Augustine on temptation

Is God so unaware of things, is he so ignorant of the human heart, that he has to discover a man’s character by testing it? By no means. But he acts in this way in order that a man may discover his own character…Therefore, dearly beloved, you have learned that God does not engage in tempting in order that he might learn something that he did not know earlier, but that by tempting (that is testing) he might make manifest what is hidden in a man. After all, a man is not so known to himself as he is to his Creator, nor is an ill person so known to himself as he is to his physician. Man is ill. He suffers. The physician does not suffer. And man expects to learn what he suffers from him who does not suffer.

-Augustine, De Scripturis, Homily 2, on Abraham, When He Was Tempted by God

Saw this superb thought today at a site new to me, called Absorption , during a wordpress tag search.

I thought it might be nice to grab some authority from Augustine for some recent thoughts on the difference between temptation and sin and the parts they each play in the economy of repentence and new birth.  I like Augustine’s thinking here because it suggests to me that tempation alone can accomplish quite a bit in the whole area of salvation and redemption without the necessity of actual sin.  

Lustful looking – when is it sin and when is it not sin?

When Jimmy Carter confessed to adultery-of-the-heart in 1976 he uttered a commonplace (and false) assumption that an unexpressed desire is equivalent with actual sin:

Carter:  “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times [cites Matthew 5:27-28].  This is something that God recognizes that I will do and have done, and God forgives me for it… Because I’m just human and I’m tempted and Christ set some almost impossible standards for us.”

Impossible standards? Well yes, if Carter seriously believes that the profound teaching of Jesus at Mt. 5:27-28 applies to unexpressed desires, or to feelings of attraction or arousal in the act of looking at a woman. A little exegesis, however, should show that Carter has allowed a widespread misinterpretation of the Bible to create the illusion of impossible standards – and the illusion of sin.

I say give Jesus a break! Look for the true point of his teaching by seeking a true moral principle in connection with the true Biblical meaning, and not in a ridiculous evangelical can of corn like ‘psychological sin.’

In Mt. 5:28 Jesus’ meaning comes to us on the back of two Greek words: blepon, watching or looking on; and epithymesai, evil desire, lust, covetousness.  But these two words possess a common meaning tone that make it impossible to equate adultery with every feeling of desire at the sight of a woman’s beauty.

First, look at the scripture meanings generally conveyed by forms of the Greek word epithymesai:

Epithymesai is rarely used of a merely passive desire – it always gets or seeks its fill of its object – it’s not just an empty wish that you had something that was someone else’s – it’s the way the wicked covet other people’s fields before they seize them, as in Micah 2:2, cf. Ex 15:9, where we read, “My desire shall have its fill”

Not only does Epithymesai enthrall the subject, it finds ways of testing its object to see if it will deliver its craving unto it, as in Ps 78:18, “demanding the food they craved” (as a test)

It requires the hands to reach out and get a hold on its object, implied in Prov 21:25-26, “desires kill the sluggard, for his hands do not choose to do anything”

The key to understanding this kind of desire is that it is not random or unconscious or accidental but is headstrong and has a selfish plan of conquest, like the “stubborn hearts” in Ps 81:12, “which follow their own counsel” (see also Ex. 20:17; Ps. 10:3; Acts 20:33; Col. 3:5; 1Tim 6:9-10; Jas.  1:14-15; 2 Pet 1:4).

Now look at the second word, blepon.

In three significant places in the Greek Old Testament, the word used by Jesus is not used to signify ‘looking upon’ nakedness:

Gen 3:7 – blepon is not used where there is a need to express the way Adam and Eve ‘look upon’ each other’s nakedness after the fall.

Gen 9:22-23 – blepon is not used to express the way Ham ‘looked upon’ the nakedness of his father Noah.

2 Sam 11:2 – blepon is not used to express the way David ‘looked upon’ the nakedness of Bathsheeba.

Check it out. The word family chosen by ‘the 70’ wise translators was idein and not blepon.

Why?  Because blepon is used in OT and NT not so much for a ‘seeing’ of things in front of you in space but more often for a foreseeing of things, a looking ahead to a situation that is not yet realized in time, such as things seen in a vision – or in a wicked plan (like a seduction).

So Jesus was indeed talking about a sin that is committed in the heart before it has been enacted, but it involves the kind of looking forward with wicked desire to possess that implies overt action with intent to seduce or allure someone, and not simply the childish indulgence of ‘a look.’

But beware, because Jesus has chosen his words so well that they clearly imply that this flirtatious action with intent to seduce is ‘adultery’ even in cases when it is unsuccessful.  If the targeted partner rejects your tacit invitation, or if your aims are frustrated by the least miscellaneous condition or event – Jesus is saying that is still adultery.  You’re liable even if you failed in your aim.

I think this is quite a serious and godly warning against sin, and doubly effective, since it applies to women as well as to men.

What about pornography?  Well there are issues of involvement that make it sin, but I would argue it is not mortal sin on the level of adultery.  Comments about that?

(to be continued)