Tactics of Temptation
Satan is by nature and choice a deceiver, a seducer, who is hell-bent on devouring anyone who dares fall in love with the Son of God. On two occasions he is actually called “the Tempter” (Mt. 4:3; 1 Thess. 3:5).
No one was more entranced by the beauty of the Father than the Son. No one was more single-minded in his spiritual focus than Jesus. Yet, notwithstanding Satan’s decisive defeat in the wilderness, we read in Luke 4:13 that he only departed from Jesus “until an opportune time.” If Satan’s attack against our Lord was interminable, we should hardly expect less.
The focus of Satan’s efforts is always the same: to deceive us into believing that the passing pleasures of sin are more satisfying than obedience. But there is great diversity and insidious ingenuity in the way he goes about this task. It behooves us to become familiar with his tactics.
Illustration: I am reminded of a particularly illuminating scene in the movie Patton, starring George C. Scott as the controversial World War II general. It’s early in the war and the movie. Patton is preparing to face Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Germany’s most decorated military leader. Rommel is preparing to launch a massive assault on Allied troops in North Africa. His specialty is tank warfare. But Patton’s intelligence service has intercepted a German radio transmission bearing news of the impending attack. On the morning of the battle, Patton is awakened by his aides. A book lies open on his nightstand. It’s title: “The Tank in Attack” by Erwin Rommel. As Allied forces spring their surprise, and quite successful, assault on the enemy, Patton can be seen smiling as he peers through binoculars at the carnage of battle. “Rommel,” shouts Patton through smiling teeth, “you magnificent (expletive deleted). I read your book!”
How do you win a battle? You read the enemy’s book. Familiarity with his tactics, knowledge of his ways, is essential in waging a successful war. It’s true in military warfare. It’s true in spiritual warfare as well. Patton gained an immeasurable advantage by learning in advance of being attacked where, in all likelihood, Rommel would concentrate his strike. He studied Rommel’s personality, his strategy in previous battles, his philosophy of tank warfare, all with a view to anticipating and countering every conceivable move. Satan doesn’t have a book. But he’s in ours.
It strikes some as odd to say that Satan has a strategy. They mistakenly conclude that because our Enemy is sinful he must be equally stupid. Such reasoning has been the downfall of many in the body of Christ. He does not act haphazardly or without a goal in view. See esp. 2 Corinthians 2:11 and Ephesians 6:11.
A. Four Truths about Temptation
1. First of all, whereas God tests our faith, he never tempts it (James 1:13). The purpose of divine testing is to sanctify and strengthen. The purpose of satanic tempting is to deceive and destroy. Evil neither exists in the heart of God nor is he its author. It most assuredly exists in our hearts and we are its author. This leads directly to the second point.
2. Temptation almost always begins in the flesh (James 1:14). Our flesh sets fire to sin. Satan simply fans the flames. Satan is powerless until we first say "yes" to sin. He exploits our sinful decisions, most often by intensifying the course of action we have already chosen.
Paul makes this point in Ephesians 4:26-27. He exhorts us, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.” Satan is not credited with nor blamed for creating the anger in the first place. We are responsible for it. Satan's response is to use this and other such sins to gain access to our lives and to expand and intensify our chosen course of behavior.
3. The third principle is that temptation, in and of itself, is not sin. This is critically important, especially for those who suffer from an overly sensitive and tender conscience. Jesus was repeatedly tempted (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:15; Mt. 4), but he was sinless. We must resist thinking that we are sub-Christian or sub-spiritual simply because we are frequently tempted. It was the great reformer Martin Luther who first said, "You can't prevent the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” His point is that a temptation only becomes a sin when you acquiesce to it, as it were “fondle” it and “enjoy” it.
