Temptation and the Way of Escape
"I can't stop. I know it's wrong. I know I'm sinning. But, I keep going back. Even after I resist for a while. Eventually ... I fail."
The preceeding is a common refrain of many in counseling. Sin is enslaving, and a harsh taskmaster. Obedience to it not only produces bad fruit, but depending on the circumstances, it promotes a type of despair that tempts those who struggle to adopt a spirit of fear and defeat.
Christians who find themselves living in this place may not lose their salvation, but they're at risk of a prolonged existence in a place of spiritual darkness that can hardly be described as "life." At least, not the kind of life Jesus promised to those who trust and follow him.
What then are we to do when our hearts, like dogs returning to their vomit, repeatedly yield their ways to the temptations of this life? What are we to make of it when our friends and counselees and small group partners return to worship at the altars of their favorite sins (i.e. the idols of the heart)?
It's good for Christians in the midst of any struggle against sin to take a fresh look at what they know. They know they're guilty of sin (they hide), and they know they're naked and ashamed (they cover up). These feelings and resulting behaviors find their origin in the garden, at the fall of man into sin and death.
Q. Into what estate did the fall bring mankind?
A. The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.
Today, the shame follows us where ever we go. We feel it in business meetings, and phone calls with friends. We sense it in our Sunday school classes, and wonder if anyone can see. In response, we often pick up new, distracting habits to re-direct not only our own consciousness for a time, but also those around us, in hope that they might never stumble upon our hidden truth. The irony is that all of this self-righteous behavior sets us up for failure at temptations inevitable return.
Yes, sin loves the darkness of the heart's secret hideaways.
This truth is partly why biblical freedom from sin is never found in isolation from Christ and his church. Confession and repentance, which are necessary fruits of faith, necessarily involve some level of community involvement. It is not to ourselves that confession and repentance are owed. Neither will we find the mercy, grace, and forgiveness we need in a conversation with our own voice.
Sin is always vertical, toward God, and almost always involves a lack of horizontal love for our neighbor (family, friend, co-worker, etc.).
Q. What is sin?
A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of the law of God.
A Most Practical Answer
All of this introductory discussion, though, must eventually lead us back to the initial query: What can we do when temptation comes, that we might resist the Devil, and not find ourselves in a pit of misery?
I've been increasingly held captive by a most simple truth communicated to us by the apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10:13:
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.
It's understandable that we might fly by this verse, paying it little mind. In the face of what seems to be an indefatigable temptation, perhaps an addiction to internet pronography or a wretched habit of sinful anger or breakroom gossip, what or where is this "way of escape" to which Paul refers?
It seems, in our culture of self-help and moralistic therapeutic deism, that we've succumbed to the idea that there exists some where "out there" a checklist that, if followed, will keep us from giving in to temptation. But, that's not what Paul had in mind, I don't think. Especially not when we take into account all that we're told and given in the Covenant of Grace.
In John 10:9, Jesus said, "I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture."
In Paul's writings, he was never ambiguous about his telos, that is, his aim or ultimate goal of holding out the risen Christ as the supreme hope of and for a lost humanity. See: Colossians 1:28; Galatians 2:20; Philippians 3:8-10 to name a few.
If this is true, then why are we tempted to consider that in 1 Corinthians 10:13, his "way of escape" is anything other than a fleeing to the Lord Jesus? Perhaps it's a combination of unbelief and self-righteousness? Whatever the cause, the effect is most often an inability to run the race to which we've been called. This is the path that leaves a man in a counseling office repeating the words that began this post.
When Temptation Comes
"But, don't you have something practical for me to do?"
This is another common refrain heard at the biblical counseling table. It's the result of years of revivalistic preaching and teaching in the American, evangelical church. At least, that's part of it.
In his new book Remembrance, Communion, and Hope, Dr. J. Todd Billings, Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary, offers a case study of sorts, where a business woman named Erica has a sordid affair with colleague. Broken by her sin, she eventually goes to her pastor.
Billings makes clear that whatever help the pastor offers, he " ... should not just offer a onetime prayer for her to 'change her life,' or make a single commitment" (p.35). Instead, writes Billings, "The Pastor should point her to a new way of life--incorporation into a community of Word and sacrament" (p.35; emphasis mine).
When counselees ask the "practical" question, the sentiment is ususally flowing from either a misunderstanding of or perhaps even a rejection of the idea that turning to Christ at the moment of temptation is the most practical thing we can do! But, some might protest, what does that even look like?
For starters, let me say that nothing here is to suggest that logistical steps will be unnnecessary in the fight against sin. If your smart-phone is causing you to stumble, then get rid of it. If the usual drive home is paving the way for temptation to stop at the liquor store, then figure out another way home. These types of practical helps are good and proper.
Just not in and of themselves.
Even as we employ these practical-logistical steps, we do well to not consider them as actions that we take in our own authority, intellect, or power, but as steps provided to us by God, in keeping with his promise as communicated to us by Paul to provide a way of escape.
Further, as we follow the Spirit in those choices to promote holiness in our lives at the moment of temptation, we show that we're growing in our awareness of how we're sanctified (see Philippians 2:12-13).
Turning to Christ, who is "the way," in times of temptation may well take on many facets. It may look like fencing off how, when, and where you interact with co-workers of the opposite sex, or the movies you watch, the music you listen to, etc. But, it surely must involve time spent in the Scriptures, committing to memory verses that will sustain you when tempted toward sin, and learning a new habit of regular times for prayer.
These and other spiritual disciplines are the practical tools given to us in the church for a successful fight against sin. I like to remind counselees that it isn't likely to be one thing that is the "silver bullet" in their struggle. More typically, it's the cumulative effect of putting on all that is Christ and his benefits that leads to lasting change--progressively.
Run the Race
Patience and long-suffering will be key. True biblical change is best thought of as a marathon, and not a sprint. Along the way, there may well be times of stumbling. What's important is that we're learning how we fell, then seeking the strength and wisdom of Christ to make necessary adjustments.
So, the next time temptation comes, what logistical steps will you be willing to take in pursuit of Christlikeness? Which passages of Scripture will you memorize or write down in order to seize control of your wandering thoughts? What Psalm will you sing in order to change the song in your heart? Where will you kneel to pray in order to leave your computer screen behind?
Yes, friends. Turning to Christ is indeed a most practical and powerful step in your fight against temptation to sin. Don't just hear it, but believe it, trust it, and act on it.
When temptation comes to crawl through your window, run for the Door, your true and better Way of Escape. Unashamedly, run to Jesus, who is your ever-present help in time of need.
For Further Discussion
1. What has or has not worked for you in the fight against sin and temptation?
2. How have you been tempted to see turning to Jesus in times of temptation as something "less than practical"?