The Cycle of Temptation

Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).

“You are being watched. The demonic powers have had millennia to observe human nature. . . . They notice what turns your head, which quickens your pulse. Like the Roman guard feeling around, with a spike in one hand, on the Lord Jesus’ arm, seeking his vein under the skin, the demonic beings are making out your weak points, sizing you up so that they might crucify you. They’ll find what you want, and they’ll give it you” ~ Russell Moore[1]

Temptation stalks you every day. Whether it’s the impulse to take a second glance at the girl in tight jeans, the handsome man with the great personality you wish you had married, the children who joyfully obey their parents that you long to have, the rush to judgment of the person inappropriately dressed or covered with tattoos. And on and on it goes.

In his book Tempted and Tried, Russell Moore helpfully lays out the nature and cycle of temptation. Being aware of what’s taking place during the hour of trial can assist you in the battle. Take heed.

A Question Identity. James tells us that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jas. 1:14). The words “lured” and “enticed” come from the world of fishing. “Lured” refers to the bait a fisherman puts on his lure to get a fish to bite at the bait and then be caught. The point James is making (as verse 15 makes plain) is that we sin because of the evil inside us. We want things that God says will harm us. Why is this a question of identity? Because in the heat of temptation the inner dialogue taking place within us is that we are a more reliable guide as to what will bring satisfaction to our lives than God. In such a moment I have forgotten that I’m the creature and not the Creator. I’m a God-wanna be.

The Battle of Competing Desires. Before telling us that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire,” James informed us that in the heat of temptation we would be tempted to blame our temptation on God: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (Jas. 1:13). Nevertheless, this has been our inclination since Adam—literally (Gen. 3:12, “the woman whom you gave me to be with me”). Thus, if I have a desire for something (or someone!) that Scripture says I cannot have, my gut-level reaction is going to be, “Well, then why do I have these desires inside me?” And I might conclude, “God made me this way. How else do you explain these desires?” But do we really want to conclude this? If I’m seeking to understand the Bible, then I must do some more digging. At a commonsense level, we all know that not everything we want or desire (even if it brings pleasure) is good for us. Hence, Aristotle’s conclusion: “What misleads people seems to be in most cases pleasure; it seems to be a good thing, even when it is not.”[2] If I only consult my inward desires and do whatever they tell me, I will be a slave to my desires.

So, where do we go from here? If we want to be Christ’s disciples, we must recognize that our desires and appetites are not sovereign. God is sovereign, and he tells me that I must be ruled by higher and holier desires. Amazingly, God promises to change my desires. Yes, this may be a long, arduous battle. Yes, I will come up against deviant longings throughout my earthly trek, but in the end, God will win and bring me safely home. God promises to make us more like Jesus. And to make me more like Jesus, God must change my desires so that I can live a truly human life.[3] Only then will I know the “expulsive power of a new affection,” that Thomas Chalmers wrote about. I need the “strong, lively actings of love to Christ in the soul, so as to swallow up all carnal affections and desires.”[4]

As you can probably guess, this puts us on a collision course with our culture. God’s definition of freedom and the world’s definition of freedom are quite at odds. “[T]he tendency of modern thought,” writes Peter Jensen, “is to see the locus of liberty as situated primarily in an individual subject’s spontaneous power of choice.”[5] Whereas God desires to rule on the throne of our hearts, what rules there now is the more erratic god of desire. The view that our appetites are sovereign appears to be the new normal.

A Loss of Future Perspective. Moore is right: “Temptation only works if the possible futures open to you are concealed. Consequences, including those of Judgment Day, must be hidden from view or outright denied.”[6] The near-sightedness, the blinding power of sin is nowhere seen more clearly than in our willingness to give up eternal pleasures at God’s right hand for a moment of pleasure in the here and now. We’re like animals marching toward the slaughterhouse completely unaware of what awaits us. We just follow the herd. Meanwhile, Satan couldn’t be happier.

The easiest life for you will be one in which you don’t question these things, a life in which you simply do what seems natural. The ease of it all will seem to be further confirmation that this is the way things ought to be. It might even seem as though everything is happening exactly as you always hoped it would. You might feel as though your life situation is like progressing up a stairway so perfect it’s as though it was designed just for you. And it is. . . . In many ways the more tranquil you feel, the more endangered you are. As you find yourself curving around the soft corners of life, maybe you should question the quietness of it all. Perhaps you should listen, beneath your feet, for the gentle clatter of hooves.


[1] Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 48.

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. F. H. Peters (NY: Barnes & Noble, 2004), 3. 4.

[3] See, e.g., Paul Miller, Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2014), 191; David Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition through the Lens of Scripture (Philipsburg: P&R, 2003), 161.

[4] Jonathan Edwards, “I Know My Redeemer Lives,” in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards, eds. W. H. Kimnach, K. P. Minkema, and D. A. Sweeney (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 158-159.

[5] Peter F. Jensen, “God and the Bible,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 493.

[6] Moore, Tempted and Tried, 50.


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