“For we all stumble in many things” (James 3:2).
EVEN WHEN WE’RE SINCERELY COMMITTED TO GOD, THERE ARE TIMES WHEN WE FAIL TO DO HIS WILL. We “stumble,” as James said, or in Paul’s words, we are “caught” or “overtaken” by sin (Galatians 6:1). We try to be perfect, but we fall short.
Ignorance. We don’t know enough of the truth to act truthfully all of the time. There are blind spots in our vision and gaps in our understanding; none can deny it. So Paul, for example, prayed for the Colossians: “that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will . . . that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work” (Colossians 1:9,10).
Weakness. Peter, James, and John knew better than to go to sleep while the Lord was praying in Gethsemane, yet they did so. Without excusing their error, Jesus was sympathetic: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
There is a third possibility, of course, and that is rebellion. If we know what we should do and we deliberately refuse to do it, the reason is not so much weakness as it is defiance. To do this is to do something described in the Scriptures as being extremely serious (Hebrews 10:26,27). We dare not reject God so boldly.
Yet even when our sins are inadvertent, in most cases we still have some personal responsibility. It often happens that we’re more ignorant and weak than we ought to be, given the time and opportunity God has granted us to grow (Hebrews 5:12). The person who pleads with the Lord, “But I didn’t know better,” may hear Him say, “You would have known better if you’d had the desire to learn. You didn’t grow because you didn’t want to grow!”
All things considered, we need to adopt David’s attitude toward sin: “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins . . . Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:12–14). There is no sin that isn’t dangerous, and the sooner we learn better and do better, the better we’ll honor God.
“There are two causes of sin. Either we don’t know what we ought to do or we refuse to do what we know we should. The first cause is ignorance. The second is weakness” (Augustine of Hippo).