The issue of temptation is deeply rooted in Christian faith and ethics. We have a strong view of morality and believe temptation to sin to be our common lot. Scripture teaches we are all guilty of sin (Rom 3:10) and susceptible to temptation (1 Cor. 10:13a). We know the story of Adam and Eve falling to temptation in the garden (Gen 3) and the story of Christ overcoming temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:12f; Luke 4:1-13; Heb. 2:18). This is essential to our view of Christ as the New Adam—one brought sin and death; the other, life (1 Cor. 15:21,45).
What does it mean to be tempted? What does temptation say about us? What does temptation tell us about our spiritual condition? I’m of course aware of the scriptural statements on temptation, for example: “But each one is tempted when he is dragged away and enticed by his own desires. Then desire, after it has conceived, gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is brought to completion, gives birth to death” (James 1:14f LEB).
I came across an article with a definition of temptation that got me thinking. I’ve come to realize when you as a Christian are tempted to commit an immoral action it actually says several things about you. Temptation should not be seen as shameful. We lose sight of this because we misuse the word “temptation.” This is important, because it is the shame we feel which causes us to bury them and deny their existence. What is kept in the shadows of our life has power—there is always danger people will discover what you have kept hidden for so long. This is behind the command to “confess our sins to one another” (James 5:16). Confession brings things into the open, into the light. Think about famous Christians who have fallen to temptation, destroying their message and testimonies when discovered. Now imagine, what might have happened had they, years before, confessed their temptations and struggles to their flocks. Egregious sin looks different when the sinner has been open about weaknesses rather than putting on airs of perfection.
The above referenced article, written by Oxford’s Dr. Brian Leftow is found in the January 2014 issue of the journal Faith and Philosophy. Dr. Leftow writes about the philosophical problems in the temptation of Christ and does, in my opinion, a fair job of demonstrating the temptation of the divine Jesus as not contravening the perfection of divinity. Many question how the God-man Jesus could be tempted to do evil, when scripture tells us God cannot be tempted by evil. Dr. Leftow gives a definition of temptation that is invaluable in our consideration (page 5 of the article):
“A state of temptation essentially involves wanting to do the act one has in view, but also wanting or having some resolve not to do it. Thus in particular an act’s being wrong is not enough to make wanting to do it constitute being tempted to do it. If I am wholeheartedly in favor of doing a wrong act, I am not tempted to do it. I simply want to do it. Only if something in me opposes it can I be tempted to do it. The opposition cannot be trivial, either. Suppose the only thing in me opposing doing wrong were a weak impulse or an intention I do not feel strongly drawn to maintain. That is, suppose I were almost wholeheartedly for it. Then I wouldn’t be tempted to do wrong either. I would simply be for it, but with a slight hesitation. For my desire to do evil to count as a temptation, I must be significantly invested in not doing it. Whatever I have against doing it must be sufficiently forceful or important (etc.) to create at least some genuine ambivalence.”
In other words, to be defined as tempted, the person so desiring to take an action must also have a desire or a resolve not to take the action. Dr. Leftow uses the example of being tempted to eat a cookie. Since I am on a diet right now, I will avoid this example as it might be temptation inducing in me. Besides, we should use something more obviously immoral than the dangers of excessive sugar or fat. Suppose person A has a desire to steal from another. If A has only the desire to commit this act, with no countering desire not to commit the act, then A is not tempted to steal. A simply wants to steal. However, it might be the case that A wants to steal but has a slight reservation to stealing this particular object—perhaps A knows the owner and concern about that person finding out causes A to momentarily rethink the action. A is still not being tempted to steal. A wants to steal, but has a slight hesitation or insignificant reason to refrain. Before you say, “Well, stealing is wrong, so A is being tempted to do something wrong.” I guess I would simply respond, “Wrong!” The fact that stealing is wrong, does not mean a desire to steal is properly classified as temptation. Wrongness is a separate consideration from “the desire to do an action.” Wrongness may contribute to a desire to act or not act, but is not synonymous with that desire. Perhaps A does not know stealing is wrong, or doesn’t believe it’s wrong. Perhaps in A’s view stealing is simply how one survives and has no moral qualms about it. This doesn’t mean such belief, or lack of knowledge would justify the theft. It simply shows that even in this case A is not being tempted to steal. A desire to take an action with no reservations or reason for not taking it is not a temptation.
In order to be considered temptation a desire in favor of an action must be paired with a desire in opposition to the action. One must have a desire, a resolve, not to act (and not only a reason not to act). We can see the dynamic in Paul’s famous statement about moral imperfection in Romans 7: 21-25.
“Consequently, I find the principle with me, the one who wants to do good, that evil is present with me.For I joyfully agree with the law of God in my inner person, but I observe another law in my members, at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that exists in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself with my mind am enslaved to the law of God, but with my flesh I am enslaved to the law of sin” (LEB).
