Life is always under attack from temptation, but no enemy can launch an invasion until he finds a bridgehead. Where then does temptation find its bridgehead? Where do our temptations come from? To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and, if we know whence the attack is likely to come, we will have a better chance to overcome it.
(i) Sometimes the attack of temptation comes from outside us. There are people whose influence is bad. There are people in whose company it would be very difficult even to suggest doing a dishonorable thing, and there are people in whose company it is easy to do the wrong things. When Robert Burns was a young man he went to Irvine to learn flax-dressing. There he fell in with a certain Robert Brown, who was a man who had seen much of the world, and who had a fascinating and a dominating personality. Burns tells us that he admired him and strove to imitate him. Burns goes on: “He was the only man I ever saw who was a greater fool than myself when Woman was the guiding star…. He spoke of a certain fashionable failing with levity, which hitherto I had regarded with horror…. Here his friendship did me a mischief.” There are friendships and associations which can do us a mischief. In a tempting world a man should be very careful in his choice of friends and of the society in which he will move. He should give the temptations which come from outside as little chance as possible.
(ii) It is one of the tragic facts of life that temptations can come to us from those who love us; and of all kinds of temptation this is the hardest to fight. It comes from people who love us and who have not the slightest intention of harming us.
The kind of thing that happens is this. A man may know that he ought to take a certain course of action; he may feel divinely drawn to a certain career; but to follow that course of action may involve unpopularity and risk; to accept that career may be to give up all that the world calls success. It may well be that in such circumstances those who love him will seek to dissuade him from acting as he knows he ought, and they will do so because they love him. They counsel caution, prudence, worldly wisdom; they want to see the one they love do well in a worldly sense; they do not wish to see him throw his chances away; and so they seek to stop him doing what he knows to be right for him.
In Gareth and Lynette Tennyson tells the story of Gareth, the youngest son of Lot and Bellicent. Gareth wishes to join this brothers in the service of King Arthur. Bellicent his mother does not wish him to go. “Hast thou no pity on my loneliness?” she asks. His father Lot is old and lies “like a log all but smouldered out.” Both his brothers have gone to Arthur’s court. Must he go too? If he will stay at home, she will arrange the hunt, and find him a princess for his bride, and make him happy. It was because she loved him that she wished to keep him; the tempter was speaking with the very voice of love. But Gareth answers:
How can you keep me tethered to you–shame.
Man am I grown, and man’s work must I do.
Follow the deer? Follow the Christ the King.
Live pure, speak true, right wrong, follow the King–
Else, wherefore born?”
The lad went out, but the voice of love tempted him to stay.
That was what happened to Jesus. “A man’s foes,” said Jesus, “will be those of his own household” ( Matthew 10:36 ). They came and they tried to take him home, because they said that he was mad ( Mark 3:21 ). To them he seemed to be throwing his life and his career away; to them he seemed to be making a fool of himself; and they tried to stop him. Sometimes the bitterest of all temptations come to us from the voice of love.
(iii) There is one very odd way in which temptation can come, especially to younger people. There is in most of us a queer streak, which, at least in certain company, makes us wish to appear worse than we are. We do not wish to appear soft and pious, namby-pamby and holy. We would rather be thought daredevil, swashbuckling adventurers, men of the world and not innocents. Augustine has a famous passage in his confessions: “Among my equals I was ashamed of being less shameless than others, when I heard them boast of their wickedness…. And I took pleasure not only in the pleasure of the deed but in the praise…. I made myself worse than I was, that I might not be reproached, and when in anything I had not sinned as the most abandoned ones, I would say that I had done what I had not done, that I might not seem contemptible.” Many a man has begun on some indulgence, or introduced himself to some habit, because he did not wish to appear less experienced in worldliness than the company in which he happened to be. One of the great defences against temptation is simply the courage to be good.
(iv) But temptation comes not only from outside us; it comes from inside us too. If there was nothing in us to which temptation could appeal then it would be helpless to defeat us. In every one of us there is some weak spot; and at that weak spot temptation launches its attack.
The point of vulnerability differs in all of us. What is a violent temptation to one man, leaves another man quite unmoved; and what leaves one man quite unmoved may be an irresistible temptation to another. Sir James Barrie has a play called The Will. Mr. Davizes, the lawyer, noticed that an old clerk, who had been in his service for many years, was looking very ill. He asked him if anything was the matter. The old man told him that his doctor had informed him that he was suffering from a fatal and incurable disease.
Mr Devizes [uncomfortably]: I’m sure it’s not what you fear.
Any specialist would tell you so.
Surtees [without looking up]: I’ve been to one, sir–yesterday.
Mr Devizes: Well?
Surtees: It’s–that, sir.
Mr Devizes: He couldn’t be sure.
Surtees: Yes, sir.
Mr Devizes: An operation–
Surtees: Too late for that, he said. If I had been operated on long ago, I might have had a chance.
Mr Devizes: But you didn’t have it long ago.
Surtees: Not to my knowledge, sir; but he says it was there all the same, always in me, a black spot, not as big as a pin’s head, but waiting to spread and destroy me in the fulness of time.
Mr Devizes [helplessly]: It seems damnably unfair.
Surtees [humbly]: I don’t know, sir. He says there is a spot of that kind in pretty nigh all of us, and, if we don’t look out, it does for us in the end.
Mr Devizes: No. No. No.
Surtees: He called it the accursed thing. I think he meant we should know of it, and be on the watch.
In every man there is the weak spot, which, if he is not on the watch, can ruin him. Somewhere in every man there is the flaw, some fault of temperament which can ruin life, some instinct or passion so strong that it may at any time snap the leash, some quirk in our make-up that makes what is a pleasure to someone else a menace to us. We should realize it, and be on the watch.
(v) But, strangely enough, temptation comes sometimes not from our weakest point, but from our strongest point. If there is one thing of which we are in the habit of saying. “That is one thing anyway which I would never do,” it is just there that we should be upon the watch. History is full of the stories of castles which were taken just at the point where the defenders thought them so strong that no guard was necessary. Nothing gives temptation its chance like over-confidence. At our weakest and at our strongest points we must be upon the watch.