The Dragon Hiding in Your Desires

Why Temptation Feels So Harmless

Many of us fail to overcome temptation because we refuse to use our imagination. The dragon of deceitful desires creeps in to kill, and we lay down our sword.

Over and over, God comes alongside us in moments of temptation and invites us to imagine what we are really facing. What is really happening when you walk past a woman and are tempted to look back? Or when you stand in front of a mirror and feel insecurity rising? Or when fantasies of a better life begin to fill your mind?

We are not merely “being tempted” in these moments. Wild beasts are attacking (Genesis 4:7). Idols are bidding us to bow down (Ezekiel 14:3). An adulteress is waving us into her door (Proverbs 9:13–18). A gangrenous disease is threatening to spread (2 Timothy 2:16–17). Why does God soak our imagination with those awful images? Because we react differently to the vague idea of “temptation” than we do to a wolf at our door. The one can be entertained, even coddled; the other needs to die.

In Romans 6:15–23, Paul calls us to look behind today’s temptations and imagine spiritual reality. Behind every temptation is a master, merciless and cruel. He holds out life, honor, and happiness with one hand, and hides death and hell behind his back. Whenever we disobey God, we place ourselves in the service of this master.

Two Masters

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:16)

To be human is to be a servant — if not to the true God, then to something else. Here, Paul places every alternative under a single banner: sin. Either we swear allegiance to God, our Creator and Redeemer, or to sin, the master of Satan’s miserable army.

On our own, we are prone to see our options differently. We might, like Adam and Eve, think that the alternative to serving God is becoming our own god (Genesis 3:4–5). We reach for the fruit of forbidden desire and imagine we are exercising our freedom. But if spiritual reality were to become visible, we would see ourselves in chains, bound and led at every step.

Though God’s people have been decisively freed from slavery to sin (Romans 6:17), Paul assumes that Christians must continue to answer the question “Whom will you serve?” every day (Romans 6:19). With every rise of sinful desire, we have a choice: either follow Jesus into newness of life, or revert to our old slave master. One of them commands us to take up our cross now, only to raise us from the dead; the other promises an easy life now, only to kill us in the end.

Two Rewards

Just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Romans 6:19)

Over time, the obedience we give, to God or to sin, changes us. Moments of worry, gossip, cowardice, or laziness, built up through habit, shape us — as do moments of trust, gracious speech, courage, or endurance. Eventually, we become like the one we obey.

For all the liberation sin promises, handing ourselves over to him degrades us, dishonors us, dehumanizes us. He traffics in “dishonorable passions” (Romans 1:26), and leads us to do “things of which [we] are now ashamed” (Romans 6:21). Sin recruits only by deceit (Romans 7:11): he promises to give us whatever we want, and then leaves us with less than we ever had.

Those who give themselves to God, on the other hand, find themselves walking in newness of life (Romans 6:4). They discover the grand secret that holiness is not a stuffy thing, not a grim thing, not a “religious” thing, but rather, as Thomas Watson puts it, “heaven begun in the soul.” God’s servants become more dignified, more ennobled, more of what they were always supposed to be — in a word, more like Christ.

Nor is God content to leave his people as mere servants. All who serve God become sons of God (Romans 8:14), heirs alongside Christ (Romans 8:17), and citizens of the coming world, where they will live in glory (Romans 8:21). Such service is the purest kind of freedom.

Two Destinies

The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

Many of us hear this familiar verse and assume that death is the wage that God delivers to sinners. Although sin certainly awakens God’s wrath (Romans 1:18; 5:9), Paul has a different burden here. For death, he tells us, is the wage of sin — the payment sin gives to his most loyal subjects.

Paul would not have us picture sin’s servants enjoying life with their master, until God ends their happiness with death. Rather, sin is the one who sneaks up on his servants and, when they least expect it, sinks a knife into their back. Like Woman Folly in Proverbs, sin lures people into his service with a thousand hooks — pornography and pride, success and self-pity, riches and reputation. But those who enter “[do] not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol” (Proverbs 9:18).

Meanwhile, God gathers up his servants, not to dispense wages (for what could we earn from him?), but to deliver a free gift: eternal life (Romans 6:23). This life stretches back from eternity to enliven us now, if only in part, as God’s Spirit roams through the former wastelands of our souls. Our holiness here is like a flower rising up from the ice, a guarantee of the coming spring when we will stand on God’s new earth, immortal and incorruptible, and breathe in the fragrance of eternal life (Romans 8:22–23).

Whom Will You Serve?

Today and every day, temptations will come. You will feel snubbed by your spouse and want to retaliate. Or you will receive criticism and begin rehearsing your defense. Or you will notice someone else’s gifts and begin to grow envious. When temptations like these fill your mind and begin to capture your heart, don’t try to turn off your imagination. Instead, imagine the spiritual and eternal realities you cannot see.

Behind the desire to snap back, to become defensive, to envy (or whatever else) is a master. Sin will ask nothing of you and promise everything. But follow him, and he will strip you, strike you, shame you. He may not be able to steal you from Christ, but he can drag you away and, for a moment, give you a taste of living death.

But in this same moment, another master speaks. This master has received in his body the wages we earned (Romans 8:3), and has broken our slavery to sin (Romans 6:17). He will supply his Spirit for everything he commands (Romans 8:13). Imagine the man with the nail-pierced hands, and then follow him. Come walk in the freedom of the children of God. Come feel the first tremors of eternal life.