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A favorite poem of mine is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It speaks plainly of the importance of going the right way when tempted to take another.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.1
Temptations come like Frost’s proverbial fork in the road. We determine our destiny in how we respond. Take the wrong road and the end could be devastating. That’s what makes our struggle with temptations so unbelievably tough. It’s those consequences we don’t want to face that haunt us.
But before we address our struggle, let’s look at the temptation Jesus faced. Our journey begins with a critical juncture in His life. That scene is described near the beginning of the Gospel story written by Matthew. It’s important you read the entire account to grasp the nature of this diabolical ordeal. Let its intensity grip you.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God."
Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you’; and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.' ”
Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’ ” Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him. (Matthew 4:1–11)
Matthew 4 opens at the commencement of Jesus’s ministry. His official work had not yet begun. He was a thirty-year-old single adult. He had not yet called the twelve disciples. He hadn’t delivered His first sermon. He had not even been criticized. He was young, inexperienced, and virtually unknown.
At His baptism in the chilly Jordan River, Jesus’s message and mission were verified as God announced, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17). And with that the Spirit immediately whisked Jesus away to an unnamed wilderness. Alone and pensive, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights.When He lay weakened from lack of nourishment and languishing in the harsh desert elements, the tempter made his move.
Isn’t that a clever strategy? The enemy knows exactly when you and I are most vulnerable. He knows to look patiently for that chink in our armor where we’re most exposed. Satan waited until Christ seemed most vulnerable before he initiated a series of three grueling tests. Each became more intense than the one before.
In the first temptation the devil taunted Jesus, who answered him with Scripture. Instead of backing off, Satan taunted Jesus a second time. Again Jesus met his adversary’s test with the power of biblical truth. Undeterred, Satan persisted. He escorted Jesus to an exceedingly high mountain, tempting Him for the third time. Jesus’s answer was a leveling reply, which came again with the force of Scripture.
Back and forth it went. We call it interchange, a rhetorical device Matthew employed to make his point. Matthew wanted his readers to catch the force of Satan’s relentless, repeated assaults, each of which was met by Christ’s firm resistance. Remember, Jesus didn’t come as a conquering, warrior King storming the world with fireworks, flags, and fanfare. That’s how you and I would come if we wanted to be king! Not Jesus. Matthew explains how Christ came as a lowly King to inaugurate a different kind of kingdom. He came silently and humbly, like a soft-footed servant, slipping into the darkness of earth’s night without anyone noticing. He entered without pretense but not without purpose. He came to die . . . to pay sin’s penalty in full. His mission was the Cross, and nobody knew that more than Satan.The devil’s strategy to thwart that mission was to take Jesus off point before His ministry even began. He hoped to trick God’s Son into submission, using a three-pronged line of attack.
The first temptation was of a personal nature. The tempter slipped in and whispered in His ear, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” At their feet were small, smooth stones, perhaps chips of limestone abundant in that wilderness terrain. Jesus had just completed forty days of fasting, and His body had grown weak and hungry. Satan tempts the starving young man to take matters into His own hands. How easy it would have been for Jesus to yield and attend to His personal needs. By now Jesus was abundantly aware of His superlative gifts and powers. He could have picked up a handful of those stones and instantly become the bread king. Given His compassion, He could have filled the stomachs of hungry children and emaciated families all across that region.What a dramatic way to win the hearts of the people to His cause! Who wouldn’t follow such a miracle worker? That’s why the enticement was personal. It was as if Satan was suggesting, “You could become Messiah without ever having to go to the cross!”
Jesus saw right through the devil’s plot and replied, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’ ” What a magnificent answer! What a statement to make on an empty stomach! Jesus knew more was at stake than His physical needs. He came to redeem the human soul. Jesus resisted the temptation to use His gifts to parade His glory for selfish reasons. He came to do the Father’s will and to fulfill His splendid purpose. So He wasted no time rejecting the temptation to abuse His power.
