The book, True Discipleship, by John Koessler, suggests essentially two strategies for avoiding temptation: prayer and avoidance. Prayer, of course, is the source of strength that we need in order to resist temptation when it comes our way. A good prayer life also solidifies our relationship with God, which in turn keeps His desires in our consciousness. What I mean by that is that the closer we are to God, the more we become like Him and tend to think in the way that He thinks. Then, when we are tempted, we are more likely to bring the principles of the Word to the forefront of our minds as deterrence. If we are close to God, our desire to please Him - and to avoid displeasing Him - becomes stronger. Temptation, most often, is essentially a battle within the heart - do we want the pleasure of sin more than we want to please God right at this moment? That being the case, obviously the stronger our desire to please God, the less likely we are to succumb to sin.
So prayer functions as an advance safeguard against temptation in the sense that it both strengthens and motivates us to resist. Prayer can also be helpful in avoiding occasions of temptation in the first place. Jesus instructed us in the Lord’s Prayer to pray not to be ‘led into’ temptation. He wasn’t saying that God places temptation before us, but that we can petition God to keep us away from situations where we will be attracted to sinful activity.
That leads directly into the second strategy suggested by the Koessler’s book - avoidance. It only makes sense not to deliberately place ourselves into situations where we will face temptation to sin. I’m reminded of the classic case of the alcoholic who thinks he is “cured” and takes to hanging around at the bar again, assuring himself that he is strong enough not to take a drink. Maybe he is, maybe not. The question that arises, however, is what his motive is in going there in the first place. He may say that’s where his friends hang out, so he has to go there to see them. But surely his friends could be available elsewhere, or else he has or could make other friends that he could associate with in less compromising venues? By placing himself so close to the line, he just makes it easier to take that one step over the line that ends up in disaster.
Every one of us is like that in some way. We each have weaknesses, particular types of sin that attract us. Particularly in areas of personal weakness, but to a great extent with all types of temptation, it is important to place ourselves as far away from the sin as possible. The goal is to stay away from it, not to get as close as we can to the edge of the cliff without falling over. And yet, sin is so fascinating to us that we want to just take a peek over the edge of the cliff to see what’s down there. We have to want so much to please God that we step back from the cliff and walk - maybe even run - in the opposite direction. But being the frail, fallen people we are, we far too often dance on the edge, thinking that our balance is good enough to keep us on our feet. “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Cor. 10:12)
In connection with avoidance of temptation, the book mentions that we may sometimes need to replace old interests and friends with new ones. That statement made my teeth itch (so to speak), because the concept of avoidance of persons for the purpose of avoiding sin was so badly abused by the cult that I belonged to for many years. They would quote 1 Cor. 15:33, which in their Bible reads, “Do not be misled. Bad associations spoil useful habits.” And they would apply that text to anyone who was not a member of their organization, or even members who were sinning in minor ways or just not ‘doing enough’. Many people were hurt by that policy; some were separated from their families. But the fact is that cults can abuse correct teaching by taking it to extremes and applying it in legalistic ways. We are not required as Christians to slavishly withhold fellowship from fellow believers who may have sins in their lives with which they are struggling - indeed, if that were the standard, which of us would be found as ‘good association?’
But when we find that our friendship with certain individuals tends to frequently lead us into situations where we are tempted to sin, something needs to be done. We may try to reason with our friends and tell them we are uncomfortable with certain activities - possibly suggest other things that we can do that will not put us into compromising situations. Often, even unbelievers will sympathize with our position and be cooperative - think of situations where parties or gatherings may be kept alcohol-free because one or two persons attending are known to have a drinking problem. If, however, our companions are not willing to change the circumstances of our association, it may at times indeed be necessary to curtail that association and begin to build new relationships with fellow believers who are actually living their faith. This may lead to abuse or ridicule from those whom you have forsaken, but the Bible told us that would happen: “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:3-5).
There is one other thing that comes to mind that we can do that may help us to avoid situations of temptation. We can keep ourselves busy with the things of the Lord. Again, this is an area in which one must use common sense – and another area in which cults are guilty of abuse. We do not have to become fanatics, rigidly devoting every minute of our lives to Bible study, prayer, service, evangelism, etc. We do not have to abandon family activities, healthy recreation, hobbies and so on. But it is a good idea to devote a reasonable amount of time and energy to serving the Lord in whatever way He has called us to, and the mere fact of doing so will help to keep us from temptation. First, we will have less time to devote to “works of the flesh,” and second, the increased focus on spiritual matters will keep our minds on the Lord and His will. “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:58)