We’re continuing our series entitled Stand Bravely, and today we’re going to talk about standing bravely in the face of temptation.
So today we’re going to speak about standing firm in the struggle of temptation, and I want to start with a fairly vivid picture for me of what it’s like to experience temptation.
I love movies. Movies are a great way to unwind the mind and escape the challenging realities of life. And it’s a way to connect with my wife because we can sit and watch movies together. So as long as we’ve been dating we’ve regularly gone to the DVD store together for DVDs.
I discovered very early on the power of temptation in the DVD store. You walk in and all these movies are on display, and the front covers of these DVDs are specifically designed to grab your attention. But only a few of them will. If you’re into sci-fi, the sci-fi covers will catch your attention. Romance or comedy. I like action, so the movies with guns grab my attention.
But not nearly as much as the cover that depicts a woman dressed and posed seductively.
I discovered that as I scanned the rows and rows of DVDs, that one would catch my attention. Even though I had seen it for just an instant, that cover was stuck in my mind. I could walk to the other side of the store and that image would be burned into my brain like a glowing yellow flower in a grey room.
The temptation to return to that DVD, to rent it, to examine it, to think more about it – that temptation was so strong that it was as if the rest of the room had blurred up and that cover was the only thing in focus, until I left the store.
Temptation can be a strong thing. It can distract you from many other wonderful things. It can keep you from many healthy and happy pursuits. And while it promises life, if you pursue the path that temptation points you to, it always only ever ends in death.
We’re going to talk about the road of temptation today. We’re going to look at the Nature of Temptation – what temptation is; then we’re going to look at the Sources of Temptation; and finally we’re going to look at How to Resist Temptation.
The first thing that I want us to grasp today is that the pull of temptation is the one thing that we all share.
THE ONE THING WE SHARE
Temptation is common to all of mankind.
When I was in high school and struggling deeply with sexual temptation and an addiction to pornography – I was terrified that someone might find out because I thought I was the only one. No-one else was weak like me, or dirty as I was. I thought I was the only one facing and failing in temptation.
There isn’t a man or woman who ever lived that didn’t feel the pull of temptation. Even Jesus, though He lived a perfect life, was tempted by sin and that shows us that temptation in and of itself is not sinful.
One of the most liberating thoughts for me in my journey was the realisation that God has created us with good and right desires. We are created with healthy and natural needs, and that’s not a bad thing.
But our good and right desires are, in temptation, threatened to be distorted by sin.
So we all experience temptation. And all of us have fallen flat on our face when confronted by temptation.
A little of my own story: I was exposed to pornography at probably the age of 9 or 10 by a boy who was younger than myself. I didn’t know what it was, whether it was good or bad, but it took root in my heart and I instinctively knew that this was something to be hidden and not spoken about.
The stories that boy shared with me became my own fantasies, a ‘treasure trove’ of exciting thoughts I could go to in my own time.
By the age of 12 I was addicted to sexual fantasy. And in that place I discovered online pornography by chance, and the fire that had been lit was suddenly an all-consuming blaze. By the time I was 14 I spent almost every Friday night binging on pornography all night – 7pm till 7am the next morning. I would sit on the computer until bedtime, then pretend to go to sleep until my family was asleep, then head back to the computer until someone woke up. Then I’d lie and say I’d just gotten to the computer. But my brain, and my soul, were completely crippled with the things I’d been looking at.
I tried to stop. I hated Saturday mornings because I always had piano lessons on Saturday mornings, so from whenever I was found on the computer I would go and sleep for an hour, then be woken up for a lesson. It was the worst feeling of guilt, tiredness, shame, fear, anxiety.
Now I’d been caught many times by my Dad who would give me the talk of how it was damaging my future. But it was at 17 that I went to him to ask him for help to stop. That began my long journey.
The fight to win in the battle with temptation became the fight of my life. Small victories were swallowed up in defeats that left me feeling ashamed, worthless and suicidal.
Temptation was my master.
