Admit It, You're Not Perfect
Roundabout the mid-1700s, John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement and forefather of the Wesleyan tradition, proposed a distinction between infirmity and sin, bringing some much-needed clarity to the doctrine of entire sanctification. In short, Christians can be free from sin, Wesley posited, but not from infirmity. In his A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley wrote,
"[Christians] are not perfect in knowledge. They are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake. We are no more to expect any living man to be infallible than to be omniscient. They are not free from infirmities, such as weakness or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination. Such in another kind are impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation, to which one might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behavior. From such infirmities as these none are perfectly freed til their spirits return to God; neither can we expect til then to be wholly freed from temptation."
Why the link between infirmity and temptation? And why the distinction between the two? In Scripture, modeled through the responses of Jesus Christ, we see a like differentiation between temptation and sin. So what are infirmities, and what is temptation? And how are they different from sin?
As the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, "No temptation has overcome you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it" (1 Corinthians 10:13, New International Version). In other words, not a single one of us faces temptation any greater than the temptation anyone else faces, and every one of us has the same choice: to either resist or give in.
In itself, temptation is not sin; temptation is only what might lead us to sin. Unlike Christ, we are not perfect human beings. We are not always impervious to temptation. In fact, when we start drilling down into all of the different forms of internal sin Jesus calls out in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), most of us fail a lot when it comes to resisting temptation.
But it bears repeating: temptation is not the sin. Our sinful response to temptation is the sin. Our willful decision to ignore the will of God is the sin.
We all face temptation all day, every day. Yet we do not all deliberately choose to sin all day, every day. The difference between temptation and sin is laid out in Scripture in no uncertain terms. Dr. Philip Bence, author of my introductory theology class through Indiana Wesleyan University's online Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies program, points to Hebrews 4:15, which specifically tells us that temptation is not sin by telling us that Christ “has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”
If temptation, in itself, was sin, then Jesus Christ, when experiencing temptation, would have been a sinner. But the Word states emphatically that He was without sin. Since temptation was not sin for Christ, temptation cannot be sin for us. There is no double standard. Yes, Christ was the perfect person, but by taking on the flesh of humanity, He submitted Himself to the infirmities of humanity—including temptation. All of the same temptations that exist for us existed for Jesus in equal measure. He did not experience exemption from temptation due to His divine nature; instead, He modeled for us a godly response to temptation, made possible through the Spirit of God in us.
We can face temptation without sinning. To varying degrees, we can do so by our own willpower alone, without calling upon the power of the Spirit to help us. After all, as atheists and agnostics are quick to point out, non-believers are just as capable of avoiding several forms of sin in their own power (never mind for now the debate over what these folks do or do not consider "sin"). But if we can withstand some forms of temptation, it only stands to reason that—especially in the enabling power of the Spirit—we should be able to withstand all forms of temptation. Most of us just fail pretty regularly to even attempt to resist temptation... and that's sin.
What's the difference? As my lead pastor at GracePoint Wesleyan Church has been known to put it, “If you see a scantily dressed woman at the mall, that’s temptation. If you take a second look, that’s sin.”
It's important to differentiate that it is our response to temptation that determines our sin, not the existence of temptation itself. As the Life Application Study Bible (2005) emphasizes, “First, we must realize that being tempted is not a sin. We have not sinned until we give in to the temptation” (p. 9).
In the Gospel of Luke, we read that on a certain Sunday, while Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, a crippled woman was there in the crowd, listening. "When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, 'Woman, you are set free from your infirmity'" (Luke 13:12, New International Version), and she was healed from her ailment.
This biblical use of the term infirmity relates to a physical disability that impaired an individual's ability to function. Thinking back to John Wesley's descriptive catalogue of infirmities, including those of both behavior and speech, how do such disadvantages relate to temptation and sin? Simplistically, our infirmities are our imperfections; they are what make us fallibly human. In the flesh, Christ also experienced the infirmities of man—some physical, some emotional—including fatigue, hunger, thirst, sorrow, and dread.
Unlike Christ, we are not God in the flesh, so we're unable to overcome all of our infirmities in our own power. We have weaknesses and limitations that Jesus was able to overcome in His power because He is fully man and fully God. We, on the other hand, rely on the power of God to overcome our infirmities, but since we're not God, we're not always at our best, so we don't always respond by reaching for the power of God. That's what makes us fully human. That's the difference between Jesus and us.
