A feeling of guilt is a terrible feeling, especially when the shame is valid. Though guilt is a gift of God to humanity in order to bring individuals to repentance, and to help stabilize societal behavior, the desire to escape from feeling guilty about anything remains strong in the human heart. Speaking to the Christian community, I would suggest that a feeling of guilt be embraced when it is united to any impulse to sin.
A common discussion is centered on the impulse of some to engage in homosexual behavior. There is a popular teaching in the Church that it is not wrong to have homosexual feelings, if they are not acted upon. The idea is that people can be born with a propensity to homosexuality, and have strong feelings of attraction to another person of the same sex. However, there is no sin involved unless the homosexual impulse is acted upon.
This way of thinking should be reconsidered, in my opinion. Because it is wrong to engage in inappropriate behavior that the Bible condemns, it is also wrong to have an impulse to sin. Any strong desire to transgress the Law of God should be confessed with tears of repentance.
There was a time in the life of the Church when the impulse to sin, the emotional inclination to do wrong, was not celebrated, or tolerated, but was a source of sorrow.
“O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let that grace now, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart; O take and seal it;
seal it for thy courts above.”
When James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” had an impulse to murder a Samaritan community which did not receive their preaching, Jesus did not praise the men for not acting upon their impulsive anger. Jesus condemned their spirit. The story is recorded in the Gospel of Luke. “And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, 52 And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. 53 And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? 55 But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. 56 For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village” (Luke 9:51-56).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus took His disciples beyond the letter of the Mosaic Law to the spirit of the Law in order to magnify the righteousness of God, and enhance a feeling of guilt when violated. The impulse to inappropriate sexual behavior was condemned as well as the action itself (Matt. 5:27, 28).
When Jesus spoke about dealing radically with sinful behavior, He addressed not just how sin manifested itself, but the impulse that would cause a body part to be misused. An eye, or a hand, cannot do wrong apart from the impulse that guides the thought that moves the body.
When Jesus set a high standard for marriage, and limited divorce for every cause, He was telling people not to act impulsively for the emotional proclivity to divorce can be just as evil as the act itself if biblical boundaries are not honored. The idea that a person can have homosexual impulses, without sin, is meant to convey sympathy for the internal struggles that some individuals have.
However, the well-meant sympathy, empathy, and understanding is not helpful if the goal is to change, not just the outer person, the behavioral part, but the inward man. “ For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: 20 These are the things which defile a man” (Matt. 15:19, 20a).
In his book, The Mortification of Sin, John Owen encourages Christians to put to the death the root of sin which is the impulse to do wrong and live by the Spirit who provides the impulse for righteous behavior. Herein is the source of happiness and a life without guilt. When the heart is pure, all things will be pure. The Spirit “works in us and with us, not against us or without us” (Works, 6:20; emphasis original). If the heart is not guarded so that the impulse to do wrong is arrested, confessed as sin, and put to death by the power of the Holy Spirit, then an internal struggle with ensue.
The mind will begin to debate whether to do right or wrong thereby allowing a wrongful desire a foothold through self-centeredness. Titillating emotions will be momentary enjoyed, though not acted upon. In that instant, the heart remains far from God. Reminding Christians to confess any impulse to do wrong, does not mean we deny our human nature.
It is because Christians recognize our fallen human nature that we must exhort each other daily. We are in this together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot comprehend this one thing: what sin is. [Secular] psychological wisdom knows what need and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the ungodliness of the human being. . . . In the presence of a psychologist, I am only sick; in the presence of another Christian I can be a sinner. (Life Together, 94–95) “I can be a sinner,” is to say as a Christian, “I can be a sinner saved by grace,” but “I cannot remain in a state of grace without confessing and repenting of my wrong impulses and inappropriate behavior. This, I will do.”
It is true that Jesus was tempted, and did not sin. But notice the temptations of Jesus were external in contrast to the Natural Sons of Adam. Our temptations are internal as well as external which means that many of our temptations are of our own making being rooted in the wrongful impulses of the fall nature. This is why we must be born again. This is why we must walk by the Spirit in order not to fulfill the lusts, the impulses, the passions of the heart, which are themselves wrong and so need to be confessed.
To stand in self-judgment on wrongful impulses will prove to be more spiritually therapeutic and emotionally healthy than to say there is no sin involves, or worse, that evil impulses are natural, understandable, and acceptable to God, if they are not acted upon. To tell homosexuals, or anyone, that wrongful impulses carry no guilt, when they do, is to go against the moral law of God. It is much kinder to tell people to pray with the Psalmist and say,
“Search me, O God, and know my heart:
try me, and know my thoughts:
And see if there be any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”
~Psalms 139:23, 24