the soul without touching the body’ (Origen, Commentary on Matthew 15:4).” (p 76)
We are endeavoring in the spiritual life to cut off sin, to rid ourselves of anything that separates us from God.