During a busy lunch hour in a crowded downtown, a pastor frantically searched for a parking place. He circled several blocks again and again, but a car sat at every meter and every parking ramp flashed a “Full” sign. Desperate to get to an important meeting, the pastor finally decided to double-park. He took out his business card and wrote a note in case a police officer might come by to ticket him. “Dear Officer,” the pastor wrote, “I circled this block a dozen times, but I could not find a place to park. I have an appointment to keep.” Smiling to himself, he closed his note with, “Forgive us our trespasses.”
About an hour later, the pastor returned to find a parking ticket under his windshield wiper. Handwritten on the back of the ticket were these words: “Dear Reverend, I have patrolled this block for a dozen years. If I don’t give you a ticket, I’ll lose my job.” The officer had signed his name and badge number, and then added the kicker: “Lead us not into temptation.”
“Lead us not into temptation!” Those words are from what we call the Lord’s Prayer, one of the most well-known passages in the Bible. This reminds me of a bumper sticker I once read: “Lead us not into temptation. We can easily find it ourselves!”
We generally think that all temptation is bad. Yet it may surprise you to know that testing, and even temptation, can have a positive effect. The Bible tells us, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (Jas. 1:12).
Right off the bat, from this verse we learn three things about temptation:
1. We can endure temptation: “Blessed is the man [or woman] who endures temptation.”
2. God promises a reward when we endure it: “He [or she] will receive the crown of life.”
3. We will be happier people if we resist the pull of temptation: “Blessed is the man [or woman] who endures.”
Martin Luther once said, “One Christian who has been tempted is worth a thousand who haven’t.” It’s also been said, “Christians are a lot like tea bags. You don’t know what they’re made of until you put them in hot water.”
You never know when temptation will come your way. I once heard about a young salesman who went to bid on a job for his firm. When he was ushered into the purchasing agent’s office, he couldn’t help but notice a competitor’s bid lying there on the desk. Unfortunately, the actual figure was covered by a can of juice. The temptation to see the amount soon became too much for the salesman, and he slowly lifted the can. As he did so, thousands of BBs poured from the bottomless container and scattered across the floor. His heart sank. It was a trap, and he got busted for giving in to his temptation.
And you and I will, too. That’s why we must learn to resist temptation. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “It is easier to suppress the first desire than to satisfy all that follow it.”
What You Need to Know About Temptation
In the next few pages, we’ll be getting up close and personal with this whole issue of temptation. In fact, we’ll zero in on some very specific questions, such as:
• When does temptation come?
• Where does it come from?
• Whom does it come to?
In Luke 4, we find the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan. We’ll look at this account again later in more detail. While this story recorded in Scripture is brief—hardly more than a few verses—it is filled with truths that can help us face the daily barrage of temptations that come our way at breakneck speed. Jesus set the example.
Now, let’s set the scene. Jesus was ready to officially begin His public ministry. But before that could happen, He had to take a couple of very important steps. The first was to be baptized. The other was to face His temptation in the wilderness.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus needed to be baptized? He had never sinned! He had no need to undergo the baptism of repentance that his cousin, John the Baptizer, was advocating. So why did Jesus do it? Because He wanted to set an example for all of us. And that, by the way, is also why He faced this series of temptations.
It’s essential that we see Jesus as a man facing Satan. In other words, Jesus did not use His divine power to be delivered or to run Satan out. He showed us how to handle temptation when it comes our way. Jesus occupied ground that we can occupy as we heed the words of Philippians 2:5: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”
As Christians, we constantly face at least three enemies—the flesh, the world and the devil. The flesh is the evil desire we all have within us—that vulnerability or propensity to do the wrong thing. The world is the place where we can find all kinds of temptations that lure us into indulging in our evil desires. The devil, of course, is Satan, who wants us to give in to our evil desires because that will—at least temporarily—build walls in our relationship with God.
