Picture a man-eating lion with a steel chain around his neck tethered to a steel spike driven deeply into the ground. That's temptation.
Imagine that one day you're out on a walk when seemingly out of nowhere this lion, a 500-pound predatory, flesh-ripping machine, suddenly lunges at you! After the paralyzing shock and horror wears off, you realize the lion, being limited by his chain, is a good 20 feet away. After taking a brief moment to thank God that you still have all four limbs and a torso, you run away from the lion as fast as humanly possible. From this day on, you are aware the lion is out there.
I try to emotionally prepare myself for meeting the lion again and again, telling myself he's tethered and can only charge so far. Looking at his majestic beauty and strength from a distance, I'm mesmerized and begin to think to myself, "I wonder just how close I can get to this unbelievable beast and still remain safe?" Each time I walk that road and come upon the lion, I curiously inch closer and closer. Each time he thrusts himself at me, I become keenly more aware that unless I move into his sphere of death, I will remain unharmed. All of a sudden, I feel empowered, in control and maybe even a slight twinge of superiority. I'm beginning to understand that the lion can make an intimidatingly loud noise, but as long as I am a safe distance on the other side of that steel chain, that's all he can do. So little by little, each time I walk that road, I find myself getting closer and closer and closer still until finally I go mere inches too far. Now the lion has me in his clutches and quickly in his mouth. And just that quick... I'm history!
There you have it. Being in temptation does not mean that we are in sin. If it did, then it sure would appear that Jesus sinned in Matthew 4:1."Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." We know that Jesus didn't sin, so there must be more than meets the eye regarding temptation. As a therapist and former pastor, I see both the biblical truth of this issue as well as the emotional/psychological trek that a person naturally goes through when battling this mind-whipping foe. Temptation takes a progressive path toward potential decline (sin). It doesn't always happen in one fell swoop. I think the progression is pretty clear in James 1:14-15. First there is temptation, and then if that isn't effectively addressed, it will give way to lust, then sin, then death. It's the being "carried away" in (verse 14) that gets us into trouble. Clearly temptation is a power that affects each and every one of us affecting some of us even more than others.
Temptation is both a hugely powerful seductive and enjoyable stimulant and a deceptive self-destroying landmine. You can't escape it. Temptation is everywhere. It's designed specifically by the enemy to take you out while leaving its debilitating fingerprints of guilt, shame and hopelessness embedded in your psyche, in particular, when you've given into it.
At this point you might be thinking, "Ok, I get it…temptation is something that we'd all rather not have to battle." In the evangelical community, it feels as if it has taken out the best of all of us to some extent. But this is nothing new; this phenomenon didn't just show up in our lifetime. It's as old as Adam messing up in the garden and will be here until we all close our eyes in death. But believe it or not, I think temptation can actually be our friend if we use it to our advantage. It can be very effective in our lives because it shows us the cracks in our armor. It exposes our real selves, our propensities toward certain sins and brings to light the sins that we're blinded to. It's the "great equalizer" that levels all of us, and perhaps for the first time, allows us to see and feel from a totally different viewpoint. It gives us the perspective of the fallen, the wounded and the maimed.
Peter must have had this perspective when after making that bold statement in Mark 14:29: "Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will." And then he did. We catch up with Peter many days after his denial in a surprise conversation with Jesus on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. I imagine the conversation must have been painful as Peter was coming off of his "I never will" speech. The cool thing is Jesus was not only Peter's savior but also his advocate and friend, and because Jesus was familiar with the allurement of temptation Himself, He embraced him with grace and forgiveness. Though Peter wasn't tempted as much as he was deceived by his own self-righteousness, still he experienced personal failure as a result of his human condition. After all, isn't that what temptation is? Deception! Jesus knew the pain and spiritual reduction that Peter was feeling. And because of his failing, Peter could now empathize with the many he would soon be ministering to.
God used Peter's bout with failure to help form him the man that he was designed to be. This experience helped him connect with the many souls that, like him, were caught in their human depravity. That's really what it's all about. Hebrews 4:15 says, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin." Jesus being fully man and fully God battled this flesh war for 33 years, and as a result, now has compassion and connects with our emotional human sufferings…including temptation. The good news is Jesus didn't sin when tempted by the devil. The bad news is we do! So how can we turn the scud missiles of daily temptation into renewed life for us? And most importantly, is it possible to live relatively free of guilt and self-condemnation by virtue of God's great GRACE given to us in Jesus as we walk this human journey? I suggest that we can as a result of the power and great agape of the cross. So, the next time you're tempted, stop beating yourself up. Stuff happens. If you battle and rise above it, praise God! If you don't, then through confession, pick yourself back up while becoming confident in His beautiful grace and endless forgiveness…the great neutralizer to temptation and sin. Also, know that you can learn from temptation. Finally, be determined to become secure in His love and refuse to be identified by anything less than who you are in Christ…redeemed!