The Process of Temptation

The Process of Temptation

The Process of Temptation.

“You can’t keep the birds from flying overhead, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”  (Martin Luther).

Let’s say we have an especially attractive desire that comes to the surface of our mind and heart. We seriously consider this desire, we give it some attention, even if there is a hint of anger, or lust, or revenge. So we decide to flirt with this desire, to entertain these thoughts, to dwell on them. Already we are starting to fail the test. The longer we flirt with this desire, the greater the chance we will want to become intimate with it. When we romance a desire, a wayward thought, we have started developing a relationship and we want to take it deeper than mere flirtation. It’s not that far at this point for those thoughts, those desires, to become mental murder, mental adultery, mental revenge. The seeds of desire has produced a love child with the thoughts of your mind, and the offspring is sin.

“Everyone is put to the test by being attracted and seduced by that person’s own strong desire. Then the desire conceived and given birth to sin, and when sin reaches full growth, it gives birth to death.” (James 1:14-16).

“Anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder.” (Matthew 5:21). It’s a slippery slope. Let’s say we are hurt by someone, or someone we love is hurt by a thoughtless or mean person. In anger we dwell on that wounding, we develop a contempt for that person and refuse to forgive him. Our resentment continues and our anger grows. Our hostility deepens, and we nurse a grudge. We wouldn’t be disappointed if something bad happens to this person. We even start to fantasize about ways of getting even. At this point, we have judged this person as unworthy of forgiveness. We have put that person on our very own death row, and we have effectively murdered that person in our heart. Our heart has a spirit of murder, and it all started with a spark of anger and unforgiveness.

“Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28). That first look could be innocent, a passing temptation, an appreciation of someone attractive. The second look, the leering glance, just might be the beginning of a lustful thought or desire. That third look, that lasting leer, means we’re probably flirting with desire. When that desire is welcomed and given a home in the heart, the temptation could easily become overpowering. Since sex is our strongest urge and has been the downfall of human beings since the dawn of time, it pays to underestimate our moral strength when it comes to sexual activity. We need not give it that second look. We need not give lust a second thought. “Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body.” (Eugene Peterson).

“Create in me a pure heart, Lord.” (Psalm 51:10). God has His work cut out for Him if He wants to purify our hearts, which He does. A pure heart means pure motives. No mixed motives in all our decisions. It means pure inclinations. Naturally inclined to do right, to be good. Pure instincts. Pure reflexes. A heart that has no anger reflex, no lust reflex, no instinct towards pride or revenge. Pure impulses. Automatic moral impulses through tempting situations each day. Unconscious purity is impossible, left to our own devices, obviously. Purity goes too deep for us to manage our own transformation. How would we purify the origins of our own attitudes? Impossible. There is no hope for a pure heart except for the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit. Purification is a spiritual process, and yet it demands our cooperation.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:17). It takes a holy stubbornness to resist temptation. There is a strength of will needed to pass the tests before us every day. If molded in the right direction, the strong-willed child actually has an advantage in moral development. Parents should be thankful when they have a strong-willed child. It is the weak-willed person who has the most trouble with attractive temptations. The truth is, though, that all God’s children, all of us, are born with weak moral wills. How does one develop a strong will in the right direction? Cooperate with God by practicing. Practice exercising our will on minor matters so we can tackle the major ones. Strength will build up as one decides rightly. This daily practice of making good small decisions will prepare us well for the more difficult decisions. We are less likely to flirt with a strong desire if we have developed strength of will with lesser desires. We need the help of the Holy Spirit even in the smaller decisions so we get in the habit of depending on Him in the bigger decisions.

“Sow a thought, reap an action…” Character development seems to have progressive stages that naturally evolve from one step to the next. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” In other words, when we entertain a thought in our mind for any length of time, that thought can easily be acted upon. Once we invest our energy into an action, our moral muscle memory takes over, and repeated actions easily become a habit. Once we have developed a habit in our life, that habit will go far in forming our character. And once our character is formed, our life destiny is determined. Our fate in life often started out as a thought, whether a virtuous or a sinful thought. Our life direction can be determined by the mere mental act of dwelling on a thought. Resisting temptation at the very start in our thought life, by the power of the Spirit, is half the battle.

“Anyone who meets a temptation or a testing challenge head on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons are loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life.” (James 1:12). In the modern era, temptation often comes knocking on our door through technology, through screens that are so accessible. It is just true that when we go on a screen, we open the door to multiple temptations. It is a sad fact that it is easy for a screen to stimulate a desire to be angry with this person, to lust after that person, to be entertained into oblivion.  For a God-fearing person, there are constant questions to consider as we welcome technology into our lives… What do we choose to welcome into our hearts? Who do we decide to entertain in our homes through the internet? Do we have guests on our screens that shouldn’t be here? What type of desire do we flirt with via technology? With television and internet, it’s too easy to tempt fate. Attractive desires can be powerfully seductive. We can often be hungry fish circling a bait that is alluring. It is easy to be hungry and have a weak moment, tempted to take the bait. The tempter is only too happy to dangle the bait after we have developed an appetite. We need to outsmart the tempter as he sits above us in the boat, ready to reel us in. We need to be self-aware of our weak moments. Sometimes, one hook is all it takes.