FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About The Christian Life - Chapter 7
Playwright Oscar Wilde once remarked jokingly, “I can resist everything except temptation.” We smile when we read those words because they speak an important truth about the human condition. Temptation pays a visit to each of us every day, and most of us struggle to say no.
“What do I do when those thoughts come to me?” the young man asked. He is in his late thirties, a rising young executive, by all outward appearances the very image of success. Almost ten years ago he took his M.B.A. degree and parlayed it into a profitable career as a stockbroker. He has a good job, is well-respected by his peers, and seems to have no trouble mixing his faith and his work. What could be wrong? As a single man in a high-powered business environment, he faces numerous temptations, many coming from the sexual arena. “I’ve asked God to give me a Christian wife, but he hasn’t answered that prayer yet. Sometimes my mind is filled with thoughts that embarrass me. And sometimes I give in to the temptation I feel.”
I was not surprised. If you change the name or a few details, it was a story I had heard many times before. In fact, it is a story that is as old as the Bible itself. Temptation is not new in any sense. Temptation is the same for us as it was for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Satan tempts us today in the same way he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. From the very beginning a battle has raged for the souls of men and women, a battle that touches all of us sooner or later.9
It’s Not a Sin to Be Tempted
Perhaps the place to begin is with the important truth that it is not a sin to be tempted. Many Christians feel needless guilt because they have equated temptation with sin. Yet we know that our Lord was tempted and was without sin (Heb. 4:15). Was the temptation real? The answer must be yes. But if the sinless Son of God could be tempted, then temptation itself cannot be sinful.
Let’s suppose a young man and woman start dating. After a few weeks he confesses to his pastor that he is experiencing sexual temptation. “Why are you surprised?” the pastor replies. “It would be more surprising if you weren’t being tempted.” Temptation is a sign that we still live in a fallen world. It’s not the temptation that matters; it’s how you respond to it.
Think how many temptations you and I face in an ordinary day. Staying in bed late—the temptation to laziness. Dressing carelessly— the temptation to sloppiness. Growling at the breakfast table—the temptation to unkindness. Arguing over who should change the baby this time—the temptation to selfishness. Starting work ten minutes late—the temptation to slothfulness. Losing your temper when a coworker crashes your computer—the temptation to impatience. Flirting with that good-looking woman, taking a second look at that good-looking man—the temptation to lust. Refusing to speak to a person who has hurt you—the temptation to malice. Repeating a juicy story of your neighbor’s misfortune—the temptation to gossip. Taking a secret drink at a party—the temptation to drunkenness. Lying awake at night thinking sensual thoughts—the temptation to impurity. Taking your anger out on the children after a hard day— the temptation to cruelty. Going out to eat when you can’t afford it— the temptation to self-indulgence. Having a second helping and then a third—the temptation to gluttony. Firing off a hasty letter to a friend who hurt you—the temptation to revenge.
Most of the battles we face will not be enormous, life-changing decisions, or at least they won’t seem that way at the time. Either we get angry or we don’t. You stay up late to finish your homework or you make up a creative excuse. When you visit the department store you pay cash or you break your promise not to use your credit card. You repeat the unkind story you heard or you decide to keep it to yourself. You pass by the magazine rack in the airport terminal or you stop and begin to browse. You get up early to exercise or you roll over for another thirty minutes of sleep.
Either way no one else will know whether you exercised or not. And no one will know (at least not until the end of the month) if you used your credit card or not. And no one will know (unless you are audited) whether or not you lied on your tax return. God has ordained that our spiritual progress should be measured not by huge battles won or lost but by a thousand daily skirmishes no one else knows about.
It is precisely at this point that 1 Corinthians 10:13 becomes so important. It’s a verse every Christian should know by heart because it reveals important spiritual truth about temptation. “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” Note three truths from this verse. First, temptation is the common experience of all Christians. If you say, “I’ll be glad when I’m not tempted,” you’re really saying, “I’ll be glad when I’m dead” because you will be tempted as long as you are alive. Temptation changes shape across the years, but it never goes away completely. Second, God will not allow you to be put in a situation where you have to give in to sin. The pressure may be enormous, but he always provides a “way out” sooner or later. Third, God’s “way out” does not necessarily remove you from temptation, but it puts you in a position to endure it with grace. Sometimes we will be tempted over and over and over again. Each time God promises to give us what we need to resist successfully.
Not long ago a friend commented that during a tense exchange with her teenage daughter, she “bit her tongue” instead of blowing her top. Every temptation—whether large or small—requires a moment-by-moment decision. When your boss asks you to fudge the figures on the monthly financial report, you have only a few seconds to decide how to respond. When you are surfing the Internet and happen to run across a site filled with pornography, you must choose immediately whether or not you’ll click the mouse button. Sometimes you truly will have to bite your tongue and then bite it again to keep from sinning.
