It is human nature to grapple with desire and temptation, even in our earliest years. When I was about 4 years old, I found myself absolutely entranced by a jack-in-the-box in my preschool classroom. There was an assortment of toys in the play area, but that was the only one I cared about. Every day I would wait impatiently for my chance to spin the handle on the multicolored box so I could hear its pleasant song and watch the cheerful clown face jump out at me.
One day, it occurred to me that if I could only take the box home, I could have this treat as often as I wanted it! So eventually, I worked up the nerve to smuggle it out of my classroom.
A burden of guilt weighed me down all the way home, and I found that I was too scared and miserable to enjoy it! Did they arrest 4-year-olds for theft? I was not about to find out. I tearfully confessed my crime to my amused mom who was able to calm me down. She instructed me to return the toy the next day and apologize to my teacher, which I did. The relief was palpable. I am glad to say that was the end of my short stint as a thief. Unfortunately, as we get older, it often becomes easier to quiet our consciences and rationalize even our darkest sins.
I became a Christian as I entered my teen years, on the brink of lots of new feelings and experiences. At this time in my life, I thought that temptation was the cause of sin. If I just avoided the temptation, then I would not sin. Problem solved, right? If I chose my friends wisely, I would not be drawn into drugs or alcohol. If I studied hard for exams, opportunities to get good grades dishonestly would not faze me. If I only dated guys from church with good reputations, they would not pressure me into sexual sin. If I made all the right choices and was really disciplined, a holy life would be inevitable.
As you can probably imagine, this plan constantly collapsed. Temptations lurked around every corner. I could not seem to construct the perfect Christian bubble that kept them at bay. It took a long time for me to realize that temptation- all the external things I thought were trying to pull me away from God- was not the enemy. Rather, the trouble was coming from desires in my own heart.
“The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” Jeremiah 17:9 (NLT)
Temptation is not the cause of sin. Our evil desires are. Temptation cannot exist where desire does not first exist.
If I presented you with a big bowl of sand, excitedly telling you how delicious it is, I would wager that you would decline my offer (and maybe question my sanity). Not only would eating it be an unpleasant experience, but who knows how it would affect your body afterward? You cannot be tempted to do something you do not already want. All temptation can do is point out existing desires.
This is why we cannot overcome sin by sheer force of the will. It is not about our actions but about our hearts. If you do not love or enjoy something, you will not do it. If you do not hate something, you will not leave it alone.
This revelation left me frustrated at first. How can I change my heart?
Fortunately, God knows this is impossible for us, so He does not ask us to change ourselves. Our duty is to surrender. Then He does the transformation.
“He saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.” Titus 3:5 (NLT)
I have fallen into the trap of thinking that God made me right with Him by sending Jesus to die for my sins, but now I am on my own to resist sin. If that was true, no one could be saved. God desires to be with us every step of the way in the journey to heaven. While justification (being made right with God) happens the moment we come to Him, sanctification (being made holy) is the work of a lifetime.
As we allow Him to change our hearts, we will find that we love the things that God loves and hate the things that He hates. Then temptation has no power over us, because those desires have been snuffed out.
Have you struggled with temptation and groaned under the frustration of repeatedly caving to the pressure? Get alone with God. Talk to Him about your areas of weakness, about the longings for things you are ashamed of, about unhealthy loves that compete with your love for Him. He does not just want our actions and our words, but our every desire, thought, and affection. As you become vulnerable before Him, He will take your heart and make it new.
“And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.” Ezekiel 36:26 NLT