The contours of temptation are as unique as the human face. Few temptations, if any, are identical. Specific situations, personalities, technologies, and times all construct each one. Yet temptation is easily recognized regardless of nuances. I may have never seen the face of the person sitting across from me in the cafe, but I know the face is human. With whatever differences temptations present themselves, their effect is the same. That is why the apostle Paul can say that there is no temptation “not common to man.”
The fundamental temptation for the disciple, the face without features, may be glimpsed in the apostle Paul's agonizing, simple confession. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” We only glimpse the backside of temptation in his statement. We do not behold it directly because the dissonance between desires has culminated in the dissonance between desire and action. He looks at the moment of temptation as one turning back to the initial fork in the road.
"For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do." (Gal. 5:17)
Here the apostle stands at the fork and describes the moment of temptation. He identifies not the paths themselves, but who will guide as one turns to the right or left. The Spirit of God leads to the good, right, and true. The flesh desires to follow that which is evil, earthly, and self-elevating. Temptation's basic form is the opposing desires of these two realities. Wherever within us is a disagreement between desires, temptation is there. And the awareness of temptation's presence immediately alerts us to be cautious of our desires, to investigate the impulses that feel authoritative based on a second, conflicting Witness.
Cain, at a boiling point in jealous anger, is warned by God: “Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” Already allied to hatred and sin, Cain is unable to resist temptation. He rises and murders his brother. Paul takes the warning of sin’s nearness and forms a principle when he says, "So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand." He considers temptation from another aspect, moving from the fact of its presence to its proximity. Just how close is the flesh, the desire to do evil? It dwells within us (Rom. 7:17-18). We do not come upon temptation in the back-alleys, nor in the late hours of the night, not even in people who champion wickedness (though all surely provide a prime context for us to meet temptation); No, it arises to meet us from somewhere between our bodies and our souls.
There is a critical difference between Cain and the Christian though. For the disciple of Christ, a conqueror to temptation resides in its same proximity. "God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts" and removed our flesh from the seat of power. How is this possible? God has done what we could not:
“By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:3)
Because the Spirit indwells us, the flesh, the part of us that urges us to do the very things we hate, has only apparent power to control our actions. The Spirit is our new authority, freeing us from any obligation to obey the old master. The knowledge of this transfer of authority, from the flesh to the Spirit through Christ, and our faith in its reality, gives us confidence to defy temptation. We retort against its deceptive claim that we have no choice but to obey its demands. Do not mistake holy aggression for self-will. Any boasting in our own willpower is muted because our ability comes from the Holy Spirit. But any notion of passive reliance is also dismissed; we exert all the strength that the Spirit supplies to obey.
Often, especially as a newlywed, I have had Paul's exact confession on my lips, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” My desire to do what is glorifying to God is short-circuited from termination in good works. I lapse back into a false belief, a misplaced submission, a distorted memory of past bondages as beneficiaries. Still, the Spirit does not forsake us. He calls us to turn our gaze to the cross, then to the empty tomb, then to the heavens and confess:
“No better serves me now, save best; no other
Save Christ: to Christ I look, on Christ I call.”
And as we confess our own weakness and thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord once again, we turn our gaze from temptation’s face to Truth, from the things past to the things to come, from the things of this world to the One making all things new.