We all want to do things we know we shouldn't do. Sin often seems so fun and exciting. How do we overcome temptation without giving in to it?
If sin didn’t seem exciting, fun, and sexy, temptation would never be a problem. However, sin so frequently appears terribly attractive to us that naturally we struggle against temptation. By recognizing and acknowledging this (sometimes considerable) struggle, we can strip temptation of its power over us.
Recognize Your Enemy
The recognition of a personal evil—of the one who is known within Christianity as Satan or the devil—is the first step in dealing with temptation. If you belong to God, his enemies have become your enemies; recognize that God’s enemy, the devil, is against you, too.
Satan tempts us to those things that are contrary to God: pride; an unforgiving heart; selfishness; fleeting, earthly pleasures (as opposed to lasting, eternal ones); impurity. The list goes on.
Our struggle with temptation, writes the Apostle Paul, “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”1
If you feel tempted, recognize your enemy. God does not tempt his children, but Satan does regularly. Call out the enemy; tell him you’re on to him and know his game.
The Difference between Temptation and Sin
Temptation is not sin. Temptation is a call to action by an enemy who hopes to lure you into sin. Temptation is the first domino in a chain reaction that, if set in motion, may well lead to sin. But that first domino need not fall.
The second step in dealing with temptation is to see it for what it is: a call to sin. Satan can coax, but he cannot command—and God is always ready to help you resist.2
For any temptation to succeed, it must find a willing “host” in its target. You cannot be made to comply. This call to sin has been likened to a single note sung into an open piano. That note (if sung in tune) will cause the piano string of the same tone to vibrate. Like recognizes like and responds.
When you are tempted to sin, try to identify in yourself the need or vulnerability that is being called out: Are you tired? Lonely? Frustrated? Jealous? Angry? Ask yourself, “What am I hiding from? Reacting to? Longing for? Demanding?” Then think, Will responding to this temptation meet that vulnerability in a way that helps me, encourages others, and honors God?
Instead of assuming that sin is the inevitable result of any temptation, take time to recognize the temptation as an enemy’s work. Examine your heart for any vulnerability that might respond to his call. Imagine temptation as the extended hand of an enemy who would pull you into sin—and then refuse to take it.
Talk to God
Secrecy fuels temptation. When you are tempted, talk to God honestly about your struggle. It does no good to pretend you’re not tempted or to deny the lure of sin.
Instead, tell God the truth about what’s happening. No special words are required. It might be as simple as this: “God, I’m tempted to lash out at my friend. I want to wound him or her because I feel disrespected and taken for granted. I know just what to say that will hurt the most. Help me to resist. Give me healing words or the power to hold my tongue.”
Paul assures us in 1 Corinthians that “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”3 God promises a way of escape from every temptation. Ask him to reveal that way to you.
Talk to Others
After you’ve talked to God, consider sharing your temptation with a partner, a trusted friend, or a spiritual advisor who will pray for you and help hold you accountable for your actions.
Don’t complicate things. Keep it simple. Instead of a long rationalization about why you want to do something you know is wrong (or how it might even seem reasonable by the world’s standards), be straightforward: “I want to lie my way out of this situation instead of telling the truth.” Or, “I’ve been flirting with a married coworker and I’m tempted to take it further.”
Ask your confidante to pray for you and the situation. Request that they follow up with you later about how you’ve handled the temptation you just described.
Play It Out, Then Plan
Corporations and institutions frequently plan for dangerous events that present risks. The likely effects of such scenarios are “played out” and emergency plans are put into place to guide everyone’s response if those events occur. Leaders ask, “What would happen if . . . ? How should we respond?”
You can use this same approach when dealing with temptation. James writes of the risks of temptation: “After desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”4
Play out the consequences of saying yes to a temptation. Ask, “What would happen if I lied on this job application and was found out?” Or, “What would happen if I was unfaithful to my spouse and my family was broken by it?”
When you play out the consequences of surrendering to temptation, you will see that the price of sin is always too high. Someone or something always suffers. Instead of making a plan to hide sin or deal with its consequences after the fact, plan ways to fight the temptation itself.
Fight Fire with Fire
Writes author Mark Galli, “All sins are in one sense an attempt to fill a genuine, righteous longing, but in a way that is inappropriate.”5 Instead of denying the appeal of sin, we can affirm the goodness of God and confess our desire for the good gifts he alone can give.
When Jesus, the Son of God, was tempted by Satan, he relied on the very words of God for strength. Over and over he responded to Satan’s invitations to sin by saying, “It is written . . .” and then quoting God’s promises or commands.6
In the same way, we can “preach the gospel” to ourselves by confessing our weaknesses and claiming Christ’s power. “The gospel,” writes pastor and author Tim Keller, “says that the humble are in and the proud are out. The gospel says the people who know they’re not better, not more open-minded, not more moral than anyone else, are in, and the people who think they’re on the right side of the divide are most in danger.”7
We can remind ourselves that in Jesus Christ we are new creations, that “the old has gone, the new is here!”8 We can give thanks that Christ died for our sins so that we might not become a slave to them.9
When the temptation to sin comes again—and it will—we can meet it with the confidence that we’ve already been given everything we need to resist the enemy. And more importantly—we can celebrate the fact that real joy resides in God’s presence and the eternal pleasures that he offers us.10