“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…”
“I know I shouldn’t say this but…”
“Officer, it was only a short text and I never took my eyes off the road…”
“Sure they’ll never miss a few reams of paper…”
“Why don’t you just call in sick?...”
“Go on, just tell them you’re 18!...”
Whether it’s gossip, texting while driving, stealing office stationery, taking a day off work or buying alcohol when you are under age, life is full of temptations. Temptation is normal; it’s not something we can avoid. It’s also probably true that the more seriously we start to follow Christ, the greater our temptations will become. That’s because when the Holy Spirit comes to live within us, He makes us more sensitive to what is right and what is wrong. It’s also really important to realise that temptation is something that we’ll have to face on a regular basis until we reach heaven. Sometimes when we have resisted a particular temptation we think, “Great, thank you Lord, I’ll not have to face that again!” But the reality is that even when we’ve resisted one temptation, there will always be another one waiting for us around the corner.
It’s also important to remember that temptation can be potentially serious. Yielding to certain temptations can damage our reputation, it can destroy our relationships, it can lead to serious injury, it can cost someone their job, it can result in a court appearance or a prison sentence. Even when no-one else but us knows that we have given in to a particular temptation, this still has the potential of grieving God and slowly but surely causing us to drift away from His presence and blessing. Temptation is a serious business; it is not something to be treated lightly. That’s the bad news if you like. But the good news is that it is perfectly o.k. to be tempted! Temptation isn’t wrong no matter how strong it feels or how difficult it might be to say, “No!” But perhaps the most encouraging news of all is that God has provided everything that we need to be able to resist temptation no matter when or how it comes. That’s why St. Paul encouraged the Christians living in the notoriously wicked city of Corinth with these words,
“No temptation has seized you except what is common to all people. And God is faithful. He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide you with a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
So what are these practical ways that God has given us in the bible by which we can overcome temptation when it inevitably comes? Well this morning I want to draw your attention to 3 of them:
1:Reading and memorising Holy Scripture:
This was the strategy used by our Lord Himself when He was tempted during His 40 days of spiritual reflection in the wilderness. On 4 different occasions the devil tempted Jesus and each time He resisted by saying, “It is written…” and then quoting a verse of scripture that he had remembered from his days growing up in the synagogue.
If this method of memorising scripture worked for Jesus, then you can be sure that it will pay dividends for us. That’s why I want to encourage you to keep reading your bible. That’s why I want to encourage you to keep making Sunday morning church a priority in your week. That’s why I want to encourage you to keep coming to the midweek bible study or to start coming if you’ve never been. That’s why I want to encourage you to buy and read good Christian books. The more we read the bible, the more its message will stick in our minds. Then when we are tempted, the Holy Spirit will be able to bring to our mind a few verses or a passage of scripture which will empower us to resist that temptation. Let me give you a few examples of how I have found this to work in my own life:
There is a verse in Proverbs that says, “A quiet word turns away wrath.” On a number of occasions that verse has come into my mind and stopped me from overreacting when someone has spoken aggressively to me.
Every Sunday when we say the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Just recently something happened that really annoyed me, and I found myself thinking angry thoughts about someone. As we prayed these words in church, God said to me loud and clear- “Michael if you want me to forgive you then you have got to let go of those thoughts.” In the middle of the service I did that and I gradually felt the anger inside me disappear. It was the voice of God in Holy Scripture that gave me the power to resist the temptation to continue thinking those thoughts about someone else.
There are times in all of our lives when we think, “I couldn’t do that. I don’t have enough experience. I’m just not clever enough.” In those times we are tempted to give up or not to take risks for the sake of the Kingdom of God. There are lots of times in my life when God has asked me to do something and I’ve felt exactly like that. At those times, a particular phrase from Psalm 18 has given me the courage to give it a go. The reason these words have stuck in my mind is because I learned them in German from a good friend who lived there for a year. They are, “Mit meinem Gott kann Ich uber mauern springen,” which translated means, “With my God I can leap over a high wall.”
This verse has often given me the courage to attempt things that otherwise I would not have the self-confidence to do. These are just a few examples of how learning bible verses will allow the Holy Spirit to bring it into our minds and enable us to respond like Jesus in our moments of temptation. This is one escape route against temptation that God has provided for us. The question for us is, “What steps am I taking to familiarise myself with the bible so that the Holy Spirit can bring it to my mind?”
A second piece of advice that God gives us in the bible for how we can overcome temptation is the reminder that we need to be aware of the way our enemy works and which direction his threats are likely to come from.
