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FIRST-PERSON: When you want what you don’t want to want

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The word “struggle” has become a cliché — especially in evangelical Christian circles. It’s a way to place a kind of distance between my rebellion and myself. There’s a big difference between saying to my fellow believers that I “struggle with procrastination” and confessing “I’m lazy.”

But grappling with temptation is torturous. It’s not for nothing that the Scripture often compares this grappling to physical violence — cutting off a limb or poking out an eye (Matthew 5:29-30), having one’s skin set afire (Mark 9:49, 1 Corinthians 7:9) or fighting until bleeding all over the place (Hebrews 12:4). This is because our desires are so strong.

The Apostle Paul placed the pull to temptation in the context of human desires, showing how the Israelites of old moved from eating and drinking to outright rebellion and debauchery (1 Corinthians 10:7). Again, at this point, the Scripture keeps us away from both hubris and despair. The Scripture tells us we’ll encounter temptation, and that it will be wild.

The Bible also tells us that we must resist temptation. As a matter of fact, the Word of God promises us that if we’ll fight the temptation, we’ll win. “Resist the devil and he’ll flee from you” (James 4:7). Notice that all that is necessary is the resistance. When you resist the temptation, the Spirit handles the rest.

Some of you probably feel your particular temptation is kind of freakish, and ultimately irresistible. You’re wrong. The Scripture tells us first that there is no temptation that isn’t “common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Now this doesn’t mean that we all want the exact same things. Just since I’ve been writing this book I was told of a man who was arrested for walking nude through a women’s gymnasium with nothing on but sunglasses. I can’t understand much about this. “What is so thrilling about that?” I asked a friend. “And why the sunglasses?”

I’m sure there are temptations I have that would be no struggle for you at all. The point, though, is that the temptations we face are all personality-specific variations of those universally common entry-points for sin, the places where our Lord Jesus was tempted in the desert. No matter what it is that you’re struggling against, you are a sinner but you are not a freak.

Moreover, don’t fall for the illusion that the strength of your desire means that your temptations are irresistible. This is not the case. “God is faithful,” Paul wrote. “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” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Do you see the freedom in that? The satanic powers are at play with the temptations around you, but, just as with Job, God is ultimately sovereign even over the dark spirits. He says to them, “This far and no farther” and he bases that on what your physical, spiritual and psychological frame can endure. Moreover, in the middle of any temptation, he has crafted a way for you to escape from it.

The Spirit, through the Gospel, connects us with the life of Jesus, making us like Him. Part of what that means is that we learn to discipline ourselves, to learn to redirect our desires and to cultivate those desires that flow from His life. The fruit of the Sprit, then, includes self-control.

You might be mumbling to yourself, “But I don’t have reordered desires; my desires are just as out of kilter as they were the day I came to know Christ.” But you’re not seeing the whole picture.

Stop thinking of yourself as an isolated individual, and start seeing yourself as the Gospel does, as part of a head/body unity between Christ and His church. Jesus’ desires are ordered toward the will of God. As the head He is restoring his whole body, his church, to the same direction.

Right now, this is kind of like a stroke victim going through physical therapy. You are that toe that is learning again how to respond to the stimuli from the head.

If you are in Christ, your desires will line up with His eventually. Count on it (Romans 8:29).
Russell D. Moore is dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. This column is adapted from Moore’s latest book, “Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ” (Crossway, 2011).

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  • Russell D. Moore