One of the greatest challenges I’ve come across in my walk as a Christian, and one I have seen others struggle with as well, is the fear of temptation. We often view every temptation in light of potential eternal damnation. Yes, we have been baptized, but what if we fall away? The author of Hebrews warns Christians that they are in danger of succumbing to temptation just like Israel’s wilderness generation, and that the stakes are even higher in the age of the Messiah: “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27).
With such high stakes, the specter of a difficult temptation can spark nightmares of failure and eternal hellfire. The amount of stress involved spikes through the roof, and it shouldn’t be surprising that many Christians live in a state of perpetual anxiety. What if I sin and don’t have time to repent before I die? In fact, some people are so anxious in the face of this possibility that they proclaim a doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Admitting even the possibility of eternal damnation is too much to bear, so they find comfort in this doctrine and it’s no surprise why they wouldn’t want to give it up. Those of us who don’t subscribe to this doctrine (because the apostles teach otherwise) are still left in a state of constant worry when temptation arises.
I would suggest that this mentality, though understandable, is biblically flawed and is ultimately the mindset of losers. Forgive my harshness, but I believe the author of Hebrews would agree with me.
Before coming back to this point, allow me to explain why I believe this is such a common mentality among Christians: we have failed to appreciate the fundamental story of what God is doing with Christians after baptism. We are correct when we emphasize the eternal importance of baptism, but I believe we often focus on it at the expense of the rest of the Christian life.
To illustrate what we’ve missed, we should look at the paradigmatic story of the birth of the nation of Israel. There are at least three major parts to the story. 1) the creation of Israel by leaving Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, 2) the transformation of Israel through the fiery trials of the wilderness, and 3) entry into full relationship with God in the Promised Land. These parts of the paradigm do not change from Old Testament to New Testament. Christians are also God’s people who are brought to life through the waters, transformed by his leading through trials, and will ultimately rest with Him in the Promised Land.
The reason we have so much anxiety toward temptation is due, in part, to the fact that we have either misunderstood or simply ignored the importance of stage two of the story (the wilderness). What is the purpose of that stage? In one word: transformation. God allows Israel to be tested so that they can be transformed through faith in Him.
We often talk about becoming God’s people through baptism (stage one), and we talk about the Promised Land (stage three), but we’re often not sure what to do about that part in between (if we even recognize it as a meaningful stage at all). We see it only as an opportunity to lose what happened at our baptism. If this were true, then God would be cruel, tantalizing us with salvation, only to let us die in the wilderness (sound familiar? Ex. 16:3). In fact, this reasoning has led many young Christians to lose their faith. If that were the correct view of God, then I wouldn’t blame them for leaving. But the Bible shows us that God is a God of love who cares for his people, so this conclusion is simply wrong. No, the middle section of the story must be meant for our good.
To illustrate the parallel one more way, have you ever wondered why God doesn’t take people up into heaven like Enoch immediately after they are baptized? If baptism is the point, and the rest of our lives are only an opportunity to lose that salvation, then why would God leave us here, knowing that we will likely sin again after we become Christians? The answer is the same reason that the Promised Land did not lie directly on the other side of the Red Sea. God could have made the Promised Land right next to Egypt if he wanted to, but his purpose was always to use the space between their baptism and the Promised Land as a means of transformation. So it is with Christians as well. We are not taken up immediately after baptism because God needs us to transform. The process is not complete at baptism. It’s only the beginning, and that should be good news to us!
This is where we find the key to changing our anxious, loser mindset: every temptation is not meant to be a means to our eternal damnation, but an opportunity to transform. James understood this: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4).
Every time we are confronted with an opportunity to put our trust in God and we succeed, a little part of our DNA is changed. We take on Christ little by little as we learn, like he did (Heb. 5:8), to fully trust in God. This is the mentality of a winner; someone who sees obstacles as a chance to transform (with the help of God). This is why the Hebrew author writes that Christians “are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.” (Heb. 10:39).
None of this is to say that there’s no place for fear or warning. The wilderness does create the opportunity to fail, and most of the Israelites indeed failed. There can be no opportunity to succeed if failure is not a possibility. The New Testament is also full of warnings about the judgment to come. Neither should the possibility of growth through trials encourage us to seek temptation. The wise man avoids compromising situations and we will encounter enough trials without foolishly running toward them. I only intend to illustrate that the wilderness transformation segment of the story often plays too small a role in our minds (I speak for myself, but assume others have this challenge as well). Yes, let us fear God’s wrath and avoid temptation when possible. But let us also embrace the wilderness stage of our story as a means to transformation with confidence.
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2).