Search Term Friday: Sinning In Your Heart

I often get people coming to the blog searching for answers to the question "can you sin in your heart?"

Those queries link to some old posts of mine that summarized some psychological research regarding how Jewish and Christian persons differ in how they moralize mental states and how that research prompted some of my own students to investigate the snarly issue of "sinning in your heart."

Remember the famous 1976 Playboy interview with Jimmy Carter? In that interview Carter caused some controversy by confessing that he had "lusted after women in my heart many times."

Most Christians would sympathize with President Carter as many Christians believe that you can "sin in your heart," that thoughts have moral status. This belief is largely drawn from the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 5.21-22, 27-28
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother ]will be subject to judgment."

"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
This phenomena of "sinning in your heart" is illuminated by an interesting study conducted by psychologists Adam Cohen and Paul Rozin (Cohen & Rozin, 2001. "Religion and the morality of mentality." JPSP, 81, 697-710).

In this study, Cohen and Rozin compared Jewish and Christian participants on the degree to which they moralize mental events. In the study, Cohen and Rozin found that Jewish participants did not moralize mental events. Only choices leading to behaviors appeared to have moral status (i.e., be designated "right" versus "wrong").

By contrast, Christian participants did moralize mental events. That is, even if a person made proper moral choices and acted in an ethical manner they could still "sin in their hearts," and, as a result, be a "bad" person.

Why this difference in how mental events are or are not moralized?

One answer is that the rabbinic tradition posits a different moral psychology than what most Christians subscribe to. Specifically, the Jewish rabbis have distinguished between two fundamental human inclinations which clash in the human psyche. There is an evil impulse, the "yezer ha-ra," which struggles against our good impulse, the "yezer ha-tov." Psychologists call this kind of theory a "folk psychology," a psychological theory about how the mind functions that is culturally posited or phenomenologically derived. Most cultures have a "folk psychology," common assumptions about how the mind works.

What is interesting is that this rabbinic folk psychology, positing an internal conflict between the yezer ha-ra and the yezer ha-tov, creates a situation where mental events are not moralized as was observed by Cohen and Rozin. How so? Well, given the constant presence of the evil impulse, the yezer ha-ra, thoughts of lust or hate or envy are, in principle, present in all moral choices. Thus, it is no "sin" to have such thoughts. It is just a part of human psychology (from the Jewish perspective). A person cannot rid themselves of the yezer-ha ra, one can only choose not to obey it. And, thus, it is the choice that has moral status, not the thoughts of the yezer ha-ra.

By contrast, Christians don't have a folk psychology to help them sort out how any given thought is a temptation versus a sin. For Jewish persons the situation is straightforward, all thoughts are temptations, only behaviors have moral status. Christians, by contrast, believing they can sin in their hearts, can't rely on a behavior/thought distinction. Christians have to sort between the thoughts themselves. Which is tougher to do and creates a lot of neurotic, paranoid, and confused Christians.

When does a thought become a sin?

Many years ago some of my students investigated this question.

Specifically, these students asked, How might a typical Christian decide when a particular thought becomes a sin?

For example, let's say, borrowing a stimulus from Cohen and Rozin's study, a married man works with a sexually attractive co-worker. Due to her attractiveness he finds, fairly regularly, sexual thoughts drifting through his mind. Is this man, per Jimmy Carter, committing infidelity in his heart?

Maybe, but we'd like some more details. What do we mean by "sexual thoughts"? And when might such thoughts move from temptation to sin?

My students came up with two related ideas that might be guiding how Christians judge these questions for themselves.

First, maybe a thought becomes a sin if the thought starts moving toward "obsession." That is, if the man in the example above thought about having sex with this co-worker for much of the day Christians would be increasingly likely to label those thoughts as sin.

Second, maybe it is not the amount of thought that matters but how the person responds to and resists the thoughts. Going back to the example, when the sexual thought emerges does the man try to shoo the thought away? Or does he entertain the thought, allowing it to sit in his mind for a time?

Clearly, these two things are correlated--degree of contemplation and resistance to the thought--but they are distinct features. That is, although resisting "tempting" thoughts should reduce their frequency, there are many cases where there is both high thought frequency and resistance. The struggling addict comes to mind.

To test how these dynamics might affect judgments of "sinning in your heart," my students borrowed the experimental protocol of Cohen and Rozin and tweaked it to manipulate the degree of contemplation and resistance displayed by the people described in the scenarios (like the one discussed above). And among a group of Christian participants my students found that assessments of sinfulness were based upon degree of resistance. No effect was found for degree of contemplation.

What these results suggest is that, at least for the sample we studied, Christians appear to view "sinning in your heart" as a sin of omission rather than one of comission.

