Temptations are not independent agents in our souls. They do not gain access, sweep aside all reason, all good desires and hold a hostile take-over. There is no such thing as “the devil made me do it.” “I allowed to the devil to get his way” is much more accurate. Whether temptations come from familiar places within our souls, from the cultural messages surrounding us, or from the principalities and powers that still have sway in this world, they do not entangle us unless we give them access.
There is a vast difference between a temptation knocking at the door of our soul, and our tacit or active “pull up a chair and talk to me for awhile.” Temptations never require a second chance. Once we have invited them in (or even let them get comfortable while we are paying attention to something else) the battle is much more fierce. We are entertaining the temptation. It’s the difference between meeting a solicitor outside one’s front door, and inviting the salesperson into your living room. One is easily sent away…so is the other, once we buy something we don’t need, but have been convinced we cannot do without.
Job has a wonderful phrase for temptation once we have begun to entertain it.In the middle of his sustained protest of his innocence, he poses this possibility: “If my soul has turned aside from the way, and my heart has gone after my eyes…(Job 31:7). Job’s phrase describes the front lines of our battles with temptation. Our hearts go after our eyes. Our heart is the center of our will, that great mystery within us that is either made one with the Spirit of God or is self-directed to our own ends. Temptation distracts our heart the moment we start to entertain it.The rest of the powers of our soul either abdicate or get involved in temptation’s cause. First among equals in the offensive battle is the wrongful use of our imagination.
I am in a quiet season of life. I do not need anything else in my closet because I’m not going anywhere. But, oh, I can nurse the temptation to buy clothes. It begins with “oh, that’s lovely.” If I remember the season I am in, the next phrase will be, “but I don’t need it.” End of rumination, end of temptation.
Unfortunately, I too easily begin to imagine how well that piece of clothing would work if I did have somewhere to wear it. And then I imagine where the place might be, what I might be doing. Before I know it, I not only have been entertaining the temptation, but becoming increasingly discontent with my life as it is at the moment. It’s only a few short thoughts to “buying this will cheer my up.” (My temptations of the flesh almost always have to do with comfort. No other temptors need apply. I do very well with the one eager to take up permanent residence in my soul.)
How might this same imagination be an advocate for my soul’s freedom? Recognizing I cannot exorcise this intruding thought myself, I cry out “Lord, have mercy on me.” Then I seek assistance from the very same faculty of my soul that got me to this place. I know I need to fill my mind with other thoughts if my will is going to be strengthened.
Imagination’s major task is to keep my mind busy with good, true and even beautiful thoughts, just not thoughts about me. So here are some of some helpful imaginative strategies for fighting temptation once it has begun to take root:
Read a good book, or if my hands are busy, listen to music (as long as it is notof the “You’ve gone and left me again, you dirty dog” variety) or listen to books.
Go for a walk and pay attention to nature rather than to unruly thoughts. Focus heart up and out, not down and in.
Call a friend who won’t nurse the self-pity.
After awhile, when the temptation begins to look tawdry, or least boring. I can then say, “I’m sorry, but your initial appeal as worn off.” And I get off and stay off that site or throw the beautifully crafted fashion campaign magazine away.
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 mav be able to endure it. (I Corinthians10:13)