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Finding Hope in the Age of Temptation

Category Articles
Date December 24, 2010

‘But, Mum, you don’t know how hard it is to be a Christian today.’ ‘Oh, Dad, things were much simpler in your day.’

Every generation of Christians thinks it is more difficult to be a Christian in their day than in the past. Well, the present generation now has the New York Times on their side (Alina Tugend, Pumping up the self-control in the age of temptations, October 8, 2010).

‘There is research that shows people still have the same self-control as in decades past, but we are bombarded more and more with temptations,’ said Kathleen Vohs, associate professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. ‘Our psychological system is not set up to deal with all the potential immediate gratification,’ she reports.

The author of the NYT article, Alina Tugend, points out that although temptation is nothing new, since the Industrial Revolution we not only have increased opportunities and time on our hands, but with almost everything available at a click, the physical barriers to temptation have almost disappeared. Tugend asks, ‘Is there anything we can do about it? Are there ways to build up willpower?’ Her answer: ‘Yes.’ How? Here’s her method summarized:

1 DEFINE TERMS.
Unless we understand the process of temptation, we will not be able to resist it. Self-control has two components: will-power (moving from the current place to where you want to go) and assessment (measuring to see how well we’re doing).

2 BUILD UP RESERVES OF WILLPOWER.
Research has shown that willpower, like a muscle, can get fatigued if overused. Two groups were told to watch a funny film without laughing. Then they were asked to resist chocolate chip cookies. Those who succeeded in the first task were more likely to fail in the second. Timothy Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, concluded that those who had to exert more willpower in the first task ‘exhausted their self-regulatory strength, at least temporarily, and therefore are unable to muster the self-regulation needed for the second task.’ That’s why the couch is more appealing than the exercise bike after a stressful day at work!

3 USE EXTERNAL CONTROLS.
If you feel you check your e-mail too frequently, install a program to shut it down temporarily. An extreme example in literature, Professor Pychyl said, was Odysseus asking his men to tie him to the mast to avoid his being lured by the sirens’ singing.

4 SEE SELF-CONTROL AS FUN, NOT WORK.
In experiments where instructions used the word ‘fun,’ even those with low self-control exerted more willpower than expected.

5 DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE DIFFICULTY.
Trying to convince ourselves that self-control is easy won’t work, says Professor Pychyl.

6 BE AWARE OF SOCIETAL PRESSURES.
As many temptations result from what everyone else is doing, it may be necessary to shield yourself from such pressure or at least identify it as an external danger.

7 TAKE SMALL STEPS.
Rather than resolving you’ll stop spending or turn off that computer forever, simply make a choice not to buy a latte today, or to stop checking your computer for an hour or a day (depending on your addiction).

8 TAKE A LONG-TERM VIEW OF TEMPTATION.
Realize that ‘those temptations will always be there and you don’t need to act on them now. Knowing that lessens the urgency, has a calming effect, and helps us resist the constant thrum of “buy it now” that permeates our lives.’

9 SET REWARDING GOALS.
For example, ‘When I am done with work, I will go to the gym’ works much better than ‘I should go to the gym.’

There’s some helpful advice here for anyone – yes, even for the Christian – who is looking for practical ways to translate the desire to resist temptation into reality. However, although Christians may use some of these techniques, we have a much more Christ-centred approach to temptation. We do not stand alone in our own weak willpower against the tempestuous tide of temptation. Rather, we stand on and with the Rock. Here are some of the extra resources he gives us:

1 CHRIST’S LOVE
Just as Christ’s love for us constrains and compels evangelism (2 Cor. 5:14), so it also constrains and compels obedience (1 John 4:19).

2 CHRIST’S WORD
Just as Christ himself resisted temptation with Scripture (Luke 4:1-14), so do we (Eph 6:17).

3 CHRIST’S EXAMPLE
Consideration of Christ’s holy life inspires and empowers perseverance in holiness (Heb. 12:3).

4 CHRIST’S SPIRIT
Christ is with and in his people by his Spirit (Gal 5:16-18). He does not send us into battle; he comes with us.

5 CHRIST’S SYMPATHY
As he was tempted on all points, like as we are, we can go to One who sympathizes with us as we face strong temptation in our human weakness (Heb. 4:15).

6 CHRIST’S GRACE
When we come to Christ, we not only get sympathy, we get strong grace to help in our time of need (Heb. 4:16).

7 CHRIST’S FORGIVENESS
We are going to fail and fall. But there’s no need to wallow in strength-draining guilt. We can come to Christ for immediate forgiveness (John 8:11; 1 John 1:9). We start again with a clean slate.

Yes, temptation is greater today. But Christ is greater still.


Dr. David P. Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

[Taken with permission from the December 2010 edition of The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth.]

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