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How to Break a Stubborn Habit

How to Break a Stubborn Habit

by Erwin W. Lutzer


Learn More | Meet Erwin W. Lutzer
Why So Much Temptation?
As long as we are in our mortal bodies,
we will never outgrow temptation.
Why is lust so powerful?” Taylor asked. The weight of his guilt
was crushing. He had fallen into sexual sin. “How can I trust
myself ? I don’t want to live an immoral life. I promised myself I
wouldn’t do this, but here I am again.”

A woman who for years had tried to quit smoking but always
failed (regardless of the new remedy) once asked me, “Why is it that
despite praying, yielding to God, and reading my Bible—why can’t I
quit no matter how hard I try?”

I have heard the same kind of questions from alcoholics and sex
addicts who keep sliding back into the same destructive patterns of
behavior no matter how many times they’ve dug themselves out.
Their questions deserve answers. Why is temptation so attractive,
unrelenting, and powerful? Why doesn’t God adjust the nature of
our temptations so that the scales will be tipped more generously in
our favor?

Whether it is trying to lose weight or struggling with alcohol or
sexual addictions as habits, our temptations can be relentless. The
Christian life does seem to be needlessly difficult at times. Surely
God—the One who possesses all might and authority—could make
it easier for those of us who love Him. So many believers succumb to
one sin or another, often ending in ruin, so why doesn’t God keep one
step ahead of us, defusing the land mines along our path? If you are
wondering how He could do so, consider these suggestions.

Satan Banned?
That’s right—God could eliminate the devil. In fact, had He done
that at the time of creation, chances are that Adam and Eve would not
have plunged the human race into sin in the first place. Most likely,
our first parents would have obeyed God without pausing to consider
the fruit of the forbidden tree.

Assuming Adam and Eve held the same free will that we do now,
why didn’t God give them the opportunity to choose without outside
interference? The serpent was beautiful, seemed to speak with authority,
and promised a better life. As far as we know, Adam and Eve had
not been told about the existence of Satan, and so were quite unprepared
for this abrupt encounter. If the serpent had been barred from
the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve would have been more inclined
to obey God. They might have chosen not to eat from the forbidden
tree.

The presence of Satan in the garden, and his activity on our planet,
tips the scales in favor of evil choices. I’m not saying we must follow
his sinister suggestions, but if he were hidden away from our presence,
we could resist temptation much more easily.

There’s no doubt that much of the evil in the world, including our
own struggles, can be traced to the interference of unseen spiritual
forces. If God were to annihilate the devil, or at least confine him to
the pit, we could take giant steps in our walk with the Lord. No more
one-step-forward, two-steps-back routine! Our battle with temptation
would be minimized, and we would be more inclined to resist
the enticement of sin.
So why doesn’t God just eliminate Satan?

Dampened Passions?
A second suggestion to minimize the daily failures of our Christian
lives would be for God to dull the arrows of temptation that
harass us from inside. James wrote, “Each person is tempted when
they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (James
1:14). Could not God dampen those passions to bring moral purity
more easily within reach? Surely He could help us feel just a bit less
tempted—just enough so that we would be more likely to be victorious
and a credit to our Redeemer.

We’ve all heard someone say, “I do not understand what I do. For
what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). The
church reformer John Knox wrote these words not long before he died:
Now, after many battles, I find nothing in me but vanity
and corruption. For in quietness I am negligent, in trouble
impatient, tending to desperation; pride and ambition
assault me on the one part, covetousness and malice
trouble me on the other; briefly, O Lord, the affections of
the flesh do almost suppress the operation of Thy Spirit.
If this man of God had such struggles, is there hope for the rest of
us? God could make it easier for us, but He has chosen not to do so.

Rearranged Schedules?
Even if God did not banish the devil or dull our sinful passions,
couldn’t He guide us away from the places of temptation? Then we
could be protected from circumstances that provoke us to sin.
David sinned with Bathsheba because she happened to be taking
a bath next door while the king was resting on the rooftop. Couldn’t
that whole mess have been avoided if God had simply arranged for
her to take her bath two hours earlier, or an hour later? Surely a sovereign
God would have had no difficulty in rearranging the schedules
of His finite creatures.

Didn’t Achan sin because he saw a Babylonian garment left unattended
after the siege of Jericho? Didn’t Abraham lie because there
was a famine in the land, and he feared for his life? Didn’t Samson
divulge the secret of his great strength because of his attraction to the
charming Delilah?

Clearly God does not shield us from circumstances where we are
vulnerable to sin. Remember, it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into
the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus
taught His disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver
us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). We must admit that God does
at times lead us into situations that stimulate our sinful desires, but
this is not to say that God causes us to sin—nor does He tempt us
in the same way as Satan. Rather, these are the times when we must
lean on God and ask Him to save us, when we are otherwise incapable
of saving ourselves.

