In her novel, The Gathering author Anne Enright’s central character muses over her practice of drinking a bottle of wine every night, just before dawn. The character says, “I have all my regrets between pouring the wine and reaching for the glass.” That statement sums up the battle against temptation for most of us.
It doesn’t matter what the temptation is.
The temptation could be adultery. Somewhere between sensing the attraction and making a move there is a moment when the decision hangs in the balance. The image of your spouse recedes as you tell yourself that this feeling isn’t what it purely is, and you tilt your head just so before you say, “Do you always sneak up on people that way?” For a moment, you see where the threads of your life are woven into the fabric of your marriage, but as you turn to examine them, something – light, darkness, glare, or sand in your eye – obscures the image and you turn away. Your momentum shifts, and the decision is no longer possible, because the first teasing word has already been already spoken.
The temptation could be a few potato chips with a sandwich. You know you don’t need potato chips. Your sandwich is fine without them. You promised yourself yesterday that you would take action to reduce unnecessary fat in order to maintain your weight after working so hard to lose ten pounds before your birthday. But the birthday was yesterday. Today the chips are right there on the counter, and there aren’t many left in the bag anyway and you just want a taste. As you lift the first one to your lips, you remember that “nobody can eat just one.” And then they are gone.
Satan lives and dwells in the interim between choosing and not choosing. Eve had a moment like that. Satan, that snake, whispered, “Did God say …?” She paused, stating the obvious. Then Satan said, “God lies.” Caught by the attractive prospect that she could dismiss God and judge his motives and do anything she darn well pleased, she contemplated the choice, and forgot to choose at all, and took a bite of the forbidden fruit.
That is the way it usually feels. Most of us don’t really recall the decision to do what we know we ought not to do. We remember our good intentions, but we simply cannot recall when we took the first step forward. We even comfort ourselves by saying that we do not recall making this choice. It just happened.
Nothing just happens. We do make choices, even when we refuse to watch ourselves doing it. Satan is so good at whispering the words we want to hear that we simply tune out the other words. It feels so good to say, “I deserve this one little taste.” In fact, Satan is pretty good at taking God’s own teachings and reshaping them to serve ourselves. He likes to quote the Golden Rule. He can whisssssper in your heart, “Remember, God said to love your neighbor AS YOURSELF. Don’t you deserve some of the good stuff?” SSsssoooon what was just a passing thought – “Nobody will ever know if I simply borrow $50 from petty cash” — becomes “What’s $50 to this rich tycoon? I’ll put it back on payday.” At first you are steering through the muddy swamp of regret, but soon you find the path of self-justification. There was a moment when you might have chosen otherwise, but you no longer remember that moment.
The apostle Paul documented this experience in Romans 7, when he wrote, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19) This is how we feel. Paul described his battle as something that happened over and over. He could never vanquish temptation and put it behind him.
I remember trying to do that very thing – stop sinning. I had a good reason for trying. I had heard a sermon in which the pastor said that there is no need to ask God for help in overcoming sin if you aren’t serious about it. In those days, I thought pastors did not make mistakes, so I was completely undone by that statement. I wanted to ask God for help with my problems, but since I continued to have more and more problems and to fail more and more miserably to overcome them, I felt that God would not want to hear from me. I had to improve my track record. Satan used that simple statement to completely steal the joy of my salvation from me.
Thank goodness the day came that I understood the truth. God wasn’t trying to put me through some marathon test. Jesus died so I could run to God for help every single time I needed it. And when I failed, because I forgot to notice the moment when I made the wrong choice, I could go to God and ask forgiveness, all because Jesus died for me. No conditions. No limit. No test. The memory of that moment is quite vivid in my mind. We were all holding hands during prayer. The pastor prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for forgiving us all our sins, not because we deserve forgiveness, but entirely for Jesus’ sake, because he died in our place.” I burst into tears as the truth came clear to me. I have never been the same since. Every time I get lost in the minefield of temptation, I know I have a safe haven to run to. God isn’t going to ask me for the final, final, final time to get my act straight. Instead, the Slaughtered Lamb will be standing beside the throne of my Heavenly Father, speaking my name and saying, “This is one of Mine.”