4. The fourth foundational truth pertains to the source of a temptation’s strength. On the one hand, temptation is often strong because it comes in the form of an enticement to satisfy legitimate needs through illegitimate means. The strategy of Satan with Jesus in the wilderness is a clear example of this. Bread is not evil. Neither is the desire to alleviate hunger by eating it, especially after you’ve fasted for forty days! Divine protection is a valid promise in Scripture (Ps. 91). Authority over the kingdoms of the world is something God promised the Son long ago (cf. Ps. 2). The temptation, therefore, was aimed at seducing Jesus into achieving divinely approved ends by sinful and illegitimate means. Temptation is often strongest when relief or satisfaction seems to dress itself in the very sin that Satan is suggesting.
The strength of temptation also comes from a tendency to push virtues to such an extreme that they become vices. For example, it is all too easy for the joy of eating to become gluttony, or for the blessing of rest to become sloth, or for the peace of quietness to become non-communication, or for industriousness to become greed, or for liberty to be turned into an excuse for licentiousness. We all know what it’s like for pleasure to become sensuality, or for self-care to become selfishness, or for self-respect to become conceit, or for wise caution to become cynicism and unbelief, or for righteous anger to become unrighteous rage, or for the joy of sex to become immorality, or for conscientiousness to become perfectionism. The list could go on endlessly . . .
The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 is a case in point. The most instructive thing in this incident is that it wasn’t through some overt and terrible act of human depravity, but through an act of religious devotion, that Satan brings about the downfall of this couple. This frightening story of instantaneous execution all began with an act of generosity! It is stunning to think that the very good that God's people attempt to do can be their undoing.
Another instance in which Satan seeks to exploit the otherwise good intentions of the church is described in 2 Corinthians 2:10-11. Certain people in Corinth, ostensibly to maintain the purity of the church, were reluctant to forgive and restore the wayward, but now repentant, brother. This harshness would give Satan an opportunity to crush the spirit of the repentant sinner and drive him to despair, most likely resulting in his being forever cut off from the church.
Or consider how Satan employs this tactic when it comes to sexual relations in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:5). Paul approves of the decision by married couples to refrain from sexual relations to devote themselves to prayer, but only for a season. To abstain entirely for a prolonged period of time exposes oneself to unnecessary temptation (i.e., lust and the satisfaction of one's sexual desires outside the bonds of marriage). Again, we see here an example of how the enemy takes an otherwise godly intention and exploits it for his own nefarious purposes.
B. Seven Tactics of Temptation
1. Satan especially likes to tempt us when our faith is fresh, i.e., when the Christian is only recently converted and thus less prepared to know how to resist his seductive suggestions. This is precisely Paul’s grounds for warning against the premature promotion of a new Christian in 1 Timothy 3:6.
2. Satan especially likes to tempt us when our faith feels strongest, i.e., when we think we are invulnerable to sin. If we are convinced that we have it under control, we become less diligent. Earlier I alluded to one of Oswald Chambers most insightful statements that again pertains to this very point: "An unguarded strength,” said Chambers, is a double weakness".
3. Satan especially likes to tempt us when we are in an alien environment. Gordon MacDonald explains:
"In the environs of home life with family and friends, there is a schedule of routines, a set of support systems, and a way of doing things, all of which lends encouragement to responsible living and, conversely restraint against irresponsible living. Virtually all of these external systems fall away when a person is hundreds of miles from home” (100).
Certainly our desire is that our internal resistance to the temptation of sin, nourished and sustained by our fascination and joy with the beauty of God in Christ, would be adequate in such circumstances. But when the external boundaries that often unconsciously govern our behavior are removed, or are expanded, we soon discover the depth (or shallowness) of maturity in our souls.
4. Satan also likes to tempt us when our faith is being tested in the fires of affliction. When we are tired, burnt out, persecuted, feeling excluded and ignored, Satan makes his play. His most common tactic is to suggest that God isn’t fair, that he is treating us unjustly, from which platform Satan then launches his seductive appeal that we need no longer obey. Physical pain, relational and financial loss, when combined with the silence of heaven, serve only to intensify the appeal of temptation. This is nowhere better seen than in the experience of Job.
5. Satan especially likes to tempt us immediately following both spiritual highs and spiritual lows. Periods of emotional elation and physical prosperity can sometimes lead to complacency, pride, and a false sense of security. When they do, we’re easy targets for the enemy’s arrows. The same thing happens during the doldrums when we find ourselves wondering if God even cares. We become bitter and despondent and sin suddenly seems the reasonable thing to do.