James wrote, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting
me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone”
(James 1:13). We cannot blame God for what we do. If we sin, it
is because of our sinful nature; therefore we are responsible. But God
does test us, and that testing often involves temptation. Quite unintentionally
on our part, we sometimes find ourselves in situations that
are an outward stimulus to sin.

Consider one married woman who, after running into a former
boyfriend, discovered that she was still in love with him. Consequently,
she began to think she had married the wrong man, and felt
trapped. She began asking, “Why did God, who knows how weak I
am, allow us to meet again?”

Or consider a person struggling with homosexual thoughts and
behavior. She admitted that her abnormal desires had begun when,
at the age of 12, she was forced into a sexual encounter with an older
man. So began a long struggle with sexual temptation. Could not
God have protected her from this experience?

Another person, trying desperately to break his smoking habit,
said that he was making progress until he was transferred to an office
where everyone smoked. In an atmosphere drenched with the smell
of tobacco, he fell back into his former habit.
Alcoholics, trying to stay sober, often slip back into drunkenness
because of pressure from friends who do not understand the depths
of the alcoholic’s weakness. So it goes.

And what about the more subtle sins of the mind? Yes, Jesus
taught that evil originates in the heart, but many of our struggles
with evil thoughts are provoked by our environment. Those of us
who travel don’t ask for a room that has ready access to pornography—
but we get it anyway. But whether we travel or not, all around
us are stimuli that draw out the worst in us. Without taking us out
of the world, God could lead us into circumstances less conducive to
evil passions, covetousness, and anger. If at least some of the potholes
were removed from our paths, the possibility of blowouts would be
lessened.

But God has not shielded us from the places or the power of cruel
temptations. Satan has access to our lives (we will speak about this in
detail later); our sin nature is unrestricted, and often without warning
we find ourselves in situations that contribute to secret—or not
so secret—sin.

Which brings us back to Taylor’s original question: Why is temptation
so powerful? Why is the struggle so intense?

Some Reasons for Temptation
A Test of Loyalty
As might be expected, God has a purpose in allowing us to be
tempted. To begin, let’s remember that temptation, with all of its frightful
possibilities for failure, is God’s method of testing our loyalties. We
cannot say we love or trust someone until we have had to make some
hard choices on that person’s behalf. Similarly, we cannot say we love
or trust God unless we have said no to persistent temptations. Quite
simply, God wants us to develop a passion for Him that is greater than
our passion to sin!

Take Abraham as an example. God asked him to slay his favorite
son. He was strongly tempted to say no to God. The altar he built
was probably the most carefully constructed altar ever made, as he
probably took his time with it. As he worked, he surely thought of
numerous reasons why he should disobey God—a key one being
that Isaac was needed to fulfill God’s promise of future generations
of descendants. What is more, Sarah would never understand. And
above all, how could a merciful God expect a man to slay his own
beloved son?

Of course, you know how the story ended. Abraham passed the
test; the angel of the Lord prevented him from stabbing his son and
provided a ram for the sacrifice. Take note of God’s perspective on
the incident: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not
withheld from me your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12). How do
we know that Abraham loved God? That he trusted God?
Because he chose to say yes when all the powers of hell and the passions
of his soul were crying no. This fierce temptation gave Abraham a striking
opportunity to prove his love for the Almighty.

Let’s return to some of those situations we mentioned earlier.
What about the woman who seemingly could not resist falling in love
with another man? Or the alcoholic tempted by his friends to revert
to his old habits? Or the young man surrounded by the wrong crowd?
Why does God not shield us from these circumstances? He allows us
the luxury of difficult choices so that we can prove our love for Him.
These are our opportunities to choose God rather than the world.
Do you love God?

I’m glad you said yes. But what happens when you are confronted
with a tough decision—such as whether you should satisfy your passions
or control them? Our response to temptation is an accurate
barometer of our love for God. One of the first steps in handling
temptation is to see it as an opportunity to test our loyalties. If we love
the world, the love of the Father is not in us (1 John 2:15).

Joseph resisted the daily seduction of Potiphar’s wife because of his
love for God. He asked her, “How… could I do such a wicked thing
and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9). Even if he could have gotten by
with his private affair without anyone finding out, he could not bear
the thought of hurting the God he had come to know. The same principle
applies to us. Each temptation leaves us better or worse; neutrality
is impossible.

That’s why God doesn’t exterminate the devil and his demons.
Admittedly, the presence of wicked spirits in the world does make
our choices more difficult. But think of what such agonizing choices
mean to God. We prove our love for God when we say yes to Him,
even when the deck appears to be stacked against us.
What it boils down to is this: Do we value the pleasures of the
world, or those that come from God? The opportunities for sin that
pop up around us, the sinful nature within us, and the demonic
forces that influence us give us numerous opportunities to answer
that question.

