Temptation is everywhere—even in the church. Ashley Madison reminded us of this when she broke her promise and went public with her client’s private secrets.
In the wake of such a catastrophe, the church sifts through the rubble of her transgressions. Her tarnished heroes fill the headlines and her damaged ministers are vacating their pulpits. God used a group of hackers to remind us of what we so easily and inconveniently ignore: the attraction of sin is always there and always toxic.
When the heat of our neighbor’s sin singes our conscience and our own creeps in on us, we often respond in fear, cynicism, and hopelessness. This is why we can sing lines like “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love” with great ease, yet still find it hard to believe God can actually take “my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.”
Why do we tend to drift like this? Partly because when we feel temptation’s apparent omnipresence, we assume temptation’s apparent omnipotence. Hope wanes as we feel powerless against temptation’s constant assault, so we raise the white flag and invite sin and guilt to discuss terms.
But what if there were something “bigger, faster, and stronger” than our daily temptation? What if there were something more inevitable than its pull? What if there was a hope that could overcome our hopelessness?
To answer these questions we need theology—a peculiar statement these days, to be sure—because only a right knowledge of God can cut through the mess we’ve made. What we need specifically is a theology of God’s presence. When we turn our attention here, we find a gift given by the Lord to fight our temptations and overcome our sins.
Academic Exercise, Big Brother, Super Santa, or Something Else?
Fighting real-life temptation with the doctrine of divine omnipresence may seem foreign to us. A 50-cent word like this has a hard enough time finding its way into our vocabulary, much less into our minds and hearts to ward off the temptations our relationships, jobs, and screens constantly throw at us.
In fact, most Christians probably tend to write God’s presence off as a stuffy, philosophical category to be handled by tenured department heads in ivy-covered university halls. Even those who’ve given divine omnipresence some thought might be inclined to see it as a more polished, absolute version of the government’s Big Brother project. Or maybe it confuses God with a type of super-Santa Claus who knows when we’re sleeping and when we’re awake, and is just there to update his Naughty or Nice List.
But when we turn to Scripture, we find God’s presence is relational and real, even gloriously manifest at times. The Bible promises that God will be with his people and that he will not forsake them.
Cultivating a Superior Affection
Understanding God’s presence this way has major ramifications for the Christian life. Imagine what happens when our temptations meet the very real, very near holiness of God. Knowing he is “right here, right now” comforts us because we don’t face our sin alone. If we pursue sin, though, we must face the terrifying fact that the ever-present God who righteously punishes evil (John 3:19) will be present to judge as well.
A theology of God’s presence should flood the dark corners of our minds with the light of the knowledge of the glory of God (2 Cor. 4:6). So when temptation offers her counterfeit promises, God is there to eclipse them with promises that are genuine and for our good.
Living before God is better than anything temptation offers, and being convinced of this is critical for our fight against sin. It’s what Puritan Thomas Chalmers called the “expulsive power of a new affection.” We’ll never overcome temptation until we replace it with something more pure, more right, and more fulfilling. And if we’re going to fight every sin all the time, then this new affection better be centered in God since he’s the only one who proves himself superior to all sin every time.
But take note: this is all “prologue” work. In other words, we need to have a theology of God’s presence in place before temptation and sin ever show up. We must already be convinced that God is near and he is better than anything the world offers. If we don’t have this worked out or if we are just conveniently overlooking this doctrine, then we’ve already fallen prey to the first temptation: we have believed the lie that we are alone, in the dark, hidden from God, with no recourse against the temptations at hand.
God with Us
Even with the spotlight of God’s presence switched on, however, temptation is often the only thing we can see at the time. It’s always right there, in front of our eyes and within reach. It seems tangible, enfleshed—even when it’s on our screens or in our imaginations.
God, on the other hand, feels “spiritual” and incorporeal when we’re being tempted. We buy the lie he’s not there and find ourselves wondering why we have to “conference” him in on our moral debates—that is, if we even want him there in the first place.
But this won’t stand under the witness of Scripture. As John tells us, God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Christ is God manifest, the Lord who could be seen, heard, and touched (1 John 1:1–3). He is Immanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23).
In the world’s mire, God walked, lived, and breathed like us. He ate, drank, and slept like we do. Jesus Christ felt the weight of temptation, just like we do. As the author of Hebrews makes clear, Christ is not some untouchable “high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15; cf. 2:18).
When we look at Christ, then, we find one who fought temptation the same way we do—or at least the same way we should: with Scripture and the Spirit. And what’s more, he won. Jesus is the presence of God, not in some philosophical sense but the one who came in the flesh to give his life as a ransom for many and to model a life lived by faith in a broken world. And God has promised to never leave or forsake us. He fulfills this promise with the gift of the Spirit, who propels our daily pursuit of becoming like our Savior by his indwelling presence.
Fundamental Goal of the Christian Life
Fighting sin is easier said than done. So when all else fails, gain altitude. Look for the big picture. Sin wants you caught up in the details. It wants you consumed with its shimmering mirage that lies just outside your reach so that you’ll forget the true promises God offers.
To counter this, we must remember his presence is central to salvation’s purposes. Scripture ends its story with God’s redeemed people in God’s perfect place dwelling in God’s glad presence. The new creation is built around the presence of God. In the New Jerusalem,
the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Rev. 21:3–4)
Here, John describes the eschatological power of God’s presence—a fancy way of saying that the presence of God is a fundamental goal of the Christian life.
Falling for temptation sends us in the opposite direction of God’s redemptive objectives for us. Dabbling in sin would be like Peyton Manning stepping off the field on fourth-and-goal with three seconds left in the game to flirt with the cheerleaders. If we were made to be in the presence of God, and God made a way through Immanuel to get us there, why would we do anything to jeopardize this?
Yes, temptation is everywhere, even in the church. But God is everywhere too, and his presence is a very present help in times of trouble (Ps. 46:1).