1. The Fact Of Temptation
There's an old saying, attributed to Martin Luther, which goes: `You can't help birds flying over your head, but you can stop them from building their nest in your hair!'
This may seem a strange saying. But it does tell us, in an interesting way, two facts about temptation: firstly that everyone will be tempted; and, secondly, that such temptation can be resisted and overcome.
In this topic we'll mostly be concerned with the resisting and overcoming of temptation. But let's first have a look at that fact of everyone being tempted.
Temptation is a universal experience. No one from of the whole human race is exempt, is free, from it. It touches us all.
This is a truth clearly found in Scripture. Romans 3:23 has the well-known words, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” These words tell us that everyone has been tempted, and will still be tempted. No one is in a position to choose whether he will be tempted or not. Because we have no choice about whether or not we're tempted, it isn't wrong to be tempted. It is not wrong to be tempted, but it is wrong to yield to temptation.
It is essential that we understand this important difference. For example, our Lord Jesus was severely tempted, not only at the beginning, but also throughout His ministry here on earth. Yet He was completely without sin.
We too will be tempted. And we must expect it, for “to be forewarned is to be forearmed”. But we can overcome temptation through Him “who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin”. (Hebrews 4:15) As Hebrews 2:18 tells us: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
2. The One Behind Temptation
Jesus says in Mark 14:38: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” In this and other similar sayings our Lord impresses on us the need for constant watchfulness and mental alertness if we're to overcome temptation.
The Apostles continued to emphasise and develop the teaching of Jesus on temptation. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:6: “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self controlled.”
And Peter says in 1 Peter 5:8: “Be self controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
In this verse Peter tells us why we're to be so watchful. It's the devil who is very sneakily trying to suck us in. That's why we have to put on the whole armour of God, as found in Ephesians 6, so that we can be alert to his crafty ways.
Many people fall victim to temptation because they become too self-confident. They think they'll be alright! Yet this in itself is a subtle temptation. “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!”
So we have to WATCH! WATCH OUT! And we also have to pray.
Here again our Lord Jesus is our example. When He was in His darkest hour of trial in Gethsemane, He first told the three Apostles to pray, and then He prayed Himself.
Christ's greatest model for prayer, the Lord's Prayer, shows how we should pray in regards to temptation, when it says: “…and deliver us from evil.”
It is in prayer that we take for ourselves the strength and grace of God to overcome temptation. Whenever we `lift up holy hands in prayer' our spiritual enemy is defeated, as when Moses on the hill defeated Amalek with the uplifted hands of intercession.
It's very important, though, in prayer, not to concentrate upon the sin. The mind should be focused on God. So the focus in prayer should be on the positive not the negative. It's always wrong to concentrate on sin. For example, don't pray, “O Lord, deliver me from my bad temper”, but rather, “O Lord, give me your Holy Spirit, and especially His fruits of patience, self-control and peace.”
The rule is, concentrate in prayer on the positive graces or virtues you need, and not on the vices or faults you wish to overcome.
3. The Place Of Temptation
In Matthew 12:43-45 we saw the picture of someone who has had a spring-clean and has been left nice and empty. We also saw, however, that unless this person fills up himself or herself with Jesus Christ then he or she will become filled up with even more evil things.
It is a fact that the empty life will be filled with sin. Evil can never be driven out by a direct and sustained attempt to keep it out. Evil can only be driven out by taking in the good.
Many people are trying, in a constant and tiring struggle, to drive out the “demons”, and often they wonder why they have so little success. You see, they're attempting to be good - for nothing. That same energy should be diverted to the positive job of filling the house of the heart with good tenants, so that when the “demons” peep in through the windows they will find it full and occupied.
What does it mean to fill the house? It means this - to invite in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let your life be fired with the joy of love for Him. Seek the friendship of His disciples, make good friends, and enjoy real satisfying fellowship. Throw yourself with energy and enthusiasm into His work, making the Kingdom your dominating purpose. Spend time each day in prayer, Scripture reading and meditation. So, let all your powers be fully involved in the worship and service of the Lord Jesus Christ.
4. The Way of Temptation
Once upon a time an Arab camel-driver was asleep in his tent in the desert on a bitterly, cold night. In the middle of the night he woke up to find that his camel had pushed it's nose beneath the flap of the tent, and he was about to protest when he realised that only a very little of the camel was inside, so it didn't matter much.
On waking up later, however, he found that the camel had put its whole head and long hairy neck into the tent. The Arab now aroused himself from his sleep to protest, but the camel prevented him by saying, “Oh, do you really mind? It is so terribly cold outside, and I won't come in any further.” The man went off to sleep again, but on waking the third time he was really alarmed to see that the camel's front legs and hump were now in the tent. As he was about to leap to his feet and drive it out, the camel said again, “Now I solemnly promise this time that I won't come in another single inch - and besides, it's warmer for you in the tent if there are two of us inside”. The Arab was lazy that, in spite of the growing worry in his mind, he fell off to sleep again. Very soon, however, he awoke with a cry of terror, “Help!” for he found the heavy weight of the camel on top of him. “If it's room you want,” said the beast in answer to his cry, “there's plenty of room outside - get out!”