I’m convinced that most of us are rarely tempted in the area of our weaknesses but far more often in the areas of our strengths. I’m not the first to point that out. One man writes,
We must always remember that again and again we are tempted through our gifts. The person who is gifted with charm will be tempted to use that charm “to get away with anything.” The person who is gifted with the power of words will be tempted to use his command of words to produce glib excuses to justify his own conduct. The person with a vivid and sensitive imagination will undergo agonies of temptation that a more stoic person will never experience. The person with great gifts of mind will be tempted to use these gifts for himself, and not for others, to become the master and not the servant of men. It is the grim fact of temptation that it is just where we are strongest that we must be forever on the watch.2
God has gifted each of us with inner abilities and giftedness—not to turn stones into food, but to turn words into pictures. Some enjoy remarkable gifts of persuasion. Unchecked, you easily give in to the temptation to sell out to lower aims than the noble purposes God has designed. Those gifted in the area of discipline can be tempted to take corrective measures too far, even to abusive extremes. Those are temptations of a personal nature that lure us into dangerous patterns of self-satisfaction.
In one of the toughest stretches of His life, Jesus resisted that personal temptation. But the devil persisted.
The second temptation was one of a public nature.Next, Satan took Jesus to the city of Jerusalem to a high place. If I’ve got this place located correctly, they were together at the uppermost point of the temple complex, four hundred and fifty feet above the base of the Kidron Valley. That’s forty-five stories up! Standing there next to the King of kings, the devil snarled, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning You. . . . On their hands they will bear You up, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.’ ” Quoting from Psalm 91, Satan presumptuously pressed for a public display of God’s power to protect Jesus from certain death.
Imagine, Satan was tempting Jesus to make a swan dive off the pinnacle of Solomon’s temple! Satan wanted sensationalism. The devil knew God would not allow His Son to die, at least not yet, not like that. His death would be a cruel, agonizing death at Calvary. He would not have died had He jumped. He would have been preserved. The devil might have said something like, “What an opportunity to make an impact! [No pun intended.] You’ll have people from all over following You as a wonder worker, a sensationalist who can jump from the pinnacle and live to tell the story. Just imagine it. It would make the tabloids. Cable news! Think of the people who would believe in You! And You wouldn’t have to hang on that rugged cross. What a deal! I mean, a little sensationalism never hurt anybody, Jesus. People love it!”
Again, Jesus saw straight through the devil’s plan and delivered another diffusing response, saying, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Using Scripture as a shield, Jesus avoided committing what the Bible describes as the sin of presumption—presuming on God and His people. Only God knows how many religious workers dance on the edge of that temptation. What’s wrong with a touch of sensationalism? Why not flirt with a little danger or live on the edge of reckless foolishness and claim deliverance by divine intervention? Why not do that, especially if it draws a crowd? What’s wrong with that? Two reasons come to mind:
First, attracting people by sensationalism starts a process you can never complete. One sensationalistic act requires a second . . . and it needs to be greater than the first. And the second act requires one greater than that for the third. Soon you’re trapped in a never-ending downward cycle. You have to keep doing one better than the last to keep the crowd coming.
Second, sensationalism draws attention to an individual rather than to the living God. It creates a circus atmosphere. Really, though, what’s wrong with a little snake handling if God protects? What’s wrong with a leap into space every now and then if you need a crowd? I appreciate the caution in a statement I read recently: “A gospel founded on sensation-mongering is foredoomed to failure.”3 Sure, Jesus would have lived through the leap, but the temptation was to see if He would rely on a sensational trick rather than the power of the Cross. Thankfully in the tough stuff of satanic allurement Jesus resisted temptation of a public nature. As always, the tempter had one more test up his sleeve.
The third temptation was of a power nature. Jesus and Satan left the pinnacle of the temple and were quickly swept even farther up to the peak of a mountain overlooking the kingdoms of the known world. Who knows how high? Beyond each horizon stretched an expanse of lands and empires.We can only imagine the panoramic scene below. You and I have been in high places where we’ve looked out over a city of lights or across a sparkling lake. Those views left us breathless. But none of that compares to what the two of them, all alone, must of have seen.
God had plans for His Son to rule the kingdoms of the earth, but that plan did not include Satan’s presumptuous offer. I repeat, the Father’s plan would be fulfilled through the cross of suffering and only there. Satan loathed the thought of Jesus making it to Calvary. Lucifer knew the cross represented the place he’d experience his doom. The cross, therefore, was not an option for the devil. He tempted Jesus to gain that power by obeying and worshiping him, not Almighty God.
A few years ago, while traveling to a conference ground with my friend Chuck Colson, former confidant and White House chief of staff for President Richard Nixon, I asked why anyone would want to be president. To me, there isn’t enough money or prestige in the world to make life worth the hassle and the effort. He smiled and answered rather quickly, “One word, my friend: POWER. It all comes down to power.”4 Few of us will ever be tempted to pursue presidential power. But we’re tempted to maneuver our way to power through other schemes, aren’t we? The devil knows we crave it. Is it any wonder that he baits us to go there?
