Satan’s Strategy #7: What’s to Fear?
Satan tempts us to not fear sin, so that we will not keep a safe distance from it.
Brooks characterized this strategy as “making the soul bold to venture upon the occasions of sin." Like many of the devil's lies, it distorts a truth, namely that temptation is not sin. The Christian who is tempted only sins when he surrenders to the temptation; being outwardly tempted is not a sin. But the Tempter twists this truth into an untruth that says that there is no harm in getting close to sin or exposing yourself to temptations, so long as you don't take the final step and do the sin. It goes like this:
“You need not keep a safe distance from sin. You are strong enough to resist temptation; you are strong enough to go near sin without falling into it. You need not avoid compromising situations. Sin is not so strong, and you are not that weak."
Here's how Brooks expressed this temptation:
"Saith Satan You may walk by the harlot's door though you won't go into the harlot's bed; you may sit and sup with the drunkard, though you won't be drunk with the drunkard ... you may with Achan handle the golden wedge, though you do not steal the golden wedge."
The Scripture's primary teaching regarding temptation is to flee from it. Few Bible truths today are as neglected as this one. Our spiritual forefathers understood well both their own sinfulness and the alluring power of sin; for them, fleeing temptation was the Christian's first strategy for growing in holiness. But today, we think far too little of sin's power and far too much of our own spiritual ability. As a result, fleeing temptation is often regarded as a quaint notion, one popular in a bygone era when people were too uptight about sin.
But what do the Scriptures say? The Lord Jesus Christ instructed His followers to pray that they would not be confronted with temptations to sin (Matthew 6:13, 26:41). How can we sincerely pray, “Father, do not lead us into temptation" and then recklessly place ourselves in situations that overwhelm us with temptation? If I ask God to steer me away from temptation, then surely I must steer myself away from it as well! When the Apostle Paul counseled the young pastor Timothy, he told him to flee from the temptations of materialism and lust (1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22). When the inspired apostle wrote to the Christians in Corinth, he directed them to flee from immorality and idolatry (1 Corinthians 6:18, 10:14). These New Testament instructions reaffirm Old Testament teaching: “Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not proceed in the way of evil men. Avoid it, do not pass by it; turn away from it and pass on." (Proverbs 4:14-15)
To be sure, God sometimes calls His people to remain in situations where temptation is ongoing. For example, Christian policemen face their own special temptations that are almost capable. Living in a fallen world means believers can never completely insulate themselves from temptation. God does not command us to withdraw into present-day monasteries where temptations are allegedly minimized. But the first Christian response to sinful temptation is to get away from it, if possible.
Satan tempts us to not flee temptation.
The Devil encourages us to think that the temptation does not warrant fleeing because it is easy to resist. Satan strokes our self-esteem by telling us that we are sufficiently strong to say “no” to the temptation. The Father of Lies tells us something like this:
"You have identified the temptation. You see the sin. That's all that is necessary. You are now adequately protected from the temptation: seeing it clearly makes you immune to its allure."
We want to believe Satan, don't we? Distancing ourselves from a temptation or removing ourselves from a tempting environment often involves cost. Fleeing may require extra work or create inconveniences. People who notice our sin-fleeing tactics frequently reward us with scorn or ridicule. Even church members will sometimes disdain your fleeing from sin as cowardice, legalism, self-righteousness, or surrender.
Sometimes we enjoy a small thrill from being close to a sin, almost like smelling a good meal but not eating it. As fellow Puritan Samuel Rutherford wisely observed, “To want temptations is the greatest temptation of all." For many reasons, we would rather not go to the trouble of distancing ourselves from sinful temptations.
