Temptation: Deeper than a Flesh Wound

Our flesh, the nearest and perhaps most dangerous of our enemies, attacks from within. The flesh will encourage me to do what I want. While the world emphasizes pursuits and the gain of things, the flesh will focus on experiences that produce pleasure and gratification. It might include the satisfaction of “putting someone in their place,” jealousy, fits of anger, divisions, sexual sin, or the pursuit of gratification through addictive or self-indulgent behaviours. It distorts otherwise healthy appetites, resulting in a misalignment of our desires and God’s. We were made to please God, but the flesh urges us to please self above all else.

When Eve “saw that the tree was good for food … she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen 3:6).[1] Temptation takes what is “good” and perverts its use. The fruit indeed was very good, along with everything else God had created (Gen 1:31). However, the fleshly urging that “it is good, it is natural, and it is from God” ignores the truth that good things used in defiance of God’s good directives will result in bad and painful consequences. The temptation isn’t necessarily to do wrong things but to do them with wrong motivations.

The flesh will exploit the power of peer pressure, appearing first in Genesis 3. Eve “also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (3:6). It appears that Adam was at Eve’s side during the exchange between the serpent and his wife. Instead of intervening to protect her from what he knew to be wrong,[2] he colluded to appease her. The flesh still whispers to us, “Do you really want to miss out on things that others seem to be enjoying?”

Hindsight tells us that Eve’s temptation has had far-reaching consequences. It was also multi-faceted. We have previously observed the concerted influences of Satan, the world and the flesh on this occasion. One of the ways she was tempted was by way of her physical appetite, as she noted that the fruit was “good for food.” The flesh is sly and preys on our God-given desires to produce God-displeasing conduct. When God-designed appetites yield to fleshly temptations, the results may include gluttony, fornication, laziness, substance abuse or even death. If we are not careful to glorify God in our bodies, which are His,[3] we will find ourselves wallowing in self-indulgence as if they were ours.

Esau’s sale of his birthright for a fast-food meal of stew shows how temptation over-emphasizes a certain need and exaggerates the consequences of not giving in. Esau’s claim (though it was rather dubious), “I am about to die!” (25:32), was his rationale for the high and long-term cost of satiating his momentary hunger. The flesh claims that failing to act on our desires will result in the loss of something special or even necessary. Conversely, it asserts that acting on our desires will have no real cost. The warping effects of the flesh on Esau’s mind are evident by his rhetorical question, “Of what use is a birthright to me?” (v32). The flesh beckons with instant gratification, but at a staggering future and spiritual cost. All about the here and now, it leaves no space for an eternal perspective – “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1Co 15:32).

In the Lord’s desert temptation, the flesh’s line of attack is illustrated in the stones-into-bread idea, in the context of His extreme physical hunger. The Lord’s temptation was very real, notwithstanding the absence of the sin principle (the flesh) within Him. “The problem with Satan’s miracle bread solution is that it’s contrary to God’s plan at that time for Jesus. This is what the Enemy is always presenting, an alternative plan to God’s. Here he is seeking to lure the Son of God away from His Father, and the devil attempts the same for us. So what is his strategy? Exploit weakness, undermine priorities, and appeal to our independence.”[4]

The presence of both the flesh and the Holy Spirit within the believer means there is an ongoing war in and for our hearts. Every believer is a battleground, and our response to the temptation of the flesh will determine where the military gains are being made. There will be no compromise between the flesh and the Spirit (Gal 5:17). Thus, we cannot appease the flesh without displeasing God. We should pray for His help to maintain a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to the temptations of the flesh. In fact, Paul writes that since we now have the Spirit within us, “brothers and sisters, we are not obligated to the flesh to live according to the flesh, because if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:12-13 CSB).

David forgot that though he stayed away from the battle, the battle didn’t stay away from him. The man who had never lost a battle, whether against formidable individuals or powerful armies, fell spectacularly to the invisible foe within his own being. Peter’s brash declaration of his brave devotion was promptly undone by his blatant denial of his Lord. Both of these men fell to the temptation of the flesh, but later saw recovery and usefulness for God. Don’t allow past defeats to the flesh discourage you from learning to lean on God in your weakness and trusting Him to meet your need.

The flesh assures us we are quite right to see that our own desires are gratified, “but the truth is that we are sinners who are dependent upon God for His mercy and for His continuing grace. To attempt to live without Him is precisely what is meant by sin. We also need one another.”[5] The flesh dotes on us, inciting us with the desire, “I will do what I want.” Prone to heed the flesh’s self-indulgent urges, let us practice dependence on God.

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

[2] Adam was willfully negligent in his duty to obey God and to protect his wife (1Ti 2:14).

[3] Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 6:20 summarizes a compelling section on the body and fleshly desires.

[4] Tim Chaddick, The Truth About Lies (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2015), 66.

[5] John Stott, The Radical Disciple (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 103.