Overcoming temptation is a subject of interest to every Christian,as it’s a subject that affects us all.
We probably know that the Bible contains a number of guiding and encouraging scriptures to help us in overcoming, but we may not be aware of biblical analysis of the cycle of temptation and sin that grows from “seed” to burgeoning “tree,” if we let it. It’s an understanding found in both the Old and New Testaments and one we can apply.
The clearest analysis of the growth of sin is found in the first chapter of the Book of James which describes the genealogy or “family tree” of every temptation leading to transgression:
“… each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15).
If we analyze it, the growing “tree” of temptation that James elaborates can help us understand how we can break sin’s growth before it breaks us:
Seed: “each person is tempted…” – Exposure to temptation
Roots: “each person is … dragged away by their own evil desire” – Considering the temptation
Trunk: “and enticed” – Intellectual acquiescence
Branches: “then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin” – Submission to sin
Fruit: “…sin … gives birth to death” – The eventual result of sin
The pattern is a universal one. We see it as early as the story of the first sin in Genesis 3 when the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” became the focus of Eve’s attention:
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it” (Genesis 3:6).
Dividing up this example of the tree of temptation, we see exactly the same pattern:
Seed: “the woman saw …” – Exposure to temptation
Roots: “… the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye” – Considering the temptation
Trunk: “and also desirable for gaining wisdom” – Intellectual acquiescence
Branches: “she took some and ate it” – Submission to sin
Fruit: “when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17) – The eventual result of sin
Once we understand the structure of this figurative tree of transgression, we can see that the only logical place to stop the growth of temptation is at the beginning – by killing the “seed” before the “roots” begin to grow.
Physical seeds need the right conditions in order to germinate. Spiritually we must do everything we can to make sure that the conditions are not in our lives for the seeds of sin to continually grow. In some circumstances, of course, we cannot help but be exposed to temptation – its potential is present in so much of modern society. But we can prepare our environment to avoid a good deal of it.
Gardeners wanting to avoid the growth of weeds regularly use “pre-emergent” herbicides to stop the germination of those unwanted plants, and our regular use of the spiritual “pre-emergents” of prayer, study and other spiritual disciplines can have exactly the same effect on temptation.
But whenever we are exposed to temptation, it is imperative that we kill the “roots” before they take a firm hold. It is always easier to pull up the small roots of a sapling than to cut down a grown tree trunk, and easier to cut the trunk than to try to cut off every branch. It is the one unfailing principle that can help us overcome temptation more than any other – the earlier we attempt to end the growth of temptation, the more likely we are to succeed.
Transferring the analogy to actual everyday life means throwing everything we can at temptation the moment it begins to grow within our minds. That can mean asking God’s help in immediate prayer (Matthew 6:13), putting something else that is attractive but good into our minds to replace the wrong thoughts (Philippians 4:8), or simply getting ourselves into a different environment till the temptation passes (2 Timothy 2:22-24).
Sometimes, all three strategies are necessary to help us stop the growth of a sin in our lives. But the encouraging thing is that just as there is no tree that cannot be felled, there is no temptation that cannot be overcome if we are willing to attack it – before it grows.