The reason we don’t see our sin as that bad…

One of the downsides of our fallen humanity is that we have a propensity to justify our sin. We do it any number of ways. Here are a few:

  • Justification by blame-shifting: You make me so mad when you do that.
  • Justification by comparison: I know what I did was wrong, but it wasn’t as bad as what they did.
  • Justification though weakness: I tried to say no, but the temptation was too great.
  • Justification by independence: It’s my life; I think I should be able to do what I want.
  • Justification by merit: I had a hard week; I felt like I deserved the pleasure.
  • Justification by majority: Everybody else is doing it; it can’t that bad.

All of these justifications are wrong, but they feel so right at the time. I came across a great statement in my Puritan prayer book The Valley of Vision. In the prayer entitled “Humiliation” the old saint wrote,

Let me never forget that the heinousnesss of sin lies not so much in the nature of the sin committed, as in the greatness of the Person sinned against.

Now there’s a prayer worth remembering next time your desires start to justify your actions.

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Top 10 biblical truths to combat temptation’s lies

The best way to defend against the tempter’s lie is to know God’s truth.  Jesus answered Satan’s temptations with specific scripture. Here are the top ten lies we experience when we’re tempted, and the corresponding biblical truth. The Psalmist said, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11 NLT)

Lie 1: No one will ever know what you are about to do. Go ahead. No one is watching.

Truth: And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:13).

Lie 2: This temptation is too difficult. Go ahead give in…

Truth: 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).

Lie 3: You keep failing. You’ll never have victory over this sin.

Truth: And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).

I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13).

Lie 4: Your past is too bad. You can’t overcome it.

Truth: … one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14).

Lie 5: You can’t change. That’s just the way you are.

Truth: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17).

Lie 6:  God is keeping something good from you…

Truth: 10For a day in your courts is better than a thousand else-where. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. 11For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. 12O LORD of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you! (Psalm 84:10-12)

Lie 7: You can avoid the consequences. Your situation is unique.

Truth:  For lust is a shameful sin, a crime that should be punished. 12 It is a fire that burns all the way to hell. It would wipe out everything I own (Job 31:11-12 NLT)

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up (Galatians 6:7-9)

Lie 8: The temptation is so strong God must want you to sin.

Truth:   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. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own de-sire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:13-15).

Lie 9: You can overcome this sin alone. Don’t tell anybody.

Truth: Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working (James 5:16).

3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah. 5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin (Psalm 32:3-5)

Lie 10: If it feels right it must be right.

Truth: … put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).

What you have in common with a fish…

A friend of mine just returned from fly fishing in Arkansas. As I was reviewing some of the basics with him before his departure it reminded me of this passage in James, and how when it comes to sinful temptation we see what we want to see.

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. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:13-15).

With the words, lured and enticed, James uses fishing terminology, and his picture is perfect.

I love to fly fish. In fly-fishing, the presentation of the fly on the water’s surface matters. The finicky trout will not be drawn to a clump of feathers and fur that looks like feathers and fur. That presentation does not awaken his desire to strike. But a clump of feathers and fur that looks like a freshly hatched mayfly resting on the surface of the water will awaken the fish’s desire. If the imitation is good enough, the fish will see what he wants to see. He will strike. Unbeknownst to him, there’s a hook in the imitation, and a hungry fisherman on the other end of the line. Perhaps this is the reason why we speak of those who have given in to addictive sinful behaviors as those who are “hooked.”

True happiness will never be found in desiring the things God has placed off-limits, even though they promise to satisfy. We would do well to remember we are seeing what we want to see. Our desire has morphed the picture. Because our desire is so strong, we believe the thing forbidden is actually the thing that is best for us. We are lured and enticed. And just like the fish we invite death and disaster when we succumb to this temptation.

Lessons learned from the temptation of Jesus

When we face temptation, we would do well to examine the lessons Jesus practiced when he was tempted. Here are four:

(1) He was led by the Spirit of God (Matt. 4:1)

Matthew records that Jesus was led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness to be tempted. We know that God cannot be tempted, neither tempts he any man (Jam. 1:13), so the Spirit of God wasn’t doing the tempting, he was doing the leading. This is an important distinction, and a vital reminder of this truth: Jesus was not alone in his temptation. The Holy Spirit was with him.

Often we feel alone in our greatest temptation. We look to the left then to the right, and choose to sin because we think no one is watching (Heb. 4:13). We get discouraged because we think we have to battle the temptation by ourselves. The Scripture gives this great reminder: we’re not alone (Heb. 13:5).

(2) He was dependent on the Word of God (Matt. 4:4).

