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.

(a) A clear biblical understanding of human nature, temptation and sin

We have to have our thinking straight. Even well prepared we are fundamentally weak and vulnerable. Paul had to caution the self-confident Corinthians, “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man …” (1 Cor 10:12– 13). We should never imagine that we are somehow proof against ‘common or garden’ temptations that have taken down believers from the beginning. That is also why Paul urges us to be humble in restoring others who have fallen, “considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal 6:1).

Hence Paul’s exhortation to “be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might” (Eph 6:10). The strength, the power, the victory will come from the Lord. We are foot-soldiers in his great battle with spiritual evil. But if we want to share his victory, we must play our part. And that means preparation – recognising our fundamental weakness and our reliance on him, recognising our vulnerability and developing a biblical understanding of temptation.

(b) A personal covenant – or whatever it takes

The foolish young man of Proverbs insisted on wandering into Jerusalem’s ‘red light district’ (Prov 7) and the inevitable followed. Safety may mean making some rules – not for others, but for ourselves. “I made a covenant with mine eyes”, said Job, “why then should I think upon a maid?” (Job 31:1). An adulterous affair begins with a first meaningful look (Matt 5:27–30). Therefore, continued the Lord Jesus, “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” Likewise an arm or a leg! He was exaggerating, of course: but the exaggeration underlines his serious point. Do whatever it takes to avoid sin!

There may well be people or places or activities or media that we know in advance will challenge us: and we may strike a personal deal not to put ourselves in the way of temptation. When God has said “Thou shalt not”, we are wise to steer well clear of the forbidden fruit. Sticking to our personal covenant will not in itself make us righteous. We should certainly avoid the grave mistake of thinking that self-regulation will make us better people – it will not (Col 2:20–23). But setting some personal boundaries may help us to avoid spiritual disaster.

(c) A positive spiritual mind

It is important, however, to realise that we cannot simply ‘clean out the house’. A vacant mind is simply an opportunity for the worst kinds of sin to move in on a long-term lease (Matt 12:43–45; Luke 11:24–26). Instead, we must consciously, deliberately fill our minds with things that are true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable and praiseworthy. If we are not sure where to start, we can find appropriate examples of people who do this (Phil 4:8–9). If we can honestly say this about our reading, our friendships and conversations, our personal interests, then we are on the right track.

(d) Deep spiritual roots

In times of temptation those without deep roots will fail – like the rocky soil (Matt 13:20–21; Mark 4:16–17; Luke 8:13). These “have no root in themselves”. They are spiritually dependent on others, they have little spiritual staying power, and when put under pressure, will “fall away”, reverting to their old way of life.

Spiritual disciplines such as reading and study, meditation and prayer, confession, praise and thanksgiving, abstinence, time alone and fellowship, submission and service – these, practised from the heart in a God-centred way, will help us put down roots: and we will foster them if we want to draw closer to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation (Eph 6:10–17) – these are the Spirit’s defences. We will put them on if we wish to be prepared against temptation.

When a sincere faith and holiness have taken deep root in our heart and mind by these means, and begun to transform us into the image of Christ, it will be difficult for sin to lease our mind as a place where we can window-shop for temptation – a “chamber of imagery” (Ezek 8:12) or “room of pictures” (esv).

(e) Watchfulness and prayer

But even deep roots will not keep us safe if we are not actively watching and praying. So Paul adds, “Take … the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints” (Eph 6:17–18). This echoes the Lord’s own urgent appeal, again drawn from his experience, this time in Gethsemane: “Watch and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38; Matt 26:41; Luke 22:40, 46). We are slow learners, just as the disciples were, and do not devote the time that we should to concentrated, heartfelt prayer.

With prayer comes watchfulness, the spiritual vigilance with which we examine our hearts and minds regularly to see whether we are in the faith or not, whether Jesus Christ is in us or not, whether we are spurious or genuine (2 Cor 13:5). Sunday morning is far too brief a time and far too distracting a space for such an important task. We need to dedicate regular quiet time to this kind of reflection, guided by an open Bible and prayer.

(f) Healthy relationships

Healthy relationships are an important fourth line of defence. When it comes to sexual temptation, Paul recognises that healthy sexual relations between husband and wife are a right within marriage, and withdrawal into abstinence should only be by consent, for a limited time, and for a spiritual purpose, a time of spiritual focus characterised by prayer and fasting (1 Cor 7:5). To do otherwise is to play with fire – to expose oneself and one’s spouse to temptation.

But broad and deep relationships at home, in the friends we seek and the relationships we develop, with our brothers and sisters – all of these help to keep us at the centre of God’s people and the heart of His work, and that is a healthy and a safe place to be. If we have to change friends to get away from people who repeatedly drag us down spiritually, so be it (Eph 5:4,11; 1 Pet 4:1–6). Overestimating your spiritual strength is a fool’s game!

When temptation assails – withstanding the enemy

Despite the most committed preparation, temptation will come, and we will feel spiritually challenged. What should we do?

