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Temptation arrives at the door of our soul like an alluring visitor, but entertaining temptation leads to sin. Here are four things we can do to keep temptation out.

Have you used the words tempted or temptation this week? Do any of these phrases ring a bell?

"I'm so tempted to. … "

"I just couldn't resist the temptation."

"That doesn't tempt me at all!"

What prompted you to make these statements? Food? Shopping? Video games or TV viewing? Perhaps it was online pornography or credit card abuse; telling white lies or gambling; alcohol consumption or magazine reading; the lure of romance novels or gossip. We're engulfed by endless opportunities to be tempted.

Temptation puts distance between God and us. The strategy of the evil one is to find an empty place of longing, discontent, or hunger, and lure us into filling up on something that can never satisfy. As Isaiah says: "Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare" (55:2).

Many biblical characters struggled and failed to overcome the temptation to sin. King David's moral lapses caused him and others great grief and dismay. His actions wracked him with guilt, yet he gave in to temptation again and again.

Jesus was tempted but never sinned. Hebrews 2:18 reminds us that "because He Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted." And, in 4:15, "we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet He did not sin."

Because Jesus knows and understands our common experience of temptation, we can "approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).

Thomas à Kempis, a 15th-century Augustinian monk, addresses the universality of temptation in his classic book, The Imitation of Christ. À Kempis was part of a renewal movement in the Netherlands known as the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, and lived a simple existence with a deep and rich inner life of devotion to God.

He outlines four steps by which temptation becomes sin:

Allow the thought to enter your mind. À Kempis urges readers to "meet [the thoughts] at the door as soon as they knock and do not let them in." I imagine treating them as uninvited guests who have come to crash the peacefulness of life; to destroy the homeowner's contentment.

Allow your imagination to be sparked by the thought. That's like saying, "I'll just ask the visitors to step into the entrance. But I won't really invite them to come in, take their coats off, and sit down."

Feel a sense of pleasure at the fantasy and entertain it. "Well, you're in this far. Why don't you come in and visit for a while? Would you like something to drink?"

Engage in the evil action, assenting to its urges. "My house is your house. Make yourself at home. Let's not even talk about leaving. We'll just enjoy our time together."

I recognize this pattern. Yesterday I came face-to-face with a box of doughnuts on a table. That first moment would have been the time to close the door to any further thoughts. But, I allowed my imagination to wonder about what kind of treat might be under the lid—a cruller, perhaps? Then I imagined biting into it. That's when I flung open the door and invited sin in.

Eating a doughnut is not a sin for everyone. For me it is, because I know my tendency towards emotional eating. That puts distance between Jesus and me. It starts a self-deprecating spin of negativity that can spiral out of control.

À Kempis explains that temptations reveal our instability and lack of trust in God; they reveal who we are. That's why we must pay attention to them.

I would rather not pay attention to my areas of weakness, yet I've made a commitment to live an examined life—being alert to God's moving in my life, and being aware of underlying motives for what I do, say, and think. That means acknowledging my inclination towards self-pity, and my need for affirmation and belonging. It also means recognizing that these tendencies can lead to sinful behaviour.

With this clearer vision, I can invite the healing presence of Christ and the supportive presence of the faith community to walk with me, pray with and for me, and help me find freedom from unhealthy attachments. Together, we can shut the door in the face of hostile visitors.

Unfortunately, those uninvited guests don't always look evil. Most are downright attractive, especially when first introduced. They bear alluring hostess gifts—flattery, comfort, excitement, sympathy, and more. My personal guests offer comfort, an ego boost, and a sense of self-importance and success in life. They soothe my fears of incompetence and rejection by telling me all I want to hear. Who wouldn't want to entertain guests like these?

What do your guests bring? Escape from pain? Fulfilled desires? A good feeling about yourself as you tear others down? The go-ahead to purchase more; to pursue shopping as an anaesthetic? Relief from dreariness in the excitement of risk? Temporary release from deep loneliness?

Our lives will never be free from strife and grief. Peace, says à Kempis, is not found by escaping temptation, but by coming through the trial of temptation. The key to victory, he explains, is to root ourselves firmly in God so we don't need to look for comfort anywhere else. In humility and patience, we overcome the enemy.

Humility comes with self-examination. As we recognize our need for cleansing and healing and our dependency upon Jesus, we can give assent to the work of transformation He has begun in us. In exercising patience with ourselves and others, we can open a new door to forgiveness, strength and companionship, healing and wholeness.

We will never be free of temptation. Some temptations will diminish in strength; some will fade altogether; others will call in subtle but alluring ways.

The great news of Scripture is that God the Father never abandons His relationship with the people He created. He was there with Abraham and Isaac, with David when he faced temptation and gave in to it, with Mary and the disciples, and with His Son who also knew the pull of temptation. The Holy Spirit draws close when we are tempted and reminds us that "the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 John 4:4).

When we stumble and fall, when we open the door to the uninvited guests, we can take action. Jesus countered Satan's challenges by citing Scripture. The power of the Word fortifies us against yielding to temptation. As Psalm 119:11 says, "I have hidden your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you." We can also gather other followers of Jesus to help us find the strength to evict the intruders and slam the door against them. The faith community reminds us of God's Word, and draws us into the love of Christ who alone can fill us.

Mary Reimer is co-pastor at FaithWorks, Winnipeg.

Originally published in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, October 13, 2006.




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