A temptation, then, in general is anything that, for any reason, exerts a force or influence to seduce and draw the mind and heart of man form the obedience which God requires of him to any kind of sin.
John Owen (Temptation, Banner of Truth), pp. 10-11
Our society does not like to think in terms of temptation. We do this because we want to be ignorant of the paths that lead us to sin. If sin is more of a spontaneous accident, if sin just happens, then we are less responsible (at least in our minds) for what happens. A click of a button, a slip of the tongue, a startled burst of anger, it all happened so fast we argue. But this is not the picture the bible gives us. The book of James clearly shows us what temptation is and how it functions in our lives:
James 1:12–18 (NKJV)
12 Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. 15 Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. 18 Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of His creatures.
Three things really pop out in this passage. First, we see that a man is blessed when he does not give into temptation. In the thick of temptation, it does not feel like a blessing, it feels like a curse. I like Mark Driscoll’s illustration regarding temptation. Imagine you are bench-pressing and your arms are giving into the weight, but as soon as your muscles begin to resist and your arms push back, that is when you feel the real weight of temptation. As you resist temptation God uses that in your life to sanctify you and to make you stronger in resisting temptation the next time it rears its ugly head. The second take-a-way here is that temptation is not to be blamed on God, but on you. Because we are a fallen race, temptation comes with the turf. Verses 13 and 14 make it clear that temptation ultimately comes from within you, tugging your desires and enticing you to sin. Last thing to note is temptation is the path to sin, and sin is the path to death. Temptation is not sin, but temptation, if not resisted, leads to sin which leads to death.
Temptation can be heavy, temptation can make you tired, temptation can fill your mind leaving you with no answers. Temptation has a goal, it wants to wear you down. The ultimate goal of temptation, and why Satan is referred to as the tempter (Matt. 4:3), is not to get you to just sin but to get you to stop trusting in God. It wants to foster unbelief, it wants your faith trashed.
How does temptation foster unbelief? Well it makes your problems feel bigger than God’s power and grace. Temptation can consume your emotion and strength, and if you are not actively in the word and prayer, you will begin to doubt God’s ability to deliver you from temptation.
When Jesus was in the wilderness there were two tools He used to fight Satan and temptation. These tools were faith and scripture. First scripture: at each temptation, Jesus quoted scripture to fight off Satan’s attacks. This is usually the application you hear when sermons are preached regarding Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness. Satan proposed a temptation and Jesus fired back with scripture. But the second and more fundamental tool was faith. Faith that God delivers, faith that His Father’s promises come true, faith that the text Jesus quoted would be honored by His Father. Satan promised Jesus the world without the cross and His Father promised the world through the cross (Matt. 4:8-10). Jesus believed His Father’s way to obtain the world, was the better way, the way of salvation for the world.
For someone who is struggling and trapped in sin, revisiting what leads to that sin (i.e. temptation) is how you begin to fight. Temptation is all the rough terrain you face on the road in your walk with Christ, and sin is the ditch on both sides of the road. Each bump in the road, each pothole can jostle you and cause you to veer off into the ditch of sin. So learning the temptations that draw you into sin, understanding your weaknesses and having situational awareness will help you fight and resist temptation–ultimately avoiding sin. But it is not enough to recognize your temptations, this would just turn into some sort of self-help psychology faux-fix. You have to rest and trust in God who uses temptation in your life to test your faith in order to produce endurance which leads to the “crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12).