Whenever you start a conversation off about temptations and how Christians work through them it almost seems obligatory to tell that really worn joke about a fishing hook, a tasty worm and a fish and when the fish takes a bite out of the tasty worm it is hooked and pulled wherever the fisherman wants to take him, usually to a sharp knife, a hot fire and some lemon pepper seasoning.
Temptations to sin are pretty close to that, except even when we know there is hook behind the tasty worm it doesn’t always stop us from taking that first bite.
There are three myths or misconceptions about temptations that I want to talk about:
1. Temptations are simply about making bad choices.
2. The thoughts of temptation are not sin but doing it is.
3. We can beat temptations alone.
First, let’s start with a working definition of what a temptation is. What definition would you use? Maybe wanting to do something wrong or being seduced to act against your own morals or being led astray or off the path.
These definitions focus on making bad choices and they can incorporate everything from huge billboards that advertise temptation or the temptations that come from inside, thoughts that just seem to come out of the blue. Thoughts like the young man had in college struggling to get through his exam and was sorely tempted to look across the desk to his friend’s test that seemed to be having no trouble at all–temptations to make bad choices.
But it can be really hard to pin down an exact definition of what a temptation is because there are so many different kinds of temptations and what tempts me now may not tempt me 30 years from now and it may be different from what is tempting you right now.
But we know we all deal with temptations and even though there are so many different kinds of temptations for so many different kinds of people, there is a core problem that unifies all temptations and makes them a common experience for everyone.
This brought me back to an insight my favorite author, C.S. Lewis, had about temptations and I’ll paraphrase: that at the heart of every temptation is a good thing.
For example, people generally want to have achievements and be successful in this life, but this good desire is twisted by being tempted to cheat and steal in order to achieve that goal. People also want to connect and be loved but that good desire is perverted by being tempted to fulfill it in places that are exploitive and hurtful.
These good desires to be loved, have meaning and purpose, are all a gift from God and we first find our fulfillment of our good desires by being with God where we receive love, connection, meaning, and purpose in this life. But temptations take all this that is good and urges and lures and seduces us to find love and meaning and connection in all of the wrong places. Places that promise to give you much but take everything that you have. Places that want to ultimately take you away from God.
Temptations always ultimately want to take you away from God.
This common core of all temptations no matter what form they come in defines what a temptation is. Temptations are sin. Sin from our own broken condition that seeks after other things to worship and love before God. Sin from our own mind and desires. Sin from the world we live in that is trying to seduce us away from God.
The first misconception that temptations are simply about making bad choices really doesn’t cover it. Temptations are about taking you away from the God who loves you and the good things that He gives to you.
The second idea about temptations is that the thoughts of temptations are not sin but doing the temptation is. But when we say this it sets up all sorts of weird, unanswerable questions like, when exactly does that tempting thought become a sin? Only when I act on it, or if I’ve lingered on it for 2, 3, 7 seconds? But also questions like if I’m not acting out on the temptation why do I have these thoughts that keep coming back? I thought I was a good person because I wasn’t doing it.
The problem is that trying to differentiate between a thought of sinning and doing sin doesn’t take into account Jesus’ words when he says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart”
When talking about sin Jesus does not differentiate between thoughts, words and deeds because all of them come from the same sinful condition that all of us have as fallen human beings. All are sin and trying to take us away from God. If we try to separate the thoughts from the actions of temptation, it is like trying to fight with one arm tied behind your back wondering where all of these tempting thoughts are coming from. But if we recognize they are all part of the same package: thought, word and deed that comes from sin, it gives us an opportunity to repent and turn to God for help at every stage.
Recognizing the common nature of tempting thought, word and deed all coming from sin reminds us that not one of us is different in this regard. Someone’s temptations may be visible while someone else’s may be hidden in the mind. Someone may be suffering visible consequences from temptation while others are suffering internal consequences, but both are sin, and we are all sinners–every single one of us–and in God’s eyes sin is sin, temptation is temptation, and we are all in need of the same help from God.
On Superbowl night you may not realize that there were a number of other really important Bowls happening as well. These Bowls included: the puppy bowl, the kitten bowl, the weather bowl-ground hog forecast, the AMC zombie bowl and, probably the most exciting of them all, the fish bowl on National Geographic Wild where viewers got to watch a goldfish, named Goldie of course, swimming around her fishbowl all night.
Trying to deal with temptations on our own apart from God is a lot like being Goldie in her fishbowl; you keep going around and around and around. That gets us to our last misconception that you can deal with temptations on your own.
There are some realities about temptations that every Christian has to face:
-We will never be rid of temptations this side of the veil because, short of heaven, we will never be rid of sin. Both are a part of living in this broken world that is apart from God. Temptations are a fight for life.
-But our savior Jesus Christ will never leave us or forsake us in these battles with temptation. We can be confident because of Jesus that we have already won the war and have the ultimate victory over sin and temptations in heaven.
It is important to know that Jesus will never leave you alone in the battles with temptation and that in Jesus you have already won the war because it can be really easy to get discouraged about this fight, but look what God has already done for you in this fight. If the whole point of temptations are to take you away from God, look at what God has already promised you:
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39
Sin has already failed. Temptations have already failed. You already belong to Jesus and He is never letting you go. So let’s take that reality into our fight with temptation today– knowing Christ has already won the victory, we can learn to live in that victory.
This is true, in the struggle with temptations they will be more powerful than we are but they are not more powerful than God.
This is also true that if the point of temptations is to take us away from God, the best place for us to be is with God and doing the things He requires of us.
To face our temptations we have to face our savior first and often. Be in church. Be in God’s Word. Drink deeply of the Sacraments. Be with Christians. Be diligent about what is good and what is not. Love other people by giving of yourself often. Love God. Love your neighbor.
Remember this is not a fight we can win on our own. That is the most important thing. If we try by our own strength we will fail. Just like we could never save ourselves from sin, but we need Jesus to do that for us. Raise the white flag but, raising it towards Jesus, say, “I can’t do this but you can”. Day by day, step by step, sometimes backwards, but always being pulled forward, victory is in Jesus.
Because temptations ultimately are sin, and they come at us in thought, word and deed, and we can’t fight them alone. We need Jesus and Jesus is always there in the struggle. He never leaves you alone.