READ : Matthew 26:41
If you have a conscience, then there’s no more discouraging experience than to repeatedly fall into sin. But if you want to know how to fight against temptation, then here’s a good word for you.
I remember a book sent to me by a friend once that had this intriguing title: Lord, I Can Resist Anything but Temptation. The author, a college chaplain, warns against easy answers, pat solutions to the problem of being tempted. Perhaps he would find my title a bit flip, “How to Deal with Temptation.”
Actually, I agree with him completely. The last thing I want to suggest is that coping with temptation is simple. It isn’t. In one sense, all of us know how we ought to meet temptation. We ought to say no to it, resist it, turn away from it. That’s simple enough. Our problem is that much of the time we don’t even realize that we’re being tempted. Unfortunately, the tempter doesn’t usually advertise his approach:
“Watch out now, I’m going to tempt you! I want you to do something really low-down. Here’s the bait!”
It doesn’t happen that way, does it? We usually hear no warning buzzers, see no caution lights. We often don’t know it was a temptation until it’s all over and we are looking back regretfully at the way in which we stumbled.
The truly evil always masquerades as something good. Remember how the tempter approached Jesus in the wilderness? In each temptation, he urged him to do something which, on the face of it, seemed plausible, even virtuous. How can this be wrong, we wonder, when it feels so good and seems so right?
Then too, our sternest temptations sometimes come not where we feel vulnerable but at some point where we imagine ourselves strong. Our worst danger may arise not when we’re down over some defeat but when we’re exulting over a victory. Just when we’ve been delivered from great evil, we may be tempted to self-satisfaction, or when we’ve succeeded at last in disciplining ourselves, to feel contempt for the self-indulgent.
Dealing with temptation – this can’t be a technique to use right when it’s happening. In most cases, that’s much too late. What we need is a healthy head-start. The secret is in getting ready, in being prepared for temptation before it comes along.
Don’t take that on my authority. It’s the word of the Lord. Listen to these words of Jesus to his disciples when they were about to be severely tempted (Matt 26:41): “Watch and pray,” he said, “that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Vitally important, if we’re to get through temptation without going under, is a realistic self-understanding. Notice that Jesus said these words in Gethsemane to his most loyal disciples. This was not a warning to Judas – that traitor had already gone away on his ugly errand. It wasn’t addressed to the fickle multitudes or even to the larger, mixed band of Jesus’ followers. These were the most faithful friends Jesus had in the world. He had shared more with them than with anyone else. To a man, they believed in him, loved him deeply, and had left everything to follow him.
Jesus acknowledged their insincerity in what he said here: “The spirit truly is willing.” He knew that they were earnest men, dedicated, wanting to do the right thing. Their vows to follow him had been sincerely meant. He endorsed them as men of genuine faith, in whom God’s Spirit was evidently at work.
But that wasn’t the whole story about them. After he said, “The spirit is willing,” Jesus added, “but the flesh is weak.” What is the word flesh here? It stands for everything human, for all that we are by nature. Jesus’ one-word assessment of our total makeup is: “weak.”
What do you think of that? None of us wants to hear it. We like to think of ourselves as having considerable strength. Surely these disciples did. Jesus once asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Mark 10:35-39). They answered without hesitation, “We are able.” In effect, they say, “No problem, Lord. We can handle it.” And, when Simon Peter was warned that he would join the others in forsaking his Master, he was hotly indignant. “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away . . . even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matt. 26:31-35). In other words, “I’m no pushover, Lord, I’m the last man in the world to be called a coward. Don’t think of me, your right hand man, as a weakling!”
But that was Jesus’ verdict. Apparently even long years of association with him, responsibility in his church, eminence among our fellows, living faith and true commitment do not change this elemental fact about us. We are weak.
We are so especially in the sense of being vulnerable to temptation. Though they never dreamed of it, these disciples were in danger of apostasy. They wouldn’t be beaten, imprisoned, or tortured, but they would be pressured to run away, to forsake their Master.
More immediately, the disciples were in danger of failing their best friend. He was in an agony of distress and pleaded with them to stay near and watch with him. He longed for human companionship, craved their sympathy and support. They would be tempted to forget their friend, to give in to their own depression and fatigue.
That’s temptation as we meet it every day. People ask us for help or they simply suffer near us, appealing mutely by their wounds or their eyes. They need us to care, to listen, to befriend them in their brokenness or simply to be present with them. But we are tempted to look away, to pass by on the other side, to be too tired. How weak we are in moments like that!
Our danger from temptation is not only, or even chiefly, that we may fall on our faces and cover ourselves with shame. We’re in peril much more subtly of abandoning Christ or failing others in their times of need. We may miss, in our dull drowsiness, the grandest opportunities life ever brings to be loyal, to show love. We’re in danger because, like those disciples, we are willing but weak.
