Our Top Five Temptations

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What are the top five self-reported temptations in America? According to a Barna survey:

1. Sixty percent of Americans are often or sometimes living in a state of noticeable and debilitating temptation to anxiety or worry, and the fear and dysfunction that usually come with it. The younger you are, the more probable it is that you are stuck in the rut of apprehension about life.

2. Sixty percent of Americans are often or sometimes stuck in habits of procrastination. We simply cannot do what needs to be done in a timely manner. Again, this is more a temptation for the young than for their grandparents.

3. Fifty-five percent are often or sometimes overwhelmed by the temptation to eat too much. Overeating and the growing concern about obesity is of course not news. A quick click on Google turns up 7.6 million hits for the word obesity. In recent months I’ve noticed many major news outlets running features on the growing alarm concerning overeating and obesity.

4. Forty-four percent of Americans admit that they face temptations to overuse electronics and social media such as Facebook, video games, and television. Young people are almost twice as likely as their elders to become addicted to online activities. But this should not lead one to assume that their parents (boomers) and grandparents (elders) are immune from the temptation. I am a boomer, and I have plenty of friends who have negative consequences in their lives because they cannot tear themselves away from their phones or laptops.

5. Forty-one percent of Americans say they are often or sometimes tempted by laziness or by not working as hard as reasonably expected in their occupations. All of the generations that Barna polled are about the same when it comes to the temptation to slothfulness. Selfishness is a core sin within humankind. Perhaps that explains why people of all ages are tempted to hurt family, friends, coworkers, and bosses with selfish slacking, doing what feels good to them however much it may harm others.

Anxiety, procrastination, overeating, Internet and social media, and laziness: these are some of the most real issues of life.

At any given place and time, say the busy sidewalks of a college campus or the busy lunchroom of a large software company, you could draw a circle around half the people in those places and thereby give yourself a great visual image of the pain, frustration, dysfunction, and destruction caused by our failure to understand and cope well with temptation.

Maybe you didn’t see your besetting temptation in the top five. Don’t worry. Failures with temptation are not rooted in their type or category.

Human temptation has so many variables, versions, and combinations that no list could contain all of them.

Consider one easy temptation that surprisingly does not show up on the list: disordered sex. The unique ways in which it manifests itself in human society are nearly endless; there are almost as many ways as there are people – six billion! So don’t look to the list itself for help. The crucial, fundamental strategy is to look within, at what you want, crave, covet, and desire. From there we’ll see how to rearrange those desires to fit within the story of God and your role within it. And the strategies and insights we gain from studying one temptation are almost always applicable to every other temptation because temptations of all kinds have a common root.

Feed Me!

Let’s take a little pause here. Have you ever thought about tyranny and desire together before? Have you ever put those two words together in a sentence? Have you ever seen them used together in a sentence? I’ll never forget the first time I saw them together. It was arresting, as in put-the-book-down, “wow” arresting. The sentence said something I knew intuitively was true for me, and in that moment I realized I had seen the same tyrannizing effects on others. But I had never seen these effects as clearly as when I read for the first time 1 Peter 4:1-2 in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message:

Think of your sufferings as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way. Then you’ll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want.

But temptation, getting my way, and obtaining what I want never feel like the doorway to tyranny.

Most of the time temptation begins with something good: food, rest, God-approved sex, the need to be loved and accepted.

We could go on. Perhaps this is why the first sensation is always one of anticipation, of potential happiness and of greater personal fulfillment. Right? The mind controlled by lust, by epithumia (the New Testament Greek word for “strong desires or passions”), has an infinite capacity for rationalization. Let me call to mind here some bits of common thinking, a few thoughts we have all used at one point or another:

  • He/she/it makes me feel alive – makes me feel the most me!
  • How can something that feels so right be wrong?
  • God wants me to be happy. This makes me happy at the core of my being. How can this be wrong?
  • I’m acting out of love – I love her/him!
  • My marriage was never the perfect will of God – he/she is my true soul mate!
  • I’m the exception to the rule… in my case, I don’t think anything bad will happen to me.
  • The people who do not approve of what I am doing are just judgmental nags – they make me sick! They are worse than I am!

