I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the progression of temptation and sin.
Maybe you’ve been there. You get into a situation that you know is not right or good and you think, “How did I get here?” You feel like you were helplessly swept along by forces or circumstances outside of your control. You might blame God or other people. You excuse yourself because of your weaknesses and your needs. You wonder, “How am I going to get out of this?”
I’ve had a key realisation. It’s that every sin, every bad situation and wrong choice that brings harm and destruction to yourself and others, always has a beginning. The beginning is usually very small. It grows on you gradually. Something you may never even have considered doing suddenly becomes something you’ve done, and maybe feel you can’t live without. You wonder how you got there, when in truth, it all began with a thought. A feeling. A desire. A curiosity. The thing becomes more and more plausible, more and more desirable, till you’re left with the feeling that you can’t walk away.
You try to see how close you can come without doing too much harm. You try it, a little bit, and say you won’t do it again. You make lines that you swear you won’t cross. You say you won’t do such-and-such, but before long, you’ve done it. You then say you won’t do such-and-such that is further along the path, but before you know it, you’ve done that too. You give in, little by little, till you’re somewhere you never thought you’d go. You’re left struggling with shame, regret, pain, and loss. You wonder how you could ever have been so deceived or so foolish.
The key is recognizing those things right from the very beginning, in their very small and sometimes barely perceptible first stages. That pull of desire toward something, while seemingly innocent, if left to grow unchecked, soon grows bigger and bigger. Before long, thoughts and desires become actions. We become addicted to the thing we desire, as we give in more and more. It becomes far harder, or impossible, to walk away. We tell ourselves we can get out before it’s too late. But the reality is, we’re headed down a road which ends only one place.
James describes this progression really well:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15)
It goes without saying that temptation comes in the area of desire. If there’s no desire, there’s no battle. We can’t be tempted by something we don’t want.
Temptation “hooks into” areas of desire in us. We’re “lured” and “enticed” by things that promise to fulfil those desires in meaningful ways. We might know that these things are wrong. But their allure draws us in until we find ourselves wondering if they’re really that bad. We start making excuses for why we need to meet our needs in these particular ways. Our desire feels stronger than our ability to say no.
We might think that since God apparently hasn’t met our need in a particular area, it’s legitimate to try to do it ourselves. As humans, we are extremely skilled at rationalisation when it comes to satisfying our desires. We are masters of thinking up ways to make what we want seem not so very bad, and even reasonable. We blame God, other people, our circumstances for our choices.
Before we know it, we’re trapped into a series of choices that bring harm to ourselves and others, and to our relationship with God: what James calls “death”. Sometimes in big ways, sometimes in small ways.
The answer is to recognize those pulls of desire from the very beginning, when they are very small. Recognize thoughts and feelings that draw you toward something that you know is not God’s will. Recognize the beginnings of a road, which, if travelled down, will lead to death. Kill those things right from the start.
It’s a bit like uprooting a tree. When a tree seed sprouts, it’s very small. It’s no bigger than any other plant, and it’s very easily pulled up. There’s only one small tap root that goes down a few inches into the ground, and you can pluck it out with little effort and little impact to the surrounding earth.
But think about a giant tree that has been many years in the making. It has a huge trunk and a vast root system that spreads out deeply and widely into the ground. Ripping it out requires heavy equipment and a lot of effort, and leaves a massive hole. Even so, there are thousands of pieces of root left behind that may never be removed.
That’s the way sin is. If you are able to recognize it when it is a small sprout, right at the beginning, when it is simple to uproot, tear up, and throw away, it’s quickly and easily dealt with. If it is allowed to grow, if it is fed and watered and becomes a huge tree, it can be removed, but it will be far more difficult, painful, and costly, and things will be left behind that may take much time and care to root out. The impact on your heart and life will be far greater.
God always gives us warning signals. If you are his child, if you have his Spirit, you know when something you are thinking about or desiring is not right. Those signals are there for a reason. They are telling you “danger” because there is danger. It’s not going to end well. God is warning you for your own good. It never pays to go against those feelings, or against what we know is right. It may seem legitimate and plausible, but it never works out that way. It promises life, but it always delivers death.
I’ve overridden those warning signals far too many times. I do it because I want whatever it is I’m being warned against. I’m an incredibly stubborn person, and I think I know best. I allow curiosity about “what might happen” to push me past those barriers. I’ve learned it’s far better to just trust God and listen and obey from the start, and avoid the pain and regret of learning the hard way.
The book of Proverbs is all about wisdom: learning to live well by understanding and keeping God’s commands. I was hit by this verse recently:
Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of the evil. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on. (Proverbs 4:14-15)
It’s really simple. Just don’t go down that road. Avoid it altogether. Pay attention to the warning signals, and turn away. Walk on the path you know is right. You’ll be blessed for it, and you’ll avoid trouble. You’ll be a blessing to others. You’ll know the peace, happiness, and joy that only come from walking in a right relationship with God and others.
That said, the good news in all of this is that God is a God of amazing redemption and grace. No matter how far you’ve gone down the road of any particular sin, he is always ready and willing to forgive you and help you get out. If you humble yourself and cast yourself on him for mercy, he will help you turn around and go back in the other direction (sometimes called “repentance”). He will help you start brand-new and give you freedom from whatever you were in bondage to. It’s never too late. You may have to suffer consequences from what you did, but not forever. God is amazingly good at redeeming and changing literally any situation; in fact, it’s his specialty. If you go to him for mercy, he will never turn you down.