When we think of temptation we usually think of the big ones, like sex/adultery or stuff like fatty food. But temptation is all around us. In every situation, there is a Christ-like way to respond and a non-Christ-like way. The choice of which path we take, that is temptation. So when we talk about temptation we are really talking about everyday life.
At the heart of all temptation is an attempt to meet our inner needs. We feel a pull to meet a legitimate desire/hunger in an illegitimate way. This is at the heart of all temptation and the core of every fall to sin.
To understand this let’s unpack James 1:13-16
“No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved.”
First, James says you can’t say you are being tempted by God. We are tempted by our own desires, not God. It’s impossible to avoid temptation in our fallen world. It’s all around us, indeed all we need to do is look around to discover we are marinating in it. And everybody has a hungry heart. Our heart longs for “blood” — the thing that will give it life and make it whole. This longing is not bad. God created us with a “hungry heart” so that he could pour life into it. This hunger is our homing device. It drives us back to God. Only God’s perfect life can fill our deep hunger.
But we live in a fallen world where there are many things that LOOK like they could fill our hungry hearts. Most of these are seductive lies, convincingly offering us false life. But we feel a pull. It’s only natural.
The first thing to understand is that just feeling that pull is not a sin. Temptation is not sin. After all, even Jesus was tempted, so we know that just feeling a pull is not a sin. This is important to remember because it takes very little for the Accuser to come and point out our every stumble so that we become discouraged and give up. But temptation is not the sin. It only matters how you respond.
The way James describes it, the process of temptation to sin takes place in stages. Stage 1 is enticement. The thing itself is still at a distance. It’s just a pull that we feel.
Stage 2 is Conception. At this point we “conceive” of the desire. It enters our mind and interacts with our thoughts. This invites enticement into our heart. But even this is not yet sin. There is still time to “abort” the conception of sin. (So it’s no surprise that this critical stage is where the battle will take place!) But this promise is a wicked deception. If we don’t identify it and turn from it now, then what is merely conceived will give way to the next stage.
And so stage 3 is the birth of sin. This is when you act on a desire. At this point, it is sin. You have brought something into this world, since every action brings something into the world. Whereas the first two stages were not sin, the action itself is, because it is concrete, and it is harmful — either to you or others.
And there is also an “end stage” at which the “baby sin” becomes an “adult sin” that becomes much harder to kill. The longer we keep it around in our lives, the harder it is to kill. Let it grow large enough and it becomes stronger than us, we become its slave. So the final stage is one where we have a fully-grown sin, and this gives way to death.
Sin giving way to death means not just (or even necessarily) physical death but death-consequences. Even if the sin itself does not kill us, it kills a part of our humanity, reducing our capacity to sense God’s presence, receive his love, feel fully alive, experience compassion, empathy, joy, peace and other values of the kingdom. (Not to mention the possibility that it may also be concretely harming ourselves or others — depending on the sin, this could very well also be happening even if it’s “behind the scenes” and unseen by us.)
Many people thing of God as an angry judge who imposes his disappointed judgement on people. But through his description of this sin-to-death process, James is telling us that sin punishes itself. God doesn’t do it. Death is in the DNA of sin. It carries with it its own punishment, organically leads to that consequence. So God needn’t even get involved to punish anyone.
The thing that makes God angry is not that you broke a rule, but simply that he hates to see people bring harm on themselves. Sin blocks the fullness of life. It blocks our ability to grow in the kingdom and our capacity to live it out. That is why he is angry about it. Like any good parent, he wants us to succeed and thrive!
Thinking back to stage 2, we see that the singular thing that drives this whole process is Deception. It’s the fuel that False Life runs on. Of course the thing we desire feels like it is going to be good for us or improve our life. Can you think of a single example sin that is unpleasant for the one who commits it? No! Sin is always alluring us with the promise of pleasure. Without this, we would see right through it for the aberration that it is. The only way to avoid falling in is to be anchored in truth.
Whenever we identify something as true or a lie we are making a change in our brain. Temptation, too, is a battle of the mind.
2 Corinthians 10:3-5
“Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments (logismos) and every proud obstacle (hypsoma) raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.”
Paul is telling us that this battle is being waged in the mind. He says our weapons are not merely human, “merely” meaning that they are human, but they are more than that: they involve divine power. When our thoughts are aligned with what is true, it has divine power. This is what can destroy strongholds. We engage in battle when we bring every thought captive to Christ, and align each of our thoughts with what we know to be true. That is the goal. Taking control of our thought process.
Paul uses the word “logismos.” Here is is referring to our reasoning process. These are the thoughts in our minds, our overall perception or inner narrative about a thing or concept. The word “hypsoma” refers to our mental images. These represent something concrete and are experienced as almost-concrete when we hold them in our minds. They feel real.
When we are anchored in Christ, every thought must be captive, constantly comparing each thought and mental image with what we know is true and right in God. This is the key to saying no to temptation.
Think back, when was last time you were enticed? Maybe it was yesterday or last month. Ask yourself: what was going on in your mind just prior to you caving in to the temptation? Chances are, you had a thought immediately prior that led to the activity. In part of your mind, you saw the object of your temptation in a positive light, you told yourself a story. We are wired to act on our strongest want. And what we want is determined by our thoughts.
Greg gives an illustration of someone that came to talk to him a while back. This young man had a bad marriage which was falling apart because of his porn addiction. Greg had him join the “Pure Desire” refuge group, but he also taught him these principles of gaining control over our thoughts and images during “stage 2” of desire. The core to breaking this behavior is what was going on in his head just prior to saying yes to the temptation. There were images in his head that represented as positive (or downplayed the negative impact). We are wired to say yes when something is represented it as positive. But he taught him this trick to reframe the mental images he had in his mind during the temptation, to see it the way God sees it. So the women in his mind were now covered with scales, and vomit, and they were constrained in chains because they were in bondage to this industry. And that IS how God sees it. It’s bad because it destroys marriages and the lives of the women who are basically used for sexual slavery.
But remember this pattern (and trick to overcoming it) affects all areas of our lives. It could be a big sin like this man was dealing with, but far more numerous in our lives are the small sins (that we easily overlook or justify) like quitting sugar or thinking negatively about a coworker.
The trick is to modify your mental images to re-frame the temptation as the way God sees it according to what’s true. What’s true is that the object of the temptation is ugly in his eyes. See it in your mind’s eye the way he sees it.
Freedom is saying no to what you want to do… but REAL freedom is changing what you want in the first place!
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