Think about the attempts at validation you just read. What do they mean? What do they teach us? I think they are a deep and profound glimpse into the power of rationalization for those who are being tyrannized by their own desires. Our structures of desire can become so out of control that, according to our honest experiences of life, our desires become our most concrete and real feelings and experiences. In time, with the tyranny unchecked, you learn from your experience that there is no me apart from gratifying my desires – fulfilling my system of desire equals me. The honest feeling becomes this: I am my desires. Or I will be the real me when my desires are fulfilled.

But that kind of life is heartbreaking and delusional. Giving into our desires only strengthens them. This is positive news if the desires are good and holy. It’s one of the ways we grow in the grace of God. But if the desires are out of whack, our disordered desire takes greater and greater control of our lives, and we can fall farther and farther into sin.

Do you recall the rock-and-roll musical Little Shop of Horrors? One of the lead characters, Seymour, worked in a floral shop. There was one plant that was fed only on blood. But the blood was never enough. The plant kept growing and demanding more. Maybe you recall the lines: “Feed me Seymour… feed me now! I’m starving! Feed me Seymour all night long!” That is exactly the state of affairs for those who are caught in the tyranny of their desires. They can never give themselves enough of their habit – sex, food, drugs, drink, or money – to satisfy themselves. And our culture doesn’t help.

The Tyranny of Whatever It Takes

When we will do anything, whatever it takes, to fulfill a desire, we multiply sin.

We harm those around us in pursuit of what we want. Our moment-by-moment, weekly, and monthly disappointments generate an unpleasant temper, a bad mood that then gets worked out on all those around us. We inadvertently create and carry around with us a spiritual atmosphere that is toxic to our loved ones.

I know we live in a sound-bite, web-abbreviated, anti-intellectual world, but the way we think about the subject of temptation actually matters a great deal. A generation ago, C. S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters. Using creative conversation between a master devil and his apprentice and cutting to the heart of how temptation works, his book became a Christian classic. In one conversation Screwtape reminds his trainee: “Non-sense in the intellect reinforces corruption in the will.” There is no important aspect of human life in which good thinking should not be preferred and valued above poor, wrong, or misguided thinking. The darker our thoughts, the less clarity we have about anything. It is like driving at sunset and forgetting to remove your sunglasses. At some point you realize you are not seeing well, so you remove the sunglasses and enter the world of improved light and sight. Or if you don’t live in a locale in which sunglasses are common, think about how much better you can see the night stars when you shift your vantage point from city lights to a completely dark desert or beach. This happened for me when I moved from lit-up Southern California to a small town in Idaho: suddenly I could see what was always there – really bright stars.

This same progress is possible with moral issues, with our inner structure of desire and the temptations they cause.

How can we recover sight? How do we acquire more light?

Jesus said He was the light of the world (John 8:12; John 9:5).

In terms of the essential content of His message, the light to which Jesus points is the polar opposite of the tyranny of our desires. It is a life of total and divine freedom within the kingdom of God.

Ongoing and increased knowledge of God and His kingdom agenda can – and I believe will – shape your thoughts, your heart, your desires, and your will, and then your behavior.

Excerpted with permission from Our Favorite Sins: The Sins We Commit and How You Can Quit by Todd Hunter, copyright Thomas Nelson, 2012.

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Your Turn

Did one (or more) of those top five temptations hit the target for you? Is there an area of your life where you are internally crying out “Feed Me”? What behavior are you rationalizing in the tyranny of desire? Come join the conversation on our blog! We would love to hear from you about the top five temptations and the freedom that Christ came to bring! ~ Devotionals Daily

Todd Hunter is a bishop for The Anglican Mission in the Americas and the founding pastor of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, CA. He is an adjunct professor at several seminaries and the author of Christianity Beyond Belief, Giving Church a Second Chance, The Outsider Interviews, and The Accidental Anglican. Todd is the founder of Three Is Enough, a small-group movement that makes spiritual formation doable.

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