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Maturing through Temptation
The passages below are taken from the book “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren. It was published in 2002.
Happy is the man who doesn’t give in and do wrong when he is tempted, for afterwards he will get as his reward the crown of life that God has promised those who love him. James 1:12 (LB)
My temptations have been my masters in divinity.
Every temptation is an opportunity to do good.
On the path to spiritual maturity, even temptation becomes a stepping-stone rather than a stumbling block when you realize that it is just as much an occasion to do the right thing as it is do the wrong thing. Temptation simply provides the choice. While temptation is Satan’s primary weapon to destroy you, God wants to use it to develop you. Every time you choose to do good instead of sining, you are growing in the character of Christ.
To understand this, you must first identify the character qualities of Jesus. One of the most concise descriptions of his character is the fruit of the Spirit: “When the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”1
These nine qualities are an expansion of the Great Commandment and portray a beautiful description of Jesus Christ. Jesus is perfect love, joy, peace, patience, and all the other fruit embodied in a single person. To have the fruit of the Spirit is to be like Christ.
How, then, does the Holy Spirit produce these nine fruits in your life? Does he create them instantly? Will you wake up one day and be suddenly filled with these characteristics fully developed? No. Fruit always matures and ripens slowly.
This next sentence is one of the most important spiritual truths you will ever learn: God develops the fruit of the Spirit in your life by allowing you to experience circumstances in which you’re tempted to express the exact opposite quality! Character development always involves a choice, and temptation provides that opportunity.
For instance, God teaches us love by putting some unlovely people around us. It takes no character to love people who are lovely and loving to you. God teaches us real joy in the midst of sorrow, when we turn to him. Happiness depends on external circumstances, but joy is based on your relationship to God.
God develops real peace within us, not by making things go the way we planned, but by allowing times of chaos and confusion. Anyone can be peaceful watching a beautiful sunset or relaxing on vacation. We learn real peace by choosing to trust God in circumstances in which we are tempted to worry or be afraid. Likewise, patience is developed in circumstances in which we’re forced to wait and are tempted to be angry or have a short fuse.
God uses the opposite situation of each fruit to allow us a choice. You can’t claim to be good if you’ve never been tempted to be bad. You can’t claim to be faithful if you’ve never had the opportunity to be unfaithful. Integrity is built by defeating the temptation to be dishonest; humility grows when we refuse to be prideful; and endurance develops every time you reject the temptation to give up. Every time you defeat a temptation, you become more like Jesus!
HOW TEMPTATION WORKS
It helps to know that Satan is entirely predictable. He has used the same strategy and old tricks since Creation. All temptations follow the same pattern. That’s why Paul said, “We are very familiar with his evil schemes.”2 From the Bible we learn that temptation follows a four-step process, which Satan used both on Adam and Eve and on Jesus.
In step one, Satan identifies a desire inside of you. It may be a sinful desire, like the desire to get revenge or to control others, or it may be a legitimate, normal desire, like the desire to be loved and valued or to feel pleasure. Temptation starts when Satan suggests (with a thought) that you give in to an evil desire, or that you fulfill a legitimate desire in a wrong way or at the wrong time. Always beware of shortcuts. They are often temptations! Satan whispers, “You deserve it! You should have it now! It will be exciting . .. comforting . . or make you feel better.”
We think temptation lies around us, but God says it begins within us. If you didn’t have the internal desire, the temptation could not attract you. Temptation always starts in your mind, not in circumstances. Jesus said, “For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, eagerness for lustful pleasure, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within”’3 James tells us that there is “a whole army of evil desires within you.”4
Step two is doubt. Satan tries to get you to doubt what God has said about the sin: Is it really wrong? Did God really say not to do it? Didn’t God mean this prohibition for someone else or some other time? Doesn’t God want me to be happy? The Bible warns,
“Watch out! Don’t let evil thoughts or doubts make any of you turn from the living God.”5
Step three is deception. Satan is incapable of telling the truth and is called “the Father of lies.”6 Anything he tells you will be untrue or just half-true. Satan offers his lie to replace what God has already said in his Word. Satan says, “You will not die. You’ll be wiser like God. You can get away with it. No one will ever know. It will solve your problem. Besides, everyone else is doing it. It is only a little sin.” But a little sin is like being a little pregnant: It will eventually show itself.
