The Pathway of Temptation
Overcoming Temptation at Any Step: Lessons 6
How is it that we so often fall into sin? Ever since the Fall sinning comes naturally to us. We don’t have to work at being sinners! We can fall into sin without any effort at all because we already have a fallen nature ready to go in that direction. But there is someone who delights in tripping us up. Satan and his kingdom seek to make us fall by presenting us with deceptive temptations.[i]
For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. 1 Thessalonians 3:5 ESV
The heart of the issue for overcoming temptation is this: Will we use our wills to agree with the enemy or with God about what is right to believe and to do? Naturally, we want to agree with God, but the enemy is a deceiver and he has had a lot of practice at making the wrong thing
seem right and the right thing seem wrong. If he simply came out in the open and said, “My ways are guaranteed to kill you!” we would all turn away and run to God. Instead he twists the truth enough to make his perspective seem plausible and his paths seem desirable—all the while seeking to set his hook into our flesh.
Note this about the following seven steps: Before sin ever becomes a struggle in our flesh, it has to gain the agreement of our will. To sin or not to sin is essentially a truth encounter, not a will power contest.
The Sin Process According to James
Let’s learn to recognize and avoid these seven deadly stages of the sin process that James warns us about:[ii]
Let no man say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God," for God can't be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is (1) tempted, when he is (2) drawn away (3) by his own lust, and (4) enticed. Then the lust, when it (5) has conceived, (6) bears sin; and the sin, when it is full grown, (7) brings forth death. Don't be deceived, my beloved brothers. James 1:13-16 WEB
Stage 1: Tempted
Temptation begins with the enemy, not you. You are not sins, nor are you the "author" of evil! (review Separation from Sin). Images, impulses or ideas that
tempt us do not come from God or our flesh, but from Satan’s kingdom. Some tempting impression is made upon the mind or heart by an evil spirit. At this point it is not sin, only a temptation to sin. Jesus was tempted in every way we are—so don’t take on condemnation for being tempted.[iii]
You are being probed by an evil spirit to see if you will agree with it. Usually you will sense something in you shift as your attention is caught by the tempting thought. If the tempting impression is recognized for what it is and rejected out of hand, it ends there. But if the idea is entertained and in some way accepted, then the struggle begins. As Martin Luther once said of temptation, “You can't help it if a bird flies over your head, but you can stop it from building a nest in your hair."[iv] Be asking: Whose voice is it? Mine? Or the enemy’s!
There is a very real difference between being tempted and actually sinning—temptation is not the same thing as sinning no matter how strong or wrong it feels. Resist the devil and you may suddenly have a whale of a fight on your hands, but you are still on the right side of the issue. Coming into agreement with the tempting thought and doing what it desires is where the sin lies. Being assailed by tempting thoughts, however strongly they may be tugging at you through your wrong desires, is not sin.
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus sweated blood in His effort to resist the temptation to avoid the cross, and He remained without sin despite the awful power of the enemy working upon Him. So resist all self-condemnation! Getting us to condemn ourselves for being tempted by him is very much a part of the enemy’s game plan and it only makes it harder to fight back. Stay encouraged in the Lord—He sees your efforts to resist the snare. He knows your heart and does not condemn you.[v]
Stage 2: Drawn Away
Many think that the enemy’s primary objective is to get us to sin, but the great issue of temptation is not what we are drawn into (sin), but what we are drawn away from (the Lord). Entertaining the evil thought draws us away from the peace and confidence that comes to us as we trust and obey our God.
The enemy ever seeks to disconnect us from our source of strength and new life—for it is only in Christ that we are a threat to his kingdom.[vi] Hence he wants to separate us from heart-peace and trust and then make it seem that such a life of surrender is undesirable or impossible. Even one small step away from being fully surrendered to the Lord is a step in the enemy’s direction. The first task in overcoming temptation is to reconnect with God and His grace.
You know you have been “drawn away” if someone asks you how you are doing and you hear yourself say, “I’m just hanging in there.” Hanging in there means, “I am still struggling and trying to be faithful, but it’s killing me!” This beats giving up and going back, but it is a far cry from living in the grace that is offered us. On the other hand, if a person is fully surrendered, you usually don’t have to ask how they are doing—it shines with a glow all over their face.
Stage 3: By One's Own Lust
As temptation increases wrong desires begin to awaken out of the fallen nature. The old you comes back to life, sometimes with a vengeance.
When the temptation finds a hook into a wrong desire (“lust” means any strong, but wrong desire, not just a sexually immoral one), formerly crucified feelings can sometimes spring back to life in an instant. Don’t panic! Before that moment of temptation those feelings had been lying in the grave with the old you, and they will do so again as soon as you get your focus back on Christ.
Jesus said the enemy had “nothing” in Him.[vii] We should seek to be the same way by quickly reconnecting with God and His grace, then holding the wrong desire as a captive to His light until we see something in Him that makes it lose its emotional power.
Stage 4: Enticed
Enticed means to catch by using bait. At this point in the process we have already begun buying into some lie that the temptation represents—that’s the bait. Find the lie and break off the hook! Otherwise, our will becomes “hooked” by agreeing with that deceptive thought, and negative emotions gain strength to overpower us. The evil spirit can only succeed if it breaks our agreement with God by getting us to agree instead with its own false and distorted belief system (see Kingdoms in Conflict).
