How Does Temptation Work?

Fishing on Cowboy Lake with my grandpa is a cherished boyhood memory. He intuitively knew where the crappy, bluegill, and lake perch were hiding at any given time. As we neared one of those areas, Grandpa would turn off his outboard motor and let the boat float to the ideal spot. Then he would tell the person sitting at the front to quietly let down the anchor, and we all baited our hooks. In time, my brothers and I learned the best ways to tempt the targeted fish to bite the hook. Luring the fish toward the bait was the key. It’s the same way with our temptation to sin.

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

James 1:14-15

James informs us that the ultimate source of temptation is our own evil desire, lust, or craving that begins the cycle. Then, if we give in, it leads to sin and its consequences. This is true for everyone: “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” The process of temptation follows four steps.

We are “lured and enticed.” Residing in our corrupt nature, lust drags us toward sin much like a fish is drawn from its hiding place at just the right time. Powerful desires bait the hook, and too often we are not strong enough to resist. John Owen warns, “Do not flatter yourself that you can hold out. There are secret lusts that lie dormant, lurking in your hearts, temporarily quiet, waiting for the opportunity of temptation to befall you. They will then rise, argue, cry, disquiet, seduce, with perseverance, until either they are killed or satisfied.”[1] The devil is the instigator of the original temptation in the garden of Eden. But ever since Adam and Eve took the bait, we all possess a nature that swims toward sin (see Rom. 5:12; Mk. 7:21).

Conception takes place. When our will surrenders to the temptation generated by our corrupt desires, we bite the hook. Evil is “conceived” and a pregnancy of sin begins. This pregnancy grows and grows, longing for the day of its delivery.

Sin is born. Conception “gives birth to sin,” which includes numerous ways we fail to measure up to, or transgress, God’s law. There are sins of commission and omission, sins of disobedience and defiance, sins of action and attitude. All these sins, and more, originate in our thinking, desires, and will; that is, in our heart. Just as each fish responds best to its own custom-designed lure or carefully baited hook, so our desire creates its own personal fulfillment. The human heart is endlessly creative in the ways it expresses sin.

The offspring matures. Sin “when it is fully grown brings forth death.” When temptation’s goal is met and sin is born, a spiritual death occurs. However, physical death may also be implied here since James addresses the possibility of some bodily sickness being caused by unrepentant sin (James 5:14-16). At minimum, however, sin is always at least injurious to our souls. For believers in Jesus, eternal separation from God is no longer something to be feared. However, the sweetness of our fellowship with God is interrupted by our sin and, therefore, we should quickly repent and confess to God (1 John 1:8-10).

The kinds of temptation we experience are only limited by the innovation of our corrupt hearts, which is considerable. However, the biblical record of King David caving into sexual desire illustrates how the four-step process works (see 2 Sam. 11:1-6). First, while his army was at war, the idle king was lured to the palace rooftop by his lust. Second, David’s will surrendered to his desire to take Bathsheba for himself, and a plot was conceived. Third, the sinful expression of his corrupt desire was born (In this case, a literal baby was conceived!). Fourth, and finally, David’s sin led to death. The husband of Bathsheba and other soldiers were killed (see 2 Sam. 11:14-17). David’s relationship with God was interrupted as well. The cycle of temptation to sin was complete.

  • Talk to Yourself. How have you seen the cycle of temptation and sin work in your life? What are the most common ways your desires bait the hook?
  • Talk to God. Psalm 51 is David’s prayer of confession. Make this prayer your own.
  • Talk to Others. Do you need help overcoming a specific temptation? Seek help from a pastor, mentor, or biblical counselor.

[1] John Owen, abridged and made easy to read by Richard Rushing, Temptation: Resisted and Repulsed (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2007, orig. 1658), 26.

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