It is an awesome consideration, and one which every Christian should bring home to our own bosoms, whether or not small faults willfully persisted in, may in time not only dim the light of conscience but extinguish the spirit of grace. Will indulgence in small faults ultimately dissolve all power of resistance against great evils? Hannah More (1745-1833)
“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” James 4:7-10
If you’ve ever read the letter of James in the New Testament, you may have noticed that James is anything but soft in his words. He is straightforward, clear, and at times brutally honest.
Why was James so direct with these early believers? I mean, their world was tough, and it was difficult being a follower of Jesus at this time. Shouldn’t James have been a little more tender in his words?
No, I don’t think so. This wasn’t the time for James to be soft in his words. James had noticed a disturbing trend among these early followers of Jesus: moral indifference. They believed that Jesus was the Son of God sent to save the world, sure. They had placed their hope in him, sure. The problem was that their belief wasn’t impacting how they lived.
In chapter 4, verses 1-10, James calls out behaviors and attitudes such as coveting and murder, double-mindedness, and praying from selfish motivations. He even went so far as to say that these attitudes and behaviors were setting them up to be enemies of God—people who work against God’s Kingdom purposes.
As I read these verses, I wonder, “How did they get there? How did people who had experienced the love and grace of Jesus Christ end up looking and sounding and acting like the rest of the world to the point of even going against the purposes of God? How does that happen to any of us?
Here’s what I think. I think it happens slowly, over time, when we compromise faithfulness little-by-little in the small things that seem harmless, but that actually makes it harder and harder for us to resist temptation or live in love toward others.
So what are we to do if we want to avoid falling prey to the same? Well, James spells it out for us: SUBMIT and RESIST.
Submit yourselves to God in everything, at all times, because He is a God of grace. Humble yourselves before him, and he will lift you up, and resist the devil. Resist him, James says, and he will flee from you. But too often, what we’ll do is submit to the temptations of the enemy, submit to our own desires, and resist the Holy Spirit and the work He needs to do in our lives.
And what is the result of that? Well, by giving in to these smaller temptations, we reduce our ability to resist larger temptations, and we defuse the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Many of the temptations we give in to may seem small and inconsequential, but, actually, the consequences that come from failing to resist are not small.
In Luke 3, we read about Jesus’ baptism. After his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. In other words, the presence of God rested upon Jesus and filled him. Then in Luke 4, we read:
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.”
Perhaps you know the rest of the story. The devil tempted Jesus to turn a stone into a loaf of bread so he could have something to eat.
Then the devil tempted Jesus by promising him worldly power.
Then the devil tempted Jesus to do something drastic to prove that God would protect him.
“When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…” Luke 4:13-14
Do you notice what changed?
Jesus entered the wilderness filled with the Spirit and exited the wilderness after 40 days of temptation filled with the power of the Spirit.
You see, that time in the wilderness was PREPARATION for Jesus. After Jesus was baptized, he didn’t go straight into an intense three-year ministry and mission. He went into a forty-day wilderness temptation.
And, according to Luke 4, what was Jesus doing for those 40 days? He was RESISTING.
And with every act of RESISTING the temptations from the enemy, the power of the Holy Spirit grew within him. Not the presence—the presence was there in fullness—but the power of the Spirit increased in him as he chose trust and obedience to His father over giving in to seemingly harmless temptations.
But consider this: What if Jesus had given in?
What if Jesus had looked at that first temptation and said, “You know, it’s just a loaf of bread, and I am hungry. My father doesn’t want me to be hungry and miserable. This is no big deal. I’ll just do it.”
If Jesus had focused on his cravings and given in to something that seemed harmless, how much easier would it have been for him to do the same when the next temptation came along—to justify doing what felt good to him emotionally and physically at the moment, instead of trusting his Father to give him the strength he needed to endure any discomfort that resisting the temptation might bring.
Or, let me ask it this way: How much harder would it have been for him to resist the temptations that followed?
How would he have withstood the level of pressure he faced during his ministry?