Three times Jesus would say, “It is written.” The first verse Jesus quoted was “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Are we that dependent upon the word of God when we face temptation? When was the last time we actively memorized verses that prepared us for the temptations with which we personally struggle? Jesus said, “We live by every word that comes from God.” That’s dependence.

(3) He was defensive for the character of God (Matt. 4:7)

Just like with Eve in the garden, Satan’s ploy was to draw into question the character of God.  “Throw yourself down from this temple and God will send angels” (Matt. 4:6). It’s as if Satan is saying, “That’s what God said, right?”

Jesus countered with, “You shall not test the Lord your God.” Jesus was saying, “I will not doubt, draw into question, or test God’s character.” The character of God is true and unchanging. When we are tempted we should not be surprised that the tempter attacks the character of God. Questions come into our imagination like:

  • Why would a loving God allow this to happen to you?
  • Is God really all-powerful? Why didn’t he stop the circumstances that brought such pain?
  • Is God really all-wise? Shouldn’t he have known your situation better?

 Temptation always places a question mark over the character of God. Jesus defends the character of God, and thus further prepares himself for his role of submission in the Garden of Gethsemane 3 years later.

(4) He waited for the provision of God (Matt. 4:11).

After 40 days of fasting Jesus needed ICU level care. God provided. He sent angels. They came and ministered to Jesus in his malnourished state. The angels appear to be the ones who break Jesus’ 40 day fast (Matt. 4:11). Jesus was willing to wait on God. Though hungry, weak, and hurting, Jesus waited on God’s provision, and God answered.

Here’s another window into the nature of temptation. We often sin when we are unwilling to patiently wait. We ought not to be in a hurry. There is always time to wait, pray, and trust God to provide—even if it takes 40 days.

The subtle shift of eyes, desires, and beliefs

The phrase they got away with murder communicates that we believe our sense of justice has been vilified. Whether on the basketball court or the courtroom we think that someone did something wrong, and that they didn’t have to pay.

Such a belief nearly led to the undoing of Asaph, the writer of the 73rd Psalm. He wrote,

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked (Psalm 73:2-3).

There are three subtle shifts that Asaph confesses. Because they are subtle, each of us is vulnerable to the same temptations that Asaph faced.

His Eyes Shift

For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked (Psalm 73:3).

Jealousy starts with a longing look. The coveting heart is revealed when our glance lingers. Jesus had strong words about the eye as the lamp to the body (Matt. 6:22-23). He understood that staring at something allows the mind to begin to desire it even though it is not our possession. Asaph’s eyes shifted off of the Lord, and unto the prideful man. For just a moment, he wished he could be that man.

His Desires Shift

They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind (Psalm 73:5)

If we look at what we can’t have long enough eventually it awakens our desire. We become dissatisfied with the life that we have been given, and we long for something more. The phrase they are not communicates how his desires had shifted. Asaph wanted the freedom of the wicked man. From his perspective, the wicked could do what he wanted without consequence.  He could feed his guilty pleasures, without feeling guilty. Then, he could wake up the next morning and do it all over again without the slightest pang of conscience. Dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances is sure to undermine the belief that God is good (Psalm 84:11).

His Beliefs Shift

Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.  All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence (Psalm 73:13).

It was not in vain that the Psalmist had done the right thing, but it certainly felt that way.

Once the eyes dwell upon another’s possession, once the desire for what you don’t possess intensifies, your belief system will start to crumble.  Asaph temporarily lost sight of the eternal rewards that would be his, and the eternal judgment that would fall on the wicked. He had a rising sense of entitlement. Such a position hardens your heart to your need of grace. 

But there is hope. For the Psalmist ends his song with refocusing his eyes, his desires and his beliefs.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is my strength and my portion forever . . . But for me it is good to be near to God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of your works(Psalm 73:25-26).

Why it feels like it somebody else’s fault…

Have you ever felt like you only do what you do because somebody else did what they did? In four brief paragraphs author Paul Tripp brings insights that are at once clarifying and convicting.  Read them first, then go read Romans 7:14-25, and then read them again.  While he applies these thoughts to regret in the middle of your life the broader application is appropriate for each of us.

The reason regret tends to hit us so hard in midlife is for years we have been convincing ourselves that the problem isn’t really us. Perhaps the biggest and most tempting lie that all of us tend to embrace is that our greatest problems exist somewhere outside of us. This is an attractive distortion because we are surrounded, in this fallen world, by people and things that aren’t operating as they were designed – so there are plenty of available things to blame. I can always find someone in my life who hasn’t responded to me properly. I can always identify a difficult situation that I have had to go through. We all tend to take the unrealistically demanding boss, the consistently rebellious child, the all too impatient spouse, the rude neighbor, or the gossiping extended family member as proof that the seeds of what we are harvesting, in fact, belongs to someone else.

