I have always been intrigued by a few short verses in Romans 7:18-19. In these verses the great apostle Paul confesses that even he struggles with sin. Here is a guy who had spent his entire life perfecting his obedience to every jot and title of Hebrew law. He was a man of tremendous self-discipline. A man who saw the resurrected Christ face to face. A man who penned an enormous chunk of the New Testament.
The apostle Paul struggled with sin and temptation.
Yet in Romans 7:18-19 (NIV) Paul offers this incredible confession. "I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing."
I first noticed these verses while I was in college, where I had this new-found desire to love God and obey everything Christ commanded. I was confident and optimistic that I would reach a point where I might stop sinning. But these verses popped my bubble. Am I going to be wiser than the apostle Paul? Probably not. Am I going to have more self-control and discipline than him? Probably not. Am I going to have a closer walk with my Lord than Paul? Probably not. If in his old age the apostle Paul is struggling, then who am I to think things will be any different for me?
The truth is that this side of heaven, we will continually struggle against our sinful nature. The most holy of saints struggle against temptation and sin. I wish it weren’t true, but we need to be honest about this fact. Yet one other fact we need to remember is that God gives us victory in Christ Jesus. I wonder if you can relate to Paul’s struggle in Romans 7:18-19?
Common temptations that we face.
A few years back Tom Eisenman wrote a book called Temptations Men Face. In that book he identifies some of the greatest areas of struggle for men. These areas include the temptation to be macho, the temptation of sexual lust, the temptation to have an affair, the temptation to wield power, the temptation to love money, and the temptation to be perfect. Men, take a look at that list and see if you identify with any of these common struggles.
An author named Mary Ellen Ashcroft wrote a similar book for women called Temptations Women Face. The greatest areas of struggle for women include trusting externals to feel good, filling their lives with things, focusing on food, filling their lives with the trivial, letting their anger consume them, believing distortions about intimacy, believing distortions about sex, and getting stuck in their dissatisfaction.
Whether or not you agree with these lists is not the point. The point is that even as Christians we can spend our entire lives doing battle in any one of these areas. Yet, wouldn’t it be great if we could experience a breakthrough? Wouldn’t it be great if we could identify our areas of failure and have a clear-cut game plan for victory?
We need to understand why we struggle and fail against sin.
Our goals for this morning are very simple. The first goal is that each of us would have a deeper understanding of why we struggle and fail against sin. And the second goal is that no one would leave here today without a clear plan of how to achieve victory over sin. This morning I invite you to consider the wisdom of James 1:13-18. The first three verses describe our struggle against temptation. The second three verses describe how to gain victory over temptation.
James 1:13-18 (NIV) says, "When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created."
Temptation never originates from God.
Before we get into the anatomy of a temptation, the very first thing James mentions is that temptation never originates from God. James 1:13 (NIV) says, "When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone." You may recall that when Adam and Eve first sinned they played the blame game. They deflected responsibility and blamed others.
When God confronted Eve, she said in Genesis 3:13 (NIV), "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." Then when God confronted Adam, Adam was even more bold in Genesis 3:12 (NIV) when he said, "The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it." Before saying anything else about the anatomy of temptation this one point needs to be underscored. From start to finish we are personally responsible for our sins. No one else is responsible. Not our mother and father, not our family or friends, not our genes, not our environment, and not God himself!
The light has no fellowship with darkness. God doesn’t tempt us with evil in order to strengthen our faith. God doesn’t use evil means to accomplish divine ends. God may discipline us through hardships, trials, and consequences, but not through temptation. Temptation originates within us. Here is what James says in James 1:14-15 (NIV), "But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death."
The anatomy of temptation begins with feeding an evil desire.
In your bulletin I have sketched out the anatomy of temptation. First, there is the build up to temptation in which we feed an evil desire. "But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed."
I have a major problem and my problem is that I have a sweet tooth. I crave sugar. I crave candy. Skittles, M & Ms, Starbursts, Butterfingers. It’s all I can think about. Have you seen the ads for candy on television? Have you heard people talk about their experiences when eating candy? The milk chocolate. The zingy taste. I’ve struggled ever since the dentist first warned me about the dangers of eating too much candy.
Temptation begins with an evil desire being built up in our thoughts. As we’ll see in a little while, if you can control your thoughts, if you renew the pattern of your thinking, you can easily defeat most any temptation. But as it is we give evil desires free reign of our thoughts. We even nourish them.
The second step in feeding a temptation is seeking opportunity to sin.
As an evil desire is fed, the hunt begins. We seek opportunities to satisfy our desires. As James says, "Then, after desire has conceived.." This ravenous desire for candy and sugar cannot be contained. It's become so great inside my mind that it is overpowering my will. I’m on autopilot now! I rummage through the pantry. I rummage through the fridge. I walk over to the vending machine, rummaging through my pockets for loose change. I pull into Wal-mart and proceed to the candy aisle. My eyes are glistening with excitement and my hands are trembling for that next shot of carbohydrates!
What has happened here? My desires have sent me on a hunt, looking for opportunities to indulge my cravings. Once we have built up a desire in our thoughts and have now sought an opportunity to express our desire, our failure is inevitable. We sin!
The third step in the anatomy of a temptation is that we sin.
