What is Temptation?

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Count it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter different temptations, for you know that the proving of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
(James 1:2-4)

I know what “temptation” means. At least, I think I know. And the dictionary bears it out. But when I come to the text of the Bible, “temptation” seems to have some of the same meaning as in English and some meaning totally unrelated to our contemporary use of the word. For instance, I can yield to the temptation of a chocolate cake without sinning. But in the Bible, yielding to temptation is always sin. And to make the puzzle worse, it seems that the Bible uses the same word (peirasmos) for “temptation” and “trial.” The two look very different to me. Temptation has to do with pleasure and trial has to do with pain.

This puzzle is demonstrated in James 1:2.

  • My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; (KJV)
  • Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, (NASB)
  • Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, (NIV)
  • Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy (NLT).

Some translators take the original Greek word (peirasmos) to mean “temptation” and some to mean “trial.” The NLT looks at this problem and decides on the word “trouble” to encompass both “temptation” and “trial.”

Our first hint to the solution is that temptations and trials are opposites. So they are connected. They are not two disparate terms with no commonality. And even though their commonality lies in their being opposites, one dealing with pleasure and another dealing with pain, we can be justly hopeful that there is exciting meaning to be discovered.

If we look at how the KJV translates this word, we will notice that the KJV always translates the word as “temptation.” This results in expressions like “the last temptation of Christ” referring to Jesus’s time in the Garden of Gethsemane. When Jesus was in that garden, there was no temptation to any pleasure. The temptation Jesus faced was not to go ahead with the cross. He had the option to lay down his life or to take it up again. This temptation had to do with pain, not pleasure. In our day, we will not use the word “temptation” to refer to Jesus’s experience at Gethsemane. What we see is that Jesus had a choice one way or another. He need not die if he did not want to. The emphasis on that use of “temptation” relates to Jesus having an opportunity to escape pain, or to escape a trial.

The word “temptation” in the Bible is used in two senses. The first we already know, that is, a temptation entices us to a pleasure that is sinful. The Bible also uses the term to refer to the sinful avoidance of pain. For instance, if we are asked to deny Christ on pain of imprisonment or death, we would be going through our Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus did, we will have to choose comfort and life versus faithfulness and death. There will be no pleasure involved in our choice. Instead, it is the opportunity to escape pain and death that draws us. So temptation is not just the attraction to sinful pleasure, it is also the sinful avoidance of pain.

Point: Temptation/Trial (peirasmos) is related to the indulgence of sinful pleasure and the sinful avoidance of just pain.

Another puzzling expression in the Bible is found in Hebrews 4:15 which says of Jesus, “… we have [a high priest] who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” This makes it clear to us that we can be tempted, but if we do not yield to temptation, we have not sinned. That is clear enough. But what if we want to sin and lust in our hearts even though we do not do the act? Jesus makes it clear that lusting in our hearts is already sin. “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). This again creates two problems: (1) we cannot imagine that Jesus lusted but did not yield and Jesus himself tells us that the desire to sin is already sin; (2) our understanding of “temptation” in English always involves the desire for something.

It appears that the meaning of “peirasmos” (temptation/trial) in Greek is not about desire. In fact, we can affirm that when Jesus was tempted, it did NOT mean that he wanted to sin. So then, what is the meaning of the word?

I like to suggest to you that the Greek term focuses on choice. That is to say, Jesus was given the opportunity to sin, but did not sin. Temptation was not the desire to sin but the opportunity to sin.

This difference can be easily observed in life. If a man lusts after a woman at his place of work, according to Jesus, he has already committed adultery in his heart. He has already sinned. The desire to sin is evil in itself. He might have no opportunity to carry out his fantasy about the woman, so he has no opportunity for sin. In our day, we will say he is tempted by the woman, but the way the Bible uses the word would not allow it. If we use the biblical term, we would say he lusted after the woman. When we say he was tempted (but did not act on it) we are suggesting he did not sin. When we say he lusted (even though he did not act on it, or had no opportunity to act on it), we are saying he had already sinned. And that is Jesus’s view.

Let’s paint a different scenario. Let’s say the woman presents opportunities for the man to have his way with her. But he did not. He was not lusting after her, and when the opportunity came, he did not take up the opportunity. This would be like the case of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. He fled from her. The biblical term “temptation” would apply to Joseph. Not because he lusted, but because he was given the opportunity to sin. In the case of the man who lusted, the term temptation would not apply because he had no opportunity. He simply lusted after her.

