Temptation: Introduction

What Is Temptation?

Temptation is an inevitable human experience, ever since Eve in Eden. Though its existence is acknowledged, its potency is underestimated; therein lies its danger. It entraps the strongest and the weakest, the old and the young, the veteran of battles won and the naïve youngster. We might be subjected at one moment to its bold proposition, and at another to its seductive wiles. As believers we “have been set free from sin” (Rom 6:22),[1] yet still face its daily presence “that dwells within me” (7:17). We, together with Paul, wrestle with this agonizing tension, knowing that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (7:18-19).

For the purposes of this series, we will look at temptation, in the biblical sense, as anything that invites or pressures us to disobey God. Of course, it is almost always framed in a much more attractive way, with promises couched in terms of beauty or pleasure, of power or advantage, of comfort or enrichment. Temptation not only extends an invitation; it always issues a promise. The promise, like a serpent’s forked tongue, is two-fold: namely, the results will be rewarding and also worth the cost. Not only is there something desirable to gain, but what is gained will far outweigh any potential consequences. However, James debunks this alluring myth, stating that such “desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers” (1:15-16). “Do not give in to the temptation to possess something God has not given yet or may not ever give you. Guard your heart by carefully trusting the wisdom of God  and not what you can see that looks delightful.”[2]

Does God Tempt Us?

In Genesis 22:1, in the matter of Isaac, we read, “And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham” (KJV). In other translations, this word is “test” or “prove.” How can we understand the meaning here in light of James’ apparently opposite assertion? “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (1:13). As always, context is our friend and the key to understanding the meaning in each case. Who is doing the tempting/testing? Who is being targeted, and what is the motive for the temptation/test? In our lives, under the difficult weight of a circumstance, how can we discern the difference between a test from God and a temptation to sin? In Abraham’s trial, we notice that he is being guided by God’s Word (Gen 22:3,11), is counting on God’s provision (v8), is trusting God’s promises (Heb 11:17-19), and emerges with God’s blessing (Gen 22:16-17). In Eve’s temptation, we notice that she is guided by subtle lies (Gen 3:4-5), is dissatisfied with God’s provision (2:16), trusts a satanic promise over God’s (2:17; 3:5), and emerges with shame and a curse (3:7,16).

A trial from God – The goal is that we trust divine promises, resist sin and glorify God. The motive is blessing and the result is joy and increased intimacy with God. A temptation – The goal is that we believe false promises, indulge in sin and dishonour God. The motive is destruction and the result is shame and increased distance from God.[3] “So temptation is like a knife, that may either cut the meat or the throat of a man; it may be his food or his poison, his exercise or his destruction.”[4]

How Should We Respond to Temptation?

There are two ways in which we can equip ourselves for the inevitable assault: pre-emptively and responsively. One is to set up defenses in anticipation, while the other is to familiarize ourselves with the nearest exit for the moment of crisis.

To His three disciples in Gethsemane, the Lord said, “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mat 26:41 NASB). He knew temptation could not be countered just reactively. Their readiness and condition of heart would be critical in the coming hour of temptation. Sadly, their drowsiness and lack of prayer set them up for defeat. We are to keep watching and praying – that is, never losing focus on the danger, and never losing communication with the Deliverer.

What about the moment of sudden temptation? Am I clear, like Joseph, on the necessary plan of action? “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1Co 10:12-14). Paul here addresses both the over-confident believer and the defeatist. Both must seize upon the same available resource, God’s faithfulness. His last statement reminds us that temptation is a heart issue; it is a challenge of my worship and to whom it will be directed.

Temptation will doggedly work away at displacing our affections. “Distaste for sin is certainly a part of renouncing it. But that is not the whole picture. Your affections for what is wrong need replacing. You need to love something else more.”[5] Peter emerged from defeat, not with renewed determination (Mat 26:33) but with renewed devotion for his Lord (Joh 21:15-17). Take heart, dear believer – there is hope for the tempted and tried!

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

[2] Mark E. Shaw, Understanding Temptation: The War Within Your Heart (Focus Publishing, 2014), 16.

[3] It should be noted that, as in the case of Job, a Satanic incitement to sin can also be used sovereignly by God to bring about blessing and draw a believer closer to Himself, proving to be simultaneously a temptation and a trial.

[4] John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 152.

[5] Tim Chaddick, The Truth About Lies (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2015), 39.