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GETTING TO NO
HOW TO BREAK A STUBBORN HABIT
By ERWIN W. LUTZER
David C. CookCopyright © 2007 Erwin W. Lutzer
All rights reserved.
WHY SO MUCH TEMPTATION?
Why is lust so powerful?" Taylor asked. The weight of his guilt was crushing. He had fallen into sexual sin. "How can I trust myself? I don't want to live an immoral life. I promised myself I wouldn't do this, but here I am again."
A woman, who for years had tried to quit smoking but always failed (regardless of the new remedy), once asked me, "Why is it that despite praying, yielding to God, and reading my Bible —why can't I quit no matter how hard I try?"
I have heard the same kind of questions from alcoholics and sex addicts who keep sliding back into the same destructive patterns of behavior no matter how many times they've dug themselves out.
Their questions deserve answers. Why is temptation so attractive, unrelenting, and powerful? Why doesn't God adjust the nature of our temptations so that the scales will be tipped more generously in our favor?
The Christian life does seem to be needlessly difficult at times. Surely God—the One who possesses all might and authority—could make it easier for those of us who love Him. So many believers succumb to one sin or another, often ending in ruin, so why doesn't God keep one step ahead of us, defusing the land mines along our path? If you are wondering how He could do so, consider these suggestions.
That's right—God could eliminate the Devil. In fact, had He done that at the time of creation, chances are that Adam and Eve would not have plunged the human race into sin in the first place. Most likely, our first parents would have obeyed God without pausing to consider the fruit of the forbidden tree.
Assuming Adam and Eve held the same free will that we do now, why didn't God give them the opportunity to choose without outside interference? The serpent was beautiful, seemed to speak with authority, and promised a better life. As far as we know, Adam and Eve had not been told about the existence of Satan, and so were quite unprepared for this abrupt encounter. If the serpent had been barred from the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve would have been more inclined to obey God. They might have chosen not to eat from the forbidden tree.
The presence of Satan in the garden, and his activity on our planet, tips the scales in favor of evil choices. I'm not saying we must follow his sinister suggestions, but if he were hidden away from our presence, we could resist temptation much more easily.
There's no doubt that much of the evil in the world, including our own struggles, can be traced to the interference of unseen spiritual forces. If God were to annihilate the Devil, or at least confine him to the pit, we could take giant steps in our walk with the Lord. No more one- step-forward, two-steps-back routine! Our battle with temptation would be minimized, and we would be more inclined to resist the enticement of sin.
So why doesn't God just eliminate Satan?
A second suggestion to minimize the daily failures of our Christian lives would be for God to dull the arrows of temptation that harass us from inside. James wrote, "The temptation to give in to evil comes from us and only us. We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare-up of our own lust" (James 1:14 MSG). Could not God dampen those passions to bring moral purity more easily within reach? Surely He could help us feel just a bit less tempted—just enough so that we would be more likely to be victorious and a credit to our Redeemer.
We've all heard someone say, "I know what I ought to do, but I just can't. I've tried, asked God to help me, and have still failed." Paul wrote the same about his own struggle: "What I don't understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise" (Rom. 7:15 MSG). The church reformer John Knox wrote these words not long before he died,
Now, after many battles, I find nothing in me but vanity and corruption. For in quietness I am negligent, in trouble impatient, tending to desperation; pride and ambition assault me on the one part, covetousness and malice trouble me on the other; briefly, O Lord, the affections of the flesh do almost suppress the operation of Thy Spirit.
If this man of God had such struggles, is there hope for the rest of us?
God could make it easier for us, but He has chosen not to do so.
Even if God did not banish the Devil or dull our sinful passions, couldn't He guide us away from the places of temptation? Then we could be protected from circumstances that would provoke us to sin.
David sinned with Bathsheba because she happened to be taking a bath next door while the king was resting on the rooftop. Couldn't that whole mess have been avoided if God had simply arranged for her to take her bath two hours earlier, or an hour later? Surely a sovereign God would have had no difficulty in rearranging the schedules of His finite creatures.
Didn't Achan sin because he saw a Babylonian garment left unattended after the siege of Jericho? Didn't Abraham lie because there was a famine in the land, and he feared for his life? Didn't Samson divulge the secret of his great strength because of his attraction to the charming Delilah?
