“I wasn’t going to eat it. I was just going to taste it.” There it is: a classic children’s book character, minimizing sin.
These are the words of Winnie-the-Pooh, the perennially vexed creation of A.A. Milne about his favorite temptation, honey.
Of course we know Pooh Bear was going to eat the honey. But caught on the line between temptation and indulgence, the stuffed children’s toy offers a plausible interpretation of events. He minimizes his sin.
And we do the same.
Ah! says Satan, it is but a little pride, a little worldliness, a little uncleanness, a little drunkenness, etc. As Lot said of Zoar, “It is but a little one, and my soul shall live” (Gen. 19: 20). Alas! says Satan, it is but a very little sin that you stick so at. You may commit it without any danger to your soul. It is but a little one; you may commit it, and yet your soul shall live.
Remedy 1: Minimizing sins bring great suffering
God’s anger against what seem to be trifling sins in the Old Testament may shock us. We wonder why people can sin in so many far worse ways today without his immediate intervention. Part of the reason has to do with what it meant to be a citizen of Israel, under the Mosaic covenant, and a willful sinner. Another part relates to the exact sin committed and its context.
Thomas Brooks sums it up well this way: “The least sin is contrary to the law of God, the nature of God, the being of God, and the glory of God.” To drive this home further, think of it more directly: The least sin violates God’s law, contradicts His nature, deemphasizes His being, and obscures His glory.
Great sins obviously cause much suffering in the world. Is it so hard to suppose that the “small” ones contribute to it as well? How much suffering do we add to the world, then, when we minimize sin?
Remedy 2: Small sins are the foot in the door
In the days when door-to-door salesmen were much more common, getting that one foot over the threshold was critical to making a sale. A vacuum cleaner salesperson once did this to my wife and me. She entered our home to explain we had been “selected” for a “demonstration” of a “cleaning product.” As she distracted us, a bewildered young man began assembling the “cleaning product.”
It all happened so fast we barely had time to think. Within a few minutes, the young lackey had started the vacuum. The handler disappeared. She left this poor kid at our house for hours. He apologized repeatedly, wondering how he had gotten himself into such a jam.
Of course, it was on us that we let them inside in the first place. But that’s just it. We would have needed immediate and bold assertiveness to insist they not enter our home. We were unprepared.
Minimizing sin with ‘insensible degrees’
Brooks uses the term “insensible degrees” to describe sin’s encroachment. We don’t perceive the phases of our advancement through greater sins. If we could feel the entire weight of it at once we would avoid it. It’s the classic frog-in-the-kettle scenario.
David’s wandering eye led to his nation’s and family line’s ruin.
“Satan will first draw you to sit with the drunkard, and then to sip with the drunkard, and then at last to be drunk with the drunkard,” writes Brooks. This sounds very much like Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:12, ESV)
We don’t know how far any one of us might descend into sin. Better to avoid the first step.
Remedy 3: Compare God’s banquet with sin’s crumbs
Why was it so great a sin for Saul not to wait for Samuel? It’s because in this sin he revealed his true self, and not so much the true nature of Satan. Samuel was coming. The sacrifice had been provided. All Saul had to do was wait. Everything would have been fine.
God had established a certain man to serve as priest for Israel. Saul was not that man. He took upon himself the role and title God did not give him. He seized a privilege that was not his. God is very clear in Scripture about how he may be approached in worship and reverence. Saul crossed that boundary.
Remember also that this was not Saul’s first sin. He had already, effectively, lost his crown because of an earlier sin. Now, because of this second transgression, the kingdom would be taken from his family line.
Minimizing sin by missing the minors
“It is the greatest unkindness that can be showed to a friend, to venture the complaining, bleeding, and grieving of his soul— upon a light and a slight occasion.” What does Brooks mean here? Sometimes it’s in the small things that we reveal our greatest unkindnesses.
The person who is always late without excuse, who has no regard for the value of others’ time. The one who says he’ll be there, and time and time again doesn’t show up.
The small commitments we make that we don’t keep – and don’t intend to. We say “I’ll pray for you.” And then we don’t. We sign up for a cause or a need and we don’t follow through.
It’s in the small things, the easy tasks, the “light and slight” works that we reveal who we truly are. If we can’t be trusted in the small things, how can our friends trust is in the great ones?
So it is with our faith. Instead of waiting on God to provide an answer, we rush ahead down our own path in ways that displease Him. Through tiny, incremental steps we disobey God. The distance makes the greater sins easier to commit because of the chasm we have created.
When we commit to God’s ways in the small things, we practice and exercise our faith to prepare for the great temptations.
Remedy 4: The smallest sins hold the greatest danger
It’s nothing. It will clear up. Let’s not worry about it. Why waste a trip to the doctor and the money it will cost? I’ll feel better tomorrow.
These things are so easy to say when the first signs of illness or disease show up.
The same goes for a few small cracks in a home’s foundation, or a little rust on a body panel of a car.
Small signs of trouble are easy to ignore or explain away. Sudden, traumatic problems force us into action. But little ones lull us into false safety.
We become dull to the pangs of small sins in the same way we become deaf to background noise. If we refuse to minimize sin, the warnings of small temptations will sound to our souls like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard.
Remedy 5: Christians have chosen suffering over sin’s pleasure
There is no suffering on earth so great that God’s eternal approval can’t overshadow it. That is hard to believe in this life, when we can feel pain but can’t see eternity.
Think of Daniel in the lions’ den. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. Paul in prison. Think of all the saints who suffered in the Inquisition because they would not assent to false doctrine.
Think of Jan Huss, the great 15th-century reformer. He chose excommunication from the church and execution at the stake rather than recant his preaching of the biblical gospel. He could have chosen a temporary reward of keeping his church and pastorate and spared himself intense but brief suffering. But 600 years later, his reward remains great in heaven.
Remedy 6: Minimizing sin only works in this life
Most of the time, we don’t notice the spiders that are all around us – in our homes, our yards. If they so chose, all the spiders in the world could turn on humanity and devour us. Their instincts keep them at bay, hunting insects, small birds, and rodents. But their potential for worldwide annihilation is there.
You may be able to minimize sin and live guilt-free for a while, perhaps even a long while. But eventually, if you truly are one of God’s children by faith, that little pebble of guilt will grow into a huge stone that will drag your heart down.
Remedy 7: It’s better in the long run to suffer than to sin
Not even Thomas Brooks could illustrate this final point better than the apostle Paul.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (ESV) (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV).
We cannot compare suffering in this life with the glory of eternity, no matter how much we pay temporally for our obedience.
As Brooks has said elsewhere, so we say again. Hold fast! Don’t seek suffering for its own sake. But embrace it as the consequence of faithfulness to Christ.