The Theology of Everyday Life: Sinning in Your Heart, Part 1, "The Morality of Mentality"

One of the reasons I started this blog was to ruminate on the theological implications posed by the minutiae of human psychology. So, occasionally, I'll make some posts under the heading "The Theology of Everyday Life." The topics will vary but the heading will help people group these scattered posts.

Today I want to think about "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 [his] heart many times." Most Christians know where Carter is coming from. 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 interesting in light of a recent study by psychologists Adam Cohen and Paul Rozin (Cohen, A. B., & Rozin, P. 2001. Religion and the morality of mentality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 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.

What is going on here?

Interestingly, the rabbinic tradition of the Jews posits a different moral psychology than most Christians hold. Specifically, the rabbis have distinguished between two fundamental human inclinations which clash in the human psyche. More specifically, 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, the idea of conflict between the yezer ha-ra and the yezer ha-tov, creates a situation where mental events are not moralized as was seen in Cohen and Rozin (2001). Why not? 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. And this is indeed what Cohen and Rozin (2001) observed.

By contrast, Christians don't have a folk psychology that informs their theology. (Hence my interest in this subject.) Most Christians have only a muddled sense of what words like "soul," "spirit," or "mind" meant in the OT or NT contexts. Further some also confusedly try to reconcile those ancient folk psychologies with modern science. All Christians generally agree on is that they can "sin in their hearts." That, not only do you have to behave rightly, you have to think rightly.

This situation, to my mind, is very unsatisfactory. It creates a lot of neurotic, paranoid, and confused Christians. When does a thought become a sin? That's an odd question I'll take up next post citing some research conducted recently by some of my students at ACU.

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4 thoughts on “The Theology of Everyday Life: Sinning in Your Heart, Part 1, "The Morality of Mentality"”

  1. The morality of the intellect was helpfully addressed by the Southern Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell in a series of addresses he gave in the mid-19th century in Columbia, SC (where he was president of then-South Carolina College), later published as "Discourses on Truth" (included in the Collect Writings of JHT reprinted by Banner of Truth). The first two discourses on "Love of Truth," are especially helpful.
    T. David Gordon
    Prof. of Religion and Greek
    Grove City College

  2. There's a difference between being tempted, and seriously entertaining those thoughts.

    To use lust as example (since President Carter brought it up), seeing a woman and thinking WOW! in a sexual manner is one thing, but spending the next fifteen minutes thinking about all the things you'd do with her sexually is something else entirely.

    Even if you're never going to see that woman again, past the five seconds during which she crossed your path, you can sin lustfully about (I'd hate to say with her, since she isn't there), even if there is absolutely no way, no matter how you tried to track her down and convince her to have sex with you, that she would. You can't physically consummate the sin, but you can still dwell on the lust.

    Now, substitute greed, hate, or whatever you want for lust, and it still comes out the same. Even if you have no capacity to kill someone (a public figure with incredible security, let's say), fantasizing about killing him is just plain wrong, even if you're not actually going to make the (futile and most likely suicidal) attempt.

    Thinking briefly that the world would be better off with him dead isn't a sin, it's a temptation. Mentally cycling through all the ways you'd like to kill him is sin.

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