With all due respect to former First Lady Nancy Reagan, resisting temptation in the Christian life is much more nuanced and challenging than the popular advertising slogan of the 1980s, “Just Say No.”
Jesus understood the necessity and importance of fighting against sin, the flesh, and our enemy who prowls around like a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8), and encouraged his disciples to pray against temptation that we might be “delivered from evil” (Matthew 6:13). However, more often than we care to admit, we struggle to see victory over besetting sins. We know that we should resist temptation, but not always how to effectively fight it. I believe the book of James offers us some immensely helpful and practical wisdom for exactly this dilemma. Recently, at Trinity PCA we have been working through the letter of James together in Mid-Week Bible study, and I want to share 3 practical insights James 1:14-18 offers to believers in order to overcome evil and the evil one:
- Focus on of how temptation works
In James 1:16, he warns his beloved brothers and sisters in Christ “do not be deceived…” Temptation’s goal is deception. God’s word offers clarity, but sin and evil will always blitz us with confusion. Satan himself is called the father of lies (John 8:44) and the deceiver (Revelation 12:9). James ,writing to Christians, shines a bright light and focus upon the very nature of how temptation works. What he does in verses 14-15 of chapter 1, we might say, is akin to what ESPN did on Tuesday evening when instant replay footage slowed down the sequence of Anthony Rizzo’s 6th inning home run, thereby showing frame-by-frame the intricacies and movement of a beautiful swing, and bat-on-ball contact that in real time seemed to take place in a flash (P.S. I’m very glad the Yankees lost). We all know temptation can appear like a flash out of nowhere, and even seem to exist in a vacuum, but James is slowing down the sequence for us, showing us frame-by-frame how temptation attempts to assault our minds and hearts. He writes, “but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” (v.14 italics added) Attraction and preoccupation play a major role in temptation. What do we look at? What do we give a second look at? What do our heart’s desire? As a Christian its good to ask yourself these question. A good fisherman picks an attractive lure to catch fish. So does our enemy lay bait that seems beautiful and compelling. But James warns us its end and purpose is destruction. Sin and temptation always promise joy and life, but they never deliver. “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it has fully grown brings forth death.” (v.15) Temptation meets opportunity, and sin is conceived. So it was with David and Bathsheba in 2 Samual 11:2-5, and there too, tragically, their sin brought death instead of the fruit of life. Sinclair Ferguson, in his masterful commentary on the book of James, says “we ought to familiarize ourself with this temptation cycle. And see with our ears.” (p.22) I love that phrase, “see with our ears.” We need to listen to the word of God, and not to what the siren calls of temptation tell us. This requires us to be on alert and aware of what’s going on when temptation strikes.
2. Focus on the goodness and love of God
James is not just practical with his counsel, he is also theological. We might even say that all good theology is truly practical in nature, as William Perkins wrote, “Theology is the science of living blessedly forever.” Temptation’s tricks will not only capture our attention and preoccupation with things we desire, but it will seek to cast doubt and question the very character and goodness of God. This tactic is as old as the Garden of Eden. The serpent confuses God’s word and escorts our first parents into doubting God’s kindness and goodness in Genesis 3. The same is true today. We struggle to obey God’s law because we wonder if maybe God is actually holding out on us. Temptation looks attractive and beautiful. Why would God command me not to eat of this fruit that looks so good? Is God really looking out for me? Does He really know best? James tells us yes He is and does.
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17) James calls God our father of light. And like a good father, God guides and protects. When he commands us to flee temptation, rather than being a “kill-joy” as the world slanders him, he is loving us by keeping us from the path of ruin. What parent doesn’t want their children to thrive? What father would want to withhold the very best for their child? Sin leads to death, but eternal life is this: “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3). Resisting temptation for James is not just about saying no to sin, its embracing the joy and love of God! If you’ve never read “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”, stop reading this blog post, and instead go read this great work by Thomas Chalmers. Chalmers helpfully (like James!) encourages his readers to gaze upon a superior glory and beauty rather than whatever is tempting us. It's not enough simply to resist temptation, instead we need to replace it with something that will actually and truly satisfy us. And only a relationship with Jesus Christ will truly satisfy. Paul writes, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8) If all we’ve done in resisting temptation has been to say no to sin without saying yes to Christ, we are missing out on the abundance of eternal life.
3. Focus on our status as new creatures in Christ
Sometimes the battle is lost in temptation because we feel resigned to inevitable defeat. Maybe we’ve committed a sin so often, with so little power to resist, that we feel hopeless and helpless. Pastor James reminds us in verse 18 that God, “of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures.” We may feel weighed down, and that we have no strength to overcome temptation, but that’s not the truth of our position, if we are in Christ. Paul writes, “ Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) We may still struggle with the presence of sin, but the power of sin over us has been removed. Paul elsewhere writes “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.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Satan wants us to despair. But in Christ we have a God who is the lifter of our heads. Through the spirit at work sanctifying us, we can resist. We really can. This is not false hope or naive pie-in-the-sky thinking. James reminds us in v. 18 that we are the first fruits- the harvest of God’s redemptive work! We are not trying to attain some new level of spiritual success in fighting temptation, we are simply living out what God has delivered us to be! Sin would have us return to slavery and captivity, in bondage and in chains. But as Sinclair Ferguson writes, “ We have everything to gain by resisting temptation; and nothing to gain eternally by giving in to it.” (p. 29)
The Gospel is freedom! It is life! May we all be empowered in victory over sin and temptation to walk in the peace and love of our Lord.