But small victories became bigger ones, and Jesus taught me more and more what it meant to trust Him.
But temptation was still a violently victorious enemy.
NATURE OF TEMPTATION
I’ll share more testimony later, but let’s look at the nature of temptation for a bit. What is temptation?
Temptation is the desire to do something which we know is wrong.
Why would we choose to do something wrong?
Well the foundational attribute of temptation is the thought, “God is not here.” How many kids in your class in school would swear in front of a teacher, or a pastor? Not many – because we don’t mind doing wrong, but not before God.
The foundational attribute of temptation is the thought, “God is not here.” Whether ‘our sin’ is lust, pride, theft, violence, binge eating, gossip, lying – the underlying whisper of temptation says, ‘You are on your own here, and so you really must do this thing.”
One thing I’ve learnt about temptation is that temptation doesn’t really threaten. No, temptation promises.
It promises freedom and life and happiness. The serpent in the garden: ‘You’ll be like God’; David and Bathsheba, ‘Your hunger will be satisfied’. Temptation promises freedom and life and happiness, but delivers slavery and death. That’s why Hebrews 3 and Ephesians 4 call sin deceptive – it promises life and delivers death – it lied to you, every time.
Temptation also says, “You can’t resist. You are powerless to say no to this desire.”
But we have a choice. With God’s power we have the ability to master our desires, rather than be mastered by them.
In fact, instead of listening to temptation’s promises, we are called to know God’s promises and to stand on them, no matter our previous failures, or the current weight of temptation.
We’re going to learn more about that as we go on in the talk.
Just remember that while temptation’s foundational attribute is the thought, ‘God is not here’, one of our Father’s foundational promises in His Word is that He is with us and will never leave us – and that includes the midst of our temptations. Yes, even in our failure to resist we have Christ’s promise: I am with you always.
So we’ve looked for a bit at what temptation is; now let’s look for a bit at where temptation comes from, and it comes from three main sources: Our flesh, the world around us, and the devil.
Many of us think that temptation only comes from the devil, because we ourselves are primarily good. But my Dad challenged me with a thought years ago: If the devil was taken out of the world, would we even know it? It doesn’t take much of a push to send man into sin.
Let’s look at these sources of temptation:
James 1:14-15 says, “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.”
Our desire for human connection, for food, for sexual gratification, for enjoyment – all of these are good. But we are quick to offer up our bodies as slaves to those desires. And for the short, sweet taste of the first phase of sin, we remain slaves to those desires.
Benjamin Franklin says that it is easier to suppress the first desire than to satisfy all that follow it; and my own dear wise grandma says that you don’t have to stop something you never started.
We need to understand that desire itself isn’t bad – God created us with desires that need to be fulfilled. Desires for food, for breathing, for sex, for companionship, for approval, for love, for peace – but the temptation is to let those desires rule and master us.
In this place, we also feel powerless to resist the mastery of that temptation. When we believe that God is not with us and for us, we think we’re alone and too weak to stand in the way of these temptations.
And so when our flesh rises up with the burning desire to sin, we’re immediately hit with these four lies: God can’t be trusted – He’s not here; God won’t provide – you need to provide for your own needs; God won’t deliver – you have to deliver yourself from this temptation; and God won’t help – you’re on your own.
But all of these lies assume God’s absence. And that’s why God, throughout His Word to us, is constantly assuring us of His continued presence and closeness. Go look at the many, many promises God gives that He will be with us. Here are just a few:
Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
Isaiah 41:10 “Fear not, for I am with you…I am your God; will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
John 14:16-17 “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever…the world neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
Matthew 28:20 “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Psalm 139:7-10 “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”
What God says in His Word to us over and over and over again is this: I am with you; I am fighting for you; I am watching over you in this struggle, and I stand here ready to defend you if you would just raise your hand to me for help.
Yes – our part in the struggle is not to defeat the temptation, but to cry out to God when we’re tempted and watch Him defeat the temptation. As it says in Proverbs 18:10 “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.”
