Passing the Temptation Test, Part 1

James 1:13-15

13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Dear Friends in Christ,

I’d like to begin my sermon this morning with a question, the answer to which may seem obvious at first, but as we examine it, I think we’ll discover differently.  The question is this: Is temptation something good or something bad?  Most, if not all of us, would probably answer that question by saying that temptation is something bad.  After all, it’s typically brought by our archenemy Satan who has nothing but the downfall of the Christian in mind.  But I would suggest to you this morning that temptation does have a good side to it, that it can be a stepping-stone rather than a stumbling block to greater spiritual maturity when we understand that it is just as much an opportunity to do the right thing as it is to do the wrong thing.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that while Satan wants to use his temptations to destroy you, God – and here I’m talking about the same God we looked at 3 weeks ago who can take even the worst of situations and use them for our good – that God can use the temptations of the evil one to develop your Christian character rather than destroy it.  Or to put it another way, every time that you choose with God’s help to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing, every time you in the power of the Holy Spirit resist a temptation and instead follow God’s will, you are growing in the character of Christ.  You are becoming more like Jesus and getting that much closer to the theme of my current sermon series: “Living a Good News Life in a Bad News World.”

And how exactly do you know if you’re experiencing that kind of growth in your life?  Well, in Gal. 5:22-23 the Apostle Paul lists 9 benchmarks whereby we can gauge our spiritual growth.  We call them the fruits of the Spirit.  They include “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Now Jesus was the perfect fulfillment and embodiment of those fruits.  Therefore, the more evidence we see of those fruits in our lives, the more like Jesus we are becoming.  By the way, that word “becoming” is important here because it reminds us that the Christian walk, or what theologians sometimes refer to as sanctification, is a process.  In other words, we don’t just wake up one morning and have all 9 fruits of the Spirit fully developed and functioning in our lives.  Rather, just like it takes time for fruit on a tree to ripen and mature, so also it takes time for the fruit of the Spirit to develop and mature in the life of a Christian.

And listen very carefully to what I’m about to say because this is the point I’m getting to.  One of the ways whereby God develops the fruit of the Spirit in our lives is by allowing us to experience circumstances in which we are tempted to express the exact opposite quality of a particular fruit.  For instance, God teaches us to love by putting difficult-to-love people around us.  It’s not hard to love people who are lovable and loving to you, right?  But it takes real Christ-like character to love those who are tough to love.  Likewise, God develops peace within us, not by making things always go the way we planned, but by sometimes allowing times of chaos and unrest to come into our lives when all we can do is turn it all over to him and leave those times in his very capable and dependable hands.  We learn patience when we’re forced to wait or we’re tempted to be angry or have a short fuse.  You get the picture?  Integrity is developed in us when we resist the temptation to be dishonest.  Humility grows when we have an occasion to boast but refuse to be prideful.  Faithfulness blossoms when the opportunity to be unfaithful presents itself to us, but we resist it.

Now one thing that is very helpful in times of temptation is to know that Satan is very predictable.  Yes he is cunning.  Yes he is deceptive.  And yes we need to take him seriously.  But the truth of the matter is that he has employed the same old strategy and the same old tricks ever since he wreaked havoc with our first parents in the Garden of Eden.  And that strategy consists of a four-step process.

First of all, Satan identifies a desire within you.  It may be a sinful desire, like the desire to get revenge or to control others, or it may be a normal, legitimate desire, like the desire to be loved or to feel pleasure.  Temptation begins then when Satan suggests in some form or another that you either give in to that evil desire or that you fulfill a legitimate desire in a wrong way or at the wrong time.  For example, sexual desire and gratification are gifts from God.  But when we choose to satisfy them outside of the marriage relationship or with someone other than our spouse, then Satan has succeeded in the temptation process.

And if by chance he should fail with step #1, then he will move on to step #2, which is doubt.  He will try to get you to doubt what God has said about a particular sin in his Word or to doubt that God really has your best interests at heart.  He will plant thoughts and questions in your mind like: “Did God really say you’re not supposed to do that?  Are you sure that commandment wasn’t just for people back in biblical times rather than people today?  Doesn’t he want you to be happy?  Besides, how can something that you know is going to feel so good be so bad?”  Please beware, my friends, that rationalization and justification are two of the primary tools that Satan uses on us.  When you find yourself trying to rationalize or justify a behavior that you know God forbids in his Word, then you need to understand that you are treading on very thin ice.

