When Temptation Holds Out Pleasure

Can a dead thing make you happy? Strange question, I know. In the moments when we’re vacillating between obeying God or disobeying God, though, the question might help identify who or what we are really believing in for joy.

For me, a lot of my life was wasted on the assumption that dead things were the best things. Dead things being another way to describe “sinful things” — all the ways we try to be happy when we’re dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). I intentionally and persistently chose behaviors and affections that dishonored God and neighbor, because I figured they had the ability to satisfy me.

And in some ways, they did. If the experience of a particular sin felt abominable to the sinner, they’d most likely replace it with another sin that felt good. Sinners don’t just sin because, being sinners, they have to. Sinners sin because they want to — they enjoy sinning (John 3:19). Being made in the image of God, we were made for joy, but not the shallow and temporary joy we feel when we sin.

When Your Life Ends

All of the dead things I loved — the things I said, thought, did, talked about, watched, walked in, listened to, promoted, and went to bed with — had a measure of satisfaction in them, but they were never enough. I was made for an infinite God, so how could some little idol make me whole or happy?

“Though I am no longer a slave to my sins, I am still tempted to believe that they, and not God, will provide joy.”

I don’t mean the kind of happiness that can fit inside of time. I mean a happiness that extends beyond the time we have here. That’s the caveat sin doesn’t want you to think about: After you’ve had your fill of everything but God, and you stand before the Holy One, will the smile that sinful delights gave you hold up under the wrath of God?

Thankfully, the Holy One is also the Merciful One, whose Son, Jesus Christ, enjoyed his life to the full — as in, he never once trusted dead things to make him happy. What gave him joy was loving his Father and sinful people. Having died (as we all should) and rose (as we all can), he now empowers us to walk as he always has: as obedient children (1 Peter 1:14).

What Jesus accomplished on the cross has the power to set us free from sin, and set us up for joy. But how?

Obedient Delight

When Jesus triumphed over death and sin, he finally cleared the path for our feet to walk into joy. He reconciled us to God (Romans 5:10), in whose presence are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). Jesus himself is the bread of life (John 6:35), the only one able to satisfy the body fully and completely. He is the fountain of living water (John 7:37–38), the one who quenches all our thirsts. He’s the good shepherd (John 10:11), the one who leaves the needy without want. Jesus brought us into fellowship with God, and by doing so, he’s brought us where real happiness is found (1 Peter 3:18). What Christ has done has made us alive to all that God is. Now we can live as he would have us live, in obedient delight.

From Genesis 1 on, obedience is what God has demanded from his creatures (Deuteronomy 13:4; John 14:15). The perfection of the garden wasn’t without boundaries set in place by our God (Genesis 2:16–17). Israel stood at the bottom of a mountain they couldn’t touch, as they listened to the terrifying voice of God (Hebrews 12:18–20). Jesus, God in the flesh, not intending to abolish the law, brought it into our world not only to be obeyed in deed but joyfully from the heart (Matthew 5:28). The writers of the Epistles, gathering their commands as led by the Spirit of God, continue to teach us how to love God and neighbor for the glory of God — and for our joy.

More Real Than Temptation

What’s difficult for me, and perhaps for you, is that though I am a new creature, though I am no longer a slave to loving dead things, I am still tempted to believe at times that they, and not God, will provide the joy I want. That obedience to God would kill, and not increase, my joy.

“All of the dead things I loved had a measure of satisfaction in them, but they were never enough.”

But oh, the irrationality of temptation. If anything, obedience creates the opportunity for joy. Fleeing sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18) sets me free to experience the sustaining power of God. Choosing to forgive (Colossians 3:13), instead of being vengeful, keeps my heart free from the heaviness of hatred and fills it up with faith, trusting that God will handle every wrong done to me (Romans 12:19). Casting my cares at the feet of God, the one who has told me that he cares for me, unclutters my mind, clearing the way for the peace that’s eluded me (1 Peter 5:7).

Often, our temptations, however, feel more tangible than his promises. When they do, remember that God is alive (Hebrews 7:25). Since that is the case, his word is also alive (Hebrews 4:12) and so is your hope (1 Peter 1:3). We are not miserable people to be pitied, as if Christ has not risen from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:19–20). We are no longer dead in our trespasses, but we have been made alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:4–5) — resurrected to live delighting in all that God is and empowered to live delighting in obedience to the one we love.