The Tyranny of Temptation
"In that He Himself hath suffered being tempted, He is able to succour them that are tempted." (Hebrews Chapter 2 Verse 18).
"There is no order so holy, no place so secret, where there will be no temptation." (Thomas aí Kempis)
"The wind sits always on My Face, and the foaming rage of the sea of this world, and the proud and lofty waves thereof do continually beat upon the sides of the bark or ship that Myself, My cause, and My followers are in. He therefore that will not run hazards and that is afraid to venture a drowning, let him not set foot into this vessel." (John Bunyan)
"Let no man think that sudden in a minute
All is accomplished and the work is done:
Though with thine earliest dawn thou shouldst begin it,
Scarce were it ended in thy setting sun."
(F. W. H. Myers)
The new life of following Christ may soon lead to difficulty. Our new loyalty will certainly be tested. As we have seen, we must not expect that from now on life is to be a bed of roses, a glorious picnic, an easy thing. Our faith will need to weather many temptations, and in these we may find even the hand of our God testing us. We read "My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations: knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience."
We must differentiate between God's testing and the devil's temptations. We shall meet with both and they should not be confused. In the New Testament the fundamental meaning of the Greek word for to tempt is "to test or prove." In the Authorised Version we find the two thoughts closely connected in several other passages, and a perusal of these makes it clear that while God allows the devil to tempt us to evil, He overrules the temptation as a test for our good.
Testing which comes from God is to be endured joyfully in the confidence that He, into whose hands we have committed our life, is both able and willing to take charge of that life and to make all things work together for our good. "Endure hardness as a good soldier," said Paul, knowing from his own experience as a veteran campaigner that only those who had faced and overcome difficulties would be reliable when really up against it.
Temptation differs from testing in that it is the attack of the adversary upon our souls in soliciting us to do evil. Very often the same event is a temptation of the devil and a trial from God who turns the enemy's wiles to His divine ends, bringing thereby character and courage out of an evil situation.
The presence of temptation in the world is vitally connected with the whole problem of evil and suffering. This book is not the place in which to attempt any solution of that problem. We can dimly see, however, that if we are to be moral beings, we must have the power of choice.
There is no virtue in an automatic goodness. Whether we like it or not, the Christian life is a conflict, a fight between good and evil, between right and wrong. The prize in this battle is a sterling Christian character, coupled with the knowledge that we have won our Captain's approval and that one day we shall hear His "Well done."
In this chapter we deal with temptation as a painful fact, the result of living as fallen men in a sinful world, a fact which must be faced and overcome.
Temptation itself, of course, is not sin. We know this quite simply from the fact that our Lord was tempted throughout His life. Yet He was entirely without sin. He was even led of the Spirit into the test of temptation. We know how He came from that conflict gloriously triumphant. But even then, the devil left Him only "for a season." He returned to the attack again and again, and was present right to the end of our Lord's life.
The greatest saints have been most conscious of the Tempter's activity. The more godly we seek to be, the more conscious we shall become of the presence of influences that militate in the opposite direction.
Thoughts and desires which our conscience tells us are wrong, keep springing up from nowhere; they hover, as it were, continually, about us, seeking a lodging in our soul; or to use Peter's illustration from the Roman arena, "your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour."
Temptation becomes sin the moment that the evil thought is welcomed into the mind, dwelt upon and liked, and finally indulged in actual deed.
The well-known remark, "You cannot prevent rooks flying over your head, but you can stop them building nests in your hair," applies aptly to this question of temptation.
A Christian must be ever alert.
He must, as Peter and James warned their readers, be rigidly determined to resist the first signs of attack. With the help of God that comes in answer to even the shortest of prayers in the moment of stress, the unworthy thought must immediately be thrown out. The bitter reflection must be quenched before ever it is framed into words. No quarter must be given, and no com- promise with sin contemplated. There can be no half measures in seeking mastery over temptation.