6. Perhaps Satan's most effective tactic in tempting us is to put his thoughts into our minds and then blame us for having them.
"When thoughts or inclinations contrary to the will and ways of God creep in, many dear Christians mistake these miserable orphans for their own children, and take upon themselves the full responsibility for these carnal passions. So deftly does the devil slip his own thoughts into the saints' bosom that by the time they begin to whimper, he is already out of sight. And the Christian, seeing no one but himself at home, supposes these misbegotten notions are his own. So he bears the shame himself, and Satan has accomplished his purpose” (William Gurnall).
7. A related tactic of temptation is for him to launch his accusations as if they were from the Holy Spirit. In other words, he couches his terms and chooses his opportunities in such a way that we might easily mistake his voice for that of God. So how do we distinguish between satanic accusation and divine conviction? Among other things, the former comes in the shape of condemnation that breeds feelings of hopelessness. We are told that our sin has put us beyond the hope of grace and the power of forgiveness. Satan’s accusations are devoid of any reference to the sufficiency of the cross. Divine conviction for sin, on the other hand, comes with a reminder of the sufficiency and finality of Christ’s shed blood, together with a promise of hope and the joy of forgiveness.
C. Four Tactics for Resisting Temptation
1. Satan’s “fiery darts” do not easily penetrate a mind captivated by the beauty of Christ. When our hearts beat with perpetual fascination and our thoughts are filled with the beauty and splendor and adequacy of God, little room is left for the devil to gain a foothold (see Phil. 4:8).
When I received a desperate phone call from a friend whose sister was taking steps to abandon her family, my advice took the following form.
“Jerry, your sister has to have a powerful reason to stay with her family. Right now, she doesn’t believe she has one. She has rationalized her decision in such a way that she can live with her conscience. The impact of this decision on her kids, on her reputation, as well as her sense of moral obligation, are not sufficiently persuasive to override her hunger for adventure. Perhaps she’s convinced herself that the impact will not be all that bad. Perhaps out of self-pity she’s come to the point where she doesn’t care. Not that she doesn’t care for her kids, but when compared with her own needs and the demand she feels in her heart for fulfillment, everyone and everything else runs a distant second. I don’t think she’d ever admit that. All that matters or makes sense to her right now is the hunger in her heart to experience something that neither her husband nor kids nor any amount of “religious activity” (which is how she thinks of Christianity) can give her. She’s right! They can’t give it to her. She’s ignorant of the joy, peace, affirmation, and forgiveness that the child of God is offered. She probably has no idea what you mean when you speak of the pleasures of intimacy with Jesus. But you need to describe it for her in a way that sounds like an invitation, not a condemnation.
That’s really what her hunger is for. She just doesn’t know it yet. God put in her a taste and thirst and passion for the most exquisite food and sweet wine imaginable and she’s determined to settle for day-old hamburger, cold french fries and soda with no spizz. It will taste ok. Pretty much anything other than her current life routines will taste ok. Therein lies the real danger for her. She’s susceptible, in a way she doesn’t feel or recognize, to pretty much any low-grade temptation that makes even the slightest promise of excitement. When you’re hungry like she is, virtually anything will seem like it’s what she’s wanted and not been given. More than that, it will feel like it’s what she deserves (that’s where the self-pity fits in). She desperately needs to hear and see what you’ve tasted in Jesus.
It’s not that she believes God is against her. But her concept of God right now is of someone whose primary task is to demand that she do hard, unrewarding, sacrificial things simply because “it’s the right thing to do,” things that until now in her life she’s been doing and finding tasteless and joyless and tedious and boring and unfulfilling. I encourage you to “tap into her hunger”. She probably expects you to condemn or reject her or get mad at her for “wanting”. Don’t. Affirm her desires and point her in the direction of limitless refreshment and satisfaction. Point her in the direction of Him whose love for her can transform those boring and lifeless daily routines into real joy. Let the aroma of the sweet-smelling fragrance of the knowledge and love of Jesus pass under her nose. Then pray that she’ll catch a ‘whiff’ of it and change directions.”
