The one responsible for temptation is Satan and the target of his temptation is your heart. He plants a temptation, hoping to find fertile soil in which it can grow and manifest itself in sin. This is what Jesus was referring to when he said, "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander." (Matthew 15:18-19) Sin begins with a temptation that is nourished and ends in rebellion against God. James, in his usual clear manner, shows the progressive nature of temptation when he says, "When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." (James 1:13-15) The evil thought is sown in the heart, then grows and finally displays itself in sinful behaviour, resulting in spiritual death.

That is what happened to Adam and Eve; Satan planted an evil thought in their heart, they embraced it and rebelled against God. "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it." (Genesis 3:6) She saw, she desired, she sinned, she died. The same pattern is seen in the life of Achan, in the Old Testament book of Joshua, who acted in disobedience to God’s express command not to take any plunder after the defeat of Jericho. In his defence he said, "When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them." (Joshua 7:21) He saw, he coveted, he took, he died. In both cases sin started with an evil thought, a temptation, which they could have rejected.

Responding to Temptation

James says, "Resist the devil and he will flee from you." (James 4:7) If you are being defeated by the devil, check your resistance programme. Let me illustrate. If you are always getting colds then there is something wrong with your resistance; it is unable to protect you against the virus. You need to build up your resistance if you are to enjoy good health.

So how do you resist the devil? Since temptation presents itself in the form of thoughts such as "Look at that lovely woman," "Tell that dirty story it will make you popular," "You have the right to hate that person," "Withhold some tax because everyone is doing it," it is important to take our thoughts under control. Rick Warren, in The Purpose-Driven Life, makes a very wise observation when he points out that constantly thinking about the temptation is not the way to resist it. For example, the person who has to give a speech will be a nervous wreck when he gets up to speak if he keeps thinking of just how nervous he is. His thinking is only reinforcing his nervousness. What he needs to do is think of something entirely different, like how important the content of the speech is to his listeners, or what a beautiful day it is.

If you find yourself thinking evil thoughts, it is because you have cultivated this practice. You have learned to think this way. And you can unlearn what you have learned. As someone has said, "Habit overcomes habit." Paul tells us the kinds of things we should be thinking about: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me - put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you." (Philippians 4:8-9) Paul says we must practise thinking about these things. And with practice it will become habit.

When you are confronted with temptation (remembering that it begins as an idea in your heart), immediately think of something godly such as, "I am loved by God," "God is here to help me," "I am precious to God," "God will sustain me," "God is always faithful," "I will honour God by obeying him." Fill your mind with holy, noble, honourable thoughts and, in so doing, you will resist the devil and overcome temptation.

The more you practise thinking godly thoughts, the stronger you will become. And the more you reject temptation, helped by the power of the Holy Spirit, the more you honour and glorify God. Temptation affords us the opportunity to say yes to God and no to sin. So there is good that comes out of temptation.