No matter how hard I try, why are some things so difficult to resist? Overeating? Harsh responses to those who correct me? Anxiety about the future? I know how I should respond, what I’m supposed to do, and what I ought to feel. But that rarely gives me what I need to actually do it and never provides what is necessary to truly feel it. No matter what they say, will power alone does not have what it takes to change me and keep me strong against all the types of temptation that push on me.
A 15th Century German-Dutch follower of Jesus named Thomas á Kempis wrote, “The beginning of all evil temptations is a mind not firmly fixed on its purpose…”* I have pondered what this means for quite a while now, and I think brother Thomas has something to teach us. The understanding of my purpose is rooted in the understanding of my identity. Who and what I believe myself to be forms the foundation for all that I do and why I do it. But to make it a bit more complex, it’s not just what I believe about my purpose and identity that is key. The essential point is that these beliefs are what motivate me and they, in turn, shape me. I act according to who and what I interpret myself to be. My identity informs all that I do. How I view myself and my purpose then becomes that which determines how I make all my life decisions.
What’s the Connection?
So, what might be the relationship between temptation and what I believe about myself and my purpose? I have come to see that that which I most identify with makes up the integral part of the blueprint of the desires and feelings I submit to as well as those I resist. If I see myself fundamentally as someone suffering because of my environment and other people’s choices over which I have no control, I will find it difficult to resist the temptation to see myself as a victim. And I will more easily submit to resentment and bitterness, feeling stuck, like I have no other choice.
If, however, I understand myself primarily as one who is loved and valued, I can see more options when I make decisions. My purpose can more easily come into focus by believing there are those who believe in me. What I root my identity in and draw my sense of purpose from contribute greatly to whether or not I am emotionally stable. Purpose and identity are shaped by these mindsets that have captured my allegiance.
The Key to Resisting
Temptation then, particularly what brother Thomas calls “evil temptations,” gets a head start within the mind that is not fixed on its true purpose. And he is speaking here, of course, of the purpose that flows out of what God says about an individual who has embraced His Son, Jesus.
When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, Satan demonstrated his knowledge of one of the most vulnerable parts of a human. Two out of the three temptations recorded begin with, “If you are the Son of God . . .” (Luke 4:3,9). Jesus was tempted to question WHO He was? Yes. Doubt about one’s purpose and identity leave any individual extra-vulnerable to temptations designed to destroy one’s faith and confidence. And Jesus, being fully human while mysteriously fully God as well, was tempted in every way like us, yet without giving in (Hebrews 4:15). The main difference between us and Jesus in temptation is that He knew who He was. Or, as Brother Thomas says it: His mind was “firmly fixed on its purpose.”
Now, before we disregard this lesson by saying, “Yeah, but He was the Son of God so of course He could easily resist,” let’s reflect on what God has said about us – those He sent Jesus to save. We’re told that one of Jesus’ primary purposes was to make us sons and daughters of God (John 1:12; Galatians 3:26). It’s repeated multiple times throughout the scriptures. Jesus came to firmly establish our identity, our primary identity above all other identities as the children of our Heavenly Father. He did this by adopting us into His family through a type of legal maneuver: a blood covenant. And if we take this as seriously as God does, one of the many, many benefits is that our strength for resisting temptation has been provided.
So, What’s My Problem?
One of the reasons I can be so susceptible to temptation is that I easily forget who I am. Rather than fixing my mind constantly on the fact that I have been made a son of God, I often allow my meditations to drift back into old identities. We all have them. The easy ones for me to go to are, “I’m the one no one understands.” Or, “I’m the one whose presence makes no difference.” And still another, “I’m the one who has to take care of me and my own comfort because no one else will.” The list of identity phrases could go on for quite a while. But the thing they all have in common is that none are the identity that my Heavenly Father has given me.
Fighting old temptations has become easier for me the more firmly I have settled into the mindset of thinking and asking the question, “What is the fitting thing for a child of God to do here?” And as I have embraced more fully my purpose of representing my Heavenly Father well (as His kid), my behavior when tempted to compromise has changed for the better.
The temptation to comfort myself with food or lust has been blunted with the commitment to meditating on the image of myself as one fully comforted by my Heavenly Father. The temptation to respond harshly to my critics is weakened as I learn to hear the affirmations that my Heavenly Father speaks over me and wraps around me. And the temptation to be anxious about tomorrow is dulled as I focus on the future my Heavenly Father has promised me as His beloved child. When my self-identity meditations are on anything other than being and behaving like His son, temptation eats me for lunch.
What Identity Tag are You Actually Wearing?
Weakness in temptation is directly connected to weakness in identity and ambiguity of purpose. What do you need to do to more firmly embrace who your Heavenly Father says you are? The only way to truly take temptation seriously is to take your identity as a child of God seriously.
*The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis, Book 1, Chapter 13