For those who aren’t old enough to remember, a skeleton key opens a wide variety of locks. One size fits all, kinda. Satan uses temptation in the same way in that he uses it to gain unauthorized access to everybody, in particular those individuals who’ve turned their heart over to Christ. While he’s always in a hateful mood, nothing makes the devil madder than seeing yet another soul get saved from his clutches by God’s grace because it makes his demolition job a lot harder. He takes as a personal insult what Romans 8:9 informs those new to the faith: “Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good.” And Ephesians 4:22-24 really gets his goat: “You were taught with reference to your former way of life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image – in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth.” But, being the relentless sort, he never gives up trying to destroy us and his most effective tool is to call God a liar. (Hey, it worked like a charm on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, didn’t it?) He’ll tell the newbie Christian that for them to stop doing the sinful things they’ve been doing for years is impossible. He’ll also inform them they can try their darndest to overcome their bad habits and indulgences employing their own willpower all they want but they’ll eventually crash and burn. And he’ll be truthful on that count. How so? Because the ability to resist sin and faithfully obey God comes exclusively from the indwelling Holy Spirit. If an adopted child of God tries to go it alone they’re doomed. The Holy Spirit helps us walk away from temptation and He’s very good at it. Billy Graham wrote, “It’s His job to work, and our job to yield.”
Because the Bible deals with stark reality it never states we’re immune to temptation. That would be foolishness. The world, in and of itself, is a 24/7 temptation. It packages sin in alluring giftwrap and insists we’d be blithering idiots not to try what it’s offering at least once. But those who belong to the Heavenly Father have been offered an equally attractive alternative: “No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Being tempted to do the wrong thing is not a sin. As a matter of fact, when you become born again Satan pins a big red target on your back for all his demons to aim at so get prepared. But that’s his doing – not yours – so don’t feel guilty. The devil’s the sorest of losers and he’ll retaliate against you making the wisest decision of your life by throwing everything, including the kitchen sink and the dishwasher, at you. The blunder too many of us make is not relying totally on the Holy Spirit for the strength it takes to resist his onslaught. You see, Satan uses the technique of long-term sieges in his war against Christians. He’ll surround us with every lure at his disposal and he won’t quit until God takes us home. He employs this age-old tactic because sometimes it works. He’ll pull his vicious troops back just far enough to make us think he’s given up and, if we’re dumb enough to let down our guard, he’ll ambush us.
Again, it’s the rookie believer who’s most liable to fall for his tricks. If someone’s led them to think they’ve been made bulletproof by grace, not just saved by it, they’re in trouble. If they expect life to be a cakewalk on Easy Street they’re in for a rude awakening. The devil’s stalking them, patiently waiting for the right moment to pounce. What I’ve noticed through my involvement in Celebrate Recovery is that Satan has no regard for fair play. He’s a con artist. If someone’s fighting alcoholism or drugs, for instance, he won’t always entice them to go back to those things because they’re so obvious. Instead, he’ll come at them from out of left field to instill doubts about their faith. He might ridicule their commitment to tithe, whispering sarcastic stuff like, “God doesn’t need your money. He’s got plenty! Besides, He didn’t work for it, you did. You need to hang on to every cent because you’ve got bills to pay. Wise up, sucker!” Because greed wasn’t the core thing destroying their life before surrendering it to Christ they’ll start buying into the devil’s twisted logic. They’ll begin to question their other obligations, as well. What’ll inevitably follow is discouragement and frustration. At CR we tell them that pattern is normal. As Satan manufactures temptations, God turns them into tests. When we succeed in consistently leaning on the Holy Spirit for power and stamina our faith strengthens. Increasingly we become keenly aware that without Christ we’re defenseless. God wants us to depend on Him and no one else and it’s something we must train ourselves to do.
There’s an old story that illustrates it well. The devil’s teaching a class on how to get a Christian to sin. He asks his eager students to contribute. One slimy demon says, “I’ll make sin feel good, smell great and taste delicious. I’ll make sin so irresistible they won’t hesitate to eat it up like candy.” “Wrong!” Satan shouts. “Most of them have been there, done that and learned their lesson. Don’t waste your time. Next?” Another reeking imp speaks up. “I’ll make them see there’s no payoff for obeying God’s laws. That their meaningless life will be boring and downright painful if they imitate Jesus.” “Wrong again!” the devil screams. “Jesus told them in Matthew 16:24, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Therefore they actually expect to be persecuted! Hardships only reinforce their resolve. Next?” The filthiest teacher’s pet raises its bony hand and says “I know how to make them sin.” “And how’s that?” Satan inquires. “Easy. I’ll discourage their soul.” “Precisely!” the devil exclaims. “Discouragement works every time!” Although the outcome has been determined, the spiritual war between God and Satan still rages and the hearts and minds of all mankind are what’s at stake. If a believer drifts away from the Holy Word and the body of Christ they can fall into the trap of discouragement. While it’s true they possess a new nature, the old one’s still hanging around nonetheless. If pride takes over and they go back to doing things their way they’ve put themselves exactly where the devil wants them. As Christians we must yield to our new, Christ-dominated nature every day.
