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Two Paths

You'll go one way or the other.

Sentinel of the Soul (1)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Galatians 5.22, 23

The root of our problems
At the root of all the problems facing humankind and the cosmos is our inability to practice self-control. It was precisely this which caused Adam and Eve to fall into sin, bringing death and corruption to the whole creation. Faced with an emotionallyappealing proposal, which to choose could be easily rationalized, Adam and Eve rebelled against God and His Word, let their hearts and minds overrule their consciences, and fell through temptation into sin and death.

And the rest, as they say, is history (Gen. 3).

German theologian Helmut Thielicke defined temptation in this way: “To be in temptation means to be constantly in the situation of wanting to be untrue to God. It means being constantly on the point of freeing ourselves from God.” This being so, it’s no wonder that self-control is included among the fruit of the Holy Spirit. For without self-control, we will be unable to resist the many temptations which confront us day by day. We will always be falling through temptation into sin, guilt, shame, and spiritual setback, compromising our good conscience, sullying our clean heart, and denying our sanctified mind, unless we cultivate the ability to resist temptation through the practice of self-control.

Here is where the function of the conscience comes daily and continuously into play. For the conscience, in addition to being the referee of the soul, arbitrating between mind and heart, is also the sentinel of the soul, guarding heart, mind, and life against those influences from within and without which encourage us to free ourselves from God.

The book on dealing with temptation
In Psalm 73, the prophet Asaph outlined a textbook analysis of temptation and how to deal with it. Whenever temptation comes, Asaph explained, we will travel one of two paths, depending on the condition of our conscience. Either we will, like Adam and Eve, fall through temptation into sin; or we will, like Asaph in Psalm 73, grow through temptation into greater maturity in the Lord. The role of conscience is to guard us against taking the wrong path and guide us by proven values and priorities and wise choices to take the right path.

That we are going to be tempted is certain. Paul indicates that we should be prepared to deal with every kind of temptation, and to find the “way of escape” which God has provided to combat temptation (1 Cor. 10.13). To find ourselves in the midst of temptation is not yet to sin; rather, temptation is the signal that sin is seeking to have us. Our duty, following our purified conscience, is to recognize the temptation, resist the devil, and press on toward holiness in the fear of God. Martin Luther is reported to have observed, “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”

And that’s what we want to do. It’s why we need a good conscience, one that is trained and set for good choices and good works. The practice of self-control involves recognizing temptation – by having in place the right values and priorities and the wisdom of God’s Word –  and resisting temptation, by seeking the ways of escape God has made available to us.

Asaph was confronted by temptation pretty much the way we are – right smack in the middle of everyday life. Here he was, the worship leader of Israel, and, as he was going along on his way, he encountered a boisterous party of rich people off to do who knows what. He observed their lavish dress and extravagant manner. He heard their laughter and crude conversation. As he reflected on rich people he had known, it seemed to him that they were never in trouble or distress; they always had ample means to take care of whatever they might need. They were proud of their attainments and not shy about parading their wealth before the watching world. They didn’t worry about what God might think about them – what could He do, anyway?

Rich people, Asaph mused, have got it made.

And what about me? he continued. Here I am, the servant of the Lord. I knock myself out in daily discipline, so that I remain faithful to the Lord. I get no respect from the people I serve. I got nothing: “Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and chastened every morning.” (vv. 13, 14).

But just as Asaph was about to vocalize his complaint, it hit him. He was getting ready to break free of God. In Asaph’s conscience, alarms were sounding. The sentinel of his soul came suddenly to a state of high alert, and now Asaph had to make a choice. He had encountered temptation, in the form of covetousness, and he was just about to step onto the wrong path. As he says at the beginning of his psalm, “my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped” (v. 2).

Almost. But they didn’t. And ours don’t have to, either. When our conscience is good, primed, and ready, we can recognize and resist temptation so that, rather than rebel like Adam and Eve we can grow like Asaph.

At just the moment he was about to fall into sin’s trap, Asaph heeded his conscience and practiced the discipline of self-control. We can learn from his example and teaching how to follow our conscience as it seeks the wisdom of God in the time of our lives and avoids the snares and traps of the devil.

For reflection
1.  What is temptation? What’s the difference between temptation and sin?

2.  What two paths does temptation open before us? How can we determine which is the right one to follow?

3.  How is the role of conscience in alerting us to temptation and helping us to resist it?

Next steps – Preparation: Today, make a list of any temptations to sin that confront you. What should you do to prepare for these temptations, and what should you do to resist them?

T. M. Moore

All the installments in this “Strong Souls” series are available in PDF by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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