Temptation is suffering
“Bob” sat in my office with tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s so hard to live for God and I am so tired! Will this ever stop?!” Bob has been wrestling with the guilt and shame that has come from his addiction to viewing pornography. Caught last year by his wife, he initially had a period of freedom from his compulsions. He thought he was past the struggle. He had set up boundaries with his computer and resolved not to view pornography again. It was hard going, but it worked.
Then it all failed. One weekend he slipped, and the compulsions to furtively look at porn assaulted him all over again. He found himself slipping again into a pattern of secretly looking at porn on his computer whenever he thought it was safe to do so. Eventually his wife discovered his viewing habits again, and under threat of separation or worse, he came to my office.
“Kyle” was another person I saw that day. In his late forties, he has been struggling against same-sex attraction for decades. Although Kyle never had a sexual encounter with another man, is vigilant against the perils of the Internet, and battles the uninvited thoughts regularly intruding on his mind, he has never found the “freedom” he hoped for. Life is a daily choice to deny his sexual desires. It is a painful existence to battle against cravings he never asked for and desperately wants to disappear, but they obstinately persist nonetheless. This is true regardless of the nature of your struggle with sexual sin. Whether your temptation is toward the same-sex, pornography, emotionally enmeshed relationships, etc., to battle those temptations is suffering! Do you know what it is like to live with intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors while longing to be free?
In a culture where sexual fulfillment is one of life’s highest aims, denying sexual satisfaction is tantamount to adopting a life of misery and emptiness. For the world, desire is supreme and must be obeyed. Particularly for those who struggle against same-sex attraction, the mere fact that the desire is so relentless is the world’s “proof” it is inborn and unchangeable. It is not something to be fought, but surrendered to. Such struggles with temptation are painful.
Our culture also provides a false definition of freedom. Freedom is not the absence of temptation; it is the increasing ability to choose holiness out of love for Christ, despite the relentlessness of temptation. To live in freedom from sexual sin usually means ongoing temptations and the suffering they bring, but be encouraged: Your struggle against sexual sin matters to God! The daily decision to die to yourself and to lay your sexual desires on his altar is a precious sacrifice of obedience that is a delight to the Lover of your soul! (See 1 Samuel 15:22 and Romans 12:1.)
What do we mean by temptation? Put simply, temptation is the desire to turn to a false god. This desire is fed by three culprits: the world, our flesh and the devil. For many of us, our desires bend toward sexual sin. Being tempted is not the same as sin–I’m sure any spouse would agree that to desire another partner is not the same as the act of adultery. Nevertheless, temptation tugs at our hearts only because of the sinful desires already residing there. Temptation is tempting because we are ever-ready to turn from God to indulge our pleasure. James teaches, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13-14, ESV).
God never tempts us. Temptations–whether originating from the world, our flesh or the devil–only have power because our hearts are always ready to run astray. We are the ones responsible for our sins. But do you know what is amazing? Although never their Creator, God uses temptations mightily for our good and his glory! When we begin to see another way of looking at temptations, we begin to understand that willpower and self-effort alone are a sure way of losing the battle. Fighting temptation head-on with willpower is doomed to failure. But fighting temptation with effort infused with a biblical perspective on temptation is an arsenal of great power.
God’s goodness in temptation
There are at least three ways that God’s goodness can be found even in times of temptation. Use these three perspectives to help you the next time you find yourself under the assault of temptation.
1. Temptation is a battle that draws us closer to God
First, temptation is an opportunity to know God better! The lusts of our hearts are masquerading as God. They lure and entice, promising joy, comfort, security, etc. Our sin offers us what only God can deliver. In the midst of our struggles with sin, we are invited to see the God whom sin mimics poorly for a fleeting moment. Sexual temptation is paramount in this parody. Why? Sex is a temporary, present phenomenon that is intense, glorious and pleasurable because it is intended to point beyond itself. Sex is ultimately about God. It points to the glorious pleasure, intimacy–the ecstasy!–experienced within the Trinity. Further, it points toward his relationship to us. Ephesians 5 teaches that the whole point of marriage is to give us a tiny glimpse of the love God has for us. Sex will be replaced in the New Heavens and Earth by the infinitely greater pleasure of God’s presence, which he tells us we can’t even begin to imagine! Rather than being weighed down in despair, temptations are an invitation to meditate on something far better: the wonder of the world to come and the pleasures of God we can’t even begin to fathom. Temptation can lead to worship!
