When it comes to resisting temptations to sin, there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. Temptations arrive in many ways at many times, and the Bible gives many different strategies to defeat them.
But we can notice one fundamental similarity in all the temptations we face, a dimension that’s always present in satanic deception. Remembering this similarity will help us in the fight, whatever resistance strategy we implement.
To help us see this unifying theme in temptation, let’s examine history’s most remarkable example — the devil’s temptation of Jesus. This scene illustrates Satan’s core strategy, how Jesus kept his head clear, and how we can imitate Jesus’s example.
Anatomy of Temptation
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus being tempted by the devil at the beginning of his ministry, but Matthew’s account provides the most details. He describes three specific temptations and Jesus’s response to each (Matthew 4:1–11).
Theologians down through history have pointed out that there’s a lot going on in this particular temptation from historical and theological standpoints, but I’m not going to address those topics here. Instead, my goal is simply to identify a specific dimension common in all of Satan’s temptations.
Dialogue with the Devil
To begin, after Jesus fasts for forty days, the devil seeks to take advantage of his physical weakness and severe hunger.
Devil: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (verse 3)
Jesus: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (verse 4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)
Then, from the pinnacle of the temple, the devil seeks to take advantage of Jesus’s faith in a scriptural promise.
Devil: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” (verse 6, quoting Psalm 91:11–12)
Jesus: “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (verse 7, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16)
Finally, after showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (verse 8), the devil seeks to take advantage of Jesus’s promised exaltation.
Devil: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (verse 9)
Jesus: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (verse 10, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16)
Three Essential Elements
Notice that the three temptations have three elements in common.
First, the devil sought to narrow Jesus’s focus specifically on each tempting proposition, so that Jesus would view each in a distorted context and therefore experience them as disproportionately compelling. More on this in a moment.
Second, each temptation promises both explicit and implicit rewards. I will paraphrase some that I discern, as if spoken by the tempter:
- Bread: Jesus, if you miraculously create bread, it will relieve your starving agony and, more importantly, validate your claim to divinity.
- Jump: If you demonstrate the truth of this audacious promise in the sight of all those witnesses down there, you will glorify both the trustworthiness of God’s word and the trustworthiness of your claim as God’s Son.
- Worship: Since it is in my power, if you will bow to me, I will make sure that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess your lordship.
Third, each tempting proposition makes implicit threats. Again, I’ll paraphrase some that I discern:
- Bread: If you’re unwilling to miraculously create bread, doesn’t it indicate your inability to do so? You’re no Moses, much less the Prophet, much less the Son of God. You’re just another self-deluded “messiah” — and you know what happens to frauds.
- Jump: If you’re unwilling to demonstrate the truth of these promises, doesn’t it indicate that you don’t really believe them? You’re no Son of God. You’re just like every other hypocritical rabbi: teach, teach, teach, but you won’t risk your life to prove God’s word is true — and you know what happens to hypocrites.
- Worship: The road you’re on is more than risky; it’s doomed. If you don’t bow to me, you will die. And I will make sure it is unspeakably horrible.
Satan’s Core Strategy
This dissection of Jesus’s temptation experience helps us examine not only the devil’s specific strategy with Jesus, but the core strategy he employs in every temptation.
“Jesus was not ignorant of the universal diabolical dimension of temptation: to disorient, distort, and deceive.”
What was the devil trying to do? Essentially, he was seeking to do with Jesus what he did with Adam and Eve and what he does with each of us: disorient Jesus’s perception of reality, so he could distort Jesus’s perception of reality and deceive Jesus into believing a false story about reality.
See if this doesn’t sound familiar. Satan comes when Jesus is in a weakened state — we humans are more easily disoriented when we’re physically, emotionally, psychologically weak. Think about how differently you’re prone to respond to various pressures when you’re weak, rather than when you’re strong and refreshed.
Then he poses to Jesus propositions that put a distorted twist on truth. The devil wove plenty of truth into his presentation of a false reality. Was it inherently sinful for Jesus to desire to satisfy his hunger? No. Was it inherently sinful for Jesus to demonstrate his sonship through miraculously making bread? No — he did this very thing later when he fed the five thousand (Matthew 14:13–21). Was it inherently sinful for Jesus to put his faith in a specific promise of Scripture? No. Was it inherently sinful for Jesus (in particular) to long to be highly exalted and for every knee to bow and tongue to confess his lordship? No (see Philippians 2:9–11).
All of these, given the right context, were good and righteous. What made the devil’s propositions evil was their distorted context. And I think it required more resolve from Jesus’s human nature to resist than we might at first assume.
But resist he did. How? One way to describe it is that he skillfully used the armor of God against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:11). In Jesus’s responses, we see him lifting the “shield of faith” and wielding the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:16–17).
Another way to describe it is that Jesus was “not ignorant of [Satan’s] designs” and therefore refused to be “outwitted” by him (2 Corinthians 2:11). Jesus was not ignorant of the universal diabolical dimension of temptation: to disorient, distort, and deceive. So he had his antennae up; he was anticipating it. And when it came, he expected it to sound appealing and appear life-giving, when in reality “its end is the way the death” (Proverbs 14:12).
“The devil tempted Jesus to see himself in a different story.”
The devil tempted Jesus to see himself in a different story, one he implied would be better if Jesus took matters into his own hands. Jesus discerned the insidious temptations by remembering the Real Story he was in, which is what his Scripture quotes reveal. He had come to undo the curse of the fall — the catastrophic result of the first Adam believing a perverted story — by doing only what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19).
Remember the Story You’re In
That is the crucial application point I want to draw from Jesus’s temptation: remember the story you’re in. All of us tend to respond to tempting desires or fears based on the narrative of reality we believe (or want to believe) at the moment. What will lead to more joy or less misery, according to the story we’re believing? If we allow ourselves to be disoriented and sold a distorted bill of goods, and if we then take the bait of a deceptively appealing false story, we will be “lured and enticed by [our] own desire,” which when “conceived gives birth to sin, and sin . . . [eventually] brings forth death” (James 1:14–15).
Many different strategies for fighting different kinds of temptations exist. But all of them require that we not be outwitted by Satan due to ignorance of his designs to disorient, distort, and deceive. God calls us, like Jesus, to “be sober-minded [and] watchful,” since our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). So, like Jesus, we anticipate what temptation will be like, and when it arrives we resist the devil by first remembering the story we’re in.