How to Fight Temptation (Part 1): Satan's Scouting Report
In war, an accurate scouting report can save your life. Knowing how your enemy will attack helps you to formulate a plan to give you the best opportunity for success.
Our struggle, however, is not against flesh and blood on the battlefield. Instead, our struggle is against the terrible power of Satan and his demonic army of spiritual forces. This is about more than life or death—this is about eternal life or death.
Thankfully, the Scriptures give us a scouting report about the "schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:11). Like battle-tested warriors, we should study our Enemy's schemes, learn from them how he attacks us, and use that knowledge to stand against the devil by the grace of God.
First Principle: Sin Never Happens Spontaneously
The Scriptures reveal three fundamental principles about spiritual warfare. The first principle is that sin never happens spontaneously. Rather, Satan patiently leads us into temptation through a deliberate process:
First, Satan leads us to see the object of temptation.
Second, Satan encourages us to fixate on the goodness/beauty of that object.
Third, Satan cultivates our desire/covetousness for that object.
Fourth, Satan prods us to reach out and take the object.
This pattern of see —> good —> covet —> take appears in four passages of significant temptations. (In two passages, the word covet is only implied.) This is not merely Satan’s occasional strategy, but his regular approach for tempting God’s people. The better we understand this pattern, the faster we will recognize it when Satan uses it against us.
This pattern is a bit difficult to see in our Bibles, however, since the ESV translates the same four Hebrew terms into a variety of English words:
The first sin of Eve in the Garden of Eden: “saw…good…desired [lit., “coveted”]…took” (Gen. 3:6 — see my exposition of Genesis 3:1–7)
The fall of the sons of God with the daughters of men: “saw…attractive [lit., “good”]…took” (Gen. 6:2 — see my exposition of Genesis 6:1–8)
The sin of Achan to steal from the spoils of Jericho, causing Israel’s defeat at Ai: “saw…beautiful [lit., “good”]…coveted…took” (Josh. 7:21)
David’s sin with Bathsheba: “saw…beautiful [lit., “good”]…took” (2 Sam. 11:2–4)
Beyond these, there are at least six other passages that summarize great sin by using only the first and last words of this pattern (saw —> took):
Pharaoh's abduction of Sarah: "saw...was taken" (Gen. 12:15); notice also Genesis 12:13: "Please say you are my sister, in order that it may be good for me on your account..."; and Genesis 12:16: "And for Abram he [Pharaoh] caused good on her account..." (my translations)
Esau's marriage a third (Ishmaelite) wife: "saw...took" (Gen. 28:6, 9)
Leah's giving her female servant Zilpah to Jacob: "saw...took" (Gen. 30:9)
Shechem's rape of Dinah: "saw...seized [lit., "took"]" (Gen. 34:2); notice also Genesis 34:18: "Their words were good in the eyes of Hamor and in the eyes of Shechem, son of Hamor" (my translation)
Judah's marriage to a Canaanite woman: "saw...took" (Gen. 38:2)
Samson's marriage to a Philistine: "saw...get [lit., "took"]" (Judg. 14:2)
Now that we see the pattern, let's break down Satan’s process, step-by-step.
The Fuel of Temptation: Seeing the Twisted Good (“Saw…Good”)
Satan does not begin by directly offering us temptation. Instead, he leads us to see the goodness of something that God has forbidden, whether with our eyes, our minds, or our hearts. Eve saw the good (but forbidden) fruit. The sons of God saw the attractive (but wicked) daughters of men. Achan saw the beautiful (but devoted to destruction) gold cloak from Shinar. David saw the beautiful (but married) woman named Bathsheba.
In our cases, Satan might lead us to see:
The delicious (but excessive) food or drink
The beautiful (but not our spouse) person
The pleasurable (but worldly) entertainment
The comforting (but idolatrous) possessions
The protecting (but sinful) control
The just (but vengeful) righting of a past wrong
Importantly, it is not wrong simply to notice that these things are good in some sense. We do not sin when we look at delicious food, notice a beautiful person, or think about the goodness of justice in relationship to a wrong we have suffered. Even Jesus recognized that avoiding the cross would have some element of attraction (Matt. 26:39, 42, 53; Mark 14:36, 39; Luke 22:42; John 12:27).
God Made All Things Good
In fact, God originally created all things good. Satan, therefore, can never offer us pure evil. Instead, he can only twist the goodness of God’s creation. In Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis makes this point as he imagines how an experienced demon might coach an inexperienced demon to tempt human beings more effectively:
Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [i.e., God’s] ground…He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 44.)
Think through how Satan exploits the goodness of God's creation:
It is a good thing to desire security (Isa. 11:9), but Satan twists that desire to bind us with craven fear.
It is a good thing to desire justice (Ps. 36:6), but Satan twists that desire to consume us with self-centered envy and wrath.
It is a good thing to desire companionship (Gen. 2:18) and even sex (1 Cor. 7:5), but Satan twists that desire so that we burn with passion (1 Cor. 7:9).
It is a good thing to desire food (Gen. 2:16–17), but Satan twists that desire to encourage us to enjoy too much food gluttonously.
It is a good thing to desire pleasures (Ps. 16:11), but Satan twists that desire so that we seek pleasures at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which God has forbidden.
