Monthly Archives: May 2007

Overcoming Temptation: Or, Making Besetting Sins Give Up Their Seats

Overcoming Temptation
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.

What I’ve Learned: Hot Coals

What I’ve Learned: Hot Coals

Can a man take fire to in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned? – Prov. 6:27-28

I guess it takes a special kind of person, either especially stubborn or especially dense, who won’t recognize when he’s walking on hot coals. It seems like something that should be impossible to miss, like remembering to put on your pants before going outside, or remembering to turn on the water before you get a shower. I’d think anyone who forgot to do those things on a regular basis had a bit of a problem in the head, but it’s hard to deny that I’ve spent a lot of my life doing something just as obvious and infinitely more damaging.

Proverbs 23:7 says “For as [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he,” but it’s easy for Christians (or those in predominantly Christian environments) to assume that they’re immune to corruption. After all, most of us go to church a couple times a week, read our Bible more or less daily, spend a few minutes in prayer before we fall asleep, and associate, in large part, with other Christians just like ourselves. Because of this, it had always seemed strange to me that I would struggle and fall into many of the same activities, attitudes, and reactions that I would expect from non-Christians. After all, wasn’t I more or less saturated in Christianity? Didn’t I listen to Christian music, read Christian books, attend Christian worship services, and pray to a Christian God whenever I had insurmountable troubles? It all looked so good on paper, but, after struggling through a weak, ineffectual spiritual life for years, I finally decided to get down to the brass tacks, and try to discern exactly why I couldn’t seem to be victorious.

First, I took account of my time. When I truly examined it and how it was spent, I was amazed. Sure, I spent part of Sunday in church, and usually went to prayer meetings on Wednesday night. Add that together with my devotions (15 minutes before bed if I don’t forget), and here were the spiritual totals I came up with for my time:

  • Devotions: 1 hour, 45 minutes a week

  • Church: 5 hours a week (a rather generous estimate)

  • Misc. spiritual activities (Discussing spiritual things, genuinely absorbing Christian media): 2 hours

So, assuming that my figures were right, I spent about 8 hours and 45 minutes a week involved in spiritual activity, which didn’t seem too bad until I considered it in context with all the rest of my time. If I get 8 hours of sleep a night, that leaves 16 hours a day to fill with other activity. Assuming 8 hours of work on 5 of those days, that’s 56 hours of free time a week, completely excluding Sunday, since I mostly just went to church and slept on that day. That meant I spent about 16% of my free time engaged in spiritual pursuits, and the other 84% engaged in mostly neutral things. Not very encouraging figures, but they looked even worse when I tried to figure out what exactly I did fill my free time with. I wasn’t able to figure out exact estimates on any of the activities I thought of, but just looking down a list of them was a little depressing.

  • Watching movies or TV shows

  • Reading secular books

  • Napping

  • Chatting/Surfing the internet

  • Posting on messageboards

And so on. I’d like to state that I still don’t feel that there’s anything inherently wrong with the above activities, assuming they are practiced within the parameters of Christian principle, but the sheer amount of time spent doing them was staggering to me. Looking through the list, I was hard pressed to find anything particularly redeeming about any of my leisure activities, with the possible exception of some chatting and some messageboarding. The flip side was that these same two activities that had some positive attributes were also the ones with the blackest marks against them. Some of the messageboards I’ve frequented have had a large amount of intelligent, morally neutral (or even positive) things written on them, but mixed in with that was plenty of coarse language, sexual innuendo, and lots of generally anti-Christian thought. Hardly an edifying way to spend 86% of my time.

It was while thinking along these lines that Proverbs 6:26-27 really hit me. I had been spending 86% of my times pulling burning coals as close as I possibly could to myself, holding them there during the majority of my waking hours, and then being surprised when my obligatory 15 minutes with God wasn’t enough to make me into a victorious Christian. It’s like wearing asbestos gloves and jumping into a firepit. Your hands might not get burned, but you can bet that the rest of your body will, and I’m living proof that the same thing happens in our spiritual lives. I discovered that, as much as I might enjoy some of the things I do, they had taken precedence over the weightier matters, so to speak, and resolving this was my purpose entering this week.

I resolved to dedicate the week to God, spending my free time in Bible reading a prayer as much as was realistic, and eliminating virtually all media (excepting a small amount of music) from my schedule. I took inventory of the websites where I spent the most time, and totally eliminated several from my list. There are some coals that are too hot to handle, even if there is a small amount of good to be gleaned from them. A bit of thought-provoking discussion or an occasional good laugh is not worth a life dressing the burns. As to the sites that seemed positive, I decided to temporarily eliminate them from my routine, to be worked back in gradually whenever there is space. I don’t watch many movies or TV shows these days, but I decided to eliminate all of them for the week, with intentions to evaluate and possibly work some of them back in at the end of the week. I also resolved to spend my time while at work listening to Christian music or lectures/sermons, in order to keep my mind set on my spiritual goals. I confess, at the time I made these resolutions, they seemed extreme and even impossible to me, but I have not found that to be the case.

The truth is, I have found the exact opposite to be true. As I have dedicated time to studying Scripture, prayer, and the reading of Christian literature, I have felt myself being changed, and in a more dramatic way than I would have ever dared hope. My devotions stopped being a drudgery, even though they were lasting an hour or more. Instead, I felt myself drawing closer to God, appreciating his Word and the way it fed my spirit in a way I had never felt before. I would read verses and find myself incapable of doing anything but laughing, crying, and invoking God’s name, often simultaneously. While driving Wednesday night, I was suddenly overwhelmed at the sad state of non-Christians. First my unsaved friends, then the inhabitants of the houses I was driving past, and finally the entire city, suddenly seemed to me as if hey were dangling on the brink of Hell, and I suppose it’s true. I parked and tried to pray, but I felt like Paul, trying to speaking “groanings that cannot be uttered.” This all coming from someone whose devotions have virtually always been cold, formal things, and this is not, to my mind, the most amazing part.

The most amazing thing to result from these new resolutions, the thing I can hardly believe (and it fills me with joy to even write it down) is that, not only have I not fallen back into the old habits and attitudes I was trying to avoid. This would have been more than I had any right to expect, but so much more has happened. Far from struggling day and night, avoiding by mere inches temptations that clutch at my heels, there is no attraction to them at all. To borrow a phrase, “There’s no longing for the things of the world / They’ve taken wings” and it certainly seems that it’s so. I’ve not had the slightest inkling, the tiniest urge to go back to my old ways. I have not missed the things I’ve given up, and I have not longed to do the things I’ve eschewed. It is a miracle, that God could reverse in a week what I have built over a lifetime, but I have been delivered! Delivered from old attitudes, wicked patterns of behavior, useless grudges, pointless worries, all gone. I’ve started with a clean slate like I’d never had them at all. Praise God, because there’s no one else who could have possibly done it.

I don’t know whether my deliverance is temporary, to give me a chance to strengthen my faith and resolve, or if it a permenant thing, but regardless, any quarter at all is far more than I deserve. I, who have spent most of my life serving myself while giving God the crumbs, have been the subject of a miracle that seems so amazing to me that, if I had known myself without being myself, I would not have believed it was possible.

I know this is lengthy and, reading it over, it seems to be rather formal, but I didn’t know how to write it. How can I express the deep things of my soul, the joy that I have that I can barely even comprehend? Words aren’t enough to do it justice. All the exclamation points in the world couldn’t convey it, so this is all I can do. I know it’s long, but maybe someone will be able to relate to it, and maybe it will help. If not, it’s given me another chance to reflect on what God has done for me, and I think that’s enough.