2. Temptation is a battle that leads to spiritual growth
Second, temptation builds spiritual muscle. The Christian life is a fight. We are in the midst of a cosmic war – there is a reason we are exhorted to put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20). Temptation trains us in obedience. The seventeenth-century Scottish theologian, Samuel Rutherford, wrote, “Grace withers without adversity. The devil is but God’s master fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.” There is no growth in holiness without a fight. If we long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” we need to battle the temptations that war against our souls! We will only arrive in heaven sweaty, caked with blood and dust, with the sword still in our hand.
It is hard to get our finite minds around this, but God’s ultimate purpose is to fit us for eternity. He does this particularly through trials. Scripture repeatedly urges us to see that hardships in life are not proof of his absence, but demonstrations of his presence. He promises, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (1 Corinthians 4:17-18). Trials come to test the genuineness of our faith, which is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 describes a final judgment for all believers. You need to see that the “gold, silver and precious stones” built on the “foundation” of Jesus include the places where you chose to suffer for him! The Father rejoices in and rewards what is done in secret (Matthew 6:4-6, 18). He knows your sacrifice of obedience and rejoices in it! He knows when you are denying yourself out of love for Christ, and he promises to reward those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6). Our sovereign God gives you ample opportunity for reward in the life to come– moment by moment you are invited to demonstrate your allegiance to him in a way that will be celebrated forever. In what may seem like mundane moments, your suffering against temptation literally has eternal value!
Another way to think about this is to remember that your life is finite. Your days have already been numbered. Perhaps you’re experiencing how rapidly time flies. There is encouragement here: Temptation is finite. There are a fixed number of occasions left that you need to resist, no more will be added. Every incident of self-denial, each victory, is yours forever. There is one less temptation before God wipes away your every tear and the blood and sweat from your brow.
3. Temptation is a battle that shows us the love God has for us
Third, God meets us in temptation and as a result we learn to love him more. One of the glorious promises given to us is 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” One struggler I know commented that he discovered Jesus is the Way of escape. He found increasing freedom by embracing Christ in the midst of temptation, clinging to his promises, and trusting that obedience is better.
This is not abstract theology Jesus is the Way of escape because he knows your pain specifically! “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). How was he tempted? Lest you think his experience was different, Hebrews tells us, “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 4:15). Listen to that hope! He has suffered the same temptations you experience. Therefore, right in the midst of your battle with temptation, his help is real and substantial. Knowing that Jesus suffered like you, but did so victoriously, is a deep source of strength and comfort. He alone knows exactly what you need, because he alone knows exactly what it takes, having endured the same temptations, but without ever failing.
Temptation is actually a blessing because it draws us closer to God like nothing else. Confrontation with our weakness is an invitation to experience his strength–to deepen our relationship with him! This was Paul’s lesson in the midst of trial, when he was desperate for reprieve: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Jesus is after our hearts. He wants a genuine relationship with us and, if you’re like me, you are most open to that when you are humbled and brought to your knees. That’s why, for those who walk this road, there is great joy, even in the midst of battle!
There is a beautiful picture of the Christian life in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King. The Riders of Rohan traveled through the night along secret paths to rescue the city of Minas Tirith, burning and besieged in a sea of innumerable foes. As the riders charge into battle, facing almost certain doom, Tolkien writes, “They sang as they slew for the joy of battle was on them!” This is God’s invitation: We are in a battle, but there is reason for joy and song because, in the intensity of the fight, Jesus is with us and through the struggle gives us more of himself!
The hope of making it to the end
To live with unsatisfied desire is suffering. We regularly hear of prominent Christians, who struggled silently against same-sex attraction for years, but ultimately surrender to their desires. We hear of prominent Christians who are caught in adultery, or who are discovered to be visiting prostitutes. Their personal lives and their ministries collapse all around them.
The world mocks and jeers the faithful, touting, “It’s only a matter of time! When will you come to your senses and just give up!” Secular thought wonders why Christians struggle so much about sex; they look on amused as we fight a battle to uphold biblical sexuality and purity while they merely give in to their feelings and urges. What’s the big deal, they say?
Keep fighting the battle! Know that like the prophets of old, you are numbered among those “of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38). Please know that the Lover of your soul rejoices in your obedience; he promises an eternal reward beyond your ability to imagine and he will meet you here and now–spiritually and through his people–to give you the grace to overcome. (See Revelation 2-3 for the wonderful promises to “overcomers!”)
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25)