As James says next, "Then, after the desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin…" I grab that piece of candy out of the candy dish, tear through the wrapper, and almost without pause, sink my teeth into it! With determination, I drop quarter after quarter into the vending machine. I fill my grocery cart at Wal-mart with bags of candy.
The fourth step in the anatomy of a temptation is that we suffer the consequences.
Once we have sinned we next experience the fallout of sin. The consequences! James says, "...and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." My body is bearing witness to my sin. I have put on weight. The doctor tells me I have developed adult onset diabetes. My energy levels oscillate up and down. The dentist has found tooth decay and I had to pay thousands of dollars for crowns and dental work.
Of course, I am using the rather safe example of candy and sugar. But what if we were to insert something much more grave into this equation? One of the biggest areas of struggle for men is lust. And so let’s dissect what happens when we follow the anatomy of a temptation using the example of lust.
The build up to sin. (The feeding of an evil desire.)
A man notices an attractive woman who is not his wife. At first he tries to block her image out of his mind. But he keeps returning to that image, unfairly comparing this person to his wife. Soon it becomes all he can think about and his dissatisfaction with his wife deepens. This dissatisfaction is further fed by advertisements, music, movies, and more.
The hunt. (Seeking opportunity to sin.)
Now dissatisfied, the man begins looking outside his marriage for whatever he now believes that his wife is lacking. He begins ignoring his wife and begins lingering around after work and at social gatherings. His eye roams back and forth across the room, looking for that special person of interest. He goes out of his way to put himself in places where an opportunity with another woman might present itself.
The failure. (The sin takes place.)
Having built the thought of adultery up in his mind and having exerted so much energy hunting, an opportunity to sin now presents itself. Without thought, the man compulsively acts out, surprising even himself.
The aftermath. (Suffering the consequences)
The consequences begin. A marriage breaks up. A family is severed. So let me ask, where was the real point of failure? Was it the man’s failure to say no and show restraint in the heat of the moment? Was it the man lingering around looking for opportunities? Or was it the man building up dissatisfaction in the beginning?
All sin starts from within our bodies.
Before we talk about achieving victory over sin, let me read what Jesus told his disciples. In Mark 7:14-23 (NIV) Jesus says, "…Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.' After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 'Are you so dull?' he asked. 'Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.' (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean.') He went on: 'What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' "
The key to breaking the power of sin and death is dealing first and foremost with the heart. If we can head off desire in our thoughts, we stand a chance at defeating temptation.
The anatomy of victory over sin.
The first step in achieving victory over sin is to understand temptation.
We have described the anatomy of temptation. Let's now look at the anatomy of victory over sin. How does the Christian overcome the power of sin and death? The first step is in understanding temptation. In James 1:16 (NIV) James begins, "Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers."
We need to understand the anatomy of sin. We need to understand the pattern of how sin takes hold in our hearts and minds. We need to know how our desires lay the groundwork to sinful action. If you understand how temptation takes hold, you can escape the trap of the devil. You’ll have the opportunity to cut sin off at its roots before it ever bears fruit in your life.
The second step to gaining victory over temptation is to learn contentment.
In James 1:17 (NIV) James continues saying, "…Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…" All sin is rooted in a lack of gratitude or discontentment with what God’s already provided for you.
Later, in James 4:1-2 (NIV) James says, "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God." Think of how much less we would sin if in our thoughts, we learned to thank God for the perfect gifts he has already bestowed upon us!
The third step to gaining victory is to trust God’s character.
James describes in James 1:17 (NIV) how God, "does not change like shifting shadows." We can trust God to take care of our needs, to vindicate our causes, and to administer justice. So much sin comes from not trusting God, from taking matters into our own hands, from playing God, and from worrying, controlling, and being anxious. Can you trust God with your situation? Can you turn your dissatisfactions over to him?
The fourth step to gaining victory over sin is to refocus our desires.
In James 1:18 (NIV) we read, "He (God) chose to give us birth through the word of truth..." The word of God is one of God’s perfect gifts to us. Have you ever noticed what happens when you read the word of God? When I read the word of God,evil desires are quickly replaced with godly desires. When I read the book of James my mouth waters at the thought of how God can use trials and hardships to mature me into Christ’s image.
I get excited about gaining victory over the power of sin and death. I want to put my anger in check and build others up with my speech. I want to become a doer of the word instead of being just a hearer of it. I want to treat everyone around me equally instead of showing favoritism. I want to keep the royal law found in Matthew 19:19 (NIV) which says, "love your neighbor as as yourself."
The final step to gaining victory over sin is to be transformed.
The last step to gaining victory over sin isn’t so much a step as it is an outcome. Be transformed. James expresses God’s desire in James 1:18 (NIV), "that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created." There is no better way to describe victory in Christ. That instead of compulsively bearing evil fruit, we would compulsively bear the fruit of righteousness. We want to become so that living for Christ would just become natural to us, like second nature. And that our autopilot would be set on holiness instead of on sin giving birth to death. Christ’s righteousness is producing life in us!
Here’s my invitation. You have this morning’s outline. You have a study guide in front of you. Why not work through the study guide this weekend, then get into a Life Group and discuss it? On Wednesday night at 6 PM I am beginning a four week class called "How Christians Grow". We're really going to dig into this topic of overcoming temptation. Why not sign up for the class?