Then the third step in the temptation process is deception.  And oh how proficient Satan is at using this particular tool.  In John 8:44 Jesus says of Satan: “There is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Listen, my friends.  Anything Satan tells you will either be untrue or just half-true.  In either case, it will be wrong.  And please, for heaven’s sake, don’t fall for one of the biggest lies he loves to use on vulnerable Christians, and that is that the sin he wants you to commit is just a little sin, that it’s not that big of a deal.  Like somebody once said, “A little sin is like being a little pregnant.  It will show itself eventually.”

And that takes us to the fourth and final step of the temptation process which is disobedience, that time when you finally give in.  You succumb.  You act on the thought you’ve been toying with in your mind.  What began as an idea all of a sudden gets birthed into a behavior.  Like James says in our text for today: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”

Now, understanding the steps that Satan uses in the temptation process is certainly helpful, but I want to use the rest of my time this morning to talk about steps you need to take to meet and defeat those temptations when they come your way.  And the first of those steps is this: Refuse to be intimidated by temptation.  Many Christians are demoralized by tempting thoughts, feeling that if they were just a better Christian, they wouldn’t have such thoughts.  But listen, my friends, you will never outgrow temptation.  In fact, while I certainly wouldn’t encourage you to pursue or court temptation, you might consider temptation a compliment.  Think about that for a moment.  Satan doesn’t have to tempt those who are already doing his evil will because they are already his.  So he concentrates most of his efforts and energy on those he has not yet been able to corral into his fold.

Also understand that temptation is not sin.  If it were, then Jesus would have been the greatest sinner to ever live for there is no doubt that he was tempted more than any other human being.  For Satan is no dummy.  He knew that if he could get Jesus to stumble just one time, that would have been it.  That would have spelled an end to God’s plan of salvation, a plan that was entirely dependent upon Jesus living a perfect, sinless life on our behalf.  Yet Hebrews 4:15 tells us: “…we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.”

So temptation is going to come sooner or later.  The moment you become a Christian, Satan, like a mobster hit man, puts out a “contract” on you.  You are his enemy, and he is plotting your downfall.  And the primary way in which he does that is through temptation.  But I love what Martin Luther once said in response to that.  He said: “You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”  In other words, you can’t keep the devil from planting thoughts in your mind, but you can with God’s help choose not to dwell on them or act on them.

Then a second step you need to take to conquer temptation is this: Recognize your weaknesses and compensate for them.  We all have weaknesses.  We all have chinks in our armor.  We all know that certain situations make us more vulnerable to temptation and failure than others.  It may be when we’re tired or lonely or bored or depressed.  It might be when we’ve been hurt or we’re angry or worried. Or maybe it’s after a big success or a spiritual high.  Whatever the case, we need to follow the advice of Paul in Eph. 4:27 where he says: “Do not give the devil a foothold.” And if need be, we also need to follow the example of Joseph in our Scripture reading before when Potiphar’s wife was trying to seduce him.  Remember what he did?  He strapped on his Nikes and took off running.  He fled the temptation and put distance between himself and the situation that he knew would bring him down.

Then one more step that we need to take to overcome temptation is this: Request God’s help.  Please know that Heaven has a 24-hour emergency hot line.  And I am confident that few prayers receive higher priority status than those of a child of God who is looking for assistance during a time of temptation.  In Ps. 50:15 God himself holds out to us this beautiful invitation: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”  So don’t hesitate to offer what one author calls microwave prayers, prayers that are quick and to the point.  “Help, Lord!  SOS!  Mayday! Mayday!”  When temptation strikes, you don’t always have time for a lengthy conversation with God.  So simply cry out to him and know that as you do so, he stands by ready to hear and able to help.

And what happens if you fail?  What happens if you stumble?  What happens if in a moment of weakness you succumb to the temptation?  Well, to find out the answer to those questions, I would encourage you to read the story of the Prodigal Son sometime this week in your Bible.  You’ll find it in Luke 15.  It’s the story of a young man who fell prey to every evil desire and temptation imaginable.  And when he finally came to his senses and decided to go back to his father’s house where he would request permission to serve as a slave rather than be reinstated as a son, the father was waiting for him.  Not with an angry scowl or a slammed door in the face of the wayward boy, but with open arms, a huge bear hug, and all the other signs that let this boy know that he was being welcomed back into the father’s house not as a servant, but as a son.

The father in that story is a picture of our Heavenly Father.  And because the punishment for our sins has already been taken out on his Son Jesus Christ through his suffering and death on the cross, we know that there is always a road back to our Father’s house when we stumble and fall.  There is always abundant grace, plentiful mercy, and full forgiveness, for the one who repents of his sin and receives Christ’s sacrifice as the full and sufficient payment for that sin.  So if you’ve fallen, my friends, don’t fret, but flee to the Father’s open arms where you can not only find pardon and salvation, but also strength to resist the next wave of temptation that’s going to come your way sooner or later.