Step four is disobedience. You finally act on the thought you’ve been toying with in your mind. What began as an idea gets birthed into behavior. You give in to whatever got your attention. You believe Satan’s lies and fall into the trap that James warns about: “We are tempted when we are drawn away and trapped by our own evil desires. Then our evil desires conceive and give birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my dear friends!”7
Understanding how temptation works is in itself helpful, but there are specific steps you need to take to overcome it.
Refuse to be intimidated.
Many Christians are frightened and demoralized by tempting thoughts, feeling guilty that they aren’t “beyond” temptation. They feel ashamed just for being tempted. This is a misunderstanding of maturity. You will never outgrow temptation.
In one sense you can consider temptation a compliment. Satan does not have to tempt those who are already doing his evil will; they are already his. Temptation is a sign that Satan hates you, not a sign of weakness or worldliness. It is also a normal part of being human and living in a fallen world. Don’t be surprised or shocked or discouraged by it. Be realistic about the inevitability of temptation; you will never be able to avoid it completely. The Bible says, “ When you’re tempted, . . .“ not if. Paul advises, “Remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience.”8
It is not a sin to be tempted. Jesus was tempted, yet he never sinned.9 Temptation only becomes a sin when you give in to it. Martin Luther said, “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” You can’t keep the Devil from suggesting thoughts, but you can choose not to dwell or act on them.
For example, many people don’t know the difference between physical attraction or sexual arousal, and lust. They are not the same. God made every one of us a sexual being, and that is good. Attraction and arousal are the natural, spontaneous, God-given responses to physical beauty, while lust is a deliberate act of the will. Lust is a choice to commit in your mind what you’d like to do with your body. You can be attracted or even aroused without choosing to sin by lusting. Many people, especially Christian men, feel guilty that their God-given hormones are working. When they automatically notice an attractive woman, they assume it is lust and feel ashamed and condemned. But attraction is not lust until you begin to dwell on it.
Actually, the closer you grow to God, the more Satan will try to tempt you. The moment you became God’s child, Satan, like a mobster hit man, put out a “contract” on you. You are his enemy, and he’s plotting your downfall.
Sometimes while you are praying, Satan will suggest a bizarre or evil thought just to distract you and shame you. Don’t be alarmed or ashamed by this, but realize that Satan fears your prayers and will try anything to stop them. Instead of condemning yourself with “How could I think such a thought?” treat it as a distraction from Satan and immediately refocus on God.
Recognize your pattern of temptation and be prepared for it.
There are certain situations that make you more vulnerable to temptation than others. Some circumstances will cause you to stumble almost immediately, while others don’t bother you much. These situations are unique to your weaknesses, and you need to
identify them because Satan surely knows them! He knows exactly what trips you up, and he is constantly working to get you into those circumstances. Peter warns, “Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you napping.”10
Ask yourself; “ When am I most tempted? What day of the week? What time of day?” Ask, “Where am I most tempted? At work? At home? At a neighbor’s house? At a sports bar? In an airport or motel out of town?”
Ask, “Who is with me when I’m most tempted? Friends?
Co-workers? A crowd of strangers? When I’m alone?” Also ask, “How do I usually feel when I am most tempted?” It may be when you are tired or lonely or bored or depressed or under stress. It may be when you’ve been hurt or angry or worried, or after a big success or spiritual high.
You should identify your typical pattern of temptation and then prepare to avoid those situations as much as possible. The Bible tells us repeatedly to anticipate and be ready to face temptation.11 Paul said, “Don’t give the Devil a chance.”12 Wise planning reduces temptation. Follow the advice of Proverbs: “Plan carefully what you do. . . . Avoid evil and walk straight ahead. Don’t go one step off the right way.”13 “God’s people avoid evil ways, and they protect themselves by watching where they go.”14
Request God’s help.
Heaven has a twenty-four-hour emergency hot line. God wants you to ask him for assistance in overcoming temptation. He says, “Call on me in times of trouble. I will rescue you, and you will honor me.”15
I call this a “microwave” prayer because it is quick and to the point: Help! SOS! Mayday! When temptation strikes, you don’t have time for a long conversation with God; you simply cry out. David, Daniel, Peter, Paul, and millions of others have prayed this kind of instant prayer for help in trouble.