2: We need to know the devil’s tactics:
Often I keep Emma going that anytime we go for a holiday she seems to bring the entire house with her. As a result, it’s usually a bit of a squeeze in the car and I have to leave the parcel shelf at home. But the truth is if it wasn’t for Emma we would be lost and we’d probably all spend most of the holiday complaining. That’s because Emma literally does think of everything and sure enough, no matter what the emergency or the eventuality on holiday, when the kids look at me, I look at Emma, and she simply reaches into a bag or a cupboard and says “Is this what you’re looking for?” It really is amazing.
In a similar way, one of the ways reading the bible helps us is that it enables us to understand all the different tactics that the devil is likely to try and trip us up so that we can be ready for any eventuality. Sometimes, the devil is mentioned specifically. But more often than not, we see how he tempts people in the stories we read about real people who loved God, who were tempted just like us and who at times like us gave in to those temptations. These examples were included in the bible so that we might learn from their mistakes and discover more about the tactics of our enemy.
When we put all these pieces of the jigsaw together we discover that the devil attacks us from two main directions. He tempts us from within and he tempts us from without. There are a number of important principles here. The first is simply that it is the devil, not God, who tempts us. When Jesus teaches us to pray, “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” He is not saying that God tempts us. The bible is very clear that God never tempts us. It is the enemy of God, a beautiful angel called, “Satan” who tempts us to ignore God and to do what is wrong. Having said that, it is true to say that just as God allowed the devil to test Job and just as the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, so God may allow the devil to tempt us in order that our faith and character may be strengthened just as steal is hardened in the fire. But even when God allows this in our lives, we must always remember that it is the devil who does the tempting, not God and it is God who provides the way of escape.
The second principle that’s really important to think about when the devil tempts us is this. He attacks us in two directions. The first direction is the most obvious. He attacks us from outside influences like the colleague at work who turns to us over lunch and says, “Angela is such an idiot, although that’s not surprising from where she’s from. I can’t stand her…” The school friend who hands you the cigarette or a tablet and says, “Go on, just try it, one’s not going to do you any harm.” The loving family member who in all sincerity says, “But there’s really no prospects in going out to Africa to be a missionary, sure you can serve God just as well at home and be far better paid in the process.” The pop up advertisement on your computer screen inviting you to an adult site.
Since we know that the devil will tempt us from outside influences, it’s essential that we are always on our guard. It’s important that we watch out for temptation and that we don’t put ourselves in situations that we may not be able to resist. It’s important that we are careful about what we watch, what we read and what we listen to. We must never be proud and think, “I would never do that or that would never happen to me!” As the old proverb says, “Pride comes before a fall!” or as St Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthians, “Let those who think they are on safe ground be careful in case they have a fall!” Just like when we prepare to go on holiday, so too we need to try and be prepared for every eventuality. Sometimes, like the time Joseph ran away from Potiphar’s wife, this may even mean that we have to actually remove ourselves from a particular situation, if not permanently, then perhaps for a time. That’s why a recovering alcoholic can never go into a bar. It’s why a sex offender must never be allowed in a situation where they are with children. We might find that we have to avoid a certain shop if we’ve discovered that we can’t control our desire to buy new shoes. We might find that we need to avoid going down a certain isle in the supermarket until we have been able to lose the weight the doctor says. We might find that we need to curtail a particular association. Outside temptation comes in all sorts of ways. What’s important is that we look out for it and we take the necessary steps to resist its attraction. We must resist the temptation of proudly thinking that because we are Christians we are invincible. We must never be so foolish to think that we can put our fingers in the fire and pray not to get burned. Sometimes the only way for us to overcome temptation may be to remove ourselves from a particular situation altogether.
But there’s another way that the devil tempts us and because it is hidden we are often unaware of it and as a result it is much more difficult to anticipate and resist. St. James tells us about this in his letter. He says that the devil tempts us from within because of the sinful nature of our hearts. He writes, “Each one is tempted when by their own evil desire, they are dragged away and enticed.” What I think that means is this: When we become a Christian the Holy Spirit comes to live within us. In that sense, the devil is removed from the throne of our lives and Jesus Christ comes to reign and take control. We become new creatures in Christ with new motives and a new power to obey God that we never had before. That is fantastic. But what we sometimes fail to remember is that our sinful nature is not completely removed and the devil does not completely go away. Rather, like a defeated enemy, the devil adopts guerrilla warfare tactics and he uses the remaining sinful nature that is within us to tempt us to do or say or think what is wrong. In other words, we must never forget that we have a hidden enemy within us. That is why Jeremiah could say, “The heart is deceitful and deceptively wicked who can know it?”