Another way to think about these three enemies is to consider the flesh, with its evil desires, as the internal foe. The world, with its enticements, is the external foe. And Satan, with his temptations, is the infernal foe.
It can seem so tough to resist temptation. After all, temptation is so......tempting! Yet the effect of giving in to temptation can be absolutely devastating. By yielding to temptation, in just a split second we can lose everything that it might have taken an entire lifetime for us to gain. However, in order to be able to resist temptation, it’s important for us to first understand where temptation comes from, when it attacks, what its target is and how it gains a toehold in our life.
This brings us to the first question I raised.
When Does Temptation Come?
The simple answer is that while temptation can come at any time, it often comes after we experience times of great blessing.
Jesus’ encounter with the evil one took place almost immediately after His baptism and the public affirmation by His Father—what must have been one of the great highlights of His earthly life. When Jesus came up out of the muddy waters of the Jordan, something incredible happened. The Bible says that heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove. Then the Father spoke from heaven: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
That’s when Satan bared his teeth: “Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being tempted for forty days by the devil” (Luke 4:1-2). Just as Satan followed the dove, trial and temptation often come after great blessing. Strange as it might seem, the two often go hand in hand.
Think about this for a minute. When we face temptation as Christians, we almost instinctively wonder what we’re doing wrong. Or we wonder if God is somehow punishing us. We might even try to willfully change some part of our life in which we think we’re disappointing God or failing Him.
While it’s great to try to live without sin in our lives, the truth is that temptation generally comes after times when we’ve experienced great blessings from God. So, you might be in church some Sunday, being encouraged in your faith, and right after the service—perhaps even during—some shockingly impure thought or some ungodly impulse tugs on you. Good night, you wonder, where did that come from? However, as a matter of fact, we should expect to face temptation whenever we have experienced great blessing.
History tells us that when Hitler invaded European nations during the early years of World War II, in almost every situation, he attacked on a weekend. You see, Hitler knew that the various national governments would not be in session, which would make it more difficult for them to react swiftly to an invasion.
In much the same way, the devil—the enemy of our souls—watches and waits for an opportune time to launch his invasion. He bides his time, looking for that moment when we are most vulnerable. Strange as it might seem, that vulnerable moment can take place when we imagine ourselves to be at our strongest. The apostle Paul had a succinct word of warning along those lines: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
Where Does Temptation Come From?
Have you ever fallen into sin and—somewhat amazed that you gave in to the temptation—asked yourself how you got there? You probably went through a series of events that ultimately led you to rationalize your sin. We’ll look more at rationalization and excuses in the next chapter, but for now let’s examine the series of events that led to the sin.
Temptation often enters in through the realm of your imagination. Picture it as an unwelcome visitor knocking at your door. You know that if you open the door, you’ll have trouble. So when the enemy comes with temptation, don’t open the door. In fact, don’t even look through the peephole! Don’t underestimate sin or the power of it.
In addition, keep in mind that we play a vital role in resisting or giving in to our own temptation. It’s true. Interestingly, when we resist temptation, we are pretty quick to take credit for our strong faith. But when we give in to temptation, it’s easy to blame God for allowing us to fail. James wrote:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren (Jas. 1:13–16).
The truth is, sin is an inside job. Temptation itself starts with our bent toward doing the wrong thing. Where there’s no desire on our part, there’s no real temptation. Satan needs our cooperation to give in to his temptation. Think about it: Have you ever seen an insurance salesman walking up and down among the grave markers in a cemetery, trying to make a sale? I don’t think so. That’s because you can’t sell something to someone who isn’t listening to you and doesn’t care about what you have to say.
The same is true of us. The devil needs our willing assistance. He’s going door to door looking for a customer who’ll invite him in.
But when we get down to it, we have only ourselves to thank when we give in to temptation. Jesus said, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man” (Mark 7:20). Paul echoed this thought when he wrote, “Don’t you realize that whatever you choose to obey becomes your master? You can choose sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God and receive his approval” (Rom. 6:16, NLT).