Five Principles to Help Us Resist Temptation
As we lean on the Lord, we discover that even when we are sorely pressed by the devil, God is faithful. There is always a “way out” for those who will take it. In all the Bible, there is no better example of this truth than the case of Joseph in Genesis 39. From this familiar story I find five principles that will help us in our personal struggle with the temptations of life.
Principle #1: Temptation Often Comes When We Least Expect It
The scene is the royal court of Egypt. A man by the name of Potiphar enters the room. He is the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard, a position of great honor because he was personally responsible for the Pharaoh’s safety. At his side is a young man, not an Egyptian, a fact made clear by his appearance. If you were an onlooker, you would notice the young man immediately and say, “I wonder where he came from.”
He is tall, about 6’ 1” or perhaps an inch or two taller, ruddy, well-built, with medium-brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and that casual walk we tend to associate in young men with a high degree of self-confidence. As he follows Potiphar, all eyes follow him. He has it all—good looks, self-confidence, poise, and a playful sense of humor. His name is Joseph.
Wherever Potiphar goes, Joseph follows. They look good together, these two. Not father and son exactly. As a matter of fact, Potiphar had purchased Joseph as a slave from the Ishmaelites. So they couldn’t be father and son, but they didn’t seem like master and slave either. There is something else at work—a kind of friendship that stretches across the years and the culture that separates them. Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard, likes this young man from Israel. For his part, Joseph admires his master.
This is how Moses puts the matter: “The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did . . .” (Gen. 39:2-3).
Potiphar was no dummy. He knew that the Lord’s hand was upon this young man he had purchased as a slave. So he put Joseph in charge of his house. Verses 4-5 clearly imply that he was a wealthy man with a large estate. Notice what happens when Joseph takes over: “From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the LORD was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field” (Gen. 39:5).
I pause to make one simple comment: It appears as if Joseph has got it made. Sure, he was sold into slavery by his brothers, but things have really turned around. He’s only eighteen or nineteen years old and now he’s managing the affairs of one of the most powerful men in Egypt. Joseph is exactly where God wants him to be. Verses 2-6 emphasize over and over again that God’s blessing is on his life.
How, then, does he get into such trouble? The answer is crucial. There is no contradiction between God’s blessing and your temptations. We often think there is. We honestly believe that if we do what is right, we will never be tempted. But the opposite is true. We are much more likely to be tempted when things are going well for us.
Why? First, because if we are never tested when things are going well, we tend to get arrogant and big-headed. Second, Satan tempts us during our good times in order to destroy our testimony. Third, temptation often blindsides us in the moment of our greatest success because that is when we least expect it. Fourth, temptation successfully resisted prepares us to do greater things for God.
The lesson is clear. When everything is going your way . . . when you’ve got the world by the tail on a downhill slide . . . when you just got a promotion . . . when your popularity has never been higher . . . when your dreams start to come true . . . watch out! Be careful! Take nothing for granted! Keep your eyes open! Just because things are going well doesn’t mean you’re home free. Today’s victories often lead to tomorrow’s trials.
Principle #2: Repeated Temptation May Be Resisted, but Only by Those Who Know Who They Are
It is exactly at this point—when Joseph seems to be sitting on top of the world—that a new character enters the story. We do not know her name, only that she is the wife of Potiphar, and connected to him in name only. To use a modern phrase, she is a “single married woman.”
Verse 7 lays out the situation for us with unabashed directness: “After a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, ‘Come to bed with me!’” The Hebrew has a wonderful way of putting it. It literally says that she “lifted up her eyes” at Joseph. The Living Bible says she began “making eyes” at him. As he crossed the room she followed him with her eyes, a smile of satisfaction crossing her face. He was a fine-looking man, young and strong the way Potiphar had been when they first met, before too many court dinners had spoiled his waistline and before too many late night meetings with Pharaoh had placed permanent bags under his eyes. Yes, this Joseph looked like an excellent companion for a casual affair, a brief meeting between a younger man and an older woman.
She must have been persistent because when Joseph turned her down (verses 8-9), she came back again and again. Perhaps she thought he didn’t mean it when he said no. Perhaps she thought she could wear down his resistance. Perhaps she thought he wanted to but was afraid to say yes. Back she came, slinking into his life, offering him forbidden fruit, ripe and juicy, his for the taking. Still he said no.
At this point it’s worth pausing to ask why a red-blooded young man would say no to an available woman. Verses 8 and 9 suggest two answers:
1. He was loyal to his boss. ’"With me in charge,’ he told her, ‘my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife’” (w. 8-9a).
