Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, and Jesus responded by quoting scripture (Matthew 4). However, as you have probably noticed, just quoting scripture does not make temptation go away, and it does not guarantee that we will resist it. After all, even Satan can quote scripture. I would like to recommend some additional strategies in our struggle against sin.
Stay out of trouble
First, stay away from sin. Don’t go looking for Satan just to show that you can withstand his wiles. We aren’t supposed to go looking for trouble, jumping off of spiritual cliffs and expecting angels to rescue us. What I recommend is the opposite: Draw boundaries for yourself that keep you away from the danger.
By boundaries, I do not mean that you see how close you can get to sin without actually going over the line. That is stupid, for the simple reason that our strength of resistance varies from time to time. A boundary that may be safe for us one day may be hazardous to us the next, depending on our emotional state. So a boundary, if it’s going to work, has to be set for our weakest moment, not our strongest.
God doesn’t tell us where to put our boundaries, and we all may need slightly different levels of strictness with ourselves. For example, a photo that is sexually suggestive for one person may not even catch the eye of another. Consequently, people have differing ideas of what sort of pictures to avoid. People with a high tolerance should not look down on those with low tolerance—everyone must judge the risk for themselves.
A person with high tolerance should not “push” the boundaries of the other, saying it’s OK, for that might cause the person to sin. The person with high tolerance should also remember that it is dangerous to overestimate one’s strength. Many aspects of society are designed to tempt, so don’t forget that you are human.
Many of us struggle with temptation in the form of calories. Here, we can break our boundaries every now and then and still recover. Many people have trouble with alcohol, and experience has shown that the safest boundary for most is “absolutely none.” The potential danger is high; the benefits are low; it is simply not worth the risk.
Sexual temptations can also be dangerous, because the consequences of sexual sins are severe. We can’t just “recover” a relationship shattered by infidelity. Here, we must set boundaries well away from the danger zone, just to make sure that nothing happens even in our weakest moments.
For example, our pastors have been given a boundary: They cannot counsel a woman alone. Although the chances of improprieties may be slim, the devastating consequences make the risk too great to allow private counseling. And for similar reasons, youth ministry workers are not to be alone with a child. Safety is too important to leave to good intentions and assumptions.
Boundaries are required for pastors; they are also good advice for members. For example, it is dangerous for unmarried couples to be together in private in a bedroom. It may not be a sin, but it is not wise. Most of the time it may be “safe” (although it isn’t a very good example). But no one knows in advance when a time of weakness will strike. The danger is too great to take an unnecessary chance.
One of our members gave me this example from his experience in construction: When working on a platform three feet off the ground, safety belts were not needed. When working on a platform 30 feet high (even though the chances of falling off were theoretically the same), safety belts were required; all workers had to be attached by rope to something secure. When working on a large flat roof, safety ropes were not required unless the worker was within 12 feet of the edge. In other words, the requirements were adjusted according to risk and the seriousness of the consequences.
The safety rules were particularly interesting for working on a large domed roof. At the top of the roof, where the surface is nearly level, the chances of falling down are practically nil, and the chances of injury are low. One could even go 20 feet out from the center, and the slope would still be quite gentle; even if somebody tripped and fell there would be no danger.
However, one could go about halfway out and still stand up, but there, the roof has a steep slope and a small stumble might cause a person to fall off the building and die. But there was no identifiable point where danger started. Consequently, workers had to be safety-roped no matter where they were on the roof. No specific “edge” made the dome dangerous, because no one could see where the danger zone started. Lives were at stake, and the only sensible precaution was to require everyone, even people on the flat part of the roof, to be safety-roped.
That is what we must sometimes do with temptations. The more serious the consequences of failure, the more cautious we must be. When we are not sure where the danger zone is, we need to back up a bit further to make sure we do not enter it. In other words, if we want to avoid sin, we draw boundary lines for safety, not for getting as close as we can.
Some men who travel alone have a boundary in motel rooms: don’t turn the television on. They find it easier to keep it off than to turn it off once it’s on, and they believe that the potential for harm is too great for them to take a risk. Not all men have the same boundary, but at least these men have a boundary that works for them.
One lesson we should learn about resisting temptation is that we aren’t very good at it. It is dangerous to trust ourselves to always say “no.” We might say “no” 98 times in a row, and weaken on the 99th time. So one of the best ways to avoid problems is to keep out of situations that test our resolve. If we are tempted, maybe that’s a signal that we are already too close.
Paul advises, “Flee fornication!” Don’t take pride in knowing “when to stop.” Don’t trust in your strength to resist. If we are tempted to pad an expense account, we need to keep even more careful records. If we are tempted to use humor that belittles someone else, we need to back off. When we are tempted to take some forbidden fruit, we need to stay far away from it.
We can resist sin better when we have help. Peer pressure can keep us honest, if we are with the right kind of peers. We are less likely to suggest something improper when we think the person with us might disapprove. Sometimes it’s helpful to have friends who are more careful than we are.
When we hide certain activities, when we have secrets in our closets, we may be in danger. The more open we are, the less we hide, the better others can help us.
Scuba divers and mountain climbers know that it’s better to have a buddy. God designed us to walk through life with other people, not on a solo journey. No one has all the strengths—we need the strengths that other people have, too.
Some people have “accountability partners” to help them be honest about certain areas of life. Some people have spouses who do the same thing. A formal arrangement may not be necessary, but it can be helpful. It is easier to resist temptation when we know that someone will be checking up on us. A basic principle is, Don’t do anything you don’t want people to find out.
When people fall
Last, I’d like to note that everybody falls short sometimes. Some people eat too much, some people say too much and some people do too much—and sometimes they get caught. What do we do when a member gets caught—perhaps taken to jail or involved in a premarital pregnancy?
Let the person without sin
throw the first stone. - John 8:7
How do we resist the temptation to condemn, or snub or feel superior? Jesus said, Let the person without sin throw the first stone (John 8:7). He told the sinner, “Don’t do it again,” but he told all the others, in effect: “Don’t throw stones. You need grace, too.” Forgive, just as you have been forgiven. We need to remind ourselves that we need forgiveness, too.
Forgiveness does not mean that we encourage the person to return to the situation that led to the sin. Rather, we can help the person see that better boundaries are needed.
If a person has a weakness in one area, more caution is appropriate. But what if the person doesn’t set wise boundaries, and fails again, and again and again? What if the person seemingly doesn’t learn from the mistakes?
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
Peter asked Jesus about it—how often should we forgive? Seventy times seven, Jesus said (Matthew 18:22), but he really meant that we shouldn’t keep count. God has forgiven each of us an enormous amount (an infinite amount, since we are given eternal life), and we should be equally generous in forgiving the temporary things of this life. Our attitude toward sin needs to be more lenient for others than it is for ourselves.
The best way to resist temptation is to stay away from it. So, what temptations do you struggle with? Is there a better way to avoid the problems? Do you need a friend to help you? Do you need to get professional help?
And when others fail, we need to forgive. Are there certain sins that you find hard to forgive? What can you do about that?