Sexual temptation is a tremendously difficult trap to overcome, but it is possible to overcome. Did you catch that? It is possible to overcome! Jesus Christ didn’t die on the cross and rise again just to remove the penalty of sin but to remove the power and practice of sin. Jesus died to set you free, and he lives to give you life as it’s meant to be lived. One of the ways he does this is through the life-giving power of his word. God’s word is full of stories, and God recorded every story in the Bible for your instruction and encouragement (see Romans 15:4). There’s no better narrative account of overcoming the lies of lust than the story of how Joseph refused the temptations of Potiphar’s seductive wife. This story was written so that God’s people could learn more about Jesus and how to practically overcome sexual temptation. In this story, we learn three things that will make the seemingly impossible victory over lust, become possible in the Lord.
In Genesis 39, Joseph is sold as a slave, which in his day typically meant being worked literally to death, but by God’s grace, Joseph was promoted in Potiphar’s large estate to the second in command and was highly successful. Things were looking very good for Joseph, but along came Potiphar’s wife who had all along been checking Joseph out with the eyes of lust. There came a point where she bluntly offered to have sex with him. When she proposed this, Joseph’s reply is very telling. He rattles off all the undeserved favor that he’s been shown and says, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Vs.9). Notice that? Where was Joseph looking? Not upon what he didn’t have, but upon what he did have. Joseph didn’t fall prey to this initial sexual temptation because he didn’t consider his success a result of his own doing, but rather the result of God’s grace. He was looking away in thanksgiving to God. Thanksgiving to God in your life and all that he has chosen to give you by grace drives out any form of coveting. It’s like a light-switch. If thanksgiving is on, then coveting is off. If thanksgiving is off, then coveting is on. The light of gratitude blinds the eyes of lust. But as anyone knows who’s been severely tempted in this area, the temptation doesn’t just go away.
Potiphar’s wife was persistent. She didn’t give up. The Bible says, “And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her” (Vs.10). Apparently, Potiphar’s wife thought she was too direct at first, so she tried something a little subtler. “Just lie down next to me, Joseph. C’mon! Taking a nap next to me isn’t a sin is it? What’s the harm in that?” Day after day this went on, but Joseph stayed away. He refused to take a nap with his boss’s wife because he was too busy doing what he was supposed to be doing in the first place. Sexual temptation will usually try this tactic. It will try to get you close to the fire, and the lure is especially strong when you’re not focused on what you should be doing. Imagine a ship that’s headed for a destination. If the captain of the ship isn’t paying close attention to the task at hand and allows the ship to get off course even just a couple degrees without any obvious change, before he knows it, the ship is heading in a direction he never thought possible. This is how temptation works, if it can’t get you to immediately change your course, it will try and get you to slowly change your course without you realizing what’s happening. Joseph stayed away by listening and obeying the voice of God. Obedience may sound like death, but it ends in life. Disobedience may sound like life but it ends in death. This is what God’s people need to remember – Jesus fights the fleeting pleasure of sin with the fulfilling pleasure of obedience. But the story isn’t over.
Potiphar’s wife was desperate. If only she could put Joseph in a place where he couldn’t refuse her, then she’d have him. So she waited until no one was in the house and it says, that while he was working, “She caught him by his garment,” (Vs.12). Now, this was not like grabbing him by the shirt. What she clung to would have been all Joseph was wearing, as he was stripped down for work. She thought this was the perfect plan. Joseph would have to give in. Surely, he wouldn’t run away naked and leave his garment behind, would he? But that’s exactly what he did. At the risk of his own reputation, he ran away; not in embarrassment, but in victory. Many times, overcoming sexual temptation will involve some form of social awkwardness or personal embarrassment – phoning a friend for help, putting an accountability program on your computer, or looking weird to others for the sake of purity. A lifestyle of overcoming sexual temptation and turning away from all sexual sin doesn’t just happen overnight; it’s a step by step journey. But in every failure along the way, Jesus is there with open arms. Not just with new mercy, but also with new power to get back up and look away in thanksgiving to Jesus, the true Joseph who died naked in shame on the cross to cover our shame with his righteousness and give us renewed hope. Look away in gratitude. Stay away in obedience. Run away despite embarrassment. In time you will see the power of God’s justifying and sanctifying grace prevail and the temptations of sexual sin overcome.