2. He was loyal to God. “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (v. 9b).
Joseph did the right thing because he knew that adultery was wrong. He called it “a wicked thing” and a “sin against God.” These days we like to rename sin to make it sound less sinful. Instead of a hard word like “adultery,” we use words like “affair,” “tryst,” “fling,” “one-night stand,” and we even call it “making love.” Call it what you like. Adultery is still sin because God says so. Renaming sin doesn’t change its character any more than calling rat poison “food” turns it into bread.10
Joseph knew he belonged to God. When a person knows that he belongs to God, it makes the decisions of life easier. If you belong to God, you can’t sleep with your boss’s wife. It’s just that simple. It doesn’t matter that she’s lonely or attractive or available or anything else. You just can’t do it. Period. End of story. No discussion needed.
• He didn’t mess around.
• He didn’t flirt with trouble.
• He didn’t say, “How far can I go?”
• He just said no!
One final point: Joseph didn’t apologize for saying no and he didn’t worry about hurting her feelings.
Principle #3: God’s Way of Escape Is Rarely Easy and Must Be Quickly Taken
As I pondered the matter, I made a list of excuses Joseph might have given for sleeping with Potiphar’s wife:
• We’re all alone (true).
• She made me do it (also true).
• No one else will know (probably true).
• She’s in a bad marriage (very possible).
• I’m single and I have needs too (definitely true).
• I deserve this (not true).
• Everyone fools around (not true, but it sounds good).
• God will understand (definitely not true, but a popular excuse).
In his commentary on this text, James Montgomery Boice notes how hard Joseph tried to avoid a confrontation. First, he reasoned with Potiphar’s wife, then he avoided her as much as possible, but in the end she forced the issue. It was all or nothing. Either he slept with her or he faced losing his job. The King James Version uses a quaint expression to describe how Joseph responded to the final seduction: “He left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out” (v. 12). Why does it say, “He got him out"? Because no one else could get him out so he got himself out of trouble.11
When she grabbed his coat, he made up his mind in an instant. He started running and never looked back. She’s holding his coat and he’s making like the Road Runner going the other way. When she said, “Why don’t you stay for a while?” he said, “I’d love to, but I’ve got to run.” And that’s exactly what he did. Out the door, across the lawn, over the hedge, dodging camels as he went. He left her holding his coat while he ran the other way.
After I preached on this text, a friend came to me and said, “Pastor Ray, you need to emphasize one point even more. Tell the people they need to make up their minds in advance. If they wait until they are tempted, it will be too late.” How true. What will you do when you are tempted to do that which you know is wrong? Don’t wait until Potiphar’s wife is playing kissy-face with you. It’s too late then. Make up your mind now, before it happens, so that when it happens, you’ll know exactly what to do.
• There is a time to talk and a time to stop talking.
• There is a time to stay and a time to go.
• There is a time to walk and a time to run away.
When temptation comes, you’ve got to move fast. God isn’t obligated to give you a second chance to get out clean. He promised to make a “way out,” but he isn’t obligated to give you three choices in case you don’t like the first two.
Principle #4: Those Who Resist Temptation Are Rarely Rewarded by the World
As you can imagine, Potiphar’s wife wasn’t too happy about all this. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. While Joseph is running half-dressed across the countryside, she’s left with nothing but a handful of dirty laundry. This is not a good thing. Two things happen in short order:
1. She makes a false accusation (w. 13-18). In essence, she accuses Joseph of attempted rape. When she calls him “a Hebrew” (v. 17), there is even a touch of racism in her words. Her words sound plausible because she’s got Joseph’s coat in her hand.
2. Joseph is unjustly imprisoned (w. 19—20). The Bible says that when Potiphar heard this story, his anger burned. So he had Joseph thrown into jail with the common criminals. How could such a thing happen? It happened because the world cannot understand a believer with conviction. That’s why Joseph was locked up. He knew who he was, and he acted on his convictions. His reward was a quick trip to jail.
The good news is, you can stand up to temptation. The bad news is, you may end up losing your popularity in the process. After all, the world crucified Jesus. Why should you and I expect to get off any easier?
Principle #5: God Honors Those Who Dare to Say No
Before we leave this story, we need to see how it ends. It’s not the way we might have expected. “The LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did” (Gen. 39:21-23).
Now Joseph is chained in a filthy pit (see Ps. 105:18). Because of his faithfulness to God, he lost his job, his freedom, and his reputation. He appears to be a ruined man.
This story proves that God honors those who dare to say no. It may noz appear that way at first. Things may not work out exactly like we think they will. But when we have the courage to say no to temptation, God takes care of the details. In the end, we will never be disappointed. Remember, it’s always better to do right the first time. There are some things worse than going to jail for doing right. One of them is living in the prison of a guilty conscience. It is better to do right and sleep well than to toss and turn because you couldn’t say no.
There is a neat symmetry to this story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. It opens with Joseph enjoying good success because “the LORD was with him.” Although he ends up in jail, even there he prospers because “the LORD was with him.” In between, he proves himself worthy of greatness because he knew how to say no.
