The Bible contains many guiding scriptures to help us overcome, but it also provides understanding of the cycle of temptation and sin that grows, figuratively, from tiny seed to burgeoning tree. We find this understanding in both the Old and New Testaments and can apply it directly to our lives.
The apostle James describes the genealogy, or family tree, of every temptation leading to transgression: “each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14, 15).
Now consider what James says in terms of the analogy of a growing tree:
Seed: “each one is tempted” – exposure
Roots: “drawn away by his own desires” – considering the temptation
Trunk: “and enticed” – intellectual acquiescence
Branches: “when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin” – submission to sin
Fruit: “sin . . . brings forth death” – result of sin
We see this pattern as early as the first sin, when the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil became the focus of Eve’s attention (Genesis 3:6).
Seed: “the woman saw” – exposure
Roots: “the tree was good for food . . . pleasant to the eyes” – considering the temptation
Trunk: “and . . . desirable to make one wise” – intellectual acquiescence
Branches: “she took of its fruit and ate” – submission to sin
Fruit: “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (2:17) – 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 to germinate. Spiritually, we must do everything to avoid the conditions in our lives that make the seeds of sin grow. Gardeners use pre-emergent herbicides to stop the germination of unwanted plants. Our regular use of the spiritual “pre-emergents” of prayer, study, and other disciplines can have the same effect on temptation.
Whenever exposed to temptation, we must 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 to cut the trunk than to saw off every branch. Theologians refer to this principle of overturning temptation immediately as the obsta principiis — the determination to “resist the beginnings,” because that’s where the real battle is always fought. This one unfailing principle can help us overcome temptation more than any other. The earlier we end the growth of sin, the more likely we are to succeed.
That means asking God’s help immediately when temptation arises (Matthew 6:13), replacing the wrong thoughts (Philippians 4:8), and moving into a different environment till the temptation passes (2 Timothy 2:22-24). But the encouraging thing is that there is no temptation that cannot be overcome if we are willing to attack it — before it grows.
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