woman holding green apple

3 Ways to Conquer Temptation/Spiritual Meditations

Are you tempted to criticize your mother-in-law or something more serious?  The treatments suggested here by psychologists and mystics  can be utilized for your particular temptation while taking into consideration your personality and depth of faith.

Using Willpower to Overcome Temptation

Citing Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow study from the 1960s, some very smart people consider willpower as the key to success in overcoming temptations. In the study, young children were given a choice between eating one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes. Some gobbled up the marshmallow immediately but most did their best to resist temptation so they could have two.

The follow-up study 40 years later contributed additional confirmation that willpower was the key to success. Published in Psychological Science, the researchers revealed that the kids who were able to delay gratification went on to have more success in high school, higher SAT scores, better grades in college, better jobs, better relationships and were even in better physical shape than those who couldn’t wait.

As a result, policy makers, educators, psychologists and parents were convinced that the key to self-control is learning how to overcome emotion. Recommended strategies include distraction and distancing, as highlighted in an article in the New York Times:

“Don’t eye the basket of bread; just take it off the table. In moments of emotional distress, imagine that you’re viewing yourself from outside, or consider what someone else would do in your place. When a waiter offers chocolate mousse, imagine that a cockroach has just crawled across it.”

Rebecca Gladding M.D. in her Psychology Today article “Tips to Resist Temptation” outlines rational steps to overcome temptation utilizing willpower which could be effective for you. The challenge is to diligently use the four steps even when you don’t need to, so that you keep your brain wired and trained the way you want it to be.

As an example, Dr. Gladding applies the steps to her love of chocolate.

  • I start by being more aware of my cravings, urges, and thoughts. I use step one: relabel to make mental notes. I literally say to myself, “Oh, there’s that craving for chocolate again.” I notice and investigate the craving, but do not give into it.
  • Then, I reframe the experience by reminding myself that my brain is generating this desire for chocolate, not me. Sure, I started the habit by responding to fatigue, boredom or stress by eating chocolate a few days in a row, but now my brain has taken over. My goal at this point is to change my perception of the importance of this unhelpful brain urge and move on.
  • I use step three to refocus and choose to do something that is healthier for me. If I truly am hungry and have not eaten, I will eat something less desirable, but filling and healthy. If I am not hungry, I will go take a walk, call a friend, work on a project, or do something else that’s fun.
  • As the craving continues trying to tempt me, I use step four: revalue to remind myself that this is just the feeling of craving. I need to realize that this craving does not define me—it is not something I have to pay attention to or prioritize. In fact, I can let it be there and move on with my day without giving in.

Using Compassion to Overcome Temptation

Dr. Samantha Boardman says that while will-power strategies can be effective, they are not fool proof for everyone and agrees that genetics, environment, stress and fatigue among other factors play a role in the ability to resist temptation. Additionally, most experts agree that willpower is in finite supply. It’s the reason you can skip the candy aisle at the market but can’t resist buying a candy bar when you reach the gauntlet of tempting treats at the checkout counter. The thing is, it takes a great deal of energy and effort to combat emotional impulses with cognitive thinking. Plus, suppressing emotions is stressful.

So, what else can we do? David Desteno, Ph.D., author and professor of psychology at Northeastern University, proposes a counter-intuitive approach to building self-control. Instead of demonizing emotion, he argues that some emotional responses may be the most powerful weapons we have against temptation. According to his research, socially oriented emotions like gratitude, love and compassion greatly enhance self-control and facilitate delayed gratification.

As he writes in Pacific Standard:

“…there are two routes to self-control: cognitive strategies that depend on executive function, willpower, and the like; and emotional strategies that rely on the cultivation of specific feelings…You might prevent yourself from making an impulse purchase by placing your money in an account with stiff penalties for early withdrawal…Or you might do the same by taking a few minutes to stop and count your blessings.”