Sin, like the camel, does not walk right into the tent of a man's life. If it attempted to do that, we would repel it at once. Sin worms its way by gradual stages. The Arab had no intention of allowing the camel to take possession of the tent. But the beast did so, because he dallied with it, instead of decisively repelling it.
Now sin gets hold of us in temptation in four quite distinct phases. First of all an evil thought enters into the mind (this is the camel's nose), and if it is not at once repelled it passes into the second stage of imagination. That is, we begin to picture ourselves doing the evil thing (the camel's head and neck). To picture evil, however, awakens and rouses the desire to do evil (the camel's legs and hump). This in turn pushes us toward the evil action.
No man can help evil thoughts entering his head - everyone has them, which is only another way of saying that we are all tempted. But we can all prevent evil thoughts from passing over into evil imaginations and desires. “You can't help birds flying over your head, but you can stop them from building their nest in your hair!” The rule is to always deal with temptation when it first comes in your mind, and don't play with it. Deal with the camel when he first puts his nose through the flap of the tent, for you'll find it most difficult to deal with him in the later stages. Don't play with fire!
5. The Focus Against Temptation
Many Christians find themselves constantly hindered by one particular sin that causes them to stumble again and again. The sin is often called, “the besetting sin.” The entire struggle seems to be focused on that one particular point.
First of all it should be pointed out that it's wrong to concentrate on any one sin. This is often the main cause of the difficulty. If we just focus on one thing we don't see how God is concerned with the transformation of our whole nature. So as Christians we must co-operate with the Holy Spirit in an all-round discipline, and avoid any tendency to focus on a few selected faults or “sins”. This works the same way as the educational philosophy that focuses on building up the good, and then the not so good will be improved as well.
Another reason for repeated failure is when we don't accept and use in a right way the strong instincts, impulses, and desires that are within us. None of these instincts and emotions are wrong, but they become wrong when they're used for the wrong end. But we can use these instincts and emotions for God.
Paul was a born fighter, but he did not use that ability to hit his neighbour in the face. He instead used and directed it in fighting “the good fight”. We too can use all that there is in us in a right way, and so it will not erupt like a volcano in a wrong and destructive way.
We also have to realise that discipline can never be achieved at any point just by waving some sort of magic wand. It is only by constantly doing little practical acts of self-discipline that we become truly disciplined. We grow in our Lord in the same way that the athlete gains his strength and skill - by constant practice.
6. The Force Fighting Temptation
We are all tempted. But what should we do in the actual moment of temptation? We've already seen that we shouldn't focus on the evil thing itself. The way to overcome temptation is not to fight evil, for in order to fight evil the attention has to be concentrated on it, and the more we concentrate on fighting evil within ourselves, the more we will be enslaved in it.
The right thing to do is to redirect the attention to look elsewhere. For the Christian that means, “looking unto Jesus'.
When our mind is turned to Jesus, evil loses its appeal, and we are reinforced by His power and grace. It's deadly to all true spiritual progress to be busy with yourself, especially with your own temptations.
Rather, in times of temptation, we have to establish the discipline of looking away from ourselves to our Redeemer in His holiness and power. As Hebrews 12:1-2 tell us: “…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
7. The Victory Through Temptation
This takes us to the very heart of the Gospel. “Christ died for our sins” - it is just these five words that make all the difference to the way in which the Christian must face sin and temptation.
Calvary was a battlefield. There our Lord fought with all the hosts of darkness on the cross. Jesus won! The Cross is a complete victory, a decisive triumph. This has happened, and it makes all the difference. The Christian doesn't have to struggle to win a victory over evil. If that was the case then Christ died in vain.
The Christian's true task is to take to himself a victory already won. The discipline of the Christian life is so that we can take to ourselves that victory. The reason for our defeats is that we do not believe, we do not receive, we do not trust. Since Jesus is our Saviour we have to look to Him in times of temptation.
According to an American Indian legend, a massive warrior once went into battle and fought with a ferocity and energy that no one could resist, and he killed many of the enemy. Eventually he met with one stronger than himself, and in the struggle they had, his head was cut off. But so strenuously was he fighting that even when his head was cut off his body went on dealing out blows. In this way he killed several more soldiers, until at last someone shouted out to him - “Look, your head's off!” At that he collapsed into death.
The head of sin has been cut off on Calvary by the “Strong Son of God”, but the monster goes on injuring and killing people because they don't tell him so. Sin has no power, except of unbelief. On the battlefield of temptation, the Christian, like the Emperor Constantine, must lift up his eyes to the Cross and see in letters of fire the words, “In this sign conquer”.