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Dealing with temptation

by Jacob Ninan

Everyone faces temptations of different types daily. A lot of people seem to give in to temptations thinking that if temptations do come, there is no other option but to give in! "These temptations are too strong for me," they say. "Before I realise it, I have already given in to temptations. I don't know what else to do," some people say. If this was true, that we cannot help but give in, then there would be no hope of ever overcoming temptations. But the fact of the matter is that this is a lie from the devil. Many people have actually learnt to deal with temptations and overcome them. Jesus Himself was tempted in everything just like us, and never sinned even once (He.4:15). The Bible says very clearly that we are not under any obligation to follow the desires of our flesh (Ro.8:12). It will be helpful if we can understand what happens when we are tempted and what we can do to deal with temptation.

What is temptation?

Temptation is simply an invitation to sin. Of course it does not come to us informing us about the coming sin, but as an attractive appeal to us to enjoy some thrill, pleasure, gain, advantage, etc. The sting of temptation is hidden, just as a sugar coated pill containing the poison inside. Certainly there is a thrilling outcome when we yield to temptation, but it is much more certain that the poison will hit us soon. This poison has disastrous results. It causes 'death' (Ro.6:21) which translates as break of fellowship with God, distortion of our personality, and physical consequences (Ga.6:7).

Temptation comes to us from the strong desires (lusts) that there are inside us in our 'flesh' (Jas.1:14,15). These lusts are exaggerated forms of the normal desires we have, and we have them as strong desires because of the sinful tendencies we have inherited from Adam as a result of his fall. For example, our normal desire to eat can become exaggerated and we can overeat! When we listen to the appeal of these desires and give in to them, we sin.

The sequence of temptation and sin

Many people (unconsciously) believe that when temptation comes there is nothing we can do except to give in. Some people struggle to stop sinning--by trying to stop acting out the sinful behaviour--and fail. The place to focus on is not the act of sin but what goes on inside us. Let us look at the sequence of temptation in more detail so that we can get clearer understanding.

temptation chart 1

An 'event' usually triggers the flesh and some relevant lust pops its head out. This event can be something we do, such as seeing, hearing, or thinking about something. Or it can be something other people do or something that affects us in our environment. When such things happen, some of our lusts get stirred up and we feel the pressure to take some action. Satan may also get into the act, either by independently putting some ideas into our mind or joining the 'event' by adding some comments and suggestions in between. We may not realise what all is happening, and we may wrongly imagine that our thoughts are our own and that we should take action. Our will then decides what to do, and action follows.

We must also remember to distinguish between temptation and sin. Temptation is the invitation, and sin is the act of accepting the invitation in our mind and doing something accordingly. Just because a tempting thought has come into our mind we have not sinned. We have only been tempted. Only when we accept the temptation we sin. Remember how Jesus was tempted and yet remained pure and holy throughout His life (He.4:15).

Those who (unconsciously) think that once these thoughts come up there is no option but to act according to them do not realise that there is indeed another option. If we follow these lusts it will result in sin (Jas.1:14,15). The other option is to refuse to act according to these lusts. But unfortunately under the pressure of these lusts it does not look as if it is possible to refuse them. Also since this sequence takes place so fast it looks as if there is no time even to think, and our response is almost automatic.

A clearer picture

The previous picture was not clear enough because it missed out one major aspect of the process. Now look at the next picture.

temptation chart 2

If we assume that there is other option than to give in to our desires we are actually ignoring the presence of our mind that can think! Before our will makes a decision, our mind can tell it what to decide. Our mind thinks based on the inputs that are already in our memory. All our past experiences and our responses are stored in our memory. Our first response when some provocation comes is to act in a way we have been used to before. But what I want to point out is that the mind has the freedom to choose whatever way it wants to act, even to do things other than what have been done so far. The first time we try to go against our previous response patterns we may find it very difficult to do so. But still there is a freedom to decide to refuse to comply with our sinful desires. To repeat, we are not obliged to simply give in to our flesh (Ro.8:12). When we refuse to give in to our desires and choose to do what God tells us, we have victory!

Dealing with temptation

As long as we live here on earth, we will not be able to avoid 'events' that stir up the lusts in our flesh. Whatever binding or loosing we may try to do, we can also not prevent the Devil from coming to us with his temptations. None of us can also come to the place where our lusts will all be annihilated. But even though these things are not in our control, there are other things that are in our control.

Since God has given each of us a sound mind (2Ti.1:7), we have the ability to choose what we should do. But previous experiences of automatically giving in to our lusts has distorted our thinking, and we tend to forget that we need not give in like that. This is where it becomes necessary to get our mind transformed to think like God wants us to think (Ro.12:2). Look at the next picture to see how we can let our mind get transformed.

temptation chart 3

God makes it very clear that it is as we read, meditate on and obey His word that we can have our mind renewed (Ps.119:9,11,15,54,98,105). As we spend time before God reading His word carefully and sincerely, and listening to Him as He reveals His ways through the Holy Spirit, our way of thinking gets changed. An ongoing fellowship with God through the Holy Spirit helps us to get to know Him and His ways, and our life gets transformed (2Co.3:18). Our values, priorities, direction--all these change to fit in with God's. Then our mind gets the ability to direct our will to refuse the lusts that come up from our flesh and to obey God's ways. Over a period of time this becomes almost automatic for us and temptation loses its power!

We must also remember that inputs from the world are constantly entering our mind through the opinion of other people and the media. Though we cannot cut this off totally, it is important that we deliberately cut off harmful inputs that can put us in danger. We cannot play with fire and expect not to get burned.

There is one 'key' that makes it possible to understand God's word, which in turn can transform our minds. That is to have a willingness to obey whatever God tells us (Jn.7:17). Without using this key, we cannot understand God's truth properly, and it is also possible that we end up learning false 'truths' that justify our wrong actions.

As we go through this process we must also be prepared to discover things in us that the Holy Spirit wants us to change. This may be very painful for us to acknowledge. But this pain is very much short-lived compared to the joy of partaking of God's own nature.

Please also see my answers to the Frequently Asked Questions on temptation and sin.

FAQ on spiritual warfare

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