In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:9–15)
There is something about temptation that can suck a soul dry. It can drain a person of hope and happiness. How long is it before you begin to feel worthless? Less that Christian, an offence in the eyes of God. Eventually you become crippled in your faith as you believe that you are simply a weak Christian, just about scraping through (if at all). You ask yourself: “how can I have all these thoughts”? How can these things flow through your mind, playing at your will. Is this really who you are?
And then doubts begin to creep in with regard to your assurance, the certainty of your position with God. Your salvation. You might even start to wonder if you’ve ever been a Christian at all.
Worst of all, all of this is internal. It all takes place in your mind, in those thoughts as you lay in bed waiting to go to sleep. It is an internal struggle with no external help or comfort. Oh, temptation is the biggest obstacle we face, and it dampens the abundant life Christ promised.
So what do we do about it?
Well, first a word of reassurance. Let me assure you of this: to be tempted is not a sin. That small voice in your head may tell you it is. The doubts might rise - “how can this be within me?” - but to be tempted is not a sin.
How can I say this? How can I be so certain? Well, think about it. Jesus was tempted for forty days, an intense period when temptations crowded in as he was “with the wild animals”. This should be some encouragement to us, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews points out not once, but twice: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18). “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:14–15). “Yet without sin”. To be tempted should not be equated with sin.
But why, you might ask, does this affect me so badly? And here we come to a problem: the church no longer believes in the devil. Ah, say so many, that is a primitive idea, just fantasy. It is naïve to believe in a man in red tights, we’ve gone beyond that now. We are more scientific, and cannot be doing with medieval beliefs like that!
Now, we are left with some sort of concept of evil, after all we need something to explain the likes of Hitler and Stalin, but this is a vague concept which is not defined. It’s a sort of ‘sum-of-human-badness’, but certainly not an external force.
This loss of belief has costs us dear, as once more we have stood in judgment over the Bible and cut out the bits with which we don’t agree. We are left with a tattered book full of holes with which to defend ourselves, and then we wonder why our faith and beliefs are so full of holes! C. S. Lewis’s classic on temptation, ‘The Screwtape Letters’, has this in his preface:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. the other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight”.
Here is the nub: if you dismiss the doctrine of the devil out of hand, where now does temptation come from? It comes from you yourself, and is a reflection of your nature. Which is rather depressing, but fortunately not true! Would you seriously suggest that Jesus Christ, the son of God, the only sinless man was tempted by his own evil nature? Are you seriously suggesting that Jesus was not perfect, that the cross was therefore not a perfect sacrifice? That Jesus was a mixture of good and evil? If that were the case, the whole doctrinal underpinning of Christianity would simply unravel. No, the consistent standpoint of this Bible is that temptation is a demonic enterprise, which is to say that Jesus was not tempted by a metaphor or a myth but “tempted by Satan”.
I would suggest to you that regaining a proper, biblical view of temptation is something of a liberation. Rather than being a sign of interior rot, they become an assault to be resisted. Rather than temptation being a condemnation, it is rather a sign that you wish to resist evil. It is a sign of your faith, not of your weakness. Remember “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15).
So what do you do when temptations assail you? Remember that these are external forces, and resolve to pay no attention to them. Do not think that they are part of you, rather they happen to you. Turn a temptation to prayer, and move on. Allow it to pass as a car might pass by you house. Heed the advice of James: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” James 4:7. Or listen to Peter: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (1 Peter 5:8-9).
Whatever you do, though, do not fall into the trap of thinking that temptation separates you from God. Don’t worry about your status as a Christian. Christ was tempted, and you will be too.
Remember that these things come from outside, and then they are easier to deal with.