Our Mighty God is a Strong Tower – but we need to enter that strong tower in order to be safe – we need to run to Him to be safe from the temptation.
We’ve said that one source of temptation is the Flesh. Another source of temptation is the world.
The World offers us many opportunities to be led into temptation. Think about it: movies, television, video games, the internet, radio stations, billboards, magazines, books.
And those temptations will always be around. You won’t suddenly wake up to a temptation-less environment.
But we can learn to avoid the areas of known temptation.
Ten years ago I read a book called Every Young Man’s Battle, and in that book the author Fred Stoeker describes in his youth being a taxi driver between the airport and a local hotel.
He was a pretty ambitious guy, so he worked out the fastest route between the airport and the hotel so that he could do more trips and get more money.
The trouble was that the fastest route was on a road with many, many potholes. His next discovery was that there was an indirect correlation between the number of potholes he hit and the size of his tip.
So he made a plan. He learnt that road so thoroughly that he was able to ride it at top speeds without hitting a single pothole, even in the dark.
In the same way, we can learn to avoid the areas of known temptation in our lives.
You know certain songs are going to put certain thoughts in your mind – when you hear that song, turn it off. You know certain friends are going to encourage you to do sinful things, stop hanging out with them. When I was living in Randburg, I knew that Malibongwe often had billboards that would tempt me to think sinful thoughts, so I would avoid Malibongwe at all possible times. And if I had to drive on that road then I knew exactly when to turn my eyes away.
We can learn to avoid the areas of known temptation in the world.
We’ve said that two sources of temptation are the Flesh and the World. Another source of temptation is the devil.
The Bible refers to Satan as the tempter (Mt 4:3; 1 Thess 3:5).
What Satan does is he uses lies and troubles to tempt us away from closeness with God – to disrupt a right relationship with Him.
But be encouraged: All Satan has are lies and troubles. He has no actual power to cause us to sin. We ourselves make the decision on our own whether to sin or not to sin.
[Illustration of Neil Anderson and the dog – Neil as a child visits neighbours and is frightened of the little dog – so much so that he jumps onto a truck. The small dog had no power to lift Neil onto the truck – he did that himself – but he was convinced to do it merely by the threatening yaps of the dog]
God calls us to recognise the freedom His has given us, and the authority He has given us, and to stand for right-living even when the devil tells us we can’t.
So now we’ve looked at the nature of temptation and the sources of temptation; how do we RESIST temptation.
There are two key players in the battle to resist temptation: Jesus, and you. You can’t fight it on your own, and Jesus won’t fight it without you. So let’s look at the part that Jesus plays, and then the part that you must play.
At this point we turn our focus off of temptation for a bit and turn it onto the Saviour. It’s important to ask what Jesus is doing when we’re being tempted? Close eyes for a minute and picture Jesus as you pass a source of temptation in your mind. Don’t look at the temptation, look at Jesus. What is He doing? What expression does He have on His face?
I used to think that at the point of temptation, Jesus disappeared and I was alone. Why wouldn’t He be? Here I am, minding my own business online (place of danger), when an ad shows up on the side showing something, and my heart yearns for that thing. And here I am, disobeying, playing with the idea of entering that site. He must be so disappointed. He doesn’t want to be here. He won’t watch me fall and fail Him. He’ll turn away.
But does that sound like a knowing, strong Saviour? What would you think of a fireman – big and strong – who rescues cats out of trees as long as they’re in reach. But at the first sight of danger – if he has to climb a ladder, or walk towards a fire, he turns and runs? What would you think of such a man? He’s a pretender, and certainly no Saviour.
But our Saviour has promised: ‘Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you.’
Keep your eyes closed.
What is Jesus doing when we’re being tempted? He is in us, empowering us to resist, reminding us of His promises, calling us to stand for Him. He knows we are in need. He knows we cannot resist temptation on our own. He’s the good shepherd who doesn’t abandon his sheep to the wolves when trouble comes.