Other research supports this approach. Kurt Gray, a researcher at Harvard University, found that when people donated money to charity or thought about helping another person they were able to hold up weights longer  than those who didn’t engage in pro-social thoughts or actions. According to Gray, helping others heightens willpower and self-control. As he suggests: “Perhaps the best way to resist the donuts at work is to donate your change in the morning to a worthy cause.”

And Dr. DeSteno concludes: “We can’t just exert self-control by willing ourselves to resist the first marshmallow or averting our eyes from it; we have to be grateful that someone’s offering it to us in the first place.”

Spiritual Redemption

If the suggestions above seem feeble against your temptation, a deeper spiritual way of thinking and being may be the answer.

You may wonder as you go through the years with no apparent change in your affairs, why this thing called God isn’t doing something for you. You can go on for your entire career and still find no increase or improvement unless there is an expansion of spiritual vision.  There is no external change without an internal development. Where you are on your spiritual path will influence the time it will take to get your more serious temptation under control.

The Judeo-Christian can use the 40 years of desert experience as a metaphor. We go forward and fall backward; we progress and backslide – but with every trial, temptation, persecution and conflict we develop more faith, hope and courage coming with the Lord’s support.

I highly recommend meditation and prayer to help you recognize a temptation before it becomes ingrained.  Temptations can visit us disguised as ‘angels of light’. The soul may fail to recognize them until they have done it a great deal of harm; they suck our life blood and put an end to our virtues and we go on yielding to temptation without knowing it. We should pray to the Lord that we will not be deceived and that light and truth will not be hidden from us. For God knows our intentions to please him and serve him and keep near to him in prayer, and the Lord is faithful.

Although you are familiar with the 10 Commandments , meditating on them in a new light, as steppingstones to the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, is helpful in making the transition to a more spiritual life.  For example, “You shall have no other gods before me.” The first commandment is in admonition to look to one source for our good and it indicates that God is that source. If we always followed the first commandment, the journey into the Kingdom of God will be a quick one.

As you acknowledge God as the moving factor in your experience,  you no longer see evil or error in the circumstances governing you.  Your spiritual vision is awakened and you are lifted above all material conditions and limitations.  You can discern spiritual abundance right where lack and poverty is claiming presence and power.

Your Inner Being is God’s Holy Spirit.  You are one with God.  It is only as you give up the belief in a self-hood apart from God that you achieve the awareness of your true spiritual identity,

Consider the real significance of Jesus‘ ministry.  It is lost if we do not grasp his statement: “I can of mine own self do nothing “and “the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwells in me He doeth the works.“ Jesus did not say these things in modesty, but as actual facts. There is a Spirit within you. Jesus was always conscious of His Presence.

The evils of temptation are universal, and if you have permitted them to use you, it is an opportunity for correction rather than condemnation. Every evil craving that befalls you is the evidence of some belief not yet consciously thrown out of your thought. You are for the most part pure, but sometimes tempted by that in your consciousness which is impure or incorrect.

You may believe that your evil thoughts, traits and deeds bring you into punishment, slavery and bondage, but the healing state of Christ-consciousness and forgiveness rescues and lifts you and you learn that God has gone before you every step of the way.

As your spiritual nature unfolds, your human conduct improves. Too many believe that if they can improve their thoughts and acts, it will bring them closer to a spiritual sense. Reverse that: in proportion as spiritual consciousness becomes more real, the conditions of human existence improve. Therefore, do not make the effort to improve yourself humanly but keep your vision on the spiritual, let your life unfold progressively. As you live in a higher consciousness – on a higher plane – your world will unfold harmoniously, joyously, peacefully and successfully. For this reason, the human thought is not the factor in healing or in being healed. As spiritual truth reveals itself in your consciousness, the harmony of body, family or business appears as tangible evidence. Therefore, receptivity to God’s spirit should be your watchword.

Receptivity to God’s spirit should be your watchword.

