Whenever we commit a sin or just make some sort of honest mistake, we will usually want to put that thing to the back of our mind and forget about it as soon as possible. After all, thinking about what we have got wrong is hardly a pleasant experience.
Nor is it healthy for us to dwell on our failures. As Christians we should be trying instead to spend most of our time thinking about positive things. This is what the apostle Paul encouraged the church in
Philippi to do, when he wrote:
‘Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things.’ (Philippians 4:8)
Spending time dwelling on our sins and mistakes can hardly be reconciled with Paul’s instruction in this passage. Besides, we know that when we confess our sins God forgives us (1 John 1:9), and we should join Him in forgiving ourselves, which will mean banishing thoughts of what we did from our minds.
Learning from what we do wrong
Nevertheless, before we finally let go of what we have done wrong, we should still take time to learn what we can from it. All of us have weaknesses in our characters, and unless we are careful we will tend to commit the same sins repeatedly. I am sure that Christians often fall into the same sin time and again partly because they are not learning, or even really trying to learn, from their mistakes.
Unpleasant though it may be, if we make an effort to think through the build up to a sin or mistake, as if on slow-motion replay, it may be possible to pinpoint the exact moment when we stepped out of line. We will then become better aware of exactly what sorts of situations and temptations are dangerous for us personally. And in some circumstances we will then be able to do things to avoid being tempted.
Taking steps to avoid temptation
The Bible makes it clear that normal Christian living should include taking steps, sometimes radical steps, to avoid temptations when that is possible.
In Matthew 18:8-9 (paralleled in Mark -47) Jesus has powerful words to say on this subject:
‘If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell fire.’
This is a very striking way of putting things, and Jesus’ instructions here are clearly not meant to be taken literally. However, when reading something in Scripture that obviously contains hyperbole, i.e., language that is deliberately exaggerated for effect, Christians can often fail to take what is said as seriously as they should. An over-compensation for the hyperbole can occur when interpreting, with the result that the forcefulness of the words is not properly recognised.
The reason why Jesus uses such powerful language in this passage is both to show the seriousness of sin and also to underline that if necessary His followers should be taking radical steps to avoid sinning.
All of us are vulnerable to temptations in various ways, and we will be aware of at least some of the sins we are most in danger of committing. We should ask ourselves if we are doing what we can to avoid getting into situations where we are tempted.
In some circumstances, we might find that there is not much we can do, such as when the temptations concern only thoughts in our minds. However, even in situations like these we can experiment to see if doing anything helps us to avoid being tempted. For instance, we might find that trying to fix our mind on something good is a help.
When temptations concern actions, it is much more likely that we will be able to take steps that greatly reduce the amount we are tempted. And some of these steps might need to be radical. I know of Christians, for example, who found that they were yielding to temptations to watch bad programmes on TV, or to watch more TV than they should, and who got rid of their TVs as a result. I think this is a good example of how Jesus’ command can be put into practice in the modern day.
It is not enough, then, for us to fight temptations that we experience. We should also be taking steps to avoid being tempted in the first place.
And on those occasions when we do, regrettably, yield to a temptation, or even when we just make an honest mistake about something, we should try to learn everything we can from what has happened.