Why do we give in to temptation? This question often arises in the context of counseling for repetitive struggles such as pornography use, masturbation, substance abuse, and overeating. There are many biblical ways to answer this question, but I want to focus on just one: we give in to temptation because we get tired of fighting the battle. It feels too hard spiritually, emotionally, and physically to keep waging war against our flesh. Perseverance is uncomfortable, especially when you’ve given in to that temptation so many times before. It seems to have more power over you than you do to fight it. So it’s easier to give in and move on rather than continue to resist. The thought of another day, even another hour, of wrestling with that insistent and persistent desire is too much to handle. There is a paradoxical relief in succumbing (albeit often with guilt, shame, and other consequences). The spiritual slate is wiped clean. The clock can be reset with a fresh start and fresh resolve. At least this is often our experience, namely that the way out of temptation is to give in to temptation in a particular moment. But what encouragement does God give to us in the throes of battle? When we stand at the cusp of capitulating to the satanic lie, “Resistance is futile,” what help does our gracious Father offer?
He offers help for weary warriors in the book of Hebrews. The writer is not focused on the particular sin patterns I mentioned earlier, but the message does help to orient us in the midst of our particular temptations, especially when we are ready to throw in the towel. Scholars believe that Hebrews is likely addressed to Jewish Christians who were persecuted for being followers of Jesus. They were tempted to give up and return to Jewish practices and ritual law-keeping to experience relief from persecution. Throughout the book, the writer sets before them the glory and superiority of the new covenant in Jesus Christ. He exhorts them not to turn back to the old order of things but to persevere in faith. In chapter 11, the writer highlights the people of God, named and unnamed, who faithfully persevered, while still waiting for what was promised through Jesus. We pick up the writing in Hebrews 12.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (v.1–4)
There are several helpful things to notice here as we apply this perspective on perseverance to our own temptations.
1. Words such as endurance, endured, and resisted are used four times in four verses. This should perk up our ears; the writer is speaking to people like us who are tempted to give up. He is speaking into our weariness. Are we straining to hear God’s voice amidst the din of battle? Are we calling out to him for help?
2. The call to endurance is not a just-grit-your-teeth and white-knuckle-it exhortation. The call to endure is tied to the person of Jesus Christ. We are looking to him who is the founder and perfecter of our faith; we are to consider him. Implicit in what the writer is saying is that we are following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ himself. We are united to him who suffered greatly while he lived on earth. He knows how hard endurance is and he is with you as you struggle. You are not alone.
3. Anticipated joy motivated Jesus and it serves as a motivator for us as well. What was that joy for Jesus? The promised resurrection and his exaltation. That hope helped him stay the course. What is the joy set before us as we endure temptation? The warmth of preserved fellowship with God and those closest to us. The joy of becoming just a little bit more like Jesus. The satisfaction of experiencing the grace and mercy of Jesus as sufficient for today. The sweetness of a clear conscience. And the strengthening of our spiritual muscles—the more consistently we exercise self-control, the stronger our resolve to make right choices will be.
4. Resisting temptation may feel like death, but we are not actually shedding our blood in the process as Jesus did. This statement may bring minimal comfort in the midst of fleshly thoughts, emotions, and bodily pressures screaming for relief. “Great, so you’re saying: It could be worse; at least you’re not actually dying like Jesus, so just keep fighting?” Well, not exactly. Again, the writer ties our experience to Jesus’. The suffering he experienced from temptation was greater than ours ever will be. Satan attacked him with savage trials that were uniquely crafted for him. So, the point here is that “because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb 2:18).
These perspectives motivate us to turn to Jesus when we are tempted. They form our prayers for help in our time of need and encourage us to obey him as temptation mounts. They compel us to look for “the way of escape” God provides (1 Cor 10:13). They help us “lift drooping hands” and “strengthen weak knees” (Heb 12:12).
Perhaps you are thinking, “Maybe I can say ‘yes’ to Jesus today, but I still feel unsettled and tense. What about tomorrow?” Again, look to Jesus. If you get tired and worn down by temptation tomorrow, he has fresh grace and mercy for you then, too. I have a friend in AA who says to those tempted to drink, “You can drink tomorrow but just don’t drink today.” Of course, my friend is not truly saying it’s OK to drink tomorrow. He’s saying: face the temptations of tomorrow when tomorrow comes and not before. Anticipating the difficulty of tomorrow and imagining yourself unable to withstand it lowers your threshold for giving in today.
No doubt there will be times, even with gospel-mediated resolve to endure temptation, that you and I will fail. But when that happens, Jesus bids us come and find forgiveness for sins and renewed strength for the hours and days ahead. His perseverance on our behalf will see us safely home (1 Cor 1:8–9).