To be human is to experience temptation. I’m not just talking about eating a ‘Chocolate Temptation’ dessert, or the temptation to take an afternoon nap. Everyone experiences the temptation to sin; the urge to do something that we ought not to do, to give in to that alluring call to stray from faithfulness to Jesus.
Temptation is not the same as sin. Sins and trespasses require forgiveness; temptation needs deliverance. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation”. Just because you are struggling with temptation does not mean you are stuck in sin. The spiritual progression in the human heart goes from desire, to temptation, to sin, to death (James 1:14-15). That’s why we’re told to flee temptation, not because we’ve already sinned, but because during temptation we desperately want to.
This Sunday, in our series in the story of Joseph, we see a famous instance of temptation, and how Joseph deals with it. His experience can inform our experience of facing temptation. We’ll learn more this Sunday, but here are four preliminary observations.
First, don’t be surprised when it comes. We often fail to resist temptation because it takes us unawares, or it arrives at a time of weakness and our defences aren’t prepared. Temptation can come like a sudden attack with no subtlety at all. But more often it’s progressive and persistent. It’s not a once off, then leaving you alone. Like water on a rock, temptation wears you down. Either way, temptation is most dangerous when we’re spiritually complacent, that is, we’re not striving after holiness.
Second, know how to recognise the danger. Know which areas of your life in which you’re most likely to be tempted. Is it your inclination to gossip, or your trouble with lust, or your pattern of compulsive spending? Trace these habits back to the idols of your heart: those things in your life that you often value more than God (pride, sex, comfort, control, approval). Know that each time we’re tempted, we’re going through the same experience of Eve: Satan saying to her, “Did God really say you cannot eat this fruit?”. We are being asked to question the truth and goodness of God. Is what God has given me enough, or do I think I need more?
Third, learn how to fight. God has given us resources to overcome temptation. He’s given us scripture, prayer, confession, and Christian community. The more that we use these spiritual disciplines, the more we’ll be able to draw near to God. We’ll more easily identify the false promises that temptation offers, and see the surpassing benefit and joy of faithfulness to Jesus.
Lastly, remember grace. If we fail, we can come to Jesus, the “one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).