I'm counselling someone right now. I'll call her Donna. She's going through some hard times, and she's a devout Christian, but not the kind I am. Her God and my God are vastly different in their ways. So I'm having trouble on that end of the discussions. Donna's beating herself up about a decision she almost made wrong. Does that make sense? She was in a situation where she was tempted to do something, and she decided not to, even though a good part of her really wanted to. She's beating herself up about this. She's decided that even wanting to sin is a sin.
Sin, by her definition is anything God doesn't approve of, and she gets to decide what God approves of based on her interpretation of scriptures and the things her pastors say. My definition of sin is doing something that violates your own moral code. That is, knowing in your heart that what you're doing is wrong and doing it anyway. In a way, our definitions are the same, since we're both deciding what is right and what is wrong based on our understanding of the world. The consequences for sin is where we differ massively. But that's another essay.
Donna feels like even wanting to do something she knows is wrong is a sin. We talked about how you can't do anything you don't want to do. You can't. Truly. If you're doing something, you want to do it more than you don't. Suppose my husband invites his family to stay with us, in our house, for 2 weeks. I don't want to spend more than a few hours at a time with them for various reasons, but I don't go find a hotel, I don't lock myself in my room for the whole time, or go to a friends. I suck it up and make nice. Because I want to. Because I want to more than I want to hide. Because the consequences of hiding are worse than the consequences of staying. So I do it. I want to do it more than I don't.
Even if that thing you don't want to do is being coerced from you, you want to do it more than you want to face the consequences. If you're being abused, and you want to leave, but can't because he'll kill your dog (I've heard that fucking story too many times. Fuck abusers!) you're staying because you want to more than you want to risk your dog. That's OK. That's more than OK. That's a perfectly valid reason to choose what you're choosing. Not that you need my validation, but I know sometimes, it's nice anyway. But I digress. The point is that you cannot do something you don't want to do at least a little more than you don't want to do it. Whoo. Convoluted. Let's try this" At least 50.1% of you has to want to do the action more than not wanting to, or you wouldn't be doing it.
Well, that backfired. She says that means that 49% of her is sinful. That she "sinned in her heart". Gah. Temptation isn't sin. If we weren't tempted to do the wrong thing the odd time, we'd never ever figure out what is right and wrong. And furthermore, I told her to remember when Jesus was in the desert and Satan tempted him. He wasn't sinning. She said that he wasn't truly tempted. He never seriously considered it. And furthermore, it wasn't Satan tempting her, it was herself, a horrible sinful side of her that just wanted to run free and fuck the consequences.
And that's where I almost started to cry.
Fundamentalism and literalism have so seriously warped the message that even the most basic stories fail to teach in any useful way. On one hand, good for her for taking responsibility for her wants, for not blaming it on Satan*, for not going with The Devil Made Me Do It. On the other hand, if she could see that Jesus's temptation was exactly the same, that it wasn't a literal incarnation of evil suggesting to Jesus that he didn't have to take the hard route, God's way, the Light Side, whatever you want to call it, she could maybe forgive herself for considering what she considered.
Part of Donna's problem is fear. She's afraid that if the situation arises again, she may not choose the right thing, that the part of her she wants to quash will be stronger than the part of her that she wants to be. She's not sure she can resist that temptation again. (She can. She wasn't even close. But she doesn't know that. Donna, I swear. You weren't close.) Fantasy isn't sin. Fantasy you consider acting on, isn't sin. Fantasy you set up and almost act on, isn't sin. You don't have to feel bad about that. And that's what she's doing. She's feeling guilty about something she didn't do so that she can remind herself not to do it in the future.
We don't even have to feel bad about shitty things we did. *wince* Controversial? Probably. There are a lot of people who think that if you don't feel bad, that means you'll do it again, or that you think it was okay to do that. Whatever that was. Suppose I screamed "fuck off!" at a child. Not cool, right? Of course. Do I have to feel bad in order to know that? No. I can look at that behaviour, decide it wasn't right, and wasn't who I want to be, and not do it again. I don't have to use unhappiness to prevent myself from doing it again. I don't have to remember how bad I felt in order to drive myself into not doing it again. No one needs to. We do, myself included sometimes, because it works, but we don't have to. There are other ways.
Sometimes I wonder if some people who beat themselves up about a bad decision aren't trying to pre-punish themselves so God doesn't have to. Or if they think that God is punishing them by making them feel bad.
The world is a hard enough place to navigate without punishing ourselves for sins we didn't commit, but kinda wanted to.
*I don't believe in Satan, but she does. For me, Satan is a useful metaphor for our own desire to give into things that aren't right.