Specifically, a lustful or hateful thought can erupt in your mind at any time. Further, these can even be very frequent thoughts. But that, according to our research, doesn't make the thought a sin. What is critical, morally speaking, is what happens next. If what happens next is a cognitive attempt to shut down the thought, then the thought is judged to be a temptation and not a sin. And you might be tempted a lot, over and over. But if you keep shutting down or fighting the thought that's okay.

But if, however, the thought is entertained, courted, and elaborated the mental events are increasing judged as being sinful, examples of lust, envy and hate.

Summarizing the findings, the sin isn't in the experience, even the frequent experience, of the thought--a sin of comission. Sinning in your heart is a sin of omission, failing to "do battle" with the thoughts, no matter how frequently or infrequently they occur.

This, at least in the sample we studied, is a part of the "folk psychology" guiding how Christians judge thoughts as being temptations versus sins.

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16 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Sinning In Your Heart”

  1. Fascinating. Especially because this seems to line up with Augustine's discussion of sin in his "Confessions." He writes that God is the highest good and the "objects" of sin are, properly speaking, "lower goods." The sin is not in these objects themselves, but in OUR turning from the highest good (God) to these lower goods. So, to use your example, the fact that a worker is sexually attracted to his coworker does not mean the attraction is sin nor the coworker. These are both inherently good things. But the turning from God (in this case God's command to marital fidelity) that can occur either in thought (by entertaining fantasies) or action (actually having an affair) is the sin.

    It seems like the Christian "folk psychological" has some atecedents!

  2. I would be curious to know your thoughts on how attraction and/or lust play into the Christian discussion from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Obviously modern culture has had a huge influence on this, but because sexual attraction is so naturally pervasive in thoughts, Jesus' words almost seem cruel and unfair. Isn't there something to be said about the biological/evolutionary function of sexual attraction, and even lust, that could be "unhealthy" for people to "do battle" with the thoughts?

  3. I think that goes to the point of the post. In the "folk theology" of the sample my students studied the issue wasn't thought-frequency but resistance to the thoughts. So, frequent and contant sexual attraction or arousal isn't really the issue--isn't lust. Lust, according to this "folk theology," is having those thoughts and then cultivating, indulging and dwelling on them.

    The other issue here is how something like masturbation fits into lust. On the one hand masturbating to thoughts appears to be an example of indulging and dwelling on. And yet, masturbating also "clears the head," so to speak, of such thoughts allowing us to dismiss them. And as best I can tell, the Christian moral tradition gives no consistent advice on how to adjudicate this. So people resort to some "folk theology" to make these assessment.

    Incidentally, this is an example of why, in my estimation, "folk theology" is where at lot of important theological reflection takes place. In fact, I think there is a whole field of theology--"folk theology"--waiting to be discovered, the scholarly discipline focused upon describing and understanding how normal folk reason theologically about everyday life.

  4. I guess my question boils down to this: Why is lust (cultivating, indulging, dwelling on sexually arousing thoughts) sinful according to "folk theology" (and by proxy, whether correctly or incorrectly, Jesus) if it can be linked to a biological/evolutionary trait we were created with (sexual attraction/arousal)? The line that seems to be drawn by "folk theology" identified by the study is the cultivating, indulging, and dwelling on the thought, but why? Has "folk theolgy" (or any theology, for that matter) once again misinterpreted or misrepresented what Jesus was trying to get at in Matt. 5?

    To draw a parallel with something that C.S. Lewis said:

    "If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once. But, of course, when people say, “Sex is nothing to be ashamed of,” they may mean “the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of.” If they mean that, I think they are wrong. I think it is everything to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips."

    Is it sinful to cultivate, indulge, or dwell on thoughts of food? Perhaps, if it is all consuming and replaces God as one's idol. But shouldn't the "sinfulness" line be drawn somewhere at the point where it becomes one's idol, and not at the point that one cultivates, indulges, or dwells at all?

  5. Why is lust (cultivating, indulging, dwelling on sexually arousing
    thoughts) sinful according to "folk theology" (and by proxy, whether
    correctly or incorrectly, Jesus) if it can be linked to a
    biological/evolutionary trait we were created with (sexual

    Original sin?

    But seriously, we can't take traits that have been shaped by Darwinian survival--selfishness, basically--and baptize them as virtues. You can make just as strong a case that the impulse to murder, revenge and genocide is evolved as well.

  6. Which is why, to expand a bit, you take the impluse/thoughts as givens, of no moral standing. What you do with those impulses--lust or revenge or any appetite--is what we morally evaluate.

