Playwright Oscar Wilde once jokingly remarked, “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.
“Pastor Ray, 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 MBA 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 was 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.
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 (Hebrews 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 co-worker 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.
The Danger Within
That list could be expanded almost infinitely. We do well to remember that these things are never remote but are a part of every one of us. James 1:14 reminds us that “temptation comes from the lure of our own evil desires. Those evil desires lead to evil actions, and evil actions lead to death” (New Living Translation). Even though you are a Christian, there is a principle of sin within you that will remain till the day you die. It doesn’t really help to say, “The devil made me do it,” even though no one doubts that he is the diabolical mastermind working behind the scenes. Temptation is not merely something external, something “out there” that lures us into sin. Temptation arises from within us as our evil desires produce evil actions that lead to spiritual death.
One major problem we face is that temptation comes when we least expect it. If we could schedule our temptations, we’d do much better. “I’ve decided to fight temptation next Saturday afternoon at 4 PM,” we would say. Unfortunately temptation often shows up unannounced at 9:30 Wednesday morning. It comes when our guard is down and we are most prone to give in.
That leads to a second important truth. While temptation itself is not sinful, yielding to temptation is. We are born with a tendency to sin. The Bible itself bears witness that the best men and women faced temptation and often fell. Eve ate the fruit and then gave it to Adam who joined her in rebellion against God. Abraham lied about his wife. Sarah lied to God. Lot compromised in Sodom and Gomorrah. Jacob was born cheating. Moses struck the rock in defiant anger. Elijah complained against God. David committed adultery and then had a man murdered to cover it up. Jonah ran way from God. Peter denied the Lord. John Mark deserted Paul. The Bible is filled with stories of men and women who faced temptation and were defeated by it. These facts should not discourage us, but rather cause us to seriously consider our own spiritual condition. What happened to them may happen to us.
Positive Uses of Temptation
It’s important to remember that the issue is not the particular temptation we face but how we respond to it. God is able to use even the worst temptation to bring us to the place where we will begin to grow spiritually. When Joseph ran away from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39), he ended up in jail, but the whole experience produced in him the strength of character that prepared him to become the second most important ruler in Egypt. Lest we miss the point, let’s remember that temptation itself is not evil, only the act of yielding is sinful. When we resist, we actually grow stronger.
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 only have 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.
Or you’ll just have to learn how to say no.
The lady is single, attractive, and in her late 50s. She has been a widow for almost 15 years. When a male friend began showing interest in her, she was both flattered and pleased. After several months he suggested that they take a trip together to a seaside resort. Of course, he said, we’ll have to sleep in the same room in order to save money. He was offended when she politely told him No thanks. Soon after that the budding relationship came to end.
Does she have any regrets? A few, mostly because she enjoyed his company and felt they shared many common interests. But she says she has no doubts about her decision to say no. But what if his intentions were entirely honorable? Her answer was simple: “If you begin to compromise in small areas, soon you’ll compromise in big ones.”
Her comment brings up another point to consider. 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 30 minutes of sleep.
Either way no one else will know whether you exercised or not. And no one will know (at least not till 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.
Winning the Battle
What practical steps can we take to win those skirmishes one by one? James 4:7 commands us to submit to God and to resist the devil. How do we do that on a daily basis?
First, It helps enormously to live by a schedule. 1 Timothy 4:7 says, “Train yourself to be godly.” The word “train” is a Greek word from which we get the English word “gymnasium.” It suggests sweaty shoes, worn-out jerseys, scarred helmets, callused hands, and aching muscles. No one becomes godly by accident. You can’t sleep late and lounge around like a coach potato if you want to win the prize of a godly life. And you can’t indulge yourself physically, mentally or spiritually. You’re going to have to get in shape in every sense of the word. Discipline builds spiritual muscles that arm you against temptation. They make the battle winnable, but not easy.
For me personally that means getting up early so I can spend some time in the Word. It also means keeping a journal on my computer where I record my weight, my goals for the day, my observations on what God is teaching me, and a prayer for the day. I haven’t always done this, and I confess there are days when I don’t keep this schedule, but it seems that I have extra strength when start I the day with the Lord.