I like to suggest to you that in the Bible, “temptation” focuses on the opportunity to sin not the desire to sin. This is why a person can be tempted but not sin. And this is why the desire to sin is already sin, and not a temptation to sin.

Point: Temptation/trial (peirasmos) is not the desire to sin without the act, which is already sin. Temptation is the opportunity to indulge in sinful pleasure or to avoid just pain.

When I discovered the Bible uses one word (peirasmos) for both temptation and trial, two things become clearer. First, I become aware of the motivation for my own actions.

I had a hard time understanding my own failures. Why did I fall into sin? Why did I yield to temptation? It was only when I understood what motivated me, and what continues to motivate me that my heart is laid bare before God. When I yield to the opportunity for sinful pleasure, it is because my heart had not been right for a long time. And the devil presented an opportunity to the impure heart. That is temptation. If my first love had been to my heavenly Father, and my heart is kept pure, then the opportunity for sinful pleasure will hold no attraction to me and I will reject the temptation.

My first battle is not to say “No” when the opportunity arises. That is the final battle. My first battle is to say “No” when sinful desires arises in my heart. I have no reason to be smug if I say “No” to the opportunity but if I had said “Yes” to dark passions. This is because the heart that imagines sin will eventually indulge in it.

When I zoom out to all of life, I find that we are all motivated by pleasure and pain. These two aspects control almost every action we do each day. We will choose a pain to avoid greater pain. We will deny ourselves a pleasure to get greater pleasure.

The next thing I discovered when I understood the duality of pain and pleasure in temptation is that they are two sides of the same coin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the courageous pastor who stood up to Hitler and was eventually martyred said:

“Temptation to desire always includes the renunciation of the desire, that is to say, suffering. Temptation to suffering always includes the longing for freedom from suffering, that is to say, for desire. Thus the temptation of the flesh through desire and through suffering is at bottom one and the same.” (Creation and Fall; Temptation, 134)

This observation is practical and sublime. We know from experience that when we seize pleasure that is improper, we will enjoy the pleasure but suffer the consequence of pain. Conversely, when we accept the privation of not yielding to sinful pleasure, the result is true pleasure. Yielding to sinful pleasure produces pain; and embracing righteous pain produces pleasure. So when the Bible uses one word for both pain-temptation and pleasure-temptation, it reaches beyond the immediate pain or pleasure. It brings us to the opposite results of sinful pleasure or of the sinful pain avoidance. The decision for sinful pleasure will result in pain and the decision to avoid just pain will result in more pain. Contrariwise if we reject sinful pleasure (which is painful), we will experience greater pleasure; and if we embrace just pain, we will be rewarded with true pleasure.

It is important for us to pause at this point and note that all true pleasure is from God. There is nothing wrong with pleasure. God created us with the capacity for pleasure. It gives God pleasure when we enjoy our life and thankfully drink deep of the pleasure God gives us. The devil perverts the pleasures that God gives us for our proper enjoyment. The devil corrupts pleasure into something selfish and excessive, in such a way that the pleasure becomes sinful and harmful.

This is easily observable. Food is good, but food in excess is sinful towards God and harmful for us. Rest is good, but laziness is a repudiation of the productivity God expects of us, and such indolence is harmful to us. Work is good, but when work defines our value and we become workaholics, we depart from God’s purpose for work and we harm ourselves and our loved ones. Temptation as sinful pleasure is a perversion of God’s blessing of pleasure.

When we see that sinful pleasure and the sinful avoidance of pain naturally result in the exact opposite, we begin to appreciate the true nature of temptation. To yield to immediate sinful pleasure is to choose long-term pain. To accept temporary pain that we are called to bear is to choose long-term pleasure.

Conclusion

For me, an understanding of where the battle line is at, has been enormously helpful. I had wrongly understood temptation to mean the desire to sin. So I did not guard my desire, only my action. But that guarantees failure in the long run. We can only say “No” to opportunities to sin for so long, and so many times before we give in, if our heart is not right. As the saying goes, it is not how much water outside the boat that will sink it, it’s how much water in the boat. If I indulge sinful desires, even from a distance, then I am letting water into the boat. My sinking has already begun. The opportunity to sin simply seals what has already begun.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we are taught to pray “And do not let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:13). The evil one prowls around like a roaring lion seeking to devour the soul of anyone whose heart is already given over to sinful desires. But his temptations are ineffective against the one who loves God with all his heart, and all his soul, and all his strength; and his neighbor as himself.

Pastor Peter Eng

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