You can open your eyes again.
Jesus is fighting. He’s fighting for you. He is on a mission to help you.
Let’s look at our role in the battle to resist temptation.
Picture this. Just as Jesus was about to be betrayed, He took His disciples to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. But His disciples don’t pray – they sleep. When His disciples fall asleep, Jesus comes back and gives them these words of encouragement to avoid falling into temptation: Watch and Pray.
These words of encouragement to avoid falling into temptation are for us too: Watch and Pray.
How do we do that? What do we need to watch? What does it help to pray? Let’s look at those two strategies.
If you’re guarding a city, you watch where the attacks are going to come from: sky, land, or sea. And if you’re guarding your mind and heart, you need to watch where the attacks are going to come from. We already said what these are: the flesh, the world, and the devil. So how do we watch the flesh?
We are called to be aware of what’s happening within our heart and mind when we’re being tempted.
And here’s an encouragement for you: If you’re tempted, guess what? You don’t have to give in.
Some advice given to me is when you feel yourself being tempted: stop, look around you, take a deep breath, smell the world around you, listen to the birds. You don’t need to pursue that temptation. Temptation says you’re caged in; but the truth is that you’re free to either take that bait or to simply walk away.
We can watch not just where we’re at, but also where we’re going, and learn to avoid areas of temptation. So if you find that certain newspapers cause temptation – stop buying newspapers. If you find TV causes temptation – stop watching TV. We don’t have a TV in our home primarily for this reason.
So we can ask these questions: What areas of my life does temptation strike in? When do I feel most tempted?
Being alert to these realities of temptation helps us to prepare, and to invite the Holy Spirit and our accountability into specific areas of vulnerability and weakness, and to choose not to go there.
So we’re watching one area of attack: The Flesh. How do we watch the world?
As we become more alert to the way our flesh entices us, we can also look at the world around us and critically ask ourselves where we might need change in order to avoid temptation. Like the illustration used before about the potholes – we might need to change plans, change schedules, change friends, or change environments
So now we’re watching two areas of attack: The Flesh and the World. How do we watch the devil?
We need to be aware – to watch and be aware of the devil’s lies.
When a thought comes into our minds, we don’t have to simply accept that thought. We have the power and opportunity to ask where that thought comes from – and if from God, to embrace it; and if from the devil, to reject it.
Most of us simply allow any thought into our minds, but our minds ought to be cities, with guards placed at the gates of our minds being critical of what may or may not come in.
Proverbs 25:28 “A person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls.” – unprotected, open to destruction. We need to adopt God-given self-control in the arena of our thought life.
We’ve spoken about the first part of Jesus’ strategy to resist temptation.
TWO: WE PRAY
For many of us, prayer can feel like a distinctly unproductive time of our lives. It just doesn’t seem as productive and effective as going out and doing something.
But that shows that we have a bad understanding of what prayer is. What is prayer?
Prayer is entering into God’s presence, taking with us our struggles, temptations and joys. Prayer is entering God’s presence, and who could fall before temptation when our face is turned towards God?
When we run to Jesus in the midst of temptation, we find that He’s not condemning us for feeling tempted; He’s not turned away from us – rather, He’s reaching out. He longs to hold our hand in the dark time, to share His wisdom, to give His strength.
In prayer we have a way out, because we’re not alone.
So we’ve looked at the nature of temptation; the sources of temptation; and the way to resist temptation.
Just as we go into a prayer time, I want to leave you with this thought:
Temptation does not equal sin. The Bible tells us that Jesus was tempted but didn’t sin. Temptations come and will continue to come. God has not promised that we would be free from temptation. Instead, He promises us the freedom and authority and power to choose rightly and wisely. He invites us to trust His promises and stand on His truth in the midst of temptations from all sides. So temptations can serve two purposes: To be a wedge, driving us from Jesus as we surrender our minds and bodies to it; or to be a source of deeper and deeper trust in Jesus and dependence on Him.