Paul speaks of two laws at work within the believer—the law of sin and the law of God. He gives a picture of these two empowering different desires. A Christian facing a moral choice experiences a desire to obey God, and a competing desire to obey sin. The moral choice is which one to actually obey.
When you and I, as Christians, face temptation to sin, we are presented internally with two options rooted in two desires. We desire to resist sin, and live a holy life in emulation of the Lord (1 Peter 1:16). Yet, at the same time, we experience a desire to act out the sin (James 1:14f). These two options present themselves, and we choose which to act upon.
Consider for a moment the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:1-7. Eve is tempted by the serpent, but what does this mean? The serpent wants to inspire in Eve a desire to eat the apple. He uses an argument that calls into question God’s command (“Did God really say…?”) then God’s motives (“God knows…”). This is necessary because without this there is only a desire to obey God and no competing desire to choose or abstain from. There is no indication that at any time between the placement of the tree and the command not to eat it and the experience with the serpent that there was any thought whatsoever on the part of the man and woman to eat of the fruit. There was only the desire to enjoy communion with God and each other. It was this choice between two exclusive options that made this a temptation. Without either the desire to abstain inspired by the command of God or the desire to act inspired by the lies of the enemy there was no temptation. Temptation shows a battle raging within you between your desire to sin and your desire to obey God.
Some will complain, “But I am a Christian and should not desire to sin. I should want to obey God and God alone!” There is a world of difference between ‘should’ and ‘actual’. Yes, our goal is to be so redeemed that we never even consider, much less desire sin, but none of us will reach that goal until the flesh is as redeemed as the spirit (in the return of Christ). Just accept the fact you will face such temptations. In time the choice becomes automatic, and as certain choices are made consistently, the desire to act otherwise subsides. But this does not mean you have become immune to such desires.
This choice is what defines a temptation. It also leads us to consider who is tempted and why. To continue, let’s consider the root of the desire not to act—not to act in a particular way or take a particular action. The root of the desire to act is easy to discern—pleasure, greed, etc. The desire to act is usually rooted in the desire for the result of the action. The desire not to act may have various sources.
One source of the desire not to act may be a moral code. This code may be religious or secular. We as Christians often believe there is no such thing as a moral code not grounded in theistic religious belief. This is erroneous. The atheist Nietzsche laid out one example out a moral code with no reference to God—it is a harsh, Machiavellian morality, but a moral code none the less. Let’s take an example of a person brought up in Nietzsche’s moral code of “The Will to Power.” This person faces a dilemma: “Should I obey my morality and strive to dominate those who are weaker and less fit for life to maintain my own power or do I violate my moral code by leaving them at liberty.” I understand, this is a radical oversimplification of Nietzsche’s morality, but it comes close enough for our purposes. This, however, is a good example of a secular morality at work and the temptation that can result. Another form of secular morality is seen in this country. Here in the United States, say what you will about our morals, Christian ethics are the “warp and woof” of our moral view. Most Americans and Western Europeans, even the most outspoken atheists, agree certain actions are wrong—never realizing this view springs from our Christian cultural past. Even moral relativists easily find themselves, when affronted, making universal moral pronouncements little different than those coming from the pulpits of the Church—“He can’t do that! That is wrong!” One perfect example of Christian morals shared by western non-Christians is the idea that killing unwanted children is wrong. I don’t say this to imply atheists would be killing their children if not for Christianity (though some, such as Peter Singer, would allow such actions). I refer to the fact that Christianity introduced the idea of valuing such children to the world. It was the ascendancy of this morality which led to this view being commonly held and enforced today, even by those who adamantly denounce the source of the view. Though this view came from religion, it is now common even among the nonreligious and in that framework is now part of a secular morality.
Another source of the desire not to act may be consideration of negative consequences. This sounds like it may apply to the thief mentioned earlier who hesitated to steal because of knowing the victim. In that example, I was not speaking of one who, based on knowing the victim, formed a desire not to act or saw the knowledge as enough reason not to steal. The desire not to act or an apprehension of a good reason not to act is the key. That person’s delay may have simply been something like: “Hey look! Bob left his keys in his car. I want to steal it, but he knows me. Is there any way he could know it was me?” So what sort of “desire not to act” is sufficient to call the desire to act a temptation? Take the above illustration about the thief wanting to steal Bob’s car. If he says, “Bob left his keys in his car. I want to steal it, but I also do not want my friend to suffer from the theft of his car.” This person has two desires with two results. Both results are wanted: he wants the car without paying, but also does not want Bob hurt by the loss of his car. He now faces a dilemma of two courses of actions, with two desired results. This is a temptation.
A related source of this desire not to act may be the preference for a positive consequence. Suppose Sally wants to spend money on something frivolous, but the money has already been budgeted. It might be a negative consequence that gives her a reason not to spend it—perhaps fear of not having enough money to pay the rent. It could also be a positive consequence—for example, wanting to see her savings account grow but being tempted to spend the money regardless.
