Temptation is something that every human person experiences. At times we may wonder why God permits it. Why does He allow moral and spiritual dangers to afflict us? Could He not prevent every temptation that confronts us? And if He can, why does He not? Is He just setting us up for failure?
There are many mysterious aspects of God’s will, to what He prevents and what He allows. However, there are some explanations that at least partially address the presence of temptation in our lives.
On the one hand, temptation is a necessary result of the fact that humans have 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 slaves, animals, or inanimate objects. He wants children who love Him freely. Love presupposes freedom. Our “yes” only has meaning if we are permitted to say “no.” So freedom presupposes the ability to choose.
Temptation emerges from the “no” side of the equation. Sinful choices always contain something that is appealing to us. We are not drawn to that which is wholly unappealing. There must be something in sin that at least partially appeals to us otherwise it would not really seem to us as that we needed to make a choice at all.
So in a certain sense temptation is necessary if choices are to exist and freedom is to be real. God permits temptation as a necessary condition for freedom and choice.
Further, 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 can come from temptation. Let’s consider some of them.
1. Temptation can teach humility. Origen 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 drawn away, how easily we stray. We are like sitting ducks. We live by the mercy of God. Were it not for His grace, think 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 overweight and yet still want four doughnuts for breakfast. We know the harm of illicit sexual activities but still lust burns away within us. We know that we are headed for bankruptcy yet we can’t seem to rein in our spending! We think we know so much, that 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 difficulty with temptation shows how miserably weak and pitiful we are. All we can do is to cry out 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!
2. Temptation discloses our hearts. We often like to think highly of ourselves and tell ourselves how much we love God, but the things that tempt us have a way of disclosing the more honest truth. Yes, we love God—but not nearly enough.
Frankly, the things that tempt us disclose that our hearts are very divided. The ugly truth is that if we’re not careful, we’ll 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 temptations remind us that we are also very enamored of the world and its passing glories. Yes, we love God, but how we also love our little trinkets, our sinful pleasures, our opinions, our anger (and we feel so right as it courses through us)! Yes, we say, “Lord, how beautiful your dwelling places,” and then lust cries out “How much more beautiful are the things available in the dark corners of the Internet.”
So, whatever your temptations are, they tend to disclose your heart. Realize that all the little lies we tell ourselves like, “I’m basically a good person,” have to yield to the more honest assessment disclosed by temptation. We’re all a mixed bag. 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 we also easily 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?
If we’re smart, we’ll 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 the things that tempt us that seem pleasurable, temptation is 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 around. It is like hammer blows or overwhelmingly loud noise. Satan, the world, and the flesh 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 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.
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 as “test.” The tests and challenges of life can strengthen us if we address 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 be able to lift twenty. Walking one mile prepares us to be able to walk two.
While at times wearying, battling temptation 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, but that has still endured.
Here is real faith! In the world of temptation, in a world of many opportunities to say “no,” our “yes” shines ever more gloriously. We said “yes” when it was hard to do so!
Temptation, properly endured and overcome, shows forth the glory and the genuineness of our faith.
Yes, temptation is mysterious, but it has its place, and by God’s grace it even brings benefits!