“I can resist almost anything – except temptation,” a wag once said. But temptation is no laughing matter. We all know the profound power of the serpent’s voice – sometimes coming from another person, sometimes speaking inside our own heads; sometimes a logical alternative, apparently a completely reasonable, rational argument for doing something we know is wrong; sometimes the smooth tug of seduction, gentle as velvet; sometimes the imperious command that insists on sinful compliance.

Even a committed spiritual life dedicated to wholehearted righteousness cannot silence temptation’s voice: the Lord Jesus was “in all points tempted like as we are” (Heb 2:18; 4:15). One victory was never enough. The devil might turn tail and leave him to the angels, but he would return at moments of vulnerability and try again to set him up for sin. Only death would destroy the devil and silence his suggestive voice.

Should we simply admit defeat, give way to sin, and hope that God in His abounding grace will turn a blind eye to our failings? Or should we take sin on and shoot for victory, knowing that if we do fail from time to time God, seeing our sins clearly for what they are, will forgive and accept us anyway? The authors of Scripture are all for the second option, so that’s where this article is going. Accept nothing less than victory!

But to win the fight, we must be armed, like any competent soldier, with intelligence about the enemy, a resolute spirit, a commitment to obeying the captain, and the right weapons. So let’s begin by understanding what temptation is, and how it works. Then we can talk about how to win the fight.

A test of character

The Greek peirazo, “to test”, is the most common word used for “temptation” in the New Testament; but all the words used in Scripture have a similar meaning.

We can be tested in two fundamentally different ways: by a God-directed trial, or by a sin-directed temptation. James highlights the difference:

“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man” (1:13).

But how can this be true? God tempted Abraham (Gen 22:1, cp Heb 11:17). He tempted Israel throughout the wilderness journey (Exod 15:25; 16:4; 20:20; Deut 7:19; 8:2, 16; 13:3; 29:3 cp Psa 81:7). And there are other examples.

But these are examples of God-directed trial. When James says that God does not tempt any man, he means that God would never set us up for sin. When He brings us into trial, which may be a very difficult and painful process, His motive is always to pull us through the test to victory and its benefits – new insight into our own motives, greater faith, a closer relationship with Him, a shining example for others; ultimately, “praise and honour and glory” at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:5–7).

Sin-directed temptation is very different. Whether from within or without, the tempter’s voice is always seeking to pull us into sin. The only person God has deliberately, calculatedly exposed to sin was His own Son, who was led or driven into the wilderness specifically to confront and defeat temptation (Matt 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1). God knows full well that we could never do what he did. In fact, the Lord himself taught us to pray, “Bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matt 6:13 rv; Luke 11:4). That prayer alludes to his own experience in the wilderness. James makes it clear that God will never test our character in this way. If we experience temptation, it is not from God. Period.

But temptation is, nevertheless, a test of character: and the outcome of temptation is proof of character. Failure will highlight spiritual weaknesses which need to be addressed. Victory will confirm that we are “strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might”.

How temptation works

We have many examples of temptation in Scripture, but two stand out: the temptation of Eve, and the temptation of the Lord Jesus. When we bring these two stories together, we can learn a great deal about how temptation works for us.

(1) Temptation can come to us anywhere. The Lord was in the wilderness, a very challenging environment, under extreme pressure from isolation, hunger, thirst, the discomfort of hard rock and stinging sand, extremes of temperature from scorching days and bone-chilling nights, leopards and other predators, insects, scorpions, snakes, bandits and other hazards. Eve was in Paradise, the garden of God, surrounded by every good thing, in need of nothing. Temptation can come to us anywhere – at home, at work, lying on the beach, busy in God’s service.

(2) Temptation can come from without, or from within. Eve’s experience was unique. There was nothing in her that answered to the temptation until she allowed the words of the serpent to take root in her mind. The Lord’s temptation also came from without – at least, that is how the record is written. But temptation is no temptation unless there is something in the mind that responds to the seductive tug of tempting words and thoughts. James writes further:

“Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed” (1:14).

(3) Our natural response to temptation is motivated by three things, explains John, drawing on Eve’s temptation (1 John 2:15–17).