The truth is, being repeatedly tempted to sin wears even the best of us down to the point where we can become discouraged. Satan knows a sinning Christian is a miserable one and that they’re prone to run away from the church rather than run to it when they feel defeated. They’ll avoid other believers, convinced none of them will understand what they’re going through. They’ll start listening to the devil’s lies. We’re all woefully naïve about his dirty tricks but if we heed what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13 (see above), instead of staring at what he’s luring us with we’ll be better able to concentrate on locating God’s escape hatch. When we call out to God for help He always responds. When we confess our shortcomings He always forgives and reassures us of His mercy by drenching us in His unconditional love. When we fall He picks us up. Every time. I pity non-believers because they can’t get help when they don’t know who to ask for it. But what can we do for a brother or sister in Christ who backslides into a sinful lifestyle? After all, Colossians 6:1 warns that “…if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore them gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” Paul’s telling us that, like the Good Samaritan, we should do all we can to lift them up, encourage them to trust in our Savior, tell them we believe they can still continue to move forward in their walk with the Lord and shower them with love. But he’s also reminding us sin can be as infectious as the Ebola virus and we should take necessary precautions by being vigilant.
Believers and unbelievers have something in common. They both sin. The difference is this: The latter of the two doesn’t consider the “everybody does it” variety of sin to be a big deal. Whereas the believer detests all sin because they’re offenses against God, the beautiful Creator who loved them so much He allowed His own Son to suffer and die in their place. Christians do sin but they don’t want to. They easily relate to Paul’s self-assessment in Romans 7:15-19 when he wrote, “For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate. But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good. But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me. For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.” Paul’s exasperation with himself that leaps out from the page is the same exasperation I experience when I fall short of my own expectations as a follower of Christ. I think Jesus chose Paul for the very reason he was no more immune to sinning than the rest of us. Thus we’re more apt to listen to him when he offers advice like “…do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4) because we know he fought the same battles against temptation we fight. Paul had been down that road and he realized drawing upon the power of the Holy Spirit within us is the only chance we’ve got.
It’s accurate to call the Holy Spirit a “sin alarm.” He lets us know, via our conscience, when we’re treading on thin spiritual ice and need to back off before we do something stupid and slip under. He’ll also make us feel uncomfortable in situations we used to consider fun or amusing. The dirty or racist jokes we once relished and laughed at with our buddies now come off vulgar and detestable. The “boys’ (or girls’) night out” at the bar getting soused like a bunch of sailors on shore leave no longer feels like freedom. Flirting with strangers online or participating in sexually-explicit chat rooms doesn’t seem “okay” anymore and ogling porn leaves us feeling like we’ve been “slimed.” Hearing the Lord’s name taken in vain makes us wince. That’s what letting the Holy Spirit guide us will do. He gives Christians a healthier perspective. He cleans our glasses, so to speak. He instills in us a yearning to follow Paul’s advice in Romans 12:1-2; “Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.” Keep in mind this “transformation” can happen in a short span of time or it may be a more gradual change that takes longer to manifest in one’s attitude and behavior. (In my case impatience was one of my many character defects so God took His sweet time with me.)
Back to the subject at hand, though – temptation. One of the complaints I hear often from my spiritual brothers who speak honestly in my small group at Celebrate Recovery is: “Why, since I’m doing everything possible to pray regularly, attend and participate in my church and come to weekly CR meetings, do I still end up sinning? Why do I still screw up? What am I doing wrong?” At some point outside the group setting (FYI, cross-talk is never allowed during open share time) I may talk privately with them and tell them two things. First, Satan will tempt them to sin up to and including the day they enter heaven so they must put on the “armor of God” daily to defend themselves. Secondly, if their main goals are ease and happiness in this life then they’re going to be very disappointed. I’ll reiterate that Jesus didn’t die on the cross to make us happy, he gave up his life on Calvary to make us holy. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “When our Lord said, ‘Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled’ (Matthew 5:6), He did not say they would be happy who hungered and thirsted after happiness. The blessedness, the happiness, the joy is something which will result from our seeking righteousness and from our becoming righteous. It’s a by-product, an end result. We’re not to place blessedness or happiness in the supreme position. We’re to seek righteousness, and, having found it, we shall then find ourselves to be happy and filled with blessedness.”
One of the ironies of the Christian life is that, in order to become a more Christ-like, loving disciple, we must drop all our self-protective strategies and rely totally on God. Yet when we do that the devil considers it the ideal time to attack and tempt us mercilessly. Dr. Larry Crabb wrote, “To forsake these strategies puts us in touch with the terrifying pain of vulnerability. At the point of greatest pain, the temptation to relieve that pain by some means is overwhelming and powerful. If, at that point when the urge to rely on self-protective strategies for relief is strongest, we refuse to yield but rather cling to God in dreadful dependency, our character grows. The richest opportunities for character growth will never occur without experiencing the terrible reality of total dependency. Our natural commitment to denying dependency behind a wall of self-protection must be severely challenged if those opportunities are to occur.” I think that’s what Jesus alludes to in Matthew 16:25 when He said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever wants to save his life for my sake will find it.” It also makes what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 more comprehensible. “So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. Therefore I am content with weakness, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Conversely, we must never make the mistake of courting temptation. Satan doesn’t need or require our help. “Your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, is on the prowl looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Knowing how weak the flesh is and how strong our mammalian desires are we should always avoid purposely putting ourselves in Satan’s line of fire. In Matthew 6:13 Jesus, aware of the danger involved, instructed us to include in our prayers “…and do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” J. I. Packer quipped, “Temptation may be our lot, but only a fool will make it his preference.” It’s true temptation is necessary to facilitate spiritual growth but, by asking the Holy Spirit to direct us, we’ll surely be tempted less severely and better equipped to fend it off when Satan shows up packing heat. Packer concluded, “So don’t be unrealistic in not budgeting for temptation, nor foolhardy enough to court it; but when it comes, don’t doubt God’s power to deliver from the evil it brings, and to “…keep you from falling…” (Jude 24) as you pick your way through it. When you aren’t conscious of temptation, pray “…lead us not into temptation”; and when you are conscious of it, pray “…deliver us from evil”; and you will live. Sounds like sage advice to me.