The Scorpion and the Tortoise
Yes, we have our own sinful nature to blame for most of our problems. This reminds me of the fable of the scorpion and the tortoise. As you may or may not know, scorpions can’t really swim. So, one day, a scorpion that wanted to cross a pond found a rather unsuspecting tortoise and asked if he would give him a lift to the other side.
“Are you joking?” the tortoise exclaimed. “You’ll sting me while I’m swimming, and I’ll drown.”
“My dear tortoise,” laughed the scorpion, “if I were to sting you, you would drown, and I’d go down with you. Now, where is the logic in that?”
“You’ve got a point there,” reasoned the tortoise. “Hop on.”
The scorpion climbed aboard. Halfway across the pond, he carefully aimed his powerful stinger and gave the tortoise everything he had.
As they both began to sink, the tortoise, resigned to his fate, turned to the scorpion and said, “Do you mind if I ask you something? You said there was no logic in your stinging me. Why did you do it?”
“It has nothing to do with logic,” the drowning scorpion replied. “It’s just my nature!”
That’s not a bad description of temptation—and why we’re so weak. In the immortal words of the scorpion, “It’s just our nature.” We all have a natural, inward bent to do the wrong thing. We like to think that our bad behavior is a direct result of our upbringing, environment, and so on. Although those things do have an influence on us, the primary reason we think and do the wrong things is because of the sinful nature within each one of us.
“I Couldn’t Resist Myself”
When my son Jonathan was still very young, I sent him to bed one night with some clear instructions: “Now, turn off the light. No more video games, okay?”
He agreed. But a bit later, I noticed a familiar, blue glow coming from beneath the door to his room. When I opened the door, I caught little Jonathan red-handed, blasting away at enemy spaceships. When I demanded an explanation, he blurted out, “Dad, I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t resist myself.”
His response was so cute that I just let it go (after unplugging the video game, of course). But my little boy was really on to something. We love to blame the devil and others for our spiritual stumbles and falls. But the truth is, it’s just our nature. Or, as that young theologian Jonathan Laurie put it, “I couldn’t resist myself.”
When we give in to our temptation, we like to rationalize and conveniently place the blame on someone or something else. (It was that waitress’s fault for waving that dessert tray with flan cake beneath my nose!) Sometimes, we even want to blame God for our missteps. We will lamely say something along the lines of, “God just gave me more than I could handle!” Talk about passing the buck! This is what Adam essentially did in the Garden, and it’s what we do when we can’t own up to our own complicity in our sinful choices.
The Bible clearly refutes this kind of thinking, reminding us, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone” (Jas. 1:13). Scripture also tells us that God will never give us more than we can handle: “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” (1 Cor. 10:13, NIV).
Whom Does Temptation Come To?
In a broad sense, everyone is tempted. At the same time, without question, the enemy focuses his attacks on those who are young in the faith and those who are making a difference—or potentially could make a difference—for the kingdom of God.
I think practically every new Christian doubts his or her salvation in some way. It might be the day after you ask Jesus to come into your life, and the devil whispers in your ear, “Do you actually believe that God would forgive someone like you? Do you really think your sins are forgiven and Jesus lives in your heart? Get real! You psyched yourself into it!” You may not sense God’s nearness at that particular moment, and as a result, you start believing that Satan’s lies are the truth.
Maybe you recall being hit with some serious temptations when you first came to know Jesus as your Savior. The same kind of temptation will also come whenever you tell God, “I want You to use me.” Please know that this is common, and even to be expected to a large degree, among those who are new in the faith or who invite God to use them. You need to realize that Satan will attack. So be aware.
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus gives us some insight into how Satan works. He compares God’s Word to seed being sown by a farmer. Some of the seed falls on the road, and the ever-watching birds quickly swoop down and scoop it up. Jesus then goes on to interpret these words: “And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts” (Mark 4:15).