2. Know yourself. Ask the question often: "If I were the devil, where would I attack me?" In other words, be quick to identify your weaknesses, your vulnerable spots, areas where you've failed before, and take extraordinary steps to protect yourself in the future. If you are susceptible to the effects of alcohol, don’t toy with a casual drink. If your fantasies are easily fueled by visual images, stay away from R-rated movies.
3. Deal radically with sin. In the words of Jesus, “if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). In the next verse (30) he makes the same point about one’s right hand. It’s one thing to say we need to deal radically with sin, but is Jesus recommending self-mutilation as the answer? A closer look at the context will lead us to what Jesus really meant.
Jesus was primarily concerned with those who thought their moral obligation was only skin-deep. Take murder, for example. As long as they refrained from literally spilling blood, these believed they had behaved righteously. They ignored the anger and malicious hatred of the heart which are the source of murderous deeds. The same was true of adultery. Lust was irrelevant. It was a matter of the heart over which the court of Moses had no jurisdiction. Again, so long as the sexual act was avoided, the sexual attitude was irrelevant. But Jesus says otherwise. In Matthew 5:21-26 he pointed out that the prohibition of murder includes the angry thought and the insulting word. Now in 5:27-30 he extends this principle to adultery: not just the physical act but the lustful look and the covetous heart must be curbed.
His point is that we must deal drastically with sin. “We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out” (Carson, 44). In the case of adulterous lust, if your eye leads you astray, “tear it out.” That he does not mean literal mutilation is evident from a simple illustration . . . What our Lord was advocating “was not a literal physical self-maiming, but a ruthless moral self-denial. Not mutilation but mortification is the path of holiness he taught” (Stott, 89).
How, then, are we to respond to the sexually seductive and stimulating things we encounter in the world, in the media, at work? We are to act “as if” we were blind. Says Stott, “behave as if you had actually plucked out your eyes and flung them away, and were now blind and so could not see the objects which previously caused you to sin. Again, if your hand or foot causes you to sin, because temptation comes to you through your hands (things you do) or your feet (places you visit), then cut them off. That is: don’t do it! Don’t go! Behave as if you had actually cut off your hands and feet, and had flung them away, and were now crippled and so could not do the things or visit the places which previously caused you to sin” (Stott, 89). And as you do so, fix your mind on things above. Focus your heart on the promise of a superior pleasure in Christ. Ponder the joy of that river of delights that never runs dry.
4. Confront and conquer temptation at the beginning, not at the end. In other words, the best and most effective tactic against temptation is to deal with it from a position of strength, before it has an opportunity to weaken you. Better to take steps up front to eliminate temptation altogether (if possible), than to deal with it later when your defenses are down.
There is a Tempter whose sole design is to lure you into the embrace of fleeting pleasures and transient sins. His voice is soothing. His promises sound reasonable. But in the end it is death. It is only with Jesus that you can walk “the pathway of life” (Ps. 16:11). It is only in his presence that “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” may be found. “The pleasures of loving and obeying, loving and adoring, blessing and praising the Infinite Being, the Best of Beings, the Eternal Jehovah; the pleasures of trusting in Jesus Christ, in contemplating his beauties, excellencies, and glories; in contemplating his love to mankind and to us, in contemplating his infinite goodness and astonishing loving-kindness; the pleasures of the communion of the Holy Ghost in conversing with God, the maker and governor of the world; the pleasure that results from the doing of our duty, in acting worthily and excellently. These, these are the pleasures that are worthy of so noble a creature as man is” (Jonathan Edwards, 10:305-06).
To what is it, then, that you are invited when you are invited to say No to temptation? “You are invited to the excellent and noble satisfactions of religion; you are invited to such a happiness as is the happiness of angels, and happiness that will be able to satisfy your desires. Be persuaded, then, to taste and see how good it is; keep no longer groveling in the dirt and feeding on husks with hogs” (Edwards 10:305).