The Bible guarantees that our cry for help will be heard because Jesus is sympathetic to our struggle. He faced the same temptations we do. He “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same temptations we do, yet he did not sin.”16
If God is waiting to help us defeat temptation, why don’t we turn to him more often? Honestly, sometimes we don’t want to be helped! We want to give in to temptation even though we know it’s wrong. At that moment we think we know what’s best for us more than God does.
At other times we’re embarrassed to ask God for help because we keep giving in to the same temptation over and over. But God never gets irritated, bored, or impatient when we keep coming back to him. The Bible says, “Let us have confidence, then, and approach God’s throne, where there is grace. There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it.”17
God’s love is everlasting, and his patience endures forever. If you have to cry out for God’s help two hundred times a day to defeat a particular temptation, he will still be eager to give mercy and grace, so come boldly. Ask him for the power to do the right thing and then expect him to provide it.
Temptations keep us dependent upon God. Just as the roots grow stronger when wind blows against a tree, so every time you stand up to a temptation you become more like Jesus. When you stumble---which you will---it is not fatal. Instead of giving in or giving up, look up to God, expect him to help you, and remember the reward that is waiting for you: “When people are tempted and still continue strong, they should be happy. After they have proved their faith, God will reward them with life forever.”18
Run from anything that gives you the evil thoughts . . .but stay close to anything that makes you want to do right.
2 Timothy 2:22 (LB)
Remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you can’t stand up against it. When you are tempted he will show you a way out so that you will not give in to it.
1 Corinthians 10:13 (NLT)
There is always a way out.
You may sometimes feel that a temptation is too overpowering for you to bear, but that’s a lie from Satan. God has promised never to allow more on you than he puts within you to handle it. He will not permit any temptation that you could not overcome. However, you must do your part too by practicing four biblical keys to defeating temptation.
Refocus your attention on something else.
It may surprise you that nowhere in the Bible are we told to “resist temptation.” We are told to “resist the devil,”19 but that is very different, as I’ll explain later. Instead, we are advised to refocus our attention because resisting a thought doesn’t work. It only intensifies our focus on the wrong thing and strengthens its allure. Let me explain:
Every time you try to block a thought out of your mind, you drive it deeper into your memory. By resisting it, you actually reinforce it. This is especially true with temptation. You don’t defeat temptation by fighting the feeling of it. The more you fight a feeling, the more it consumes and controls you. You strengthen it every time you think it.
Since temptation always begins with a thought, the quickest way to neutralize its allure is to turn your attention to something else. Don’t fight the thought, just change the channel of your mind and get interested in another idea. This is the first step in defeating temptation.
The battle for sin is won or lost in your mind. Whatever gets your attention will get you. That’s why Job said, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look with lust upon a young woman.”20 And David prayed, “Keep me from paying attention to what is worthless.”21
Have you ever watched a food advertisement on television and suddenly felt you were hungry? Have you ever heard someone cough and immediately felt the need to clear your throat? Ever watched someone release a big yawn and felt the urge to yawn yourself? (You may be yawning right now as you read this!) That is the power of suggestion. We naturally move toward whatever we focus our attention on. The more you think about something, the stronger it takes hold of you.
That is why repeating “I must stop eating too much . .. or stop smoking . .. or stop lusting” is a self-defeating strategy. It keeps you focused on what you don’t want. It’s like announcing, “I’m never going to do what my mom did.” You are setting yourself up to repeat it.
Most diets don’t work because they keep you thinking about food all the time, guaranteeing that you’ll be hungry. In the same way, a speaker who keeps repeating to herself, “Don’t be nervous!” sets herself up to be nervous! Instead she should focus on anything except her feelings---on God, on the importance of her speech, or on the needs of those listening.
Temptation begins by capturing your attention. What gets your attention arouses your emotions. Then your emotions activate your behavior, and you act on what you felt. The more you focus on “I don’t want to do this,” the stronger it draws you into its web.
Ignoring a temptation is far more effective than fighting it. Once your mind is on something else, the temptation loses its power. So when temptation calls you on the phone, don’t argue with it, just hang up!
Sometimes this means physically leaving a tempting situation. This is one time it is okay to run away. Get up and turn off the television set. Walk away from a group that is gossiping. Leave the theater in the middle of the movie. To avoid being stung, stay away from the bees. Do whatever is necessary to turn your attention to something else.