A second reason God does not make our choices easier is because
temptation is His vehicle for character development. Sinful habits are a
millstone about our necks, a weight on our souls. But that’s only half
the story!

These same temptations, struggles, and yes, even our sins are used
by God to help us climb the ladder of spiritual maturity. If we see
our sinful struggles only as a liability, we will never learn all that God
wants to teach us through them.

There is a saying from Goethe, the German poet, that talent is
formed in solitude, but character is developed in the storms of life.
God wants to do something more beautiful in our lives than simply
give us victory over a sin. He wants to replace it with something better—
with the positive qualities of a fruitful life.

Temptation is God’s magnifying glass; it shows us how much work
He has left to do in our lives. When the Israelites were wandering in
the wilderness, God let them become hungry and thirsty. On one
occasion, they were even without water for three days. They became
disappointed with their slow pace of travel; they were impatient with
Moses’ long rendezvous on Mount Sanai. Why didn’t God meet their
expectations? Listen to Moses’ commentary: “Remember how the
Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years,
to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart,
whether or not you would keep his commands” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
There it is again—God allowed the Israelites to suffer temptation
to test their loyalties and to bring out their latent sinfulness. Temptation
brings out the best or the worst in human beings. The Israelites
didn’t realize how rebellious they were until they got hungry.
Temptation brings the impurities to the surface. Then God begins
the siphoning process. Sometimes God teaches us these lessons by letting
us suffer the consequences of our own sin. James wrote that we
are enticed by our own lust. That word entice carries with it the imagery
of a hunter who puts out bait for wild animals, or a housekeeper
who sets a trap for a mouse. The mouse sees no valid reason why he
should not eat that piece of cheese. Since his knowledge is limited, he
cannot predict the future, and he doesn’t understand traps. So he eats,
and suffers a fatal outcome.

Some of us, thinking we can predict the consequences of our
actions, assign a more serious result to overt sins than to those confined
to thought and imagination. But even the secret sins, and of
course addictions, exact their toll, and ultimately we can no longer
control the sins—they control us. In time, God may dry up our fountains
of pleasure and ambition so that we will turn to Him in repentance.
But even then the battle is far from over.

God has given us the resources to do battle, and in the process He
leads us to something better. He wants to develop within us the rich
character qualities called the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, and peace,
to name a few (Galatians 5:22-23). God’s purpose is to conform us
to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). To accomplish this goal, our
character deficiencies (sins is a better word) must be brought to the
surface so that we can be changed.

God also wants us to humble ourselves by seeking others for help
and accountability. In the same way that a cut finger cannot be healed
unless it is connected to the rest of the body, we cannot find relief
from our sinful habits except through community with other believers.
Secrecy and shame fuel addictions; only when we come to the
light of God’s presence and the openness of fellowship with others can
we experience the kind of freedom we desire. Yes, we need the help of
others. More on this subject later.

Temptation always involves risk-taking. The potential for devastating
failure is ever present. But precisely because the stakes are so
high, the rewards of resisting are so great. When we say no to temptation,
we are saying yes to something far better.

Grace for Our Weakness
Finally, God uses our sins to show us His grace and power on our
behalf. The depressing effect of sin is offset by the good news of
God’s grace. Paul wrote, “The law was brought in so that the trespass
might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more”
(Romans 5:20).

Paul was given a thorn in the flesh so that he would remain humble.
Perhaps it was a temptation he struggled to resist. He asked God
three times for deliverance, but God said, “My grace is sufficient for
you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Paul, therefore, boasted about his weakness, knowing that it provided
an opportunity for God’s power to rest upon him: “For when I am
weak, then I am strong” (verse 10). If you are beset by an especially
obstinate sin, you may be on the verge of seeing God’s grace displayed
in your life. Although you may now be preoccupied with your struggle,
you may soon be preoccupied with your Savior.

God strikes at the core of our motivations. He is not interested in
merely applying a new coat of paint, imposing a new set of rules. He
wants to rebuild our minds and give us new values. The most important
part of us is the part that nobody sees but God. And He wants
to begin His work there.

Think about that one particular sin you struggle with most—
the one that won’t move off center stage in your life. Maybe it’s an
obvious one: drunkenness, overeating, drug addiction, or Internet
pornography. Perhaps your imagination isn’t suitable for certain audiences—
or even any audience. Or maybe it’s a sin of the spirit, such as
pride, anxiety, fear, or bitterness. Whatever it is, God can deliver you
from that sin. He can help you track it down and, with the help of
the body of Christ, root it out and put you on a better path. Sin need
not have dominion over you. You can be sure that God will never take
from you anything that is good. Rather, when you are ready, He will
remove the evil and replace it with something far better. He will tear
down your fortress so that He can build an altar in its place.
Are you ready for such a transformation? The next chapter will
help you answer that question.

ACTION STEP: Present yourself to God and ask Him to
give you the faith to believe that you can experience genuine
change in your attitude and behavior.




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