  7. From

    "Fr. Maximos (Moschos?) of Mount Athos is quoted extensively on the subject of logismoi in Kyriakos Markides' book, Mountain of Silence. Fr. Maximos describes five stages of logismoi as detailed in the teachings of the Fathers of the Church:

    Assault - the logismoi first attack a person's mind
    Interaction - a person opens up a dialogue with the logismoi
    Consent - a person consents to do what the logismoi urge him to do
    Defeat - a person becomes hostage to the logismoi and finds them more difficult to resist
    Passion or Obsession - the logismoi become an entrenched reality within the nous of a person

    "Fr. Maximos explains that no sin is committed until the stage of Consent, though he warns that if a person is of weak temperment, they are unlikely to be able to resist the logismoi at the Interaction stage. Fr. Maximos teaches that the best way to combat logismoi is to be indifferent, to ignore them. He suggests that a person should pray to combat logismoi, but only when not overcome by fear.

    "Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos writing in "Orthodox Psychotherapy" says: 'When the Fathers speak of `thoughts' (logismoi), they do not mean simple thoughts, but the images and representations behind which there are always appropriate thoughts.'"

    Orthodox monastics have thought about this ;0 for hundreds of years. I don't know if that could be classified as "folk psychology." If that is in contrast to academic study, then some of it may be, but some is not, as there have been many learned monks, fully educated to the extent possible in their day, including academic degrees in our day. I do know that it is great relief for me that simply having thoughts is not sinning; so often I was taught that having unwholesome thoughts about anything was itself a sin, because that's how Jesus' sayings about what's in someone's heart were interpreted.


  8. Well, the straw man aside, original sin may have to be the unsatisfying answer.

    I completely agree with this phenomenon you describe and that it occurs, but perhaps Christianity and her folk theology morally evaluates lust incorrectly, much like Christianity throughout its history has done with many things related to “sexual immorality.” What hangs me up is Jesus’ reference to lust in Matt. 5. God forbid that I would disagree with anything Jesus said, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, but I feel like we've either missed something key in what he said about this (it isn’t about not lusting, but rather that we cannot rely on our own attempts at being righteous and that we need him), or I’ve let modern secular culture influence my perspective too much. In any case, I appreciate the mental exercise!

  9. Another question is what Jesus actually meant by "being angry with your brother" or "looking at a woman lustfully". They could be actions, not only mental states. Actions like yelling and sexual harassment.

  10. I am very curious as to how this idea of the sin of "sinning in one's heart" arising from not being willing to shut down the thought fits with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, specifically the "bad thoughts" kind of OCD. I have a family member who has been recently diagnosed with this. As I understand OCD (which is poorly, at best) the bad thought enters the mind and the person is not able to rid him/herself of the thought and becomes instead focussed on it, at the same time being horrified by the thought. The person will never actually carry out the horrible thing s/he is thinking about, but the mind continues to dwell on it. This seems to be quite similar to what the students concluded about the Christian idea of sinning in one's heart. And yet OCD is a recognized mental illness, which to me means it is not sinful. Forgive me if I have mischaracterized "bad thoughts" OCD - my experience is limited to the terrible self-inflicted guilt this family member has endured (guilt based on all thoughts and no bad actions), and to what I have read in one book aimed at the general public.

    Also, I have countless times heard Christians say, "I couldn't do X (some good action) because my heart was not in the right place. I have to wait until I have the correct motivation to do [insert good deed here]. It would be sinful to do [good deed] with the wrong motivation." That irks me, as in the meantime, while that Christian is waiting around for holy motivation, a good deed goes undone.

    I guess I fall more in the Jewish folk mythology camp on this issue.

  11. But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart

    The problem with this translation is that it can give the impression that if a man has a passing lustful though, that he has sinned. (...) However, the Greek explicitly says that if a man looks at a woman *for the purpose* of lusting, he has committed adultery. (...) When you read the RSV translation, you don't understand that the Greek is clearly saying "looks for the purpose of lusting". But if you read some of the other translations you see that they are struggling with this specific issue. (...) This is why ESV reads " I say to you that everyone that looks to a woman with lustful intent". We wanted to be as clear as the greek is and not to be open to misunderstanding.

    ---- From William D. Mounce "Greek for the rest of us" ---

  12. The culture of 'groupmind' is the culture one grows up in. I think 'do unto others' is the culture of compassionate thought & action: by being born again I am gradually detoxing b/c of being given an alternative.

  13. lust objectifies & a person is used w/out realizing that trauma has occured perhaps?

  14. 'This, at least in the sample we studied, is a part of the "folk psychology" guiding how Christians judge thoughts as being temptations versus sins.'

    When I was Catholic (no longer religious), this was exactly how I thought, but because of what I read in the Catechism... I didn't think I'd made it up. But what I did have to make up for myself was what kind of brain-event I had to trigger in myself in order to have effectively "resisted" the thought. Feelings? Prayers? Mentally shouting loudly enough to drown out the unwanted thought? It was super painful! But I thought it was what I had to do to avoid sin.

    This needs more discussion... But scrupulosity can always have more discussion and will never be satisfied...

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