Second, you need to look at the pattern of sin in your life. Analyze your life. When are you most likely to experience temptation? Where? Why? What triggers it? What comes before? After? What kind of mood are you in? For some it may be during a lunch break, for others it may occur on a business trip. Or it might happen when you are extremely tired or when you are at home alone, or during the 45 minutes before dinner when the children are cranky, or when your neighbor calls to complain about the noise your dog makes. It might happen on the weekend or while you are watching a particular TV program. For some, it may happen immediately after successfully completing a major project.
Having done that kind of analysis, it’s important to cut off the feeding factors. Be ruthless. Romans 8:13 speaks of putting to death the deeds of the flesh. You must be brutal in your attack against your own tendency to sin. Many Christians fail precisely at this point because they are not tough enough on themselves. Martin Luther commented that you can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you don’t have to let them build a nest in your hair.
This may mean a total re-orientation of your life. For one man it meant breaking off a relationship with a young woman who was not a Christian. He found he could not date her and speak openly about his faith at the same time. After some mental agony he decided to end the relationship. “It was hard, but I’m glad I did it because that’s when I started growing spiritually,” he declared.
Third, don’t be ashamed to admit your weakness. God never meant for you to struggle against sin by yourself. James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” Satan loves to keep Christians away from each other. He convinces us not to confess our sins because it will cause others to think less of us. But the opposite is almost always true. I know a man who told a joke that seemed funny to him but was offensive to a close friend. When he called to apologize, he admitted that he often spoke quickly without thinking of the consequences. His friend not only forgave him but also asked to be held accountable because he has the same problem in dealing with his children.
It helps to have a friend who knows your weaknesses. That friend can hold you accountable by asking hard questions and refusing to accept easy answers. Sometimes we need a kick in the pants and sometimes we need a pat on the back. A good friend will know which is appropriate.
Fourth, pray for deliverance. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13) That prayer means something like this, “O Lord, there are enemies on every hand and temptations without and within. Don’t let me fall into the devil’s trap but deliver me from his power. Give me eyes to the see “way of escape” and a heart ready to choose what it right.” If you can’t remember those words in a moment of crisis, cry out, “Help, Lord!” and he will surely answer you.
I find that if I pray immediately when I have evil thoughts, confessing to God that these thoughts are wrong, and ask Him to take them captive and make my thoughts obedient to Christ, I have victory each time.
“I’m Trying Not To”
Fifth, take the “way of escape” God gives you. 1 Corinthians 10:13 promises us God will never allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear. “But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” While that verse is most encouraging, it must not be taken for granted. The way of escape is always there, but if not taken, it may disappear. In most situations it will not be an angel’s voice but just a fleeting thought, “This is wrong. Don’t do it.” Every sin is a choice to do wrong. Before you make that choice, you always have another choice. That other choice is your “way of escape.”
Perhaps you’ve heard about the little boy who was lying under an apple tree. The farmer asked, ‘What are you trying to do? Steal an apple? “No, sir, I’m trying not to,” he replied. Many of are trying not to, but we fail because we lie down under the apple tree.
In sexual temptation, the “way of escape” may only last a moment. The sad story of Samson reminds us of what happens a man keeps making the wrong choices. It’s too late to decide to do right when you wake up with your head in Delilah’s lap. At that point his doom was sealed. The same thing happens to any of us when we let our emotions drive our decisions. But for a moment, before you put the pedal to the metal and go wild, the way of escape is always there. That’s why the Bible tells us to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18) and “flee the evil desires of youth” (2 Timothy 2:22).
When we repeatedly give in to temptation, something deadly begins to happen. Sin builds a certain force in your life that is difficult to overcome. The Bible speaks of a seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:2). When that happens the choice to do wrong becomes progressively easier. The “way of escape” is always there; you simply do not see it any longer. That is the danger of saying yes when you ought to say no. An ingrained pattern of wrong-doing cannot easily be changed. That’s why it’s crucial to say “No” to temptation the very first time.
Sixth, meditate on the Word of God daily. Psalm 119:11 says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Jesus prayed, “Make them pure and holy by teaching them your words of truth” (John 17:17 New Living Translation). The Word of God not only tells us how to live, it also provides the power we need to make the right choices.
Seventh, remember that the Holy Spirit lives with 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 visible restraint.
But we need to realize that the Holy Spirit is inside us, indwelling us. We are his home, his temple. (1 Corinthians 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.
As I have shared these principles with many people, they have discovered that God is indeed as good as His Word. He will never allow us to be tempted beyond our limits. I have seen the weakest Christians triumph over the Goliaths of life through His power.
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.