Moreover we must be sensible about this matter. It is madness, for instance, for anyone assailed by impure thoughts to pray, "Lead us not into temptation," and then to continue to frequent places and company where such thoughts are consciously stimulated. We shall soon discover that there are times and places which offer special opportunities for temptation. We must be on our guard. We must be prepared, if necessary, to leave off what we are doing, and to occupy our minds with other things.
We must be ready to avoid such places, no matter at what cost in misunderstanding and loss of friendship, rather than fall victim to the adversary. The holiness and integrity of the soul is much too precious a possession for it to be frittered away in a few hours of leisure.
Every Christian must realise his own weak points, the Achilles heel where he is likely to be especially vulnerable. Here he must seek to set doubly strong guards. "Watch and pray" our Lord said, "lest ye enter into temptation." Watch in order to avoid being caught unawares. Watch so as to prevent deliberate running into danger.
Pray, too, because we cannot accomplish these things in our own strength. We need the guidance and help of God. If Peter had done what his Lord told him to do in the garden he would not have denied Him by the fire. Peter's weak spot was the fear of man, but, blind to his own limitation, he went headlong to his downfall, and denied his Lord with oaths and curses.
Is there any reason why any of us should habitually give way to temptation if we are Christís and Christ is ours?
Let us see what the teaching of the New Testament is on this point. God has pledged His word that, if certain conditions are fulfilled, victory is certain. What those conditions are we have yet to see. That there surely is a way out of the tyranny of temptation is explicit throughout Scripture.
Let us each one set ourselves to know, not merely as frequently quoted passages of the Bible, but as vital personal experience - the truth of these glorious words: "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape that ye may be able to bear it." "The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptation. . . .In that He Himself hath suffered being tempted He is able to succour them that are tempted. . . . He is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him."
But we must be realistic in this matter, and face facts. There may be some reading these pages to whom such promises of victory over sin seem an unattainable ideal, Utopian, excellent in theory, unrealisable in fact. For them the only cry is:
Oh the regret, the struggle and the failing!
Oh the days desolate and useless years!
Vows in the night, so fierce and unavailing!
Stings of my shame and passion of my tears!
They feel cast back into company with the unequal struggles of the unenlightened mythology of ancient times that knew not the power of God. They can sympathise with Ulysses in his wanderings, or Laocoon in his fruitless struggles with the serpents.
Like Sisyphus, their stone never reaches the top in spite of all endeavours; like Tantalus, the victory they thirst for recedes before their grasp. In the words of Ovid they complain "video meliora proboque; deteriora sequor;" "I know and approve the better, but follow the worse."
Or as Paul once wrote, looking back on a period of constant defeat in his own life, "I am a creature of the flesh, in the thraldom of sin. I cannot understand my own actions; I do not act as I want to act; on the contrary, I do what I detest. . . . The wish is there, but not the power of doing what is right. I cannot be good as I want to be, and I do wrong against my wishes."
Now what is the explanation of this unworthy phenomenon? Why are some Christian people still selfish? Gripping the muck-rake of their own petty ideas, their interests seem always to be centred on things of minor importance.
In their private lives they are often falling before little and big temptations. What is the root cause of this all too common experience? Bunyan has a picture of a "man who could look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand," whilst over his head an angel was offering a crown of triumph. His explanation is "his muck-rake doth show his carnal mind." He is using a 17th century word which we would translate today as "selfish" or "worldly."
Actually, man is not essentially good. When Dr. Samuel Johnson was asked if he thought that man was naturally good, he replied, "No, madam, no more than a wolf." The majority of men will admit that they have within themselves a tendency towards evil. All find the downward path easier than the upward.
There is a law of gravity in man's spiritual experience for which the Scriptural term is "the law of sin and death." Its ally within us is called "the flesh." This bias away from the correct line of conduct, which is the result of the flesh, or "self," does not leave a man when he admits Christ into his life.
Latent in his very nature is "that great Pope Self," as Luther called it. But though, at conversion, this tendency towards sinning, this "self," does not leave him, that does not mean that he is inevitably bound to a future of defeat. There is a way out, as we shall see later.