The reason Satan is so persuasive is that he directs us to see genuine good that God has created in the world—albeit with his sinister twist.
Fixating on a Twisted Good
Satan’s strategy at this stage, however, is to move us beyond simply seeing some twisted good (wrong time, wrong way, wrong degree) in temptation. More than that, Satan’s goal is that we would fixate upon his twisted good so that we miss the better, fuller, truer good God offers to us:
Adam and Eve fixated on the tree of knowledge of good and evil, even though God freely provided them food from all the other trees in the garden (Gen. 2:16–17).
The sons of God fixated on the wicked daughters of Cain, even though God provided godly Sethite women for marriage (cf. Gen. 5).
Achan fixated on the spoils of war in Jericho, even though God intended to give his people spoils from the next battle (Josh. 8:2).
David fixated on Bathsheba, even though God blessed him generously in so many other ways (2 Sam. 12:7–8).
God not only provides true good for all of his people. He also tells us what is truly good in his word. The pattern of “saw…good” did not originate when Satan tempted Eve. Rather, God himself established this pattern in creation. He “saw” that what he created was “good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). God wants to give us good things, and he tells us what is truly good. The good things God gives us would satisfy our deepest longings.
Instead, Satan leads us to reject God’s word by defining for ourselves what is good. The longer we fixate on a twisted good, the more fuel we pour on the fire of our desires.
The Combustion of Temptation: Hijacking our Desires (“Coveted”)
Next, Satan attaches his twisted good to our deepest, God-given longings and desires. The Hebrew word “covet” is a general term that means to “desire” something, whether good or evil. So on the one hand, the Psalmist uses this same word to tell us that God’s laws are to be “coveted/desired” more than much fine gold (Ps. 19:10). On the other hand, this is same the word that appears in the 10th commandment: “You shall not covet…” (Ex. 20:17).
Desire, therefore, is not evil in itself. Desire is neutral, capable of latching onto good or evil. The question is not whether we desire, but what we desire—God, or something else. Indeed, the reason God created us with deep desires and longings is that he intended to satisfy them himself.
But just as Satan twists the goodness of God’s creation, so he also hijacks our good desires. The longer he can keep us fixated on some twisted good, the more he can intertwine our desires with something that God has forbidden. We come to believe that Satan’s twisted good is our only hope for satisfying our good (but hijacked) desires.
This creates a powerful emotional desire for sin because God gave us powerful emotional desires. Satan simply refocuses our God-given desires to hook onto the twisted good of sin rather than the true goodness of God.
At this stage, our hearts start rumbling like freight trains down the path of desire. Here, our hearts become deceitful above all things, and desperately sick (Jer. 17:9).
At some deep level, we instinctively feel that embracing sin is a matter of life and death because that’s how we were created to feel about God. For this reason, we can believe any lie, justify any evil, and rationalize any absurdity.
The fuel of our fixation has combusted so that we will do, say, or think anything to lay hold of the sinful temptation that Satan offers us.
The Consummation of Temptation: Taking the Sin (“Took”)
The final step is where we reach out to take what God has forbidden. Satan, however, has largely finished his work in our hearts before we arrive at the taking stage. The act of sinning merely expresses outwardly what our hearts have already done internally.
From a biblical perspective, this is the least interesting stage of temptation. Nevertheless, we spend most of our time focusing on this element of temptation. The vast majority of our “accountability” schemes largely focus just on this last piece of taking sin rather than all the heart work of seeing and desiring some twisted good.
Second Principle: We Cannot Fight Temptation by Managing Behavior
This brings us, then, to the second fundamental principle about spiritual warfare: we cannot fight temptation by managing behavior. We often try to deal with our sin by setting up barriers to keep us from taking sin, but those efforts don't work. So, we are doomed to failure if we only:
Create an ambitious to-do list to avoid procrastination
Plan our interactions so that we don’t lose our temper
Establish strict guidelines to limit what we eat to avoid gluttony
Set up filters on our computer to keep us from pornography
Swear to ourselves that this will be the “last time”
None of these tactics is wrong in itself. Still, none of these tactics can effectively deal with our sin because each deals only with the final taking phase of temptation. By that point, the freight train of our desires is rumbling down the track at 60mph—a small behavior barrier won’t be able to stop us.
Third Principle: We Must Find Something Better to See
Instead of fighting temptation by managing the end of the process (what we take), we should instead focus on the front of the process. This is the third fundamental principle about spiritual warfare: we must find something better to see than Satan’s twisted good.
Satan’s goal is to blind "the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of ithe gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). We fight temptation, therefore, by striving to see the glory of Christ in the gospel. We must gaze upon the Scriptures, which testify about Jesus (Luke 24:27; John 5:39).
Furthermore, we must pray that God’s Holy Spirit would give us eyes to see Christ Jesus in his word (2 Cor. 3:12–18). Only by seeing his glory do we learn to desire him more than we desire the twisted good that Satan offers us in temptation.
Satan tempts us with a very deliberate process. First, he leads us to see some twisted good—something God has created good, but at times, in ways, or in degrees that God has forbidden. Second, he hijacks our God-given, good desires so that we covet that twisted good as our only hope for true satisfaction. Third, once we desire that twisted good more than anything else, Satan directs us to take sin.