Here’s our Lord’s counsel to Peter, to James and John, and to us: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41). How will you prepare yourself for crises that are sure to come? How will you meet temptation without knuckling under to it, without giving in to its power? By watching and by prayer.
Watchmen in the ancient world were those who stood night and day at the outskirts of a camp or on the walls of a city, keeping vigil. It was their task to scan the horizon for signs of an enemy, ready to give the alarm at any approaching danger. Their own safety and that of their countrymen depended on their staying alert. They were what we would call today “the early warning system,” the first line of defense.
Jesus says, “Be like one of them. Keep on the lookout. Don’t imagine yourself secure. Whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at your post. Remember that you face a foe both powerful and cunning.”
Part of our readiness to meet temptation is the exercise of common sense. We’ve all had a personal history to learn from. We ought to know by now the kinds of situations in which we can be tripped up, the siren invitations that can lure us into trouble.
Young Freddy had been expressly told that he was not to go swimming on the way home. When he arrived a bit late, with an air of charming innocence, his slicked-down hair gave him away. “Freddy,” his mother said sternly, “I told you not to go swimming. Those were the doctor’s orders.” “But, mom, I didn’t mean to do it but I got tempted. When I went by the pond, all the other guys were in there and I just couldn’t resist.”
As Freddy headed upstairs, his mother noticed a soggy bathing suit protruding from his back pocket. “Freddy,” his mother said, “I thought you weren’t planning to go swimming. Why did you take along your bathing suit?” “Oh,” he stammered, “that was just in case I was tempted.”
We laugh, but the joke is often on us. Like Freddy, we knowingly put ourselves in temptation’s way. We invite a test which we secretly know will be too much for us. Then we complain that the pressures were just too great.
Simon Peter learned how important watching is – learned the hard way. He wasn’t watchful on the night his Master was betrayed. He went to sleep instead and later experienced a humiliating defeat. But he learned his lesson well. Years later this same apostle sent a wise and wonderful message to his fellow Christians: “Be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:7).
I read once about a young girl who had worked in the Bronx Zoo. She had a great deal of experience in caring for animals and should have known better, but she ventured into an enclosed area where two Siberian tigers were and tragically lost her life.
Sometimes, friends, the best way to deal with temptation is to steer clear of it, to keep a healthy distance from situations that encourage it. There’s no substitute for vigilance.
But you know, and I know, that watching alone is not enough. We can’t always anticipate trouble, can’t always avoid temptation. And reconnaissance by itself, important as it may be, has never won a war. Jesus says, “Watch and pray.” If watchfulness is sighting the enemy, prayer is effectively fighting him. John Bunyan, author of the Christian classicPilgrim’s Progress, used to say that “prayer is a sacrifice to God, a shield for the soul and a scourge for Satan.” Prayer is the master weapon of our Christian warfare, the power most feared in the kingdom of darkness.
Prayer has such power, not because of any magical qualities in the act but because it represents communion with God. P.T. Forsyth once said that prayer does for our religious life what original research does for science – it brings us into direct contact with reality. When Christians pray, they are in touch with the risen Lord. They open their weakness to the inflow of his power. Though we are weak in ourselves, we can be strong in Christ. In prayer, we bring heaven’s resources to our aid and can be ready for anything.
Jesus was giving counsel here which he himself had followed all his days. Prayer was easily the most constant and striking feature of his whole ministry. He seemed to prepare for all the crises of life by prayer, and then to pray when they came. In loving ministry to people, power went forth from him. In quietness and prayer that strength was renewed. Jesus lived in prayerful dependence upon his Father. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and so was prepared for whatever he faced. It is he, the One tempted as we are in all points and yet without sin, who urges us to watch and pray.
Prayer is a hidden but hugely significant factor in our lives. It’s in prayer that we acknowledge our sins to God and receive his forgiveness. It is in prayer that we express our faith in Jesus Christ, invoking him as our Savior. If you’ve never done that before, let me invite you to do it now. It is in prayer that our fellowship with God, once begun, is deepened and sustained. And because that is true, the place given to prayer in our experience will determine in great measure the kind of persons we become.
You’ve heard about preventive medicine: by improving your all-around health, you build defenses to fight disease. Congressmen push for preventive ecology – what we can do now to preserve the environment for future generations. Jesus Christ calls his followers to preventive prayer, that living, sustained communion with God in which we become strong for whatever life may bring to us.
If you want Christ to be your advocate in the ultimate test, when you stand before God’s Judgment Seat, call upon him today as your Savior, your mighty Redeemer. If you want to be strengthened with his might for future crises and pressures, get to know the Lord now. Take time to pray. And if you want to move through each day in God’s peace with “a heart for any fate,” don’t forget to seek him early. A wise man once put it this way: “The morning is the gate of the day. Guard it well with prayer.” That’s your secret weapon against temptation.