This past weekend in my message “Caught” from our series on the life of Joseph, I spent quite a bit of time talking about temptation. I referenced a definition of temptation from the Puritan pastor and spiritual writer, John Owen, who defines temptation in this way in his book Of Temptation:
Temptation…is any thing, state, way, or condition that, upon any account whatever, hath a force or efficacy to seduce, to draw the mind and heart of a man from its obedience, which God requires of him, into any sin, in any degree of it whatever.
Let me briefly summarize that for us:
temptation is anything with power to draw us away from obedience to God in our actions, thoughts or hearts into sin of any type.
Notice in Genesis 39 the ways in which Joseph encounters temptation in two different manners:
- Situational temptation – Joseph finds himself in a situation that lends itself to temptation. Certainly, there is the ongoing situation of having Potiphar’s wife invite him into bed. However, more specifically, there is the time in which Joseph enters the house only to find a situation where all of the other household servants are gone and only Potiphar’s wife is there. This situation is one in which temptation is likely to arise. That is true for us as well. There are often situations we enter in which temptation is likely to arise. We must be watchful of this.
- Intentional temptation – Second of all, Joseph finds himself not only in a situation prone to temptation, but also in the crosshairs of someone who intends to lead Joseph into temptation. This is also true for us as well. There are often people who intend to trip us up and lead us into temptation. Sometimes those people are nearby us, and at other times that person is actually us. There are times when, in a dark corner of our souls, the person most aiming to lead us into temptation is ourselves. We have to be honest and aware of this fact.
As we continue looking at the topic of temptation, I want to draw our attention to five principles on temptation. These five principles are seen within two separate passages in Scripture, one of which comes from Jesus’ lips and the other which comes from the Apostle Paul’s pen.
The first arises in Jesus’ experience under pressure with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane immediately before heading to the cross. There, Jesus says:
Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Matthew 26:41)
This statement from Jesus offers us the three clear aspects of dealing with temptation.
1. Watch for temptation. The moment that we stop paying attention to the possibility of temptation is the moment it will look for us. Sin and evil, although not hiding under every stone, is definitely lurking in the background of our lives. This should not make us afraid, but should make us watchful. Shortly after Jesus said these words to the disciples, they fell asleep. The disciples always help me feel a bit better about myself. Their lapses mirror my own. And this falling asleep is a good metaphor for often happens with us in light of the surrounding evil. Let’s not fall asleep but let us watch for temptation.
2. Pray immediately when temptation comes. Second, Jesus tells His disciples to pray. Prayer is that ongoing conversation of God in which we are invited to express to God both our love for Him and our deep need for Him. When temptation arises – and you can be assured that it will – the right action when we see it is to call out to God. Now, you may not be in a position where you can fall to your knees and call out to God, but it is never out of place to lift up the simple prayer, “Help, Lord!”, no matter where you find yourselves. We read in Scripture that “The LORD is near to all who call on him” (Psalm 145:18). Pray immediately in the face of temptation.
3. Understand your limitations. Sometime, when we see the failure of another person, we may say, “I am so sad to hear of something so bad happening to that person. I would never do that!” When we head in that direction in our mouths or our hearts I can guarantee you that is the moment we are opening ourselves to the potential for temptation. When I was a freshman in college I attended the Urbana missions conference. I didn’t know anyone and so I was connected with a random roommate, who ended up being a 50-year-old pastor from Jamaica. He taught me so much in those few days, as we began each day in Scripture and in prayer. When we read stories in the Bible about failure, he would say: “There, but for the grace of God go I.” That is the truth about our humanity. As Jesus says, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” We must be aware of our human weakness and limitations. Temptation does not come very often to the areas where we are strong. Instead, the temptation arises in the areas where we are weak. It is better to know those weaknesses before the temptation comes.
Now let’s look at another verse that is so important on the topic of temptation. It comes in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Let me add two additional principles to those I have discussed above.
4. God is faithful. Paul tells us that in the midst of temptation, God is still faithful. He will not give us something that is beyond us. It may feel like something that is beyond us. When we exercise, we often go to the outer limits of what we can do so that we can build muscle or endurance into what we cannot yet do. Often, as with exercise, God will push us to what feels like the outer limits of what we can do so that He can build something new and more divinely powerful into our lives. When temptation arises, remember that God is still faithfully with you and working in and through you in that moment.
5. God will provide a way out of temptation. Lastly, remember that God will always provide a way out. First of all we should watch for temptation and last of all we should watch for the way out of the temptation. It may not always be clear. Sometimes we will need the help of someone else to identify and deal with temptation, including helping us find the way out. If you are dealing with an area of temptation in your life right now, I would encourage you to reach out to a trusted friend or family member today to talk about it. Simply naming that temptation with another releases some of its power over you. Not only that, but that trusted person may have the perspective to help you see the way out of the situation. Hopefully our way out will not look like Joseph running out of the house without his cloak, but it is better to be vulnerable in the moment than to have our failure send uncontainable ripples, like a stone thrown into a still pond, into the lives of family, friends, and the broader community.
Now, some people say we fall into temptation because we love ourselves too much. I believe that is wrong and, in fact, that the opposite is true. I believe we fall into temptation because we love ourselves too little.
What happens in temptation is that we often settle for a weaker picture of who we are that pales in comparison to God’s best for our lives. When we latch onto that weaker picture of who we are, we love ourselves too little and aim too low. We aim for something less than God’s best for us. And from this incorrect aim, our love for ourselves is not strong enough to lead us into God’s best. When we love ourselves too little and aim for a pitiful picture of who we are, we often will fall into temptation.
Instead, we most love God with all of who we are and see who we are meant to be in Him and through His Word. When we have that powerful picture of our greatest potential in Jesus Christ, we begin to aim for it. Then, with appropriate self-love overflowing from God’s love for us, we have a greater aim and find greater strength in God to resist the pitiful offerings of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
 John Owen, Of Temptation (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classical Ethereal Library), 10.