When he does, Jesus’s model is a good one to follow. Without hesitation, He replied, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’ ” If you’ve been looking for an illustration of “just say no,” search no further. And with that, Matthew concludes, “the devil left Him.” Wouldn’t it be great if the tough stuff of all our temptations came and left as quickly as that? Bam, bam, bam . . . one, two, three . . . and we’re done. Unfortunately that’s the exception, not the rule.
On one hand, today you may find yourself in a situation of relative peace and comfort. No real worries. Bills are up-to-date, portfolio looks impressive, kids are on track, job is secure. Check. Life is good. On the other hand, your life may have fallen on the rocks. Nothing is working out the way you planned. You can’t seem to get the break you need. You’ve prayed your heart out for weeks, maybe months. No answer. Nothing. God has seemingly checked out. You’re worn down and wondering if the sun will ever shine again. Whichever may be your situation, remain on guard. In comfort or distress, you’re easy prey. If you listen closely, you will hear the hiss of the enemy’s voice. Simply worship him, pick up the lifestyle he suggests, and you’re home free. Before you know it, you’ve complicated things, and the tough stuff of temptation intensifies.
Temptation is not a crossroad only Jesus had to face. That’s a common fork in the road. You will find yourself there before the week grinds to an end. Your experience won’t come as dramatically as a personal visit from the devil, but another temptation will come. Then another. And another.
What am I suggesting? Clearly, you need to be ready. That’s why I want to offer three simple yet effective strategies to help you resist the pull of temptation and not be caught unprepared.
First, don’t be alarmed; expect it. You cannot be promoted in your career beyond the level of temptation. You cannot know a life so peaceful that you’re finally so secure you’re protected from Satan’s assaults. Temptations begin as inner battles fought in the mind and as unseen struggles of the will. They attack you in the deep recesses of your heart. Interestingly, nobody knows. Expecting temptation helps keep you alert for the spiritual battle. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians, he encouraged them to keep short accounts with one another in order that “no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:11).
Let me get painfully specific here. A major, hidden battleground of temptation today is Internet pornography. The statistics of those who are addicted is staggering, not to mention those who turn to it in the secrecy of their undetected worlds. Knowing how pervasive and insidious this temptation really is requires me to stay alert and ready. Every month thousands of new porn sites appear on the Internet. And many of them are tucked away, ready to fill your screen even when you’re not seeking them.
While trying to find a map to a little town in north Texas where several friends and I could ride our Harleys and then eat a barbeque lunch together, I punched in the name of that town. That’s it—that’s all I entered into my computer. Immediately, in bold, one-inch letters, I saw “SEX” on my screen. And that was only the beginning. As I tried to remove it, each new attempt brought up more lurid scenes. Not even when I punched Escape was I able to escape the recurring scenes, each one intensely alluring to the flesh.
Determined, I reached down and turned my computer off . . .completely off. Finally! But would you believe? When I later turned it on, there it was again—another unwanted but very real temptation. Thankfully, my younger son, Chuck, was able to find a way to free the equipment. And it all started while on a simple, rather hurried search for a little town in north Texas. Being alert to this reality is essential.
This is a good time for me to mention a couple of excellent electronic tools to help all who use a computer. BsafeOnline and NetAccountability make the best use of technology and Christian relationships to defeat the adversary. BsafeOnline’s web filterlink software effectively blocks Internet porn before it enters your home or office. NetAccountability software is an online “buddy system” that adds teeth to real life accountability. For a small fee, you can use their program to help fight this temptation. You select a partner of your choice with whom you enter into an accountability relationship. He or she is given access to your Internet activity and you, in turn, are allowed access to your partner’s activity. That way, at any time, you or your partner can quickly scan what the other has been watching. Knowing that your partner is holding you accountable is a deterrent that helps you resist the temptation.
Check out www.netaccountability.com for yourself. I’ve personally found it extremely effective, and therefore I recommend it often and enthusiastically. You might also visit the Insight for Living Web site at www.insight.org for links to Bible study tools and other helpful Web sites that can help protect your home and office from the tempting grip of pornography.
These are good ways to stay alert to the tempter. Don’t be alarmed by temptation; expect it.