It may be tantalizing to be told that the attempted improvement of human thought and conduct is not the basis of spiritual development. We are trying so hard to be careful of our thinking and acting. Well – that does no harm; perhaps even that effort is Spirit’s way of breaking through. Only be careful – don’t stop there. Human goodness is but a step on the Way.

The Temptation of Pride in Our Humility and Virtue

Have you known anyone who you would consider sanctimonious or self-righteous? We should be cautious, and not let our humility break down or to become our pride. For, when we attain virtues, we feel that we are doing nothing but receiving God’s gifts, and, therefore, have a greater obligation to serve. But when we become proud of these gifts we think our giving and serving, obligates God to reward us, and this, little by little, does us a great deal of harm. On the one hand, our humility is weakened, while, on the other hand, we neglect to cultivate that virtue, believing we have already acquired it. The best thing seems to be what our master teaches us: to pray, and to ask God not to allow us to fall into this temptation.

If you think the Lord has given you a certain grace, you must understand that it is a blessing which you have received but which God may take away again, as indeed, in the great providence of God, often happens.

For example, I may think I am extremely detached from material things, and, in fact when it comes to the test, I am: yet at other times I feel I have such attachment to things (which the day before I should perhaps have scoffed at) that I hardly know myself.

Sometimes it seems not to matter in the least if people complain or speak ill of me, when the test comes, I still feel like this, indeed, I even get pleasure from it. And then there come days when a single word distresses me and I long to leave the world all together, for everything in it seems to worry me. Teresa of Avila 

This being so, whoever says that he possesses a virtue, may find himself devoid of it at the very time he needs it most. If others, thinking we are good, bestow favors and honors upon us, both they and we shall look foolish when it becomes clear that our virtues are only lent to us. This is a great favor on God‘s part, for it helps us to realize fully that we have nothing which He has not given to us.

Our Past Failures to Overcome Temptation

Do not become depressed by your failures to overcome temptations so that in time you withdraw from Christian fellowship and give up your private prayer because you feel unworthy to engage in it. You can get to the point where your soul can be made to believe that, being imperfect, you have been forsaken by God, and doubt his mercy. All the service you render, however good, seems to be fruitless. When you find yourselves in this frame of mind, stop thinking, as much as you can, of your own faults and think of the mercy of Jesus and of his love, forgiveness and sufferings for you.

There is another very dangerous kind of temptation: a feeling of security caused by the belief that we shall never again return to our past faults and habits. If this temptation comes to beginners it is very serious; for, having this sense of security, they think nothing of running once more into the arms of their temptation. Despite the pledges of love the Lord gives you, you must never be so sure of yourself that you are not afraid of falling back again, but continue your vigilance.

Teresa of Avila suggests that we take great care to begin and to end every period of prayer with self-examination. We need to constantly pray for God‘s help.” Show us, Lord, some way of recognizing temptations and guarding against them.”

The road is a safe one and you will more easily escape from temptation if you are near the Lord instead of far away from Him. Your developing enlightened consciousness goes always before you, carrying you beyond your temptations in a purifying experience until at last you are the ruler over your body, thoughts and actions.

Relevant Scripture

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13

But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 1 Timothy 6:9

And do not lead us into temptation but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. Matthew 6:13

Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:41

Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. Luke 8:13

Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 1 Corinthians 7:5

Brethren, if any person is overtaken in misconduct or sin of any sort, you who are spiritual [who are responsive to and controlled by the Spirit] should set him right and restore and reinstate him, without any sense of superiority and with all gentleness, keeping an attentive eye on yourself, lest you should be tempted also. Gal 6:1

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Hebrews 4:15

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. James 1:13

References

The Way of Perfection by Teresa of Avila

Spiritual Interpretation of Scripture by Joel S. Goldsmith

Samantha Boardman M.D. Psychology Today “Forget Willpower: A Smarter Strategy to Resist Temptation”

Rebecca Gladding M.D. Psychology Today “Tips to Resist Temptation”