Temptation begins with, “I want to …”
The second step is, “I shouldn’t …”
The third step is “But I really do want to …”
The fourth step is what determines the direction of my life, and it’s the great difference between Christianity and every other way of living.
Every religion and every secular system recognizes the reality of temptation and wrong-doing. Even in an age of “tolerance” there remain some things everyone knows to be wrong: overeating, throwing the milk carton in the trash instead of recycling it, over-spending, cheating one’s customers or employees, letting anger control us, hurting others, and whatever else may have came first to your mind when you realized this article was about temptation. We all face it. We all fail more often than we would like to admit. We all feel bad about it, and we deal with that feeling in different ways.
So what about that fourth step? Here’s how it usually goes. “But I shouldn’t!” which kicks in a cycle that goes from “I want to” around to “I shouldn’t” over and over again. It generally lasts as many times as it takes to get to, “But I think I will after all.” We don’t give in every time, but often enough we do. We battle with ourselves over temptation, and typically we lose. Other people downstream of our sins lose, too.
Christianity offers a completely different fourth step. Too many of us miss it, though; in fact, the apostle Paul wrote to a whole church that was missing it. It was a group of Christians in the Galatia who kept on trying to do the right thing by concentrating on “the works of the law”—which is another way of saying they were focusing on the rules: “I should do this, I should never do that.”
Paul excoriated them for it. “You foolish Galatians,” he wrote in Galatians 3:1, “who has bewitched you?” Later he told them they had “fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4, NKJV). I’ll bet you thought “fallen from grace” was a label for pastors and governors who get caught with mistresses.God isn’t just an after-the-fact repair-man. He gave us the gift of himself, dwelling with us and in us through the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, often called the Spirit of Christ.
That’s what makes Christianity different in the moment of temptation. I’ll explain by referring back to the Gal. 5:4 verse I mentioned earlier. Paul said there that the problem with these Christians who were trying really hard to do right, these foolish, bewitched Christians who were trying to do right (imagine that!), was that they were severed from Christ. Obviously that’s wrong; obviously we are to be connected to Christ instead (Christ himself speaks of this, especially in John 15).
This makes all the difference when we’re experiencing temptation. Say you’re in the third step: “But I really do want to …” Here’s how it might go from there, as you remain connected with Christ. Instead of trying to argue yourself out of giving in, you can say, “Let’s be honest. I really do want to give in to this temptation… and I also want to be connected to Christ. So right now I invite Christ to be with me in this, even while I’m at the point of really wanting to do something he wouldn’t like.”
Do you see how that breaks the cycle of “I want to — I shouldn’t — but I want to — but I shouldn’t”? It’s not just a psychological trick. It’s inviting the real goodness and power of God into the cycle. I experienced the result again just this morning: instead of fighting through the cycle, I found myself reflecting on God’s goodness, enjoying his company, and almost forgetting about the wrong thing that had seemed so powerfully motivating just moments earlier. The temptation evaporated. I didn’t fight it off. God did.
What if you’ve gone beyond that third step, though? What if you’ve given in, and you’re right in the middle of the sin? What if you’re enjoying it? Sin can be pretty fun for a while, after all. It wouldn’t be tempting if it weren’t. Even then it’s not too late to draw Christ in, though. It’s the right time for what I call the “dangerous prayer.” This dangerous prayer honest, it’s open, it’s prayed right in the middle of sinning, and it brings Christ nearby in the midst of it. It goes something like this: “Lord Christ, I know this is wrong, but I’m actually having a good time at the moment. Would you come and be with me here right now while I’m being tempted or while I’m sinning? And would you let me know what you think about it while you’re here?”
Can we pray that way? I believe we have to. I am a great believer in praying while sinning. (I do not believe in sinning while praying!) God is not shocked to learn we’re sinning, and he’s not surprised to discover we’re having a moment of passing fun with it. He’s there anyway, and he loves us no less then that at any other time. What this prayer does is wake us up to his presence, and make us open to his work in our hearts. In response, God wakes us up to reality so we can see the truth about how weak and transitory that sinful pleasure really is. I’ve found that when I pray that way, typically I can walk away from the sin with hardly any struggle. Christ does the fighting for me. He’s the rescuer (another term for Savior) from sin, after all. I’m inviting him in so he can draw me out.
You see, if resisting temptation means telling myself, “I shouldn’t want this!” it’s destined to fail, because temptation means I do want this, or at least I think I do at this moment. If standing up against sin means trying to think of something else I want more (“I’d rather be thin than eat this piece of cake”), that has a bit more power—but darn it, that cake still looks awfully good, and I’m not really all that sure how being thin next month stacks up against that cake right there right now. But if we can say, “You know I really do want this thing that’s tempting me, and I’m going to invite someone to be with me,” that’s not denying anything that’s true about ourselves. And if that person is the One with all spiritual power and righteousness, then we have an incredible ally on our side.
There is more on this later in the book of Galatians, where Paul talks about the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, as the real and powerful living presence of God in Christians. “Walk by the Spirit,” he says, “and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).
That’s what makes Christianity different. It’s a relationship, not a set of rules. I’m not saying the rules don’t matter, for they show us a picture of what it is to do right, but there’s no real power in the act of scrunching up our willpower to follow the rules. The power comes through Christ in us. We need to be careful that our relationship is with the genuine person of Christ, too, which is one reason among many for staying in the Scriptures and in fellowship with other believers. Scripture keeps us in touch with the real Christ, and other believers can help keep us from getting goofy ideas about both God and sin.
Christianity is different from every other religion and every other secular system. Every other system says it’s up to us to get right with God, the world, or ourselves. No other system has real power to break the temptation-desire-sin cycle the way Christ does. No other system includes such a powerful personal relationship at its core. No other system can rescue us in the moment the way Christ can.
Whether you’re already a believer or just checking out this strange phenomenon of a “thinking Christian,” I hope that sounds attractive to you, because it really is good. If you’re already a believer, I hope you’ll pray the dangerous prayer, and discover the power Christ has to come in and bring you out. If you’re not yet a believer, but you’ve experienced the pain of personal failure (as we all have), I hope you’ll give Jesus Christ a try. Read my free ebook What is Christianity? or look into “who is Jesus, really?” He makes all the difference.
Related: The Map or the Fuel?