Spiritually, your mind is your most vulnerable organ. To reduce temptation, keep your mind occupied with God’s Word and other good thoughts. You defeat bad thoughts by thinking of something better. This is the principle of replacement. You overcome evil with good.22 Satan can’t get your attention when your mind is preoccupied with something else. That’s why the Bible repeatedly tells us to keep our minds focused: “Fix your thoughts on Jesus.”23 “Always think about Jesus Christ.”24
“Fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable.”25
If you’re serious about defeating temptation you must manage your mind and monitor your media intake. The wisest man who ever lived warned, “Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.”26 Don’t allow trash into your mind indiscriminately. Be selective. Choose carefully what you think about. Follow Paul’s model: “We capture every thought and make it give up and obey Christ.”27 This takes a lifetime of practice, but with the help of the Holy Spirit you can reprogram the way you think.
Reveal your struggle to a godly friend or support group.
You don’t have to broadcast it to the whole world, but you need at least one person you can honestly share your struggles with. The Bible says, “You are better off to have a friend than to be all alone.... If you fall, your friend can help you up. But if you fall without having a friend nearby, you are really in trouble.”28
Let me be clear: If you’re losing the battle against a persistent bad habit, an addiction, or a temptation, and you’re stuck in a repeating cycle of good intention-failure-guilt, you will not get better on your own! You need the help of other people. Some temptations are only overcome with the help of a partner who prays for you, encourages you, and holds you accountable.
God’s plan for your growth and freedom includes other Christians. Authentic, honest fellowship is the antidote to your lonely struggle against those sins that won’t budge. God says it is the only way you’re going to break free: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”29
Do you really want to be healed of that persistent temptation that keeps defeating you over and over? God’s solution is plain: Don’t repress it; confess it! Don’t conceal it; reveal it. Revealing your feeling is the beginning of healing.
Hiding your hurt only intensifies it. Problems grow in the dark and become bigger and bigger, but when exposed to the light of truth, they shrink. You are only as sick as your secrets. So take off your mask, stop pretending you’re perfect, and walk into freedom.
At Saddleback Church we have seen the awesome power of this principle to break the grip of seemingly hopeless addictions and persistent temptations through a program we developed called Celebrate Recovery. It is a biblical, eight-step recovery process based on the Beatitudes of Jesus and built around small support groups. In the past ten years, over 5,000 lives have been set free from all kinds of habits, hurts, and addictions. Today the program is used in thousands of churches. I highly recommend it for your church.
Satan wants you to think that your sin and temptation are unique so you must keep them a secret. The truth is, we’re all in the same boat. We all fight the same temptations,30 and “all of us have sinned.”31 Millions have felt what you’re feeling and have faced the same struggles you’re facing right now.
The reason we hide our faults is pride. We want others to think we have everything “under control.” The truth is, whatever you can’t talk about is already out of control in your life: problems with your finances, marriage, kids, thoughts, sexuality, secret habits, or anything else. If you could handle it on your own, you would have already done so. But you can’t. Will power and personal resolutions aren’t enough.
Some problems are too ingrained, too habitual, and too big to solve on your own. You need a small group or an accountability partner who will encourage you, support you, pray for you, love you unconditionally, and hold you accountable. Then you can do the same for them.
Whenever someone confides to me, “I’ve never told this to anyone until now,” I get excited for that person because I know they are about to experience great relief and liberation. The pressure valve is going to be released, and for the first time they are going to see a glimmer of hope for their future. It always happens when we do what God tells us to do by admitting our struggles to a godly friend.
Let me ask you a tough question: What are you pretending isn’t a problem in your life? What are you afraid to talk about? You’re not going to solve it on your own. Yes, it is humbling to admit our weaknesses to others, but lack of humility is the very thing that is keeping you from getting better. The Bible says, “God sets himself against the proud, but he shows favor to the humble. So humble yourselves before God.”32
Resist the Devil.
After we have humbled ourselves and submitted to God, we are then told to defy the Devil. The rest of James 4:7 says, “Resist the Devil and he will flee from you.” We don’t passively resign ourselves to his attacks. We are to fight back.
The New Testament often describes the Christian life as a spiritual battle against evil forces, using war terms such as fight, conquer, strive, and overcome. Christians are often compared to soldiers serving in enemy territory.
How can we resist the Devil? Paul tells us, “Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”33 The first step is to accept God’s salvation. You won’t be able to say no to the Devil unless you’ve said yes to Christ. Without Christ we are defenseless against the Devil, but with “the helmet of salvation” our minds are protected by God. Remember this: If you are a believer, Satan cannot force you to do anything. He can only suggest.