Satan hides from us two things: sin's deceitful power and our own weakness when it comes to resisting sin. He obscures the fact that sinful behavior excites sin's remnants inside us. Sinful behaviors inflame more sin in our soul, and thus sin ensnares us. The process is all too familiar: We are tempted to sin but persuaded to think that we can resist the temptation. Once we get close to the sin, however, we want to sample a little bit of it... but only a little, so that we will still be at free ourselves quickly (or so we tell ourselves). Then once nibble, the remnants of sin inside us are strengthened. Now we want a slightly larger bite. Satan skillfully encourages us to think that we are still in control of the situation. Like every other addict in the world, we think, “I can stop any times want." We believe that we can always put it down and wall away, and so we indulge the larger bite. And that inflames even more sin inside of us.
Isn't it true that living the Christian life often involves doing things that non-Christians don't understand? One of those things is fleeing from temptation. In a world full of people who think they are quite self-sufficient and capable when it comes to doing what is morally right, we Christians are painfully aware of our debilitating moral weaknesses. We know that even when our spirit is willing, our flesh is weak. Others may think that sin is not resident in them, but we quickly affirm that the remnants of sin continue to plague even the most mature believer. We have no delusions regarding our spiritual strength, as we have all fallen more times than we care to admit. At least when we are thinking rationally, we know that the Bible is right: We must flee from temptation.
Sometimes fleeing temptation means removing myself physically from a situation where the temptation to sin is great. With regard to some movies, for example, fleeing temptation may well mean leaving the room (or better yet, checking out the movie's content before exposing yourself to the temptation). Sometimes fleeing temptation means removing myself electronically from compromising situations. I flee temptation when I install software to prevent viewing pornography on my computer. Sometimes fleeing temptation means taking steps so I won’t find myself in a temptation-infested situation. If I am prone to gossip with a certain friend, for example, I might make sure that another Christian joins my conversations with that friend as a kind of "conversation chaperone.” Or if I am tempted to spend too much time on my hobby, then fleeing temptation might involve limiting myself to one golf outing or one garage sale safari every month.
William Bridge (another Brooks peer) suggested one way to flee temptation: deliberately engage your mind and body in some wholesome and God-pleasing activity when temptation strikes. "The way to avoid temptation is not always to apply a salve directly pertinent to the temptation," said Bridge, “but turn off your mind and your thoughts to some other good obiect, and by that time your mind is settled upon other objects, you will be easily able to meet with the temptation.” Scottish pastor Thomas Chalmers called this “the expulsive power of the new affection." Surely this is an example of disciplining yourself for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).
Note well the critical point here: fleeing temptation means we must take action, sometimes preemptive action. We must regard sin as sufficiently serious to warrant serious sin-avoidance measures.
For Brooks and his peers, fleeing temptation meant fleeing things that looked like sin, could develop into sin, or dulled one's sense of moral outrage against sin. They understood 1 Thessalonians 5:22 as instruction to avoid even things that appeared to be evil. “We must not only hate and avoid gross sins," said Brooks, "but everything that may carry a savour or suspicion of sin.” Some may regard this radical determination to "shun sinful occasions" (as Brooks called it) as extreme, but Christians in Brooks' generation believed it to be only common sense. As Brooks put it, "He that would not be burned, must dread the fire."
Previous posts in this series:
- Peaking Into the Devil's Playbook
- Satan’s Strategy #1: Bait and Hook
- Satan's Strategy #2: Sin That Seems Virtuous
- Satan's Strategy #3: Downplay the Danger
- Satan's Strategy #4: Great Men Sin
- Satan's Strategy #5: God Doesn't Judge
- Satan's Strategy #6: Just Say Sorry
Robert Spinney (PhD, Vanderbilt) is professor of History at Patrick Henry College, where he teaches American history and historiography. He is the author of City of Big Shoulders: A History of Chicago and World War II in Nashville: Transformation of the Homefront, as well as an American history textbook and numerous ministry-related booklets. Dr. Spinney formerly served as a pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Hartsville, TN, and at Winchester Baptist Church in Winchester, VA.
"Keeping Desire and Temptation in Their Place" by Richard Phillips
"The Labyrinth of Temptation": Calvin on Genesis 22 by Aaron Denlinger
"Lead Us Not Into Temptation" by Mark Johnston