Temptation is not sin. We know this because Eve was tempted before she fell and Jesus was tempted, “yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Temptation is a disorienting, defiling experience when evil is presented to us as good. Destruction comes dressed up to look like happiness. Sin only occurs when we believe that the destructive lie can actually grant happiness.
One key to resisting temptation is learning to recognize what I call the “mirage moment.”
The Mirage Moment
A mirage is that hallucination parched people sometimes experience in a hot desert. A real desire for water and the shimmering heat of the sand play disorienting games with the mind and emotions. A refreshing oasis seems to appear in the distance promising the happiness of a quenched desire.
A thirsty person might know that no oasis has previously existed in that location. But his desire to be happy, fueled by the hope that this time he just might find happiness there, or at least relief from misery, tempts him to believe the vision. If he yields, he discovers his hope was hopeless and his desire dashed because the oasis was a sham.
In temptation, the mirage moment occurs as we are tempted by a vision promising happiness. Some shimmering oasis of promised joy or relief from despair appears where God said it shouldn’t be.
The mirage’s appearance taps into our real desire to be happy. Our disoriented emotions begin to respond to this desire with a feeling of hope — hope that maybe this time, even if we’ve been disappointed many times before, the oasis will quench our desire. But we know that God has told us it is a false hope.
So we are faced with a choice between temptation’s compelling appearance and God’s promise. We are tempted, but have not yet succumbed to sin.
Learning from Eve’s Mirage Moment
The most notorious mirage moment in history is recorded in Genesis 3. And it illustrates a pattern consistent in all the temptations that we face.
The satanic serpent showed up in the garden and questioned Eve about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve’s explanation shows that she clearly understood God’s promise and warning (Genesis 3:1–3).
Then came Eve’s mirage moment. The serpent replied:
“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw . . . (Genesis 3:4–6)
There it is: the mirage. Eve saw something she had not seen before:
[Eve] saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise. (Genesis 3:6)
Eve was experiencing the defilement of evil temptation. She was being told something very different about the tree from what God had told her, and so the tree suddenly looked different to her and she felt different about it.
God created Eve (and all of us) so that the meaning of her sensory impressions was shaped by what she believed to be true. Satan knew this. He knew that if he could change the meaning of the tree for Eve from the curse of death (Genesis 2:17) to the key to a happy life (Genesis 3:5), the tree would cease to look dangerous and begin to look desirable. It would tempt her to hope in something different than God’s promise and she might fall for it.
Satan manipulated Eve’s God-given desire to be happy and used it against her. He enticed her to corrupt this holy desire by pursuing it outside of God. And Eve indeed fell for it, which corrupted her desire by believing the mirage, which furthermore gave birth to sin and death (James 1:14–15):
[Eve] took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)
Learning from Jesus’s Mirage Moment
Satan employed the same tactic when tempting Jesus (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13). Whether using food (Luke 4:3), or a cross-less path to power (Luke 4:5–7), or a public demonstration (test) of his divinity (Luke 4:9–11), Satan was trying to corrupt Jesus’s holy, God-given desires.
Satan knew (as the apostle Paul later wrote) that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). But he also knew that what made these things holy was “the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:5) and that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). So Satan set before Jesus mirages to tempt him with faithless promises of divine happiness.
We who live with indwelling sin don’t know the levels to which the sinless God-man was affected. But we do know that what Jesus experienced were temptations. Jesus was given a choice between compelling deceptive appearances and God’s promises. And to each temptation, Jesus responded, “It is written. . . . ” He refused to believe Satan’s deceptive mirages or the emotions they roused. He kept food, power, the revelation of his divinity, and everything else holy by receiving them only through the word of God and prayer.
Recognize and Resist the Mirage Moment
Satan employs the same temptation tactics with us. And one key to not letting him outwit us (2 Corinthians 2:11) is to be on the alert to our mirage moments.
Identify the hope tempting mirages offer. The reason temptations are hard to resist is because hope is hard to resist. Temptations threaten us with missing out on happiness or less misery. We must ask ourselves what the mirage is really promising? Sometimes just saying it out loud breaks its spell.
Declare, like Jesus, “It is written” and take your stand on a promise God has made to make you happy. Don’t fight hope merely with denial. Fight false hope with true hope. Determine to hope in the God of hope (Psalm 42:11; Romans 15:13), not a shimmering hopeless mirage.
Expect the mirage to be tempting. God made you to want to be happy and the mirage has promised you happiness. So of course your emotions, which have responded to the initial deceptive vision, will want the happiness. They will feel demanding, but denying them won’t kill you. In this case, gratifying them just might kill you. Don’t allow your passions to be your dictators (Romans 6:12). Remember, emotions are gauges, not guides. They are indicatives not imperatives. They are to be directed, not to be directors.
To be tempted is not a sin. To yield to temptation is sin. Temptations are never truly as strong as they feel. Their power lies solely in the false hope they produce in us. Remember, it is hope that is powerful. God created us to hope in him (Psalm 43:5).
In temptation, Satan is just trying to use our God-given desire for hopeful happiness against us. If we can identify his false promise of hope, declare the true promise of hope, and expect to weather some disorienting emotional urges, the mirage will dissipate and our hope in God’s promised happiness will strengthen.