Stage 5: Conceived
Enticement generates a desire to give up the struggle by yielding our will to the enemy. We now want to give in to the temptation more than to resist it. Once such an agreement with sin is made (conceived), the actual sin (of thought, word or deed) is sure to follow. Once we have embraced a tempting thought by giving our heart to it, the temptation has become our sin.
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:28 ESV
Stage 6: Bears Sin
Now that the temptation is “treasured” in the heart it has become a sinful thing inside of us.[viii] By our thoughts, words and deeds it is “birthed” as an expression of sin into the world.
Stage 7: Brings Forth Death
The sin, if it is un-repented, continues to kill and destroy that which the enemy attacks through it—especially our relationships of trust and love with God, self or others. Sin always works to produce death: first within the soul of the one who sins and then into the world around. We have become a servant of the enemy in that area of our life and reap accordingly.[ix]
This whole process can take months, days, or fractions of a second. It can be stopped at any point, but it is easiest to stop in the early stages. The more frequently we give way the more likely it is that we will become enslaved. What began as a seemingly random temptation in a “weak” moment may well become a habit that is very hard to break. Such bondage—not being able to say no—indicates that we have given ourselves as slaves to sin.[x]
For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. Romans 6:19 ESV
Temptation is a lie of the enemy knocking on the door of your mind, seeking entrance to your heart. Capture the thought when it first starts knocking and carry it captive to Christ before it carries you captive to what the enemy wants you doing. Be on guard and get to it first. Then, reconnect quickly with God and His grace!
For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the throwing down of strongholds, throwing down imaginations and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 WEB
Even temptation has a redemptive purpose, once we learn to recognize and resist it. God desires to move us from holy innocence to mature holiness by means of choice—maturing us through a growth process of sanctification that preserves and enhances our freedom of will.[xi] God allows evil spirits to tempt us so that we can learn to discern good and evil, believe that His Word is the truth and rely completely on Him.[xii] Whenever we fall, we can still choose to repent, return to God and learn to walk in His ways.
For the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity. Proverbs 24:16 ESV
Let us remember that Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are, yet did not sin. There is hope for us in this, because Jesus defeated Satan’s temptations as a man, in His full humanity. This is evident because the scripture says that “God cannot be tempted”—so it cannot be that Jesus was tempted in His divine nature.[xiii] And yet the Word also says that Jesus was tempted just as we are.[xiv] By this we see that Jesus, in His humanity, was tempted in exactly the same way that we are—by enticements coming from the enemy intended to deceive Him into giving sin a place within Himself.
Jesus, being conceived of the Holy Spirit and sinless, had no place within Him that was attracted to sin. He also was fully connected by faith to the Father’s love, grace and truth and wasn’t about to let anything disconnect Him. As reborn believers we, too, through the Holy Spirit have a new nature (at the core of our being) that is not attracted to sin and now enjoy a new connection to God through faith in Christ that we are meant to fight to maintain.
The way that Jesus resisted temptation in His humanity, shows us the way we need to learn in order to effectively resist temptations. Jesus resisted temptations by resolutely holding fast to the truth of God’s Word—and by carrying the enemy’s lies captive to the Word.
Then Jesus said to him, "Be gone, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'" Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. Matthew 4:10-11 ESV
As soon as you realize that temptation is seeking to disconnect you, fight the good fight of faith to get firmly reconnected with God’s grace and His truth!
Father, the foremost temptation I will need to overcome is that of living by trusting and obeying myself, rather than You. Help me turn my life around! Make me willing to be made willing to surrender everything to You. According to Your love and wisdom, send whatever You desire to send of Your grace and blessings, allow whatever You have to allow of free will and its consequences, ask of me whatever You desire or require of inward and outward obedience, withhold me from and withhold from me whatever is necessary to fulfill Your plans. Help me to fully trust that You are working in and through all things for my good and Your glory. Then strengthen me to say in the midst of all temptations, “Not my will, but Yours be done.”
Take It to Heart!
Don't just give these truths a "head bob"! For further study and for help working these truths into your heart and life, see Pathway of Temptation part 2 (Head to Heart Guide 6) and "work out" with exercises, discussion questions, review of main points, digging deeper, more scriptures, model prayers, renunciations/affirmations and practical steps of life application.
[i] See also Revelation 12:9 for a picture of how vast this work of temptation has become.
[ii] Teaching and insights about these seven stages of temptation from Be In Health® teaching and materials, Dr. Henry W. Wright, Thomaston, Georgia, seminar notes, October 2000.
[iii] Hebrews 4:16
[iv] Martin Luther, Letter #1575: to Hieronymous Weller (at Wittenberg), June 19, 1530.
[v] 1 John 3:20
[vi] John 15:1-10
[vii] John 14:30
[viii] Luke 6:45
[ix] 2 Timothy 2:24-26
[x] John 8:34
[xi] 2 Thessalonians 2:13
[xii] Hebrews 5:14
[xiii] James 1:13
[xiv] Hebrews 4:16