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What does the Bible say about temptation?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Why does an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God even allow this? 

He’s obviously stronger than Satan and the fallen world, so it would seem that if he could remove temptation from us, it would make our lives so much more simple. 

God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful. Because he’s all-knowing he knows when we’re going to be tempted. 

Because he’s all-loving and all-powerful, and certainly more powerful than Satan, the tempter, more powerful than us or a fallen world, he certainly could stop that temptation, you would think. 

And you would think he would want to do that, because he loves us.

And so why does he, then, allow a world of such temptation? 

Why do we have to face this, especially as believers? 

You could argue that maybe even people who aren’t Christians don’t have the Holy Spirit living in their lives, and that’s different. 

But for us, who are temples of the Holy Spirit? 

Why does God even allow this in our lives is the question. 

This is a great place to start a conversation about the existence of temptation, the reality of temptation, because it gets to who God is, and who we are.

The Bible says that God made us to love the Lord and to love our neighbor. 

That’s why we exist. 

That’s what our reason for being is, to love God and to love others. 

Love requires a choice. You can’t make somebody love. You can’t force somebody to do that. Love requires options. It requires a choice. If you go out to dinner tonight, and there’s only one option on the menu, then you don’t really have freedom of choice.

So God couldn’t create a world in which we could choose to love and in which we could choose to worship, in which we could choose to know the Lord, and to follow the Lord, unless we had the option, the alternative to not do that, unless we had the option to choose to sin, unless temptation and sin were reality in this world as well. 

Someone could come along and say, “Well, I understand how I couldn’t make a world like that.” 

It seems illogical to me that there would be a world with choice and with options, and yet without the option of choosing to sin and to face temptation—but I’m not God. 

I mean, if God is all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful, then he ought to be able to do that, even if I can’t; and he ought to be able to figure it out, even if I can’t.

I don’t have to understand medicine, so long as a doctor does. 

I don’t understand how to fix my computer, as long as somebody is around who can do that is available. 

So why can’t God do that? 

Just because I don’t understand it isn’t the answer to the question. 

That’s what in philosophical terms is known as the Utopia Thesis. It was argued some years ago by Antony Flew and Jael Mackey. It is essentially that idea that God ought to be able to create a utopia. If he’s all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful, he ought to be able to create a world in which we have freedom to choose, but there’s no temptation or sin. 

If he’s perfect, he ought to be able to do that. The response to the Utopia Thesis is that God is not obligated to do that, which is logically impossible.

It’s not a denial of God’s sovereignty, if he can’t make two mountains without a valley in between, if he can’t make a square circle, if he can’t tell you how much the color red weighs. 

If you’re asking God to do the logically contradictory, or inherently impossible—logically impossible—then it’s not a denial of sovereignty that he will not or cannot do that. 

And it’s logically contradictory that we could have freedom to choose without a choice. It’s a denial of the very words themselves and what they mean.

So, long story short, temptation exists because freedom exists. 

And we have to have freedom in order to be able to love God and love others. 

That’s the reason for which we exist.

Where does temptation come from?

James 1 says that “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (v. 13). 

But that passage goes on to say that each of us is tempted when we’re drawn away with lust and enticed and then when desire is conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it’s fully grown gives birth to death. 

The first answer to this question is desire. 

It’s fallenness. It’s our fallen desires in this broken, fallen world that tempts us away, that that lead us into sin and then into death.

A second answer is the existence of Satan. 

The fact that Satan is very real and that he is a tempter. 

That’s his identity. That’s his nature. That’s his desire. 

Satan hates the Lord, but he can’t attack the Lord. 

So he attacks those who the Lord loves—he attacks his people. The best way to hurt me is to hurt my kids and my grandkids. And so Satan attacks us to attack God. 

He does that by tempting us knowing that when we sin, we lose the joy of the Lord, we lose the abundant life of Christ. 

We also, then, sacrifice our witness. 

He can’t take our salvation, but he can take our witness. 

So Satan tempts us to try to get us to give up that which the Lord intends us to experience—the abundant life, to sacrifice and to undermine our witness as well. 

Satan does that on a daily, regular basis.

“You will be like God”

And then a third source, I would mention quickly, goes back to Genesis 3:5, where Satan says to the first humans, “you will be like God.” 

Frederick Nietzsche spoke of the will to power as the basic drive in human nature. 

This will for all of us to be our own God, the desire to be God, that’s really the essence of all temptation. 

They’re all versions of the same theme. 

They all work off of exactly the same strategy: be your own God by stealing this or by lying about that, by thinking about this other thing or about gossiping over here. 

It all goes back to the same thing of trying to be your own God. 

So we have fallen desires, we live in a fallen world in which Satan tempts, and we are tempted by the willpower to be our own God. 

That’s just a perennial fact of life in this fallen world.

If temptations are perennial fact, how do we overcome them?

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 10:13, where the Bible says that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

That’s where we sometimes get the idea that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. 

It’s not really true. 

What it’s really saying is that God won’t allow anything in your life that he won’t give you the ability to handle. 

He won’t allow that temptation in your life that he will not give you the ability to defeat. 

Here are some thoughts that come out of that:

First of all, there are lots of temptations in my life that I can defeat without God’s help. It happens to be the case for all of us, that there are certain areas in our lives where we’re just not tempted. 

I happen, for instance, not to be tempted by illegal drugs—I’m not bragging about that. There are a lot of things I am tempted by, that just happens to not be one of them. So Satan doesn’t waste his time with that. I never have drug dealers come up and try to offer me illegal drugs, because the enemy knows that’s something I can defeat myself.

However he does know the parts of my life where I cannot defeat temptation myself. He knows that better than I do. 

So that’s where he tempts me. 

He attempts to be in areas where he knows I cannot defeat these things without the help of God. 

But he doesn’t want me to acknowledge that he wants me to fight back in my strength. 

He wants me to try to defeat this myself. 

It’s like a tug of war with quicksand in the middle. 

Rather than calling for help, he wants me to pull on the rope until inch by inch, I’m dragged into the quicksand and can’t get out. 

That’s what he wants to do. 

So when I face temptation the first thing I have to recognize is that I can’t defeat this myself, or I wouldn’t be facing it. I can’t defeat this in my strength, or Satan, who’s much better at tempting me than I am at resisting, wouldn’t be wasting his time with this. 

So it may look like I can defeat it. It may look like something I can win myself. But that’s not really true. So I have to develop the impulse of turning immediately to God with the temptation. 

First recognize I can’t defeat it. 

Second, take it instantly to God. Don’t try to defeat it myself. Go to the Lord and say, “Lord, I’m being tempted to do this. Sin looks like this, Lord. The enemy is trying to get me to do this.” 

Ask the Lord to give me the strength to defeat the enemy. And he will do that. Sometimes it’s in that moment. Sometimes it’s through other people. Sometimes it’s circumstances. If it’s an addictive issue, it may involve counseling and therapy and medical intervention. 

But God will give you the ability to do this. 

First Corinthians 10:13 tells us that God will give you the strength to defeat this, if you’ll turn to him. 

So turn quickly and immediately to him, and then when you win the victory, the next time it comes back, turn to him again. Keep trusting him with this. 

If you do follow the temptation, ask God to forgive you and cleanse you and restore you to himself and ask again for the power you need to defeat the enemy in your life.

If Jesus was tempted, we will be tempted. But the good news, the great news, is greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world. 

So here’s the question, the practical question out of all of this is: where is the enemy or the world or your own fallen nature, your own desire to be your own God? 

Where are you being tempted today?