Temptation doesn’t leave us alone. It shows up every day. God’s words to Cain in Genesis 4:7 have always haunted me “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Temptation is always knocking. It wants to entice you to answer the door of disobedience. God charges us to learn how to rule over it and defeat temptation. How do we do that?
There are two parts to following God well. The long-term part is growing in our relationship with Jesus and allowing him to transform us more and more into his image. As we become more like Jesus, we live more naturally like Jesus. Obedience becomes the natural fruit of our life. The life of Christ pours from our life. That takes a long time and we grow into it little by little. The short-term part is that we need to learn to rule over sin and we need a strategy to do it. There are many helpful lessons to share on this, but here is my top strategy to defeat temptation.
Decide in advance how you will respond to specific temptations.
Have you ever set out on a quest to lose weight or to begin an exercise program? How about a New Years resolution to get up early and study the bible? If you are like me, the alarm clock goes off at the earlier time on Monday morning and the debate begins. Do I really want to get up? Is this really that important? Couldn’t I start tomorrow? If you are going to be successful in such a commitment, you cannot decide in the morning what you are going to do. You must decide in advance. At 6 a.m., I am going to get up and run for thirty minutes or I am going to read the Bible for twenty minutes and then pray for ten. The temptation will be to sleep in or start another day. The only way around it is to have made a firm decision: this is what I am going to do. And then do it.
The power of this simple idea is that it takes the options off the table. Satan loves to tease you with options and tell you why they are legitimate choices. The best strategy is to fight that war before you arrive at the field of battle. Decide in advance what you will do and how you will handle a given situation. This is especially helpful when it comes to temptations that flourish with a rush of emotion like lust or angry outbursts. No man thinks clearly when lust bangs on the door. Who has a clear mind when their temper rises? But, if you decide in advance how you will respond in those situations, the clear thinking has already been done. Now, I am not saying that you will always follow through on those decisions, but it is an enormous help. When you do blow it, repent of your sin, enjoy the grace of God and start again.
I first learned this strategy from the Apostle Peter. In 1 Peter 1:13, as he is getting ready to call us to obedience and holy living, Peter exhorts us to prepare our minds for action. Check out 1 Peter 1:13-16 here. In other words, we need to mentally prepare in order to obey and live a holy life. I think this strategy of deciding in advance how you will respond to a temptation is a good example of that idea.
Recently, I read a post by James Clear, here, about decision fatigue that added another layer to this idea. Clear says that we are faced with so many decisions that we become mentally tired and then are prone to bad decisions. We will choose the easy thing rather than the harder thing. In our application, we become much more likely to choose sin. This makes a lot of sense to me because temptations are especially tough to resist when we are tired. This is especially true if it is a temptation of indulgence. Throwing down a bag of Oreo’s after a long day or indulging in porn during a time of stress becomes much more enticing. We have to do the decision making when we are on solid ground and not when we are worn out from the grind.
A good place to start with this is to simply think about the most common temptations that you battle. When do they tend to rise up? Identify the temptations and the situations that most often bring them about. Then determine how you want to respond in those situations. You might consider an alternative action when tempted. I knew a man who decided that whenever he was tempted with lust, he would begin to pray for missionaries which would refocus his attention and eliminate the temptation. It might be helpful to connect your response to the temptation. For example, if you are criticized, rather than returning fire with fire, turn the situation around and offer encouragement in return. Maybe it’s just a matter a deciding that the answer to the temptation is “no.” Period. No negotiation.
Whatever seems like the best response to a given temptation in your life, decide in advance how you will handle it. Ask God for his help and follow through. A holy life is just a bunch of choices to please God. Make those choices in advance and you might find that obedience comes a lot easier.
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