Overcoming Temptation

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Hello Dr. Ellis,
I was wondering if you had any advice on improving self control. Recently a lack of self control has been plaguing be in multiple areas food, lust, etc. I understand that self control is thankfully not entirely willpower and there is a big importance on leaning on the Spirit. That being said I seem to keep failing and was wondering if you had any advice or points in scripture for me to lean on. Thank you for your time!Sincerely,
J. O.

Hi, J. O.
Thank you for your excellent question.

As someone who has struggled with overeating ever since getting out on my own and being gainfully employed, I understand perfectly what you are saying. It is a daily battle in my life. Also, I am mentoring more than just one man who struggles with porn and masturbation, in spite of being a very dedicated Christians.

Hunger and sexual appetites are both desires which God has built into us, to remind us to eat, and to help us fulfill God’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply. If we had the same desire for sex as we do reading our Bibles, the human race would be extinct by now! The problem is that the “flesh,” the sinful nature within us, perverts these desires, and instead of being tools, these desires dominate us.

First: the promise in Galatians 5:

  • 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.… 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

This is the first step in overcoming hunger temptations, whether hunger for food, or hunger for sex. “Walk” by the Spirit means to trust in the Spirit’s power, moment by moment. This isn’t a one shot cures all remedy. It helps to begin the day with a declaration of our dependence, and giving ourselves to the Spirit to be filled by His power. Literally praying, “Lord, I give you my appetites, my mouth and my genitals (you don’t have to be that polite when talking to Him!), to be controlled by you today. Speak to me when I am tempted, help me to keep them surrendered to you.” Then, when temptation comes, you will already be spiritually attuned and strengthened to maintain the Spirit’s control over them. Regarding the importance of not trying to “get right with the Spirit” just in time for the temptation, Paul wrote in Romans 6.

  • 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace. 

Learning to walk by the power of the Spirit is rather like learning to ride a bike. You crash and burn a lot when you are first learning, you still go through wobbles even after you’ve stopped falling over all the time, and you have to learn to keep your eyes open for the pot holes! But with time and practice, a person gets better and better at “staying on the bike.” This is a growth thing!

It is also crucial to begin looking that the roots of our temptation. Is there an underlying problem which is making be susceptible to “infection?” In the case of my eating, my problem was that food had become my “god.” When I was happy, sad, worried, etc., food was my comfort. Also, I had grown up poor, and I remember very well the day when I was walking home from wrestling practice during high school, famished, and knowing that there would not be enough food on the supper table to take away my hunger. And I said to myself, “When I have money, I’m going to eat whatever I want, whenever I want!” And at that moment, I gave ground to Satan. Later in life, as an overweight pastor who could not stop gaining weight, I had to go back, confess that sin of idolatry, rebuke the evil one and give my right to eat back to God. Why are you eating? Why are you lusting? What is driving you? It may be that you are legitimately hungry for food or for sex. If you haven’t eaten or had a seminal emission in a while, your body is going to start complaining. Food you can provide. Your body will naturally take care of excess semen through nocturnal emissions. Or it may be that you have given ground to the Evil one. Food or sex have become an idol, your “go to” when you are happy, sad, stressed or just plain bored. But by the grace of God, we can resist and be freed from our idolatries.

As James wrote, in James 4:

  •  5 Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”? 6 But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. 

To put it simply:

  1. Submit to God by confessing to Him your need and your desire for freedom from the temptation and for strength to serve Him.
  2. Resist the devil. Just as Jesus and Paul did when they were confronting evil spirits, rebuke him directly, or even better, the spirit of gluttony or the spirit of immorality. “Spirit of gluttony, the Lord rebuke you! I have given my appetites over to God, and you have no right to oppress me in this area. Go whereever God would send you, but you are no longer welcome here. In the name of Jesus, go away!”
  3. Present: “Father, I give you my body as a living sacrifice. Fill me with your Holy Spirit, and give me strength to say no. Thank you for your grace!”

Just as it is easy to describe learning to ride a bicycle, it is easy to describe the process of learning to walk by the Spirit. But the reality is much more difficult. It is not that it doesn’t work! We just have to learn how to do it. And the reality is, that this is a lifelong project. We will be perfect only once we get to heaven!!!

Yours in Jesus Christ,
Dr. Mark A. Ellis.