(a) The first of these is “the lust of the flesh”, just as Eve saw that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was “good for food”, and the Lord was tempted to make stones into bread. The “lust of the flesh” refers to basic human drives – fight or flight, pleasure and pain, the fulfilment of our sexual drive, the satisfaction of our hunger.

(b) The second of these is “the lust of the eyes”, just as Eve saw that the tree was “pleasant to the eyes”, and the Lord was shown “all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time”. The “lust of the eyes” refers to our instinctive desire to take for ourselves, possess and enjoy what we see – whether it is a thing like a house or a car, or a person, like somebody else’s wife or husband. It is the illusion of need.

(c) The third of these is “the pride of life”. The Greek alazoneia, translated “pride”, is an unusual word that is only used twice in Scripture (also Jas 4:16, “boastings”). It refers to “pride in possessions” (esv) or “the boasting of what he has and does” (niv). Eve wanted – oh, how she wanted! – the one thing that God had withheld from her: “the knowledge of good and evil”. The more she thought about that fruit, the more she wanted the knowledge that it could give her, and the new status as one of the Elohim that would come with that knowledge – or so she thought. In similar fashion the devil paraded before Jesus the authority and glory that would be his if he would only worship him. The “pride of life” refers to our own sense of the elevated importance, significance, prestige, glamour, prominence, respect, recognition and reputation that come with position, possessions and achievements – the drive to climb the ladder, or be the best, or enjoy glory, power, authority and honour, or attract followers. Psychologist Abraham Maslow called this “self-actualisation”, and argued that once we have provided for survival and material comfort, this becomes our most powerful motivation.

(4) Doubt is the first step in temptation – doubt about God, and doubt about His Word. The serpent began by encouraging Eve to question the authority of God’s law – “Yea, hath God said?” The devil began with a big “If”: “If thou be the Son of God.” At his recent baptism God had declared His pleasure in His “well beloved Son” with His own mouth. Now the Lord was tempted to doubt that declaration. Faith is committed to obedience, and having first made that commitment, seeks understanding. In doubt lie the seeds of sin.

(5) Having undermined our relationship with God, and our submission to the authority of His Word, the voice of the tempter becomes the substitute authority. A battery of persuasive weapons are then brought to bear on our weakened defences. Look at the serpent’s subtle psychology! After inducing Eve to question God’s law, he flatly contradicted the reality, the importance and the urgency of God’s warning (“Ye shall not surely die”), presented an alternative logic (“You won’t die because …”), created a ‘halo effect’ of enhanced desirability and implied advantage around the forbidden fruit (“ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil”), and insinuated that God was acting from unworthy motives (“for God doth know”) by withholding desirable knowledge from them and keeping them on a lower plane, with diminished status. Eve, no longer thinking about her relationship with God and her knowledge of His law, had no defences against his parseltongue. In the wilderness the tempter pressed the Lord to prove his new status, played on his gnawing hunger, played a slideshow of alluring pictures, promised the world, and insisted on his own ability to deliver what he promised – the temptations recorded are only samples of what took place (cp Mark 1:13; Luke 4:13). “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose”, wrote Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. Even the Word of God, selectively quoted and twisted, became a weapon in the tempter’s hands. By a range of techniques the tempter undermines our relationship with God and our respect for His Word, and insinuates his voice as the alternative authority.

(6) A decision point arrives. Will we? Or won’t we? Even now, we could pull back. But Eve’s thinking has changed to the point where she now believes that she is entirely justified in doing what she once saw clearly was contrary to God’s law – a sin. Her love for God has been replaced by love for the world, and what it promises her. She crosses the line. She reaches out to take the fruit, holds it in her hand a moment, takes a bite, holds it out to her husband. For many of us, all too often, this is where the process ends. James again:

“Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (1:15).

But the Lord, amazingly, embraces God’s will and sends the tempter packing: and angels, who have been there all along, reveal themselves to him as soon as the momentous victory has been won, providing for his every need.

Taking the whole armour of God

Forewarned is forearmed. If we understand the process by which temptation takes hold on heart and mind, we are that much better prepared to resist it. That is why Paul urged us, “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:11). There are things we can do to prepare, and we shall look at these in our next article.