Five Practical Strategies to Fight Temptation (Part 2)
In the previous article, I offered a scouting report of Satan’s tactics in temptation from the Scriptures:
In this article, we will walk through five practical strategies for fighting temptation.
Satan’s Scouting Report (Brief Review)
To summarize the previous article, we identified a specific pattern of how Satan tempts us to sin:
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 appears in four major temptation stories in the Bible:
The first sin of Eve in the Garden of Eden: “saw…good…desired [lit., “coveted”]…took” (Gen. 3:6)
The fall of the sons of God with the daughters of men: “saw…attractive [lit., “good”]…took” (Gen. 6:2)
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)
Furthermore, there are at least six other passages where this pattern appears in summary form. In those passages, only the first and last words appear (saw —> took):
Pharaoh’s abduction of Sarah: “saw…was taken” (Gen. 12:15)
Esau’s marriage to 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)
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)
This pattern appears at least ten times in Scripture for a reason: Satan is skillful, but predictable. The better we understand how he works, the better chance we will have to resist him.
Finally, we identified three fundamental principles about spiritual warfare:
Sin never happens spontaneously
We cannot fight temptation by managing behavior
We must find something better to see
In this article, we will expand on how to apply these principles through four practical strategies for fighting temptation.
Strategy #1: Stop Obsessing about the Taking of Sin
Counter-intuitively, we cannot effectively fight sin by obsessing about the final act of taking sin. In some ways, this is a restatement of the second fundamental principle of spiritual warfare: we cannot fight temptation by managing behavior. This time, however, let’s go a little deeper.
There are three reasons that we must stop obsessing over the final taking of some object of temptation.
Overestimating our Willpower
First, we overestimate the strength of our willpower. We falsely believe that we can beat our bodies into submission if only we can define our goal well enough.
This view catastrophically underestimates the power of indwelling sin. Even the Apostle Paul lamented that he could not do the good he wanted to do: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:15, 17). Who can understand our deceitful, desperately sick hearts (Jer. 17:9)?
Overestimating our Discernment
Second, we overestimate our ability to discern the difference between good and evil. Satan is masterful at leading us to evaluate what is good for us independently from God's word. God is the only one who truly sees what is good.
Sometimes, then, we can justify sin by arguing that sin isn't sin at all. Even with the strongest willpower, we cannot resist what we falsely discern to be good.
God is after our Hearts
Third, even if we are able to discern truth and to manage some aspects of our behavior, we miss the whole point. That is, God is not primarily interested in our actions, but in our hearts (cf. Matt. 5:21–48).
Consider Jesus’ interactions with the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16–30; Mark 10:17–31; Luke 18:18–30). Jesus asked the man whether he had kept the commandments not to murder, not to steal, not to bear false witness, and to honor his father and mother (commandments 5–9). When the wealthy man claimed to have kept these, Jesus did not contradict him.
Instead, Jesus pressed against the man’s covetous devotion to money (the 10th commandment), exposing that the man’s heart did not truly love God (commandments 1–4). After all, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “covetousness…is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).
Outward keeping of God’s commandments is important, but it isn't enough. God wants the full devotion of our hearts.
Strategy #2: Stop Looking at the Object of Temptation
Instead, we need to disrupt Satan’s strategy by starting at the beginning: what we see. One of the simplest, but most important, strategies for fighting temptation is to stop looking at any object of temptation.
Satan craftily begins the process of temptation by directing our attention toward something that seems innocent. After all (he reasons with us), there isn’t anything wrong in itself with looking at an attractive person, or gazing at some product you don’t really need, or reviewing a past hurt in your mind.
Make no mistake, though—Satan is preparing you for destruction. The longer your eyes (whether physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually) linger on something forbidden, the more you begin to desire (i.e., covet) it. Then, the more you desire it, the more you are willing to cross any boundaries to get it.
Quite simply, do not feed the beast. Nip temptation in the bud by averting your eyes before you fixate on something God has forbidden. Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Rom. 13:14).
Strategy #3: Unhook Good from Coveting
Still, you will find yourself tempted to fix your gaze on something God has forbidden. When this happens, preach to yourself the undesirability of your temptation.
Satan, you see, wants you to fixate on the forbidden object of temptation. His strategy is to confuse some good element of your temptation with your legitimate, good, God-given desires. That is, he wants you to believe that sin is the only way to find the satisfaction God created you to seek. So, he twists your holy desires to seek after things God has forbidden.