There is an important spiritual dynamic in operation here. Because we are believers, the heart of stone has been taken out of us and has been replaced by a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). This means that when we think, desire, say and do what is wrong, we experience a God-given unease of heart – conscience. When this happens we all seek heart relief. There are only two ways to find this relief. We can place ourselves once again under the justifying mercies of Christ and receive forgiveness, or we can erect some system of self-justification that makes what is wrong acceptable to our conscience. An angry father who has just ripped into his rebellious son will tell himself that it is vitally important for his son to respect authority. This justification re-colors his sin of anger against his son. Or a wife, who has developed regular patterns of gossiping about her husband’s sin to her friends, will tell herself she is seeking prayer and accountability. She now feels comfortable doing something the Bible calls sin. Or a teenager who lies to his father about what he is doing tells himself all the time that he has to because his father just “lives for control.”

It’s an old argument that goes something like this, “His sin makes my sin not sin.” We have all used it, and it does us harm. Our growth in grace, our relationships with others, and our harvest as God’s children have all been crippled by our strategies of pseudo-atonement. We have been given a Savior who is magnificent in love and grace, yet in the face of his mercy, we function as our own replacement saviors again and again.

Notice how radically different Paul’s perspective is in Romans 7. The whole logic of the passage is based on the fact that Paul is locating his struggle with sin inside of himself.  For Paul, the foundational war is not a war with difficult situations (in many places Paul recognizes they exist) or sinful people (Paul tells stories elsewhere of having to deal with them), but a war with the gravitational pull of sin within. Romans 7 can be uncomfortable for us because it takes us to the very place of self-indictment that we have tended to work so hard to avoid. In our skill at avoiding this place, we have set ourselves up for the shock of regret that tends to hit so hard at midlife…

Paul David Tripp in Lost in the Middle, p. 113-114

Analyzing your temptation

I learned a helpful poem when I was younger. But only recently did I begin to use it as an instrument to analyze personal temptations.

I had six faithful friends,
They taught me all I knew
Their names were: how and what and why
When and where and who.

Next time you find yourself falling to a particularly stubborn temptation, analyze the conditions surrounding the temptation to more effectively prepare yourself.

How. What events further your weakness in this area? Do you feel a certain way before you give into the temptation (discouraged, unappreciated, a sense of injustice, etc.). Cain had those kinds of feelings before he killed his brother Abel (Gen. 4:6). God warned Cain that sin was crouching at the door. He was to rule over the desire that had awakened in his heart. Cain never asked the question, “How can I please God?” He simply followed his desires.

What. Have you ever considered the kinds of temptations to which you are most susceptible? Hebrews 12:1 makes a point of saying that each of us should avoid the sin (singular) which so easily entangles. While all temptations are common to man (1 Cor. 10:13), each of us has different temptations that seem especially appealing to our flesh. Categorize your own. Then find the specific Scriptures that combat those temptations.

Why. Understanding your motive for sinning is critical to victory. This is perhaps the most basic question to address, yet the one most often overlooked. Is this pleasing to God or is this pleasing to self? Eve made the choice in the garden to please herself, and so did Adam. He would rather die to be with his wife than live without her (Gen. 3:6). He chose to please himself rather than to please God. A friend of mine captured it this way:

There are only two choices on the shelf: loving God or loving self (Ken Collier).

When. Bruce Wilkerson surveyed men who struggled with internet pornography. Their answers were anonymous and nearly unanimous. His study revealed that most men struggled with internet pornography late on Friday and Saturday nights. With the work behind them and a free weekend ahead of them, they filled their imagined free time with a costly sinful addiction.  Knowing the most likely time for temptation allows you to prepare spiritually for the battle.

Where. I once helped a man who struggled with drunkenness. I grew accustomed to receiving a call at about 4:30 Monday through Friday. He not only knew the time of his temptation, but he knew where it was most likely to occur: A traffic circle north of his home. That’s where the bar was. He would call my cell phone and I would pray with him. One day he remarked, “It’s amazing how that temptation weakens when I get on the other side of the traffic circle.” Do you know where you are tempted? In our home we have a family policy that the family computer is in the kitchen with the monitor facing the door. Even with accountability software on our computers, location matters. Private locations intensify temptation.  

Who. Who’s with you when you’re tempted? Are they a help or a stumbling block? Do they draw you closer to Christ or away from him? Are they the one’s you most admire? (See Phil. 4:9). Who are you following—both literally and on twitter? The Scripture says,

Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character (1 Cor. 15:33)

These are the six key questions that help us analyze stubborn temptations, develop a plan by God’s grace, and realize our need for total dependence upon the Lord (Phil. 4:13).