Or, How I made my besetting sins give up their seats.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. – James 4:7
It seems obvious to say, but the inability to resist temptation is at the bottom of the spiritual malaise that many young (and old) Christians find themselves in. When overcoming temptation is comes up, there are always a multitude of solutions offered, of varying validity. Terms are bandied about like accountability, thinking about why the sin is such a problem, talking it out, counseling, confiding in the church and so on. While most of these are perfectly acceptable solutions to an extent, I don’t believe that any of them truly capture what the Bible itself says about resisting temptation. I’m no Bible scholar, but I am a witness for what God has used in my life to help me overcome temptation, and I hope that this simple treatment might help someone who is struggling.
Anyone who has tried the various means of resistance mentioned in the preceding paragraph has, if they are like me, found that they’re all deficient. I would like to show a) why they’re deficient and b) what I believe the Bible does teach (and what has worked in my life).
I don’t think the various methods listed above really need to be taken individually, since I think they all tend to be deficient in a similar way. That is, while they may indeed help us recognize and categorize our temptations, I am dubious that accountability, talking it out, and spending time thinking about the “why” of succumbing will ever result in a real heart change, or, indeed, in a long-term behavioral change. I think this can be amply exhibited by looking at our own lives, and our previous experiences battling temptations. Every one of us has spent time stewing over why we can’t resist certain things, talking to spiritual mentors about our biggest struggles, and being counseled by friends and clergy. While these things might all be legitimate things in some contexts, they all have the same underlying problem: every one of them seems engineered to keep us thinking about our sin instead of our Savior
For as [he] thinketh in his heart, so is he – Proverbs 23:7a
If you have a Bible with a concordance handy, look up temptation, and check out the verses about overcoming it. The Bible has a lot to say about it, but when you study it, you’ll find a glaring lack of reference to any of the modern methods that we’ve been indoctrinated to accept.
Flee also youthful lust; but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart. – 2 Tim. 2:22
Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation – Mat. 26:41
No temptation has taken except that which is common to man, and God is faithful, He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear. – I Cor. 10:13
And there are many, many more. These verses are so familiar to most of us that it might be surprising to find that, when we really read them, we don’t find any reference to meditating on our sin, to thinking of ways we can avoid falling into it, or to telling our friends about it. We don’t find anything about self-esteem, or figuring out the underlying causes, or blaming our parents or our situations for them. Instead, what we find is so simple that we can hardly believe it. God’s technique for avoiding temptation seems to be… praying and trusting him.
Now, lest anyone think I’m oversimplifying, praying and trusting is not as easy as it sounds. On the other hand, getting God’s help with our temptations is not as difficult as it probably seems. The main questions to ask yourself are, “Do I really want to quit this behavior?” and “Am I willing to invest the time necessary with God to eliminate it?” Secondarily, it’s important to know exactly how the Bible says we should pray about our temptations.
First things first. Before we can be delivered from any temptation, we must sincerely want deliverance. Not only that, but we must truly want deliverance more than we want to commit the sin, and we must be willing to give us habits and routines that lead us into sin. Do you find yourself at inappropriate websites everytime you’re online late at night? Stay offline. Do certain activities cause you to have bad attitudes, or lead your mind in inappropriate directions? Give up those activites. Do you spend more time thinking about movies or music than meditating on God’s word? Give up those movies or music. The truth is, most people who claim they can’t possibly achieve victory over temptation are the people who are completely unwilling to change their lifestyle to do so. They claim they love God (and may even think they do) and want to live a victorious Christian life, but their actions don’t reflect it. I’d like to offer an illustration.
If a man claims that he loves a woman and marries her, she would reasonably expect that he would give up certain types of activities in regards to other women. He would avoid certain situations, he would not be looking for dates, he would not be flirting with other women, and so on. If a man was doing everything he could reasonably do to show his love to his wife, we would have no reason to expect that he didn’t really love her. On the other hand, if the same man were to get married and, while claiming to love his wife, went out and had an affair, his actions have completely invalidated his words, and even his emotions. He may still THINK he really loves his wife. He may have plenty of flowery emotions for her at certain times, but we know that love is not the same as romance, and how he felt would make no difference at all if he was unwilling to give up his other lovers for his wife.
Now, transpose this to our relationship with God. We can spend all the time we want reading the Bible, praying, going to church, associating with Christian friends, and even doing good deeds. We may even feel some flowery emotions during a particularly good service or while listening to a particular song, but as long as we continue to give into a temptation over and over, it becomes evident that we have a lover who takes precedence. I know it’s not a popular thing to say, but the main thing that seems to keep most Christians from a victorious life is selfishness. Unwillingness to give up activities we enjoy in order to live a more victorious life. Unwilling to spend less time watching baseball so we can spend more time in prayer. Unwilling to miss a few meals, or a few hours of sleep, or some social event so that we can spend time with God. Jacob wrestled with God all night. Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days. They claimed to love God above all else, and proved it with their actions. Most of us can’t even give up a treasured film or CD.
Now, the second question, “Am I willing to invest the time with God necessary to eliminate this behavior?” There’s so much overlap with the previous question that giving this one its own treatment seems a little redundant, but there is a point to be reiterated. We cannot expect that God will reverse in two minutes habits we have spent an entire lifetime cultivating. Tossing up a casual prayer before you put yourself directly in temptation’s way is not a failsafe guarantee that it’s not going to be another defeat. In fact, such a cavalier attitude all but guarantees it.
So, how should we pray, and how can we actually overcome? I think I’m going to split that bit off into a separate essay. Thanks to everyone who read this, and who requested it.