Temptation isn’t sin.
That’s an important thing to remember as we grow in being more like Jesus. It’s hard to hold on to sometimes – the struggle to resist temptation is often painful, and the fact that most of us have one or two temptations that keep coming back, points of weakness, can make us feel that we’re ‘doing it wrong’, that there must be something wrong with us or our faith.
Of course, we can avoid many of the things we know ‘lead us into temptation’ – it’s not just about praying the Lord’s Prayer and then carrying on regardless. If there are people or situations which we know tend to lead us into first experiencing and then giving in to temptation, then we should take steps to avoid or counter them. But temptation will still come. Jesus was tempted, and it’s an article of our faith that he was without sin – so to experience the temptation is not in itself a sign that there’s something wrong with us. What makes the key difference is what we do with it.
One of those Ancient Chinese Proverbs which are at least as old as the Internet says ‘you can’t stop the birds flying over your head, but you can stop them making a nest in your hair.’ It’s the same with thoughts of temptation. We can’t stop them coming into our minds and hearts, for as long as we’re this side of heaven (though to overwork the image of the proverb, it’s wise not to stand under a starling roost for any longer than you have to unless you want something other than a nest in your hair. We can avoid the situations where the birds and the temptations flock!) but we can let them pass straight through and out the other side without building a nest within us. It’s when we hold on to the temptation (because we quite like the idea of doing whatever it may be, though we’re determined that we won’t) that it begins to get a foothold and we eventually either give in or get so focussed on the temptation that resisting it becomes an aim in itself. That may give us a feeling of satisfaction in how well we’re doing, but resisting temptation isn’t the point of faith and life.
Jesus deals with the devil’s temptations not by focussing on resisting them, but by turning back to the positive direction in which God is taking him. The devil quotes scripture – but in ways that are calculated to make Jesus take the easy route, not the one to which he is called. Jesus doesn’t bother to argue, nor does he give in just a little bit, nor insist over and over that he’s not going to turn stones into bread (please God, help me not to turn stones into bread, please help me!). He simply quotes Scripture back, confident that he knows where his life is aimed; and it’s better than anything the devil is offering.
Surely we can learn from Jesus in our own temptations – not to focus on resisting the temptation by a great act of will, even one helped by God through prayer, but simply to focus on something else. Focus on what we want, and God wants, our life to be. Temptation is generally about taking an easy second best. About quick gratification at the expense of long-term gain in character, in relationships, in health or whatever it may be.
The particular temptations that affect us differ according to our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. the tax-collectors and soldiers who came to John the Baptist weren’t tempted to jump from the highest tower of the Temple, but they were tempted to use their positions to enrich themselves at the expense of others. So that was where John focussed his call to them. You know what are the temptations that most trouble you. Why not spend a bit of time (a) finding a bit of the Bible to call to mind as an answer to that particular temptation (given that even Jesus found it helpful, it seems daft not to try!) and (b) thinking about and imagining the better way that the temptation is trying to shortcut. Then when the temptation strikes you, bring those two things to mind and, instead of asking for strength to resist temptation, ask for strength to do what’s best.