In 12-step recovery circles, we're accustomed to the concept of infirmities that affect our spiritual condition, though that's not the word we generally use to describe our weaknesses. We use the acronym HALT (which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) to quickly and effectively identify our naturally less-than-ideal states of mind.
Addictive personalities or not, we all experience physical, mental, and emotional stressors that can influence our responses to any range of incoming stimuli. An awareness of our basically faulty initial human reactions is nothing new to the greater population. That's why such common directives to think before we speak, take a deep breath, stop and count to 10, take a "time out" or go "cool down" are so ingrained in our vernacular that we don't even tend to consider where they came from.
In 12-step recovery, however, the HALT acronym serves as a go-to spot-check tool to take stock of one's immediate state. As the wisdom goes, when we find ourselves growing irritable, emotional, or unstable, we're encouraged to "halt" and consider, "Am I hungry? Am I angry? Am I lonely? Am I tired?" More often than not, one of these culprits is to blame for a hazardous attitude. If so, we can recognize that we are not in our best spiritual condition under those circumstances, and we have an opportunity to take corrective action to prevent unintentional harm to those around us.
For example, if we're hungry, we might experience a Snickers-brand "you're not you" moment due to very real physiological effects of blood sugar levels on associated mood swings. If we're angry, we may tend to blow situations out of logical proportion or reject constructive feedback from other people. If we're lonely, we might be more prone to attention-seeking or self-pitying behaviors. If we're tired, we might undergo all sorts of random ups, downs, outbursts, irrationalities, and failures in judgment.
Personally, I've come to recognize that this last is my own #1 downfall. I am simply not at my best when I'm tired. If I'm sleep deprived, I know that I am far more likely to become depressed, withdrawn, uncommunicative, negative, short-tempered, whiny, and self-centered than I am when well rested.
That doesn't mean I'm intentionally seeking to do harm. I'm probably not willfully making the decision to go around sinning at those times. In fact, more than likely, I'm actually just trying to keep my mouth shut and avoid people so I don't snap someone's head off or hurt someone's feelings. If I'm tired, I'm not at my best, and, if possible, it would be better for me to go take a nap before I try to accomplish an important task or interact with other people in a meaningful way.
And if I have enough sense to call on God to speak through me in those moments, I might even be able to summon some kind of healthy relational coping mechanism, like telling someone, "Hey, I'm really tired right now, and I'm just not at my best. Can I sleep on this and talk to you about it tomorrow?"
Through recognition of these HALT factors, 12-step recovery principles introduce addicts to self-awareness strategies that enable us to "take inventory" and respond appropriately in our moments of weakness. Similarly, by recognizing and managing our infirmities—the same way Jesus recognized and managed His human infirmities—we can cooperate mindfully with the Spirit in us to produce a godly response despite our weaknesses.
Infirmity, in itself, is not sin, but just as with temptation, the ways in which we choose to deal with infirmity may become sin. In some cases, I've seen individuals handle life with amazing grace under extremely stressful conditions. In many, many other cases, I've seen individuals behave with gross indecency as a general matter of course.
My husband and I have experienced for ourselves some major wins and losses against our infirmities. There are times when we've loved each other compassionately and selflessly through awful states of exhaustion, illness, uncertainty, and instability. There are other times when we've lashed out and caused dramatic injury over minor irritations or misunderstandings.
We are not perfect in any of this. Neither are you. But infirmities need not be matters of sin or division among us.
The Difference Maker
Within the church community, as Christians seeking to live together in harmony, when we accept our weaknesses and admit our faults, we grow closer in Christ. When we err under stress and then try to justify our emotions or overreactions, we fall into selfishness, anger, and resentment that drive us apart.
Temptation might be a human infirmity, and an infirmity might yield a particular susceptibility to temptation. Am I responsible for my infirmities? Maybe yes, maybe no. More importantly, I am responsible for what I do about my infirmities. I am also responsible for the ways in which I choose to deal with my temptations... including the temptation to give in to my infirmities.
In these respects, temptation and infirmity are distinct influencing factors that are nonetheless closely linked in the ongoing stand against sin. Yet individual response to temptation and to infirmity is what makes the difference between infirmity, temptation, and sin.