Several years ago, I heard the story of a woman who was so driven to distraction by a problem at home that she finally sought the help of a counselor.
“I have a white carpet in the front room,” she said, “and every single footprint shows. I try to keep the children from walking on it so it will look nice all the time, but it’s impossible. What can I do to keep the kids off the carpet?”
The counselor thought a moment, and then asked a simple question: “What would it mean if there were no footprints in the carpet?”
The woman gasped. “I’d never thought of it like that before. It would mean that there were no children in the house!” And with that, she went home and never again worried about footprints in the white carpet.
Psychologists have a name for this. They call it a “reframe”—giving someone a new point of reference from which to understand a problem.
I hope the title of this article startled you—“The Benefits of Temptation”— because that’s my effort to reframe your understanding of temptation. Most of us think of temptation as something quite terrible, to be avoided at all costs. But did you know that temptation has at least four powerful benefits? You would be the loser if you could not experience temptation.
My wife and I are acquainted with a lady who’s a chocoholic. When someone gives her a box of candy, it’s gone before the day’s out. “Chocolate is my temptation,” she says. “I can’t resist it.”
That’s how most of us think, isn’t it? We claim that sexually suggestive advertisements tempt us to think wrong thoughts; an irritable spouse tempts us to become angry; things on an open shelf in the department store tempt us to shoplift.
We’re inclined to think that the temptation is “out there’’ in the world around us. But notice what James said: “each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (James 1:14).
While the objects that prompt the temptation are often outside of us, the actual temptation is always on the inside, in our minds.
That being the case, temptation can teach us valuable lessons about ourselves. Jennifer’s story is a perfect example.
Dave’s daughter Brenda was 13 when he married Jennifer. Jennifer and Brenda got along passably well for a while, but by the time Brenda was 15, they were hopelessly at odds. As far as Jennifer was concerned, Brenda was completely irresponsible. She didn’t care what kind of food she ate, what her room looked like, or whether she made As or Fs in school.
Jennifer begged and nagged and yelled, but nothing seemed to make any difference. At times she was tempted to wonder whether she’d done the right thing in marrying Dave.
Fortunately, Jennifer was a strong Christian, and she prayed long and earnestly, “God, please change Brenda!”
Gradually, though, Jennifer began to realize that the problem wasn’t just Brenda. “I’d always prided myself on my self-control,” she later confessed. “Jennifer never got angry. Jennifer never lost her temper. Jennifer was always in charge of herself.” And all Jennifer’s friends from the past would have told you that was true. Dave himself would have vowed, had you asked him, that he married the self-controlled Jennifer. But Brenda could have told any of them about another Jennifer they had never suspected—least of all Jennifer herself.
Jennifer never knew about the irritable person hidden deep inside her all those years. So how did she find out?
Temptation revealed to Jennifer a side of herself that she could never have learned about any other way. She thought Brenda—something outside of herself—was the trouble. But hard praying and a good bit of hard thinking helped her to realize that the fault also lay within herself. She was unpleasant to live with. As soon as Jennifer began working on her own unpleasant disposition, Brenda became much easier to get along with.
None of us can ever overcome a problem or a sin we don’t recognize. By exposing our imperfections so that we can bring them to Jesus for victory, temptation is one of our most valuable aids in achieving Christian maturity.
I think that’s why Peter said, “Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, . . . but rejoice” (1 Peter 4:12, 13).
2. Spiritual change
Our sins and bad habits are profound spiritual issues. In order to overcome a temptation, we need an internal spiritual change.
God’s Holy Spirit is the One that brings about that spiritual change. That’s what Jesus meant when He spoke about the new birth. “I tell you the truth,” He said, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of . . . the Spirit” (John 3:5).
However, God’s Spirit won’t force Himself on us. Rather, He reminds us of the temptations we need to overcome through a process we call “conviction.” Jesus said that “when he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin” (John 16:8).
You and I need the internal spiritual change, the new birth, that Jesus spoke about, and temptation provides an opportunity for God’s Spirit to remind us of our need for that change.
Temptation becomes a wonderful spiritual blessing when we allow it to remind us that we need God’s help to overcome it.
3. Strength through resistance
One evening several years ago, I watched an Olympic weight-lifting contest in which Vassily Alexeev put 561 pounds over his head for the clean and jerk. The man was huge. I think he could have fought a grizzly bear and won!
How did Alexeev get that way? By pushing barbells up and down, up and down, day after day. The weights pushed down on him, and he pushed up on them. Continued resistance to the weight of the barbells developed his muscles until he became one of the strongest men in the world.
That’s something like the way Christians overcome sin. Temptation is our heavy weight. We don’t like it. We wish we didn’t have to put up with it. But do a reframe on yourself. Think of the weight as an opportunity to resist, because through resisting temptation, you develop a spiritual strength that you could never get in any other way.
My wife and I used to have a couple of dachshund pups—Fritz and Schnitz—that we were very fond of. Dachshunds, as anybody knows who’s been around them very long, are a happy-go-lucky sort that love to wiggle and squirm and chase, and they don’t like to do what they’re told. They don’t mean to be bad. There are just too many other interesting things than doing what one’s master wants.
My wife and I finally decided that Fritz and Schnitz had to be tamed, so we took them to obedience training. And there we learned the secret: Repeat the desired command over and over, each time putting the dog in the desired position or making him go through the desired motion. Eventually, the dog will catch on and obey the command every time—or at least most of the time!
It’s much the same with us humans. If we repeat a thing often enough, it becomes a powerful habit. And temptation provides us with the opportunity to develop that new habit. Resist it often enough, and in due time you’ll stop doing it. So don’t feel bad about the temptation continually bothering you. Use each occasion as an opportunity to practice resistance.
The four benefits of temptation I’ve shared with you provide an unbeatable formula for overcoming your temptations.
- First, you can never conquer a wrong trait unless you’re aware of it. Watch the things that tempt you, and you’ll discover a gold mine of information about your inner life.
- Second, once you’ve recognized a bad habit or sin, God’s Spirit will keep reminding you of it.
- Third, ask God to give you the strength to resist the old habit and build a new one.
- Fourth, let the repeated temptations provide you with the many opportunities you will need to practice that resistance.
You can also use each so-called failure as an opportunity to repeat the process I’ve described here. Reflect on why you yielded and what it taught you about yourself. That way you turn even your defeats into victory!