Clearly God does not shield us from circumstances where we are vulnerable to sin. Remember, it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted of the Devil. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus taught His disciples to pray, "And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil" (Matt. 6:13). We must admit that God does at times lead us into situations that stimulate our sinful desires, but this is not to say that God causes us to sin—nor does He tempt us in the same way as Satan. Rather, these are the times when we must lean on God and ask Him to save us, when we are otherwise incapable of saving ourselves.
James wrote, "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone" (James 1:13). We cannot blame God for what we do. If we sin, it is because of our sinful nature; therefore we are responsible. But God does test us, and that testing often involves temptation. Quite unintentionally on our part, we sometimes find ourselves in situations that are an outward stimulus to sin.
Consider one married woman, who after running into a former boyfriend discovered that she was still in love with him. Consequently, she began to think she had married the wrong man, and felt trapped. She began asking, "Why did God, who knows how weak I am, allow us to meet again?"
Or consider another person struggling with homosexual thoughts and behavior. She admitted that her abnormal desires had begun when, at the age of twelve, she had a forced sexual encounter with an older man. So began a long struggle with sexual temptation. Could not God have protected her from this experience?
Another person, trying desperately to break his smoking habit, said that he was making progress until he was transferred to an office where everyone smoked. In an atmosphere drenched with the smell of tobacco, he fell back into his former habit.
Alcoholics, trying to stay sober, often slip back into drunkenness because of pressure from friends who do not understand the depths of the alcoholic's weakness. So it goes.
And what about the more subtle sins of the mind? Yes, Jesus taught that evil originates in the heart, but many of our struggles with evil thoughts are provoked by our environment. Those of us who travel don't ask for a room that has ready access to pornography—but we get it anyway. But whether we travel or not, all around us are stimuli that draw out the worst in us. Without taking us out of the world, God could lead us into circumstances less conducive to evil passions, covetousness, and anger. If at least some of the potholes were removed from our paths, the possibility of blowouts would be lessened.
But God has not shielded us from the places or the power of cruel temptations. Satan has access to our lives; our sin nature is unrestricted, and often without warning we find ourselves in situations that contribute to secret—or not so secret—sin.
Which brings us back to Taylor's original question—why is temptation so powerful?
Some Reasons For Temptation
A Test of Loyalty
As might be expected, God has a purpose in allowing us to be tempted. To begin, let's remember that temptation, with all of its frightful possibilities for failure, is God's method of testing our loyalties. We cannot say we love someone or trust someone until we have had to make some hard choices on that person's behalf. Similarly, we cannot say we love God or trust God unless we have said no to persistent temptations. Quite simply, God wants us to develop a passion for Him that is greater than our passion to sin!
Take Abraham as an example. God asked him to slay his favorite son. He was strongly tempted to say no to God. The altar he built was probably the most carefully constructed altar ever made, as he probably took his time with it. As he worked, he surely thought of numerous reasons why he should disobey God: Isaac was needed to fulfill God's promise. What is more, Sarah would never understand. And above all, how could a merciful God expect a man to slay his own beloved son?
Of course, you know how the story ended. Abraham passed the test; the angel of the Lord prevented him from stabbing his son and provided a ram for the sacrifice. Take note of God's perspective on the incident: "Now I know how fearlessly you fear God; you didn't hesitate to place your son, your dear son, on the altar for me" (Gen. 22:12 MSG).
How do we know that Abraham loved God? That he trusted God? Because he chose to say yes when all the powers of hell and the passions of his soul were crying no. This fierce temptation gave Abraham a striking opportunity to prove his love for the Almighty.
Let's return to some of those situations we mentioned earlier. What about the woman who seemingly could not resist falling in love with another man? Or the alcoholic tempted by his friends to revert to his old habits? Or the young man surrounded by the wrong crowd? Why does God not shield us from these circumstances? He allows us the luxury of difficult choices so that we can prove our love for Him. These are our opportunities to choose God rather than the world.
Do you love God?
I'm glad you said yes. But what happens when you are confronted with a tough decision—such as whether you should satisfy your passions or control them? Our response to temptation is an accurate barometer of our love for God. One of the first steps in handling temptation is to see it as an opportunity to test our loyalties. If we love the world, the love of the Father is not in us (1 John 2:15).