In resisting sin, it is critical to disrupt Satan at this stage. You must acknowledge that, while God created all things good, the object of your temptation seeks to take good “at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which [God] has forbidden” (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 44.)
Jesus Saw, but Did not Covet
Consider Jesus as he approached the cross. He saw the horrors that awaited him, and the Scriptures tell us that he was agonized and afraid. In the Garden of Gethsemane, though, he did not fixate on the possibility of avoiding the cross. Instead, he fixated on his Father's will (Matt. 26:39, 42). Jesus did not covet avoiding the cross; instead, he desired his Father's will above all things.
My personal strategy for reminding myself of the undesirability of sin is simple: I speak (out loud) these words: “That is Death.” Eve thought she could have wisdom at a time and in a way God had forbidden: by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Instead, she received Death.
All temptation is a bait-and-switch, offering us pleasure, but giving us Death. Acknowledging this fact out loud is a good shock to the system, jolting you out of Satan’s spell to remember the truth.
Repent from Covetousness
A secondary aspect of this strategy is to keep in mind that covetousness in itself is sin (Ex. 20:17). Therefore, it is critical to repent—and to keep on repenting—once your heart moves from seeing some forbidden good to coveting it.
Satan wants to assure you that coveting doesn't really hurt anyone, but God tells you the truth in his word. True repentance eagerly brings even the sin of covetousness into the light. Satan must not gain even the smallest foothold into our hearts.
Strategy #4: Fixate on Christ
The 19th-century Scottish theologian Thomas Chalmers observed that it is not enough to recognize that what God has forbidden will lead to death. It isn’t even enough to state the fact out loud!
The only enduring, effective way to resist temptation is to cultivate a desire for something better than our sin. As Chalmers put it, we need the expulsive power of a new affection to drive out our old, sinful affections.
Cultivating Desire for Christ
This is where we can turn the tables on Satan by using his strategies against him. Rather than working to stop seeing the good of an object of temptation so that we covet it, we should gaze upon Jesus Christ to cultivate our desire for him above all things.
In fact, it was Satan who hijacked this process that God meant to lead us to himself. All Satan offers us is a corrupt, cheap version of the better reality. By turning the tables, we are simply re-establishing God's original design.
We see Christ through his word and by his Spirit. It is the Lord who is the Holy Spirit who shines "in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:6). Specifically, we see Christ, the image of God, in his gospel (2 Cor. 4:4)—that is, in his word.
Cultivating Desire for Christ through God's Word
This is why we study God’s word! Not to learn cold facts of Bible trivia, nor to learn all the rules that should manage our behavior. We study God’s word to behold the magnificent glory of Christ as we listen to the voice of our Good Shepherd. The entire story of the Bible testifies to his glory. Thus, the Scriptures give us God's wisdom to discern and love Christ's goodness.
The more we gaze on Christ, the less temptation remains the painful chore of saying no to things we want. Instead, fighting temptation becomes about saying yes to something we want even more: our Lord Jesus Christ.
Pray that God’s Holy Spirit will remove the veil so you can behold the glory of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:12–18). Learn to desire Jesus in his word.
Strategy #5: Lastly, Set Up Behavior Barriers
The first, most important work for fighting temptation is heart work: “Keep/guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). Spend the vast majority of your time, energy, and prayer on your heart. A good heart bears good fruit, but a diseased heart bears bad fruit (Matt. 7:17).
Still, do not leave any stone unturned in your efforts to fight temptation. If there are effective ways of preventing you from taking sin, by all means avail yourself of them.
So, if you are struggling to stay off of the wrong kind of websites, then by all means, install accountability software. Or, if you are struggling to avoid the sin of gossip, then by all means confess that sin to someone who can hold you accountable. Embrace any and all church discipline (whether proactive or reactive) for the sake of your holiness.
These measures cannot address the root of your problem in your heart; however, they may keep you from destructive behavior in some moment of weakness.
Practical Strategies to Fight Temptation
Through all these strategies, keep the words of John Owen in mind: “be killing sin or it will be killing you” (John Owen, Mortification of Sin, p. 50). Sin is death, and the glory of Jesus far surpasses even the grandest pleasure that sin can offer.
Brothers and sister, resist the devil, and he will flee from you (Jas. 4:7)!