Second, you must use the Word of God as your weapon against Satan. Jesus modeled this when he was tempted in the wilderness. Every time Satan suggested a temptation, Jesus countered by quoting Scripture. He didn’t argue with Satan. He didn’t say, “I’m not hungry,” when tempted to use his power to meet a personal need. He simply quoted Scripture from memory. We must do the same. There is power in God’s Word, and Satan fears it.
Don’t ever try to argue with the Devil. He’s better at arguing than you are, having had thousands of years to practice. You can’t bluff Satan with logic or your opinion, but you can use the weapon that makes him tremble---the truth of God. This is why memorizing Scripture is absolutely essential to defeating temptation. You have quick access to it whenever you’re tempted. Like Jesus, you have the truth stored in your heart, ready to be remembered.
If you don’t have any Bible verses memorized, you’ve got no bullets in your gun! I challenge you to memorize one verse a week for the rest of your life. Imagine how much stronger you’ll be.
Realize your vulnerability.
God warns us never to get cocky and overconfident; that is the recipe for disaster. Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.”34 That means we are good at fooling ourselves. Given the right circumstances, any of us are capable of any sin. We must never let down our guard and think we’re beyond temptation.
Don’t carelessly place yourself in tempting situations. Avoid them.35 Remember that it is easier to stay out of temptation than to get out of it. The Bible says, “Don’t be so naive and self- confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else. Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence.”36 (201-215)
1. Galatians 5:22—23 (NLT)
2. 2 Corinthians 2:11 (NLT)
3. Mark 7:21—23 (NLT)
4. James 4:1 (LB)
5. Hebrews 3:12 (CEV)
6. John 8:44
7. James 1:14—16 (TEV)
8. 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NLT)
9. Hebrews 4:15
10. 1 Peter 5:8 (Msg)
11. Matthew 26:41; Ephesians 6:10—18; I Thessalonians 5:6, 8; 1 Peter 1:13; 4:7; 5:8
12. Ephesians 4:27 (TEV)
13. Proverbs 4:26—27 (TEV)
14. Proverbs 16:17 (CEV)
15. Psalm 50:15 (GWT)
16. Hebrews 4:15 (NLT)
17. Hebrews 4:16 (TEV)
18. James 1:12 (NCV)
19. James 4:7.
20. Job 31:1 (NLT)
21. Psalm 1 19:37a (TEV)
22, Romans 12:21,
23. Hebrews 3:1 (NIV)
24. 2 Timothy 2:8 (GWT)
25. Philippians 4:8 (TEV)
26. Proverbs 4:23 (TEV)
27. 2 Corinthians 10:5 (NCV)
28. Ecclesiastes 4:9—10 (CEV)
29. James 5:16 (NIV)
30. 1 Corinthians 10:13
31. Romans 3:23
32. James 4:6—7a (NLT)
33. Ephesians 6:17 (NLT)
34. Jeremiah 17:9 (NIV)
35. Proverbs 14:16 (TEV)
36. 1 Corinthians 10:12 (Msg)
The Bible was originally written using 11,280 Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words, but the typical English translation uses only around 6,000 words. Obviously, nuances and shades of meaning can be missed, so it is always helpful to compare translations.
AMP The Amplified Bible, Grand Rapids: Zondervan (1965)
CEV Contemporary English Version, New York: American Bible Society (1995)
GWT God’s Word Translation, Grand Rapids: World Publishing, Inc. (1995)
KJV King James Version
LB Living Bible, Wheaton, II: Tyndale House Publishers (1979)
Msg The Message, Colorado Springs: Navpress (1993)
NAB New American Bible, Chicago: Catholic Press (1970)
NASB New American Standard Bible, Anaheim, CA: Foundation Press (1973)
NCV New Century Version, Dallas: Word Bibles (1991)
NIV New International Version, Colorado Springs: International Bible Society (1978, 1984)
NJB New Jerusalem Bible, Garden City, NY: Doubleday (1985)
NLT New Living Translation, Wheaton, II: Tyndale House Publishers (1996)
NRSV New Revised Standard Version, Grand Rapids: Zondervan (1990)
Ph New Testament in Modern English by J. B. Phillips, New York: Macmillan (1958)
TEV Today’s English Version, New York: American Bible Society (1992) (Also called Good News Translation)