How temptation works
Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. (Matthew 26:41, NIV)
Temptation to sin is a profound issue for all Christians - yet we probably don’t give enough thought to how it works. Then we don’t realise what’s coming until it’s too late.
The Bible speaks of three sources of temptation: in biblical order, the devil, the flesh and the world. Each works in a distinct way.
We get introduced to the devil’s methods in Genesis 3, the account of the fall. There we meet the serpent (in Revelation 12:9 identified as the devil), who persuades the woman and man to eat the fruit God had told them not to eat. That is very effective temptation!
Remarkably, he never actually says, “Go on, eat it!” Instead, he is described as very crafty (3:1). His brilliant approach is simply to make sin seem sensible: he creates what we might call a ‘plausibility structure’ for doing wrong. He twists God’s word; He makes God out to be harsh; He casts doubt on God’s goodness and God’s judgment. He implies there is an advantage in eating the fruit.
And how? By means of lies and half-truths. These are, as Jesus put it, the devil’s native language (John 8:44). And this is how he still works. For instance, the current pressure on churches to change our teaching on marriage is based on lies about Scripture, and will create a plausibility structure for sin, making it seem sensible and advantageous.
This also means that in many battles against temptation, there’s a deeper battle going on to trust God’s word, his goodness and his judgment. By way of antidote, we need to be absolutely clear on God’s truth (as Jesus was, when the devil tempted him) and therefore to trust his goodness.
Secondly, there’s the enemy within - the flesh. In Galatians 5, Paul spells out what he calls the acts of the flesh - sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry and much more. These are right there inside us, which is why sin can feel natural! Even within Christian people, who have been inwardly renewed, this flesh, or old software, is still there (which is why converted people find being godly a great battle).
When the flesh meets the devil’s lies, it acts as a receptor for those lies. For the flesh gladly welcomes sin being made more plausible!
The antidote is to recognise we have a sinful nature, to ask God for the help of his Spirit in fighting it, and to keep in step with the Spirit (Gal. 5:25), that is, to know what fruit the Spirit wants to produce in us and to seek to walk in that direction.
There’s also a third source of temptation, the world. This is the influence of those around us who’ve swallowed the devil’s lies and who give in to the flesh. We are all vulnerable to this, too - we don’t want to be out of step, we can find the world intimidating, and, as the term the world suggests, the numbers of people thinking this way are vast.
Paul gives an antidote in Ephesians 4:17-24. He reminds his readers that (despite the great culture of Ephesus!) the non-Christians of that city are futile, ignorant and darkened in their thinking. So - by implication - why follow blind guides? Instead, we’ve been fortunate enough to be taught the truth and must hold on to that.
I hope seeing the sources of temptation will strengthen us against it. You can hear more here.