Joseph resisted the daily seduction of Potiphar's wife because of his love for God. He asked her, "How ... could I do this great evil and sin against God?" (Gen. 39:9). Even if he could have gotten by with his private affair, without anyone finding out, he could not bear the thought of hurting the God he had come to know. The same principle applies to us. Each temptation leaves us better or worse; neutrality is impossible.
That's why God doesn't exterminate the Devil and his demons. Admittedly, the presence of wicked spirits in the world does make our choices more difficult. But think of what such agonizing choices mean to God. We prove our love for God when we say yes to Him, even when the deck appears to be stacked against us.
What it boils down to is this: Do we value the pleasures of the world or those that come from God? The opportunities for sin that pop up around us, the sinful nature within us, and the demonic forces that influence us give us numerous opportunities to answer that question.
A second reason God does not make our choices easier is because temptation is His vehicle for character development. Sinful habits are a millstone about our necks, a weight on our souls. But that's only half the story! These same temptations, struggles, and yes, even our sins are used by God to help us climb the ladder of spiritual maturity. If we see our sinful struggles only as a liability, we will never learn all that God wants to teach us through them.
There is a saying from Goethe, the German poet, that talent is formed in solitude, but character in the storms of life. God wants to do something more beautiful in our lives than simply give us victory over a sin. He wants to replace it with something better—with the positive qualities of a fruitful life.
Temptation is God's magnifying glass; it shows us how much work He has left to do in our lives. When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, God let them become hungry and thirsty; on one occasion they were even without water for three days. They became disappointed with their slow pace of travel; they were impatient with Moses' long rendezvous on the mountain. Why didn't God meet their expectations? Listen to Moses' commentary: "Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that he would know what you were made of, whether you would keep his commandments or not" (Deut. 8:2 MSG).
There it is again—God allowed the Israelites to suffer temptation to test their loyalties and to bring out their latent sinfulness. Temptation brings out the best or the worst in human beings. The Israelites didn't realize how rebellious they were until they got hungry. Temptation brings the impurities to the surface. Then God begins the siphoning process. Sometimes God teaches us these lessons by letting us suffer the consequences of our own sin. James wrote that we are enticed by our own lust. That word entice carries with it the imagery of a hunter who puts out bait for wild animals, or a housekeeper who sets a trap for a mouse. The mouse sees no valid reason why he should not eat that piece of cheese. Since his knowledge is limited, he cannot predict the future, and he doesn't understand traps. So he eats, and suffers a fatal outcome. Some of us, thinking we can predict the consequences of our actions, assign a more serious result to overt sins than to those confined to thought and imagination. But even the sins of the mind exact their toll, and ultimately we can no longer control the sin—it controls us. In time God may dry up our fountains of pleasure and ambition so that we will turn to Him in repentance.
When we do, God leads us to something better. He wants to develop within us the rich character qualities called the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, and peace, to name a few (Gal. 5:22–23). God's purpose is to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29). To accomplish this goal, our character deficiencies (sins is a better word) must be brought to the surface so that we can be changed.
God also wants us to humble ourselves by seeking others for help and accountability. In the same way that a cut finger cannot be healed unless it is connected to the rest of the body, we cannot find relief from our sinful habits except through community with other believers. Secrecy and shame fuel addictions; only when we come to the light of God's presence and the openness of fellowship with others can we experience the kind of freedom we desire. Yes, we need the help of others. More on this subject later.
Temptation always involves risk taking. The potential for devastating failure is ever present. But precisely because the stakes are so high, the rewards of resisting are so great. When we say no to temptation, we are saying yes to something far better.
Strength for Our Weakness
Finally, God uses our sins to show us His grace and power on our behalf. The depressing effect of sin is offset by the good news of God's grace. Paul wrote, "When it's sin versus grace, grace wins hands down. All sin can do is threaten us with death, and that's the end of it. Grace, because God is putting everything together again through the Messiah, invites us into life—a life that goes on and on and on, world without end" (Rom. 5:20 MSG).
Excerpted from GETTING TO NO by ERWIN W. LUTZER. Copyright © 2007 Erwin W. Lutzer. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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