One thing that is common to every human person is the reality of temptation. At times we may wonder why God permits it. Why does he allow mortal and spiritual dangers to afflict us? Could he not by word of command prevent every temptation that afflicts us? And if he can, why does he not? Is he just setting us up for a fall?
Of course there are many mysterious dimensions to God’s will, to what he prevents and what he does not, to what he permits and what he does not. However, there are some explanations that can be advanced that at least partially answer the mysterious presence of temptation.
On the one hand, temptation is a necessary result of there being choice. God has willed that some of his creatures (angels and men), should be free in order that they might love. God seeks sons and daughters, not inanimate objects, animals, or slaves. He wants sons and daughters who love him freely. Love presupposes freedom. Our “Yes” only has meaning if we have the capacity to say “No.” So freedom presupposes choices.
Temptation emerges from the “no” side of the equation. It is among the characteristics of sinful choices that they contain something appealing to us. Now it does not pertain to us to be drawn to that which is wholly unappealing. Thus, there is something in sin that at least partially appeals, otherwise it would not really seem to us as being a choice at all.
So temptation, in a certain sense, is necessary if choices are to exist, and freedom is to be real. God permits temptation as a necessary condition for freedom and choice.
Beyond this we can consider that God never permits something troublesome except that a greater good will come from it. Hence, it is perhaps striking but true to recognize that there are some good things that come from temptation. Let’s consider some of them.
1. Temptation can teach humility. Origin says in his commentary on prayer, Temptation has its usefulness. … It teaches us to know ourselves in such a way that we discover the fullness of our misery, and it leads us to give thanks for the benefits conferred upon us (De Oratione, 29).
If we have any conscience at all, nothing can humble us more than temptation. Through it we realize how easily we can be tempted, how easily we can be drawn away, how easily we stray! We are like sitting ducks. We live by the mercy of God! Were it not for His grace how much more sinful and lost we would be!
Just thinking about temptation for a moment shows how crazy we are! Even when we know how harmful things are for us, we still desire them! We’re a hundred pounds overweight and yet we still want four doughnuts for breakfast. We know the harm of illicit sexual activities but still lust burns away within us! We know we are headed for bankruptcy yet we can’t seem to stop spending! Yes, we are more than half-crazy. We think we know so much; we think we are so smart, and yet we are drawn to do the stupidest things. So often the slightest breeze of temptation can knock us over.
If we are honest with ourselves, we realize that our temptation shows how miserably weak, pitiful, and poor we are. All we can do is cry to God for help, and pray that he will build virtue in our life, slowly but surely. Help us Lord, save us from ourselves and our foolish desires!
Yes, temptation can make us very humble.
2. Temptation also discloses our hearts. We often like to think highly of ourselves and tell ourselves how much we love God and so forth. But temptation has a way of disclosing the more honest truth. Yes, we love God—but not nearly enough.
Frankly, temptation discloses that our hearts are very divided. The ugly truth is, if we’re not careful, we have many lovers. The book of James says it plainly, Adulterers! Do you not know that a friend of the world is an enemy to God? (James: 4:4)
Yes, we have many lovers. One moment we sing of our love for God, but truth be told, temptations remind us that we are also very enamored of the world and its passing glories. Yes we love God, but oh how we also love our little trinkets, love our sinful pleasures, love our opinions, love our anger (and we feel so right as it courses through us)! And yes we say, “Lord how beautiful your dwelling places,” and then lust cries out “Yet how much more beautiful are things on the Internet late at night.”
So, whatever your temptations are, they tend to disclose the heart! And if we are honest, we must realize that all the little lies we tell ourselves like, “I’m basically a good person,” have to yield to a more honest assessment as our hearts are disclosed by temptation. Truthfully, we’re all a very mixed bag; our hearts are easily duplicitous, divided, obtuse, and just plain sinful. Yes we love God, but we also lust after and pine for many inappropriate people and things. Yes we are grateful to God and know how good he’s been to us, but so easily we retreat in fear and become stingy and unforgiving.
Temptation teaches. Certain things tempt us more than others. Why is this? Learn from what tempts you as to the true condition of your heart. Some things don’t tempt us as much as they used to, thanks be to God! Why is this? And how has God accomplished it?
Yes, one advantage of temptation, is that it discloses the heart. Here too, if we’re smart, we will run to God and fall to our knees saying, “Help me Lord; save me; have mercy on me and keep me by your grace!
3. Temptation can teach us of the oppressiveness of sin and Satan. Although there are aspects of temptation that seem pleasurable to us (otherwise it would not be temptation), temptation is also a crushing burden (for anyone who has a conscience—and we all do).
Nothing teaches us more about the oppressiveness of the world, the flesh, and the devil than temptation. Temptation is like a weight that we have to carry about. It is like hammer blows or loud overwhelming noise. Satan, the world, and the flesh oppress us, annoy us, pick at us, and with unrelenting pressure seek to destroy us. Temptation is intrusive, burdensome, and just plain annoying. Temptation is filled with lies, half-truths, empty promises, and fleeting pleasures. At the end of the day, it offers nothing but a train wreck and all the disaster that sin brings.
If we will but take a moment and reflect, it is not hard to see how true all of this is. Temptation discloses just how awful, annoying, and just plain irritating Satan is.
How this contrasts with the gentle, unobtrusive, whispering voice of God, who respects our freedom! God seldom, if ever, shouts or gets in our face and pressures us; He does not lie to us.
Temptation discloses how awful and oppressive the world, the flesh, and the devil ultimately are.
4. Temptation can strengthen us. An old hymn says, Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin, each victory will help you, some other to win.
The Greek word for temptation can also be translated “test.” And the tests and challenges of life can strengthen us if we engage them properly. Standing down one threat encourages us to meet the next one with greater strength and wisdom. In weightlifting and athletics, training brings improvement. Lifting ten pounds strengthens us to lift twenty. Walking one mile prepares us to walk two.
Fighting temptation, while at times wearying, also strengthens us to win more readily in the future. Scripture says, Resist the devil and he will flee (James 4:7). Therefore, God permits some temptations in order that they might strengthen us for even greater wins.
5. Temptation can show forth the genuineness of our faith. Scripture says, You may for the time have to suffer the distress of many trials. But this is so that your faith, which is more precious than fire tried gold, may by its genuineness, lead to praise, honor, and glory when Christ Jesus appears (1 Peter 1:6-7). Yes, coming through a world of temptations with our faith still intact shows the genuineness of that faith. It is a faith that has been tested and tried, but that has endured.
Here is real faith! In the world of temptation, in a world of many possible “Nos,” our “Yes” stands forth ever more gloriously. We said “Yes” when it was hard to say “Yes”!
So temptation, properly endured and overcome, shows forth the glory and genuineness of our faith.
Yes temptation is mysterious, but it has its place. And by God’s grace, it even brings benefits!