"Self" can be replaced by the risen Christ. But for many this is not at first apparent. Kipling's German naturalist said to his caged orang-outang, "Mein friend, you haf too much Ego in your Cosmos."
There are many today of whom this is only too true. They are called by Paul "carnal" Christians. They are Christians without a doubt, born again by the Spirit of God, but living selfish lives, unworthy of their high calling, and consequently bringing the family honour into disrepute.
The first outstanding characteristic of the life of the "carnal" Christian is defeat - failure before the tyranny of temptation, a constant slipping into the same sins, an inability to get victory however much he desires it.
There is a Tamil poet who sings of "the mahout who rides his elephant facing its tail, imagining the while that he is reaching his goal." There are many Christians like that, full of worthy impulses, longing for victory, but albeit conscious that something, their sinful nature, is all the while carrying them farther and farther from the goal of their good intentions.
Paul was like that once as we have already seen. He became so desperate that he imagined himself suffering the tortures of the murderer under the Roman punishment of chaining the culprit face to face with the rotting corpse of his victim.
To quote Dr. Way's paraphrase of the last part of the seventh chapter of Romans, "It is dragging me away a captive in the chains of that law of sin which haunts my body. Alas, and alas for me - Who shall rescue me from the obsession of the body, from this living death? Thank God, - Oh, I thank God that He does: He does it through the agency of Jesus, our Messiah, Our Lord!"
If Paul had continued in a defeated experience such as he quoted above, he would never have sailed uncharted seas with the precious cargo of the Evangel. There is a sure way out of temptation, and if he found it, so may we.
Another characteristic of the "selfish" Christian life is spiritual immaturity.
There are far too many spiritual dwarfs in the Church today, as there were in the Church at Corinth. The mark of their immaturity was division, that criticism of other Christians which does more than anything to sap the vitality, and curb the spiritual growth of young Christians.
It is time many of us went on to feed on more solid food. It is not sufficient to be "sound." We all have much to learn. The spiritual adult will not worry himself overmuch about the views of other Christians. He will use up all his strength in bringing other men and women to Christ, and seeing that they get first milk and then meat.
There is yet another mark of the carnal Christian. He is a hypocrite.
He bears the name Christian, but he is not living the victorious life that Christ offers His followers. "So long a jealousy and strife continue among you, can it be denied that you are . . . acting like mere men of the world."
The Greek word hypocrite originally meant an actor. That is some one who puts on a mask for the purposes of acting another part. There are some Christians who tend to do this, and Paul tells such explicitly that they should put off their disguise, and discard once and for all the rags and tatters of their previous mode of life.
Paul calls this conduct according to their previous standards, "the old man." He instructs them and us to put away the characteristics of "the old man," or former self, if we would go on to live a victorious life.
Such are the alternatives. Defeat, immaturity, and hypocrisy marking the life of the carnal Christian; or victory, growth, and power, the fruit of living according to God's provision on the higher plane of the spiritual Christian.
The two types in God's family are distinguished according to their attitude to the ogre 'self.' In the first, though it is not a self-centred life, for Christ is there, self is yet very much alive; it tries to share its interests with those of the risen Christ. In the second, self has been and is continually being crucified, and Christ is predominant.
How the transition can be made from life on the "carnal" to life on the "spiritual" plane, we shall see as we study further.
That Christ longs for us to live victoriously we realise when we hear Him say "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." The secret of this lies in recognising that Christ Himself is our life. "He must increase, but I must decrease."
* * *
Welcome every opportunity to endure hardness as Christís soldier.
Recognise the devil for who he is, the inveterate enemy of God, and therefore your enemy too.
Do not be over-worried about temptation, but watch most carefully that it is not allowed to lead to actual sin.
Be sensible, and do not walk into temptation if you know it can be avoided.
There is no neutrality in this warfare, and no room for complacency; therefore make no compromise with sin.
Never be satisfied with spiritual defeat, immaturity or hypocrisy.