(1) Recognise what is happening and label it

There are three key questions: (1) What is the source – where is it coming from? Is it from God? Is it from within, emerging from our own feelings and desires? Or is it from without – in the form of another person? (2) What sort of test is it? Is it a positive test of character, and therefore a Goddirected test of faith? Or is it a negative test of character, a temptation drawing us into sin? (3) What is the focus? To what inside our heart and mind is it appealing? To basic drives? To what we see and want? To the illusion of significance that comes with position, possessions and achievements? If we are able to answer these questions, we have begun to defeat temptation.

(2) Refuse to doubt God, or to compromise your relationship with Him

The tempter’s first weapon is doubt. Remind yourself of all that God has done for you, and of what He means to you – and not only God, but all of the people who love God with you – your family, your friends and your brothers and sisters. The Lord refused to doubt that he was the Son of God, as God had said. He refused to believe that God would allow him to starve, and insisted on putting a higher value on His Word than on bread. He refused to put God to the test. He refused to worship the tempter, whoever he was, and insisted on worshipping God. With the Lord Jesus, insist on trusting God to meet your needs. Refuse to compromise the quality of your relationship with Him, the most important relationship you have.

(3) Appeal for help

Prayer is powerful in the face of temptation. It confirms our special relationship with God, and it draws us closer to our understanding high priest (Heb 2:18; 4:15). We should not shrink from God when tempted. We should “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need”. The presence of our Lord Jesus Christ reminds us that in heaven there is one who has been through tremendous temptations, understands the pressure we feel, and sympathises with us – even if we find it hard to accept the great truth that God also knows what we are going through.

(4) Reject temptation decisively and emphatically

An important factor in the Lord’s victory was his decisive, emphatic rejection of each temptation with a clear statement from Scripture. He knew what he believed, he saw the temptation in terms of a key principle (trust, humility, worship), he went straight to a key passage and he flatly rejected the alternative logic that was being presented to him.

Compare the Lord’s approach with that of David. Spiritual lethargy put him where he should not have been, his eyes lingered where they should not have looked at all, he asked questions that he should never have asked, he ignored the implicit warnings of his servants, he deliberately put himself in the way of temptation (2 Sam 11). After that, his fall is hardly surprising. What does shock us are the lengths to which David will go to cover up his sin – and, perhaps, to consolidate his ‘possession’ of Bathsheba. Even if he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, a swift appeal to God’s megaphone-clear command – “Thou shalt not commit adultery” – and an emphatic rejection of any tempting thoughts, perhaps followed by an immediate journey to the front line, would have saved enormous heartache for David and so many others. In a similar way, Samson also fell into Delilah’s clutches by stages, inching slowly and playfully toward the moment of truth, with its terrible consequences (Judg 16:4–21).

These step-by-step slides into sin teach us something critical. Don’t negotiate! Determine that God’s law will be your first and final authority. Refuse to question what God has said. Accept the reality of His stringent warnings against sin. Reject the twisted logic and the false promises of temptation. Puncture the illusion that sin will make you happier and more fulfilled – it will not! Trust God, trust His reasons and motives, trust His process – and send the tempter packing. In the end, God will deliver something that will exceed anything you can imagine (Eph 3:14–21).

(5) Seek support

There is no shame in experiencing temptation: there is shame only in succumbing. Whether we are still fighting, or have experienced a short-term defeat, we should seek support from those who love us and care for us. The Lord Jesus chose his disciples to be “with him” (Mark 3:14) and valued them highly because they had “continued” with him in his temptations (Luke 22:28–30). We should be willing to bear one another’s burdens, “and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Obviously we need to seek out people who are spiritually wise and absolutely trustworthy – but there are such people. With them we can talk about our challenges, seek God’s will from His Word together, and pray together. This process is wonderfully helpful and encouraging (Jas 5:13–20; 1 John 5:16–17).

(6) Look for a way out

Look for a way out. Be wise, and run away. Joseph is an excellent model. He had no choice but to work in Potiphar’s household, and he couldn’t get away. So his first line of defence was to reject the advances of his master’s wife with an appeal to his goodness, and ultimately, to God’s righteousness: “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen 39:8–9). His second line of defence was to avoid her company whenever possible: he refused even to be in her presence (v10). The crisis came. She engineered an empty house and ambushed Joseph. He did not stay to reason, or dodge around her: he ran for it (v11–12). Thousands of years later his godly example still teaches us. Paul taught the Corinthians to look for God’s “way to escape”: “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. Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Cor 10:13–14). When the pressure is turned up, God will make a way. Look for the exit sign!

(7) Recognise that temptation will return

Finally, we should recognise that one victory is not enough. At moments of vulnerability the tempter will return. We should endeavour to learn from victory and defeat, and ensure that each crisis of temptation brings us closer to our Father and to our Lord Jesus Christ, both of whom are eager to help us “grow in grace”.