Temptation is a common occurrence for humanity. We are tempted to break our diet by that delicious looking morsel of chocolate; we are tempted to sleep in an extra half hour instead of hitting the gym; we are tempted to buy a new item we know we don’t really need. But where does temptation come from? Why are we tempted in the first place? And what hope is there to resist?
Most of us don’t think about the reality of daily temptations any further than quipping on social media about failing attempts to keep New Year’s resolutions. But thinking deeper about the source and purpose of the battles we face each day will better equip us to fight when they threaten to overtake us.
Where does temptation come from?
Our Savior, Jesus Christ, was no stranger to temptation. In three of the four gospels, we can read about the temptation of Jesus at the beginning of his earthly ministry. Matthew accounts, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).
There are two key things to notice here. First, Jesus was led by the Spirit. God himself was the one guiding Jesus to the place where he would be tempted. How could this be?
There is nothing outside the control of God’s sovereign will. The apostle Paul tells us that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). And God’s word, as recorded by the prophet Isaiah, says:
“I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.” Isaiah 46:9-11
This is important to remember when considering temptation. Our temptations do not take God by surprise. God wasn’t blindsided by Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. He didn’t scramble around heaven, hastily throwing down some ministering angels to rescue his Son out of a terrible predicament. The whole scene was prearranged by him.
And so it is for us. God leads us to the temptations we face. This is why Jesus models how to pray by saying, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13).
Secondly, it is important to note that although God does the leading, he does not do the tempting. When Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, it was to be tempted by the devil, not by God. James writes, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). This is paramount for us to grasp so that, in our already weakened state of temptation, we are not also tempted to accuse God of doing wrong. He is too holy and good to be capable of evil.
Additionally, as God is doing the planning and the leading, and Satan is holding out the proverbial forbidden fruit, the Bible makes it clear that we also play a part in our temptation. James goes on to say that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). If it weren’t for something inside of us that craved the forbidden thing, it wouldn’t be possible for us to be tempted in the first place. The desire inside of us that creates a craving for things contrary to God’s law is a result of our fallen sinful nature. And it is our own desire that gives way to sin and ultimately makes us responsible for our own demise (James 1:15).
For what purpose are we tempted?
Since God leads us to different temptations, it is not possible for them to have an evil purpose because God is not capable of evil. But why does he do it? What good purpose could they possibly have in our lives?
Why is it that the person celebrating six months of sobriety suddenly has alcohol shoved in their face at an office party? Why does the person trying to leave a shameful relationship in the past randomly hear a slew of songs on the radio that remind them of the romance? Why does the person who hates to love to gossip just happen to be in earshot of a private conversation?
Again, we can go to James and see that trials and temptations come in order to test us: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). The purpose of the temptation is that we will learn to resist. We should not see the temptation as a sign that we are supposed to cave but as an invitation to fight.
The alcohol is not there for the recovering alcoholic to give up all restraint and indulge. The love songs are not there for the person struggling with sexually immorality to ignore godly wisdom and call up their old flame. The conversation is not overheard to give the gossiper more fuel for the fire of their tongue. Temptations are a call for us to stand firm against the schemes of the prowling prince of darkness who is cleverly using the desires of our hearts against us. They are a call to remain steadfast under trial, knowing that if we stand firm to the end, we will receive the everlasting crown of life God has promised us through Christ. And they are a call to see our utter dependence on God because we cannot stand firm against temptation without him.
Help in time of need
And God will help us when we are tempted. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). God does not lead us into the wilderness of temptation as a cruel joke in order to watch us squirm. He loves us and he knows what is best for us. He knows the only way to melt the dross away from the diamond of our hearts is to expose its dark places, make us face them, and then give us the grace we need to escape them.
Often when we are tempted, we feel like we are the only one facing such battles. We are tempted to think we must bear this burden alone and that there is no way out. But God has not left us to waver in the wilderness alone. He has given us his Son and his Spirit.
Christ is able to help us when we are tempted because he also suffered while being tempted (Hebrews 2:18). He sympathizes with us because he became one of us and went through the same things we do, yet we can look to him because he did it perfectly, without sin. He is there to offer mercy and grace in our time of need and provide the way of escape (Hebrews 4:15-16). The Holy Spirit is there inside of us, empowering us to endure and “not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16), and strengthening our hearts according to the Word.
When we are tempted, instead of seeing it as a greenlight to give in, let us stop, remind ourselves of what is true according to God’s Word, and take our temptations to the throne of grace in prayer:
Lord, I know this temptation is not by accident. I see your sovereign hand guiding me here, not to give me license to sin, but to produce something good in me that wouldn’t happen any other way. I am weak, Lord, but you are strong. Your Word says this temptation is not something I am unable to bear; I do not have to give in. Thank you that you have already given me the power to resist and endure through the Spirit. Deliver me from the evil desires of my own heart. Amen.