“We must stop eating!” cried Toad as he ate another.
“Yes,” said Frog, reaching for a cookie, “we need will power.”
“What is will power?” asked Toad.
“Will power is trying hard not to do something that really want to do,” said Frog.
“You mean like trying not to eat all of these cookies?” asked Toad.
“Right,” said Frog.
In order to exercise will power, Frog and Toad put the cookies in a box. But they decided that they could always open the box and eat the cookies, so they tied a string around the box. But, since they could always untie the string and open the box and eat the cookies, they put the box on a high shelf. But, since they could always climb up on ladder and get them down, they came up with another solution.
He cut the string and opened the box. Frog took the box outside. He shouted in a loud voice,
“HEY BIRDS. HERE ARE COOKIES!”
Birds came from everywhere. They picked up all the cookies in their beaks and flew away.
“Now we have no more cookies to eat,” said Toad sadly.
“Not even one,”
“Yes,” said Frog, “but we have lots of will power.”
“You may keep it all, Frog,” said Toad.
“I am going home now to bake a cake.”
While “Cookies” is a cute story, I’m not sure that it does a lot of good in teaching children about how to exercise willpower. However, it certainly does a good job illustrating to adults just how powerless willpower can be. The problem is, growing up, I think that’s how my church taught us how to resist temptation. “Just resist!” our Sunday school teachers would tell us. And if they wanted to give us lots of advice, they’d say, “Put up safeguards so that you don’t even come close to sinning.” Yet that kind of exercise of willpower ends up like a Frog and Toad story. You end up putting your temptation in a box, tying a string around it, and putting it on a shelf where you can still reach it. Then, not only do we become moralistic about not eating the cookies—we begin to feel guilty about morally neutral things like climbing a ladder or untying string. As Richard Rohr says, “Will power creates a well-disguised bad. Jesus was a master and genius at recognizing this problem.”[ii] Jesus knew that there has to be a better way.
The first thing we need to do is to understand where temptation comes from. The Gospels tell us the story of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness.[iii] The devil tempted Jesus’ desire for pleasure, pride fulfillment, and power. Temptation can come from the devil, who wants to see you stumble just like he wanted to see Jesus fall.
But temptation can also come from the world. It’s not helpful to imagine all temptation as emerging from a demonic shadow under a rock. Sometimes temptation comes from the cares of life which crowd out the things of God. Distractions become temptations when they take away our commitment to church, Bible reading, prayer, or the service of others. Entertainment and wholesome hobbies can become idols to us if we allow them to. So the world can be just as dangerous a source of temptation as the devil—if not more so.
James 1:14-15[iv] shows that temptation comes not just from the world and the devil, but also from the flesh—or, more specifically, the sinful nature. “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.” In other words, nobody can say, like Flip Wilson, “The devil made me do it.” Each person must take responsibility for his or her own actions and own up to the fact that we still have a fallen nature. While Jesus healed us of the crippling disease of Sin that separates us from God, we still suffer the after-effects of the disease. Spiritually speaking, we still all walk with a limp that comes from wrestling with God. It’s that limp in our flesh that causes us to fall to temptation—not that we’re bad people, but just that we’re people.
So temptation comes from the world, the flesh, and the devil. But how do we overcome temptation? Rather than just saying, “Resist!” is there something practical that we can do? Fortunately, there is.
First, take the advice of an old comedian. Raising his arm at a funny angle, Henny Youngman joked, “I said, ‘Doctor, it hurts when I do that.’ He said, ‘Don’t do that.’” We tend to repeat behaviors that we know put us at risk. Knowing that cookies are a temptation for us, we bake and share a batch. Or we think we can walk past that box on the shelf and not be tempted. If it hurts when you do that, don’t do that. Don’t let yourself be around the source of temptation.
Next, know the Word of God. Every time Jesus was tempted, He quoted scripture. In order to quote it, he had to know it. In order to know it, He had to read it. Are you availing yourself of the Word of God? Are you spending regular time in devotional reading and prayer? To overcome temptation, it’s not enough to simply resist using willpower. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” When you feel tempted, let the Word of God be your defense.
Then, be transformed. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” With all this study, don’t just settle for the Bible as a trivia category on Jeopardy. Let it transform your mind. Let the mind of Christ that lives within you revolutionize your life. That way you won’t be walking past the box saying, “I really like cookies but I’m not going to have any.” Instead, when God changes you, you’ll say, “I remember cookies—they were great, but I don’t really want them anymore.”
Finally, know that you’re not alone. 1 Corinthians 10:30 says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Because every temptation you experience is something that others have gone through as well, you can know that there are other people who can be resources to you. Other people are one way out that God provides. Find a support group or friends who can help you and encourage you along the way. Not only do you have other people who support you—but Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are, so you have an advocate with God who knows what you’re going through. The other way out is Jesus’ strength to endure, that He gives to all who ask. With this kind of strength, you don’t need will power; you have God-power. And God is faithful. God always makes a way.
[i] Lobel, Arnold. Frog and Toad Together. Harper and Row. 1972. ISBN 9780060239602.
[ii] Rohr, Richard. Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation: The Spirituality of Letting Go. “The World”. August 31, 2016.
[iii] Mk 1:12-13; Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13
[iv] All scripture quotations taken from the ESV.