There are other sources for desires not to act—other reasons to argue against an action, as well. It is this that makes temptation what it is. When I am tempted I have a desire to act in a certain way, and a desire not to act in that way. These two desires cause a conflict within me and make it necessary for me to choose. I must then decide and can choose to act morally or immorally. For a non-Christian this means choosing to act in-line with or against my adopted moral code. For a Christian this means choosing to act in-line with the law of God or the law of sin. Yet, the choice is still mine.
Now, anyone who has read my blog knows I strongly hold to the doctrine of Total Depravity. This means a person who is unredeemed is naturally depraved and will always choose rebellion from God if there is no intervention by God. In this case one cannot truly say such a person has free will—if you are incapable of choosing to obey God then your will is not free to choose to obey God. But how does this work with the previous paragraph? Total depravity does not mean an unredeemed person can never choose to do a good act. In a society like ours there is much of our moral code that is commonly shared between believer and non-believer. Total Depravity means that such a person will always choose to rebel against God—it does not mean they are incapable of, say, loving their children (a good thing), or of abstaining from murdering their neighbor. An unredeemed person is not capable, without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, to choose to obey God and live according to his Word. The unredeemed must be “born from above” (John 3:3). This is why Jesus says, “No one is able to come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44a LEB).
So let’s consider now those who desire to take a certain action, but also desire not to act because they believe such an action violates the law or command of God. This sort of temptation is only possible for the redeemed of God. The non-believer doesn’t care about the law of what he sees as some Canaanite tribal deity writ large—neither is he capable of such caring. The amoral, also, face no such temptation, caring nothing for moral codes of right and wrong. The temptations you face show much about you—as I said earlier. For example, some such desires may be rooted in a negative past experience and show a need to seek counsel in those areas. Some immoral desires may be rooted in areas that are kept secret and need to be brought out into the open. They may also simply show that you are still a human being, with human desires, and a fleshly nature.
Most of us Christians are ashamed of being tempted. We think we should be beyond such thoughts. We need to realize that temptations, even temptations to sin, can also result in good—not from giving in to them, but by experiencing and then resisting them. I’ll give three examples of good resulting from temptation to sin:
First, I have on several occasions found myself suddenly tempted in areas that were never a problem previously. Of course, they were of such a nature and so new that they could be, and were, resisted. In each case, I found myself wondering what had happened to give me such desires. Before long the Lord would bring someone into my life who had been struggling for years with my newly experienced temptations. My own experiences helped me to feel for them rather than judge them. I was blessed to see them through eyes of grace that may have been impossible without such an experience. Interestingly, when meeting the person in need of such counseling those temptations immediately went away. I believe God was fitting me to serve that person with love and acceptance. This has happened enough that I know to watch my own heart for signs of the problems people I will soon meet may be struggling with. Sometimes God uses the temptations you face to build you up for serving those around you who may need help with that very temptation.
Second, temptations also demonstrate the grace of God. “You are tempted to do that? And yet God in His grace chose you. Praise Him for that.” The greatest illustration of the depth of God’s grace is the depth of our own depravity and sin. “But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 LEB).
Third, temptations resisted at one time become easier to resist the next time experienced. When facing a temptation keep in mind that giving in, even once, will make it harder to resist the next time. We can find ourselves negotiating sin with ourselves, “But I did it yesterday, and enjoyed it. God forgave me yesterday and He’ll forgive me again.” In our moral considerations today, the concept of habit is little spoken of, but this was not always the case. Thomas Aquinas placed great emphasis upon habit in the moral life (see Summa Theologica, Prima Secundae, Article 4). We can build habits of behavior in this life—moral or immoral. So when you face a temptation it may help to see it as a chance to choose righteously and to build a habit of such choices.
Temptation is not something to be ashamed of and hide. It is normal and natural. You will experience no temptation that is not common for mankind (1 Cor. 10:13). There are others out there who face it. There are others who can offer advice and support for getting through it with the right choice. Do not hide your temptations in the shadows. Of course, take them first to God. Next, take them to someone you can trust—this trust is essential. Also, consider letting them be known publicly if they are of a nature that makes this possible. I have one temptation that has been my lot since the age of 12. It is something that all humans (even pastors) struggle with—lust. At the age of twelve I came upon a large box filled with pornography—someone swept the filth out of his own life, and unwittingly shoveled it into mine right at the age where boys get most interested in women. I have several personal measures to prevent temptation and to resist when temptation is unavoidable. One such measure is to regularly share with the people of my church struggle with this. Another is accountability partners who know about it and are encouraged to ask me about it—especially my fellow elders. I want them to know. I do not want to keep it in the shadows because secrets have a history of coming out into the open and wreaking havoc when they do.
Temptation should not be shame inducing. Only the choice you make when facing a temptation can produce any sense of shame. Being tempted is natural and normal. Being tempted is human. Being ashamed of a temptation is being ashamed of being human—a waste of emotional energy.