Notice the words, “Satan comes immediately.” In other words, the enemy likes to attack before a young believer can be established in the faith or before he or she has the opportunity to send down roots into the nourishing soil of God’s Word. I myself remember experiencing a major temptation in my life right after my conversion.
A Pretty Girl Comes Calling
When I asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior, I was in high school. I was just days old in the faith and bubbling over with excitement about what God had done for me. I even wore a little button on my shirt with a drawing of Jesus on it.
I went to one of my classes, where I noticed an attractive girl looking at me and smiling. Now, I had noticed this girl before, but frankly, she had never noticed me. Suddenly—seemingly out of nowhere—she was making eyes at me!
The Christians I knew had told me that I probably would face temptations after my conversion. I remember wondering in that moment, Could this be it? I didn’t have to wait long to find out, because just as class let out, this cute little dish sashayed up to me and said, “Hi. What’s your name?”
I forgot my name momentarily, stunned by her sudden interest in me.
“You’re really cute, Greg,” she cooed. “I’ve never noticed you before.”
I was dumbfounded. Then she looked into my eyes and said, “I would really like to get to know you better. Hey, my parents have this house up in the mountains, and they’ll be gone this weekend. Want to go up with me?”
I knew this had to be a temptation. Things like this just didn’t happen to me! I wondered, Why is this happening to me now, when I can’t act on it? Talk about bad timing!
Then it dawned on me: This wasn’t bad timing. It was precise timing—from hell. Satan was hitting me where I was weak and when I was young in the faith.
I got excited, not so much about the temptation, but about the opportunity to resist. I remember thinking that if Satan wanted to trip me up that much, God must have something really special in store for me. So, by the grace of God, I said no to her. She walked off in a huff, and I’m sure she quickly found another taker for her little mountain getaway.
As a new follower of Jesus Christ, I felt a great sense of relief and joy as I made my first conscious decision to turn away from what I wanted to do. And I was blessed—or happy—as the Scripture says we will be when we resist temptation (see Jas. 1:12).
God knows exactly how much we can take. When He lets His children go through fiery trials, He always keeps one eye on them and one finger on the thermostat. Remember, He has made a way of escape in the midst of every temptation. Thus, if we succumb to the enticements and temptations of the devil, we must take responsibility for our actions.
Temptation Knocks at Every Door
Why did Satan tempt all kinds of people throughout Scripture? In nearly every case, it is because of the damage they were doing to his evil kingdom. Again, be forewarned. When you pray, “Lord, let my life make a difference,” you’d better brace yourself. The enemy won’t sit idly by.
This is why Satan attacked Jesus. Jesus was a threat to him. And this is why he will attack you, because you, as God’s follower, also represent a threat to him. You might protest and say, “But, Greg, I never get tempted to do the wrong thing!” If that’s the case, then you must be either dead or worthless. As the great British preacher C. H. Spurgeon once wrote, “You don’t kick a dead horse.”
If you are really following Jesus, you will be tempted. It’s not a matter of if—it’s a matter of when and how.
Before you move on to chapter 2, I want to encourage you to apply what you’ve read here to your own life. Ponder the following questions and be honest with yourself as you try to answer. I suggest that you spend time in reflective thought and prayer, asking God to point out areas in which you need to rely on Him to help you with the temptations you face.
1. When you face temptation, who do you blame? Do you blame God or Satan or yourself? Why?
2. In your own experience, have you faced temptation during times of great blessing?
3. Have you faced temptation during times when you have asked God to use you to make a difference in His kingdom?
4. Why do you think the enemy steps up his attacks against new believers and those who are trying to serve God completely?
5. In this chapter, I described a temptation that I faced when I first became a follower of Jesus and how I realized that I was being tempted. Can you think of a similar situation in which you realized you were facing a temptation right in the middle of the experience?
6. How did you resist the temptation?
7. What have you learned from your own experience of resisting temptation that might be helpful for repelling future attacks?
’Tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fall.