The truth is, we don’t know our own hearts. There are recesses of sin and intrigues of our being that we are simply not even aware of. That is why we are still sometimes surprised by something we say, or by something we do or by thoughts that enter our minds. James also tells us that this sinful nature that remains within us works through our desires. That means that we can be tempted without any outside influence, even in those times when we think we are safe. Isn’t that what many of the monks found in the 16th Century? In an attempt to live pure lives many of them hid themselves away from the influences of the outside world. But even those who lived lives of complete isolation discovered that they could not escape the enemy that lay within. This doesn’t mean that all desires are wrong. Many of our desires are good and God often gives us the desires of our hearts. But it does mean that we need to watch our desires and to be careful about our inner strengths and weaknesses. These are all things by which we can be tempted to disobey God even when there is no outside influence.
Think for a moment of the particular temptations that you are vulnerable to. Now think about how often those temptations arise simply because of your inner desires or your natural strengths or weaknesses. I love cricket. Growing up I wanted to be a professional cricketer. I practiced for hours and I had the privilege of playing cricket at a high level. But I reached a point in my life when I realised that cricket was more important to me than God. The only way I could resist that temptation was to practice less and accept the fact that meant I could not play for the First Eleven or ever be selected for County or International level. I’m not saying you can’t play sport professionally and remain true to God. I’m simply giving you another example of how our inner desires if left unchecked can easily lead us away from God. If we are going to overcome temptation, we need to remember that the devil will not only tempt us from outside but he will also tempt us from within.
This brings us nicely to my final point:
If we are going to resist temptation not only do we need to read and memorise scripture, not only do we need to be aware of the devil’s tactics, above all we need to pray for God’s deliverance.
3: We need to pray for God’s help:
This is why I believe Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” I don’t think Jesus is telling us here to pray, “Lord, don’t let it happen!” That’s because we have already seen that temptation and testing can be a way of strengthening our faith and character. It was through the many trials and temptations that Joseph faced that God prepared him for the day when eventually he would have the responsibility of being the Prime minister of Egypt.
Rather, I think what Jesus is saying here is, “When temptation comes, help me to overcome it.”
You know, learning to pray that prayer every day is probably the most important lesson we can learn about how we can overcome temptation. That’s because at the end of the day, whether we realise it or not, the devil is real and he is a much more powerful force than we are. We cannot and we dare not try to resist them in our own strength.
I’ll never forget the day that a bush caught fire outside a friend’s house. We tried our best to beat it out but the weather had been dry for weeks and no sooner had we extinguished one bit than another piece of hedge caught light. Eventually in a mad panic, my friend ran into the neighbour’s house to get help. Thankfully with more assistance we were eventually able to beat out all the flames.
Overcoming the temptations of the enemy on our own is like trying to put out a forest fire. We just can’t do it. Eventually we will be overcome. The only way we can consistently resist, is to call in reinforcements. That means we must take time regularly to pray and ask God to give us His strength and His ability to overcome temptation. We must ask God to search our hearts as we read His word and to show us whole areas of our lives that we are blind to. We must allow God to show us our weaknesses and strengths because these are often the places where we are most vulnerable to attack. And wherever or whenever the temptation comes we must send up a silent prayer for God’s strength and courage to resist. The great news is that God will hear that prayer. He will answer and He will give us the ability to overcome.
The other great news is that even if we’ve failed to memorise scripture, even if we’ve forgotten to keep watch outside and within, even if we’ve neglected the place of prayer and as a result we have fallen and fallen badly, God never folds His arms and says, “I told you so!” Rather, he stands with open arms just waiting for us to come back. So if you’re here today and all this brings back memories of something you’ve said or done which you feel has ruined your reputation or ruined your relationship with God then resist the temptation to listen to the devil any longer. When he tells you that there’s no way back, he is lying! They say that those who never make mistakes, never make anything! Come back to God! Confess whatever it was at the foot of the cross and know that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses you from all sins that we repent of, no matter what they are, or no matter what the consequences have been for us or for others! You may have had a major fall, but God doesn’t want you to lie there forever! Get up and go on! The years you have left may be the greatest yet for God and for His glory.
Temptation- it’s something we will always face. It’s something that has the potential to strengthen us or to cause us great harm. It’s something that God has provided ways for us to overcome. One of those ways is learning scripture so that the Holy Spirit can bring it to our minds when temptation comes. Another is bible stories which teach us how the devil works. We need to remember that he attacks us from two directions, both outside and from within. The third way is perhaps the most important. Jesus teaches us to pray regularly for God’s strength to say “No!” That’s a prayer we must pray for the devil is stronger than we are. Only with God’s help can we resist his advances. And lastly, we’ve been reminded that even if we’ve given in and fallen badly, God forgives us when we repent, sets us back on our feet and whispers in our ear, “I love you, now go out and make me proud.”