As we wrap up this chapter, I’d like to repeat three points I made in the beginning.
1. Temptation comes to all of us eventually.
2. Temptation itself is not a sin.
3. How you respond makes all the difference.
God is faithful to us when we are tempted. In the moment of temptation, we must be faithful to him. Here are four “don’ts” that will help you think clearly about your own personal struggles:
1. Don’t be surprised when temptation knocks at your door.
2. Don’t be deceived by persuasive voices.
3. Don’t be gentle with your emotions.
4. Don’t be confused by the immediate results.
Three Simple Words
If we are going to be victorious over temptation, we must do what Joseph did when Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce him: just say no.
When you are tempted to do wrong this week, just say no.
When someone says, “Come sleep with me,” take a deep breath, leave your coat behind, run the other way, and just say no.
When Satan whispers in your ear, “Go on. Everyone else is doing it,” remember, everyone else isn’t doing it, and just say no.
When you feel like giving someone a piece of your mind, remember that you don’t have a piece to spare, so grin and bear it, and just say no.
When a friend says, “You want to hear a good joke?” and you know the joke will do you no good, look him straight in the eye and just say no.
When the boss asks you to sign a report and you know the numbers on it aren’t right, remember who you are, smile at him, and just say no.
When your mind plays tricks on you and says, “Go ahead. No one will see you,” remember that God sees everything you do, and then just say no.
When it’s 5:30 P.M. and the kids are cranky and your husband isn’t home yet, and supper isn’t ready and the house is filled with dirty socks and dirty diapers, before you reach for the nearest sharp instrument, take a deep breath, look to heaven, count your blessings instead of your problems, and just say no.
When you go to your twentieth high school reunion and you are tempted to keep quiet about your Christian faith when you run into some old friends, just say no to your fears and say yes to your faith.
When you find yourself down and out, up against the wall and under the pile, when nothing is going right and you are hopelessly entangled and you see no way out of the mess you are in, before you say something you shouldn’t say or do something you shouldn’t do, before you blow your top or give up the ghost, remember that God still loves you and then just say no.
Do You Know Who You Are?
In the end I believe the key to resisting temptation lies in knowing who you are and whose you are. Christian, do you know that you belong to God? His name is tattooed on your soul and written on your heart. You belong to him. If that matters at all to you, it ought to make a difference when you hear the seductive voice of temptation.
Romans 12:1 tells us to present our bodies to God as living sacrifices. Why does God say to present your body? Why doesn’t he say to present your soul or your spirit? The answer is simple. If God has your body, he’s got you. If you ever decide that your body belongs to God, you’ll find it much easier to say no when the devil comes knocking at your door.
Have you ever presented the parts of your body to God?
• Lord, here are my hands.
• Lord, here are my lips.
• Lord, here are my eyes.
• Lord, here are my ears.
• Lord, here are my feet.
• Lord, here is my heart.
• Lord, here is my mind.
• Lord, here are my most private parts.
If you ever decide to get that specific with God, you’ll find a level of joy and freedom in Christ you never knew before.
Remember that the Holy Spirit lives within you. If Jesus were visibly beside us, how would we act? What would we say? What would we watch? Where would we not go? The problem is that he is not visibly with us, so we feel free to do what we want without restraint. But we need to realize that the Holy Spirit is inside us, indwelling us. We are his home, his temple (1 Cor. 6:19-20). So wherever we go, we are taking him along with us; what we watch, we watch through the eyes of his dwelling place; what we say issues from his home; when we are rude and obnoxious, he is suffering the indignity of such action coming from where he lives.
There is one final thought that will help us in the hour of temptation. Hebrews 12:2 tells us to “fix our eyes on Jesus.” Take a long look at the Son of God who struggled in the wilderness and won the victory over the devil. If he won the battle, so can we because his divine power is available to us today.
Temptation is the common experience of the people of God. We will never escape it as long as we live in a fallen world. But God has given us everything we need to win the battle every time.
Stand and fight, child of God. The Lord is on your side.
A Truth to Remember:
You can overcome temptation if you know who you are and whose you are.
1. Do you agree that it is not a sin to be tempted? In what sense can temptation be a tool God uses to develop spiritual maturity in us?
2. One paragraph on pages 93-94 lists a number of the “ordinary” temptations we may face every day. Using that list as a starting point, make a list of the temptations that you face on a regular basis. Which ones give you the most trouble?
3. Why is it important we take the “way of escape” the first time it is offered? What harm comes from giving in to “little” sins?
4. Why does God often allow temptation and blessing to come at the same time? Can you think of a time that happened in your own life? How did you respond?
5. “Don’t be gentle with your emotions.” What does that mean and why is it so important in dealing with our temptations?
6. What one thing sticks in your mind as something you’ll want to remember the next time you are tempted?