How would he have endured in the Garden of Gethsemane if, instead of regularly practicing trust and obedience to his Father, he had, over the course of his life, given in to temptation when he became uncomfortable and when people were terrible to him?
This is humanity’s struggle that Genesis 3 describes: It’s just a harmless fruit. How could that be so bad?
What I’m suggesting today is this: It’s the seemingly small and ordinary disturbances and temptations that trip us up the most. The temptations we face don’t have to be grand-scale for them to effectively strip us of power. And maybe that’s the intent. It’s more deceptive that way.
But every time I fail to resist in even the smallest things, I give a little more of my power away, and slowly, step-by-step, I lessen God’s power in my life and move closer to a life of spiritual lukewarmness and deeper into behaviors and thought processes that can have a much more devastating impact on my life and the lives of others.
We don’t want to live powerless, dull, ineffective-to-God’s-kingdom-purposes lives. We were not created for that. So, we need to get brutally honest and ask ourselves, “Are there things I am doing— ways I am thinking— that PREVENT God’s power from working in my life?
Hannah More, a spiritual writer from the 18th and 19th centuries, called these “habitual and unresisted faults: habitual, because they go unresisted, and allowed because they are considered to be too insignificant to call for resistance.”
So, let’s get brutally honest here and name some junk, shall we? Consider the seemingly small fault of irritability. You know it. It’s giving in to the temptation to grumble and complain and fuss and gripe about small things.
For many of us, this fault or temptation is given in to more strongly at HOME. We let anger and frustration come out at home instead of tempering it as we would anywhere else. Too often, we give our families the short end of the stick with our sour attitudes and our unwillingness to exercise patience, kindness, and humility. And while we may think irritability is harmless, consider that anger and violence have their root in this seemingly harmless attitude.
If I can’t curb my irritability, if I am regularly undone by the small infractions of others, if I take offense at anything someone does that displeases me and react out of that, how will I be able to remain calm and patient in the face of great offenses? How will I show kindness and compassion to someone who is being terrible? And how will I ever be able to obey Jesus’ command to love my enemies?
Just so you know, irritability is one of my habitual and unresisted faults that I’ve been working on. And here’s my favorite way to do an irritability check: I pay attention to my attitudes and levels of impatience and annoyance while I’m driving.
The more irritated I get with other drivers tells me a LOT about where my heart is. So I try to practice my patience and kindness while I’m driving.
Try it. Do an irritability check while you’re driving and see what you discover. Notice your reactions, your thoughts, the change in the tightness of your muscles. Are you frowning? Are your eyebrows furrowed? Are you holding your breath?
What might your reactions be telling you? Why are you so easily disturbed or put out of joint? What can those reactions teach you about what work the Holy Spirit needs to do in you?
Once you’ve checked your reactions while driving, perhaps you’ll choose to do an irritability check when you’re online, or when you’re watching your favorite cable news channel, or when you’re with that person who just absolutely drives you crazy. (You know.)
We all have a choice here, friends. We can let our emotions and reactions rule the day and never mature in our faith. Or, we can choose to pause, observe our reactions, and let them inform us of where we and the Holy Spirit need to do some work.
I’m not saying this is fun or even necessarily easy. But in order to mature, in order to grow stronger, in order to have the power of the Spirit at work in us and increasing in our lives, we must resist the temptation to give in to these minor annoyances and disturbances that pull us into unhealthy mindsets and unhealthy behaviors.
Let’s choose to let God’s Spirit have full rein in us so that the fruit of His Spirit can be exhibited in our lives:
These are not only the characteristics of God’s Holy Spirit; they are FRUIT that will be exhibited in our lives when we resist temptations. And it is in each of these areas the enemy is going to tempt us. Every time we give in and choose something other than these virtues, we lose an opportunity to let God’s power be exhibited in our lives.
Our world is in desperate need of people who will do this necessary inward work. Our world is raging. Will you live and move within it fueled by the loving power of the Spirit, or will you defuse that power and potentially contribute to the rage? We have a choice to make, friends. And the way I see it, there is only one choice for the follower of Christ to make.