Second, don’t be blind; detect it. Call temptation what it is. Because the adversary has innumerable methods of attack, and because they are seldom overt, we’re often blindsided by him.We need to ask God to help us detect his presence and brace ourselves for the impact. An ink-stained wall in the Wartburg Castle in Germany illustrates my point. It’s part of a room once occupied by the great reformer Martin Luther, who in the midst of prayer and study detected the presence of the enemy. The story goes that he picked up his inkpot and hurled it against the wall as he aimed at the devil. Luther sensed the adversary’s sinister advance and responded the best he way knew how.
Do you have that kind of spiritual sensitivity? Cynthia and I have been in places where we’ve both sensed the palpable presence of evil. Believe me, we’re not the witch-hunting types.We’re not the kind of folks who see demons in every dark alley or behind every door. That’s not us. But we stay extremely sensitive to evil’s realities. On occasion one of us will whisper in the other’s ear, “The enemy is in this. It’s not of the Lord. Let’s get out!”
A spiritually sensitive spouse is a magnificent gift from the Lord. But if you don’t have that, seek out a friend who understands the tough stuff you wrestle with and the intensity of your struggle. The support will be invaluable. A trusted friend can help keep you in check, support you in prayer, and be there when you begin to weaken. Alcoholics Anonymous has operated on this basis for years. When you start to falter, someone willing to assist and strengthen you is only a phone call away.
Believe me, inkpots cannot frustrate the devil permanently. Temptation will come again. So, don’t be blind; detect it.
Third, don’t be clever; reject it. I find less mature believers naively think they can sort of roll up their spiritual sleeves and challenge the devil to a duel.What a foolish thought! Try that approach and you will lose every time. Attempt to play clever games with the enemy and he’ll pick you clean. Don’t even go near there. Instead, do what the apostle James commands: “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” ( James 4:7). The key word is resist. Wonderful advice. And notice that exhortation comes in two steps: Submit to God. Resist the devil. Satan would have you reverse the command and do the opposite. He wants you to resist God and submit to him. That’s a trap! Don’t be clever; reject it.
Tucked away in Hebrews 4 are some extremely comforting words for those who are determined to get through the tough stuff of temptation. Read this section of Holy Scripture slowly and carefully. I really don’t want you to miss the power and hope these verses contain.
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15–16)
For the longest time I struggled to understand the meaning of those words. What I couldn’t grasp was how Jesus could have been tempted in all the ways I have been tempted. Think through the logic. First, I’ve lived longer than Jesus lived. Many who read this book have no doubt lived longer than I. Jesus lived only thirty-three years and then He was gone. Only three of those thirty-three years were spent in public ministry. So how, for example, could He have known the temptations that come with aging? Or how would He possibly understand the temptations of a young soldier stationed in England during World War II? How could He relate to the intense struggles of a young, professional woman trying to achieve success in twenty-first-century America? We’re missing something if that’s our logic.
Christ didn’t experience every single temptation that you or I have faced. That’s not what this means. But He did absorb the full brunt of the enemy’s power and endured it without yielding to sin. No other human being could withstand the unbridled force of Satan’s power. Some Christians may handle 30 percent of the enemy’s power. Some may have faith strong enough to take 50 percent of his attack before they yield. Some perhaps 70 percent. Yet no one, except Jesus Christ Himself, has withstood the all-out force—100 percent of Satan’s fury. Christ, our High Priest, endured it all for you. That’s why He’s such a reliable resource to get you through the tough stuff of temptation. He’s been there. He’s felt that sting. And He strengthens us with power to stand firm.
I appreciate the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases this in The Message:
We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.
That’s why leaning on and trusting in Christ during the tough stuff of life makes so much sense. No other person but Jesus Christ could say, “I have gone all the way through the attacks of the enemy. And when you face your own temptations, you can rely on Me. I have the power, I can provide the dynamo you need to endure. Take the mercy; accept the help.”
Thankfully, your options are down to one. What you need is Him. He’s all you need! He is sufficient. By the way, Martin Luther did more than just sling ink onto a castle wall. He used that ink to write his magnificent hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” One of those stanzas is too relevant to ignore.
Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing,
Were not the right man on our side,
The man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He—
Lord Sabaoth His name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle. 5
If there is anyone who is qualified to win the battle, it is Jesus. When you let Him fight it for you, He will. The question is a simple one: will you let Him?