A sip, a fib, maybe a little glimpse of skin - how harmful could it be if it's all around us in broad daylight? Temptation is as old as the Adam and Eve story. But it has probably never been as accessible or as widely advertised - thanks to the Internet, 24-hour cable television, and legalized gambling - as it is today.
For those who find images like those of casino gambling, marital infidelity, or easy credit alluring, temptation can seem almost incessant.
It's this swift proliferation of enticing images that has kept professionals and faith communities scrambling to bring their resistance techniques up to date.
"Trying to stifle your urges is not a popular message these days," says Marshall Shelley, vice president of editorial for Christianity Today International, publisher of 11 magazines that have each addressed temptation in recent years. "We are an expressive culture right now, rather than a restrained culture. No one wants to be accused of being repressed."
But such freedom has its price, points out Mr. Shelley.
"If you breathe that air long enough," he says, "it does change the kinds of temptations that you're confronted with and the kinds of responses that are called for."
That's why churches and other groups are doing more organizing, hoping to create systems and networks so that those who struggle with temptation won't have to do so alone.
Across communities and faith traditions, the lonely individual is considered an easy target, one best strengthened by routine companionship. Yet such helpful relationships with friends or family depend on commitments of focused time, which seem ever harder to find amid myriad distractions from work, cellphones, and other personal technology, says Scot Landry, coordinator of Boston Catholic Men.
Concern for the pitfalls awaiting thousands of isolated and lonely men, for instance, helped propel Roman Catholics to organize 35 regional men's conferences this year, up from 16 in 2002. Organizers in Massachusetts intend to create 85 new, parish-based men's groups across the state where participants can safely confide their otherwise secret struggles.
Some programs are also preventative, hoping to arm individuals to battle temptation before it even sets in.
At Chicago's Renz Addiction Counseling Center, adolescents with no history of substance-abuse problems take a 12-week course on staying clean and sober in a time when "a lot of money is spent enticing and desensitizing youth," says prevention director Patricia Baker. The center had no prevention programs in 1990; now nearly half the budget goes toward prevention in adolescents.
To strengthen their resistance, they learn to set life goals, to imagine victories over peer pressure through role playing and to analyze how particular advertisements try to make them weak.
They are bombarded with media images, cigarette advertising, and TV commercials, Ms. Baker says. "You have to balance the glamorization of drug use or being high.... That's why we do goal-setting with kids, to say, 'How does getting high help or hinder your getting to that goal?' "
For those who have already succumbed, programs targeting the hard-to-reach are cropping up as alternatives to well-known "Anonymous" groups. Those hooked on Internet pornography, for instance, can go to websites like xxxchurch.com and settingcaptivesfree.com to tap into Christian resources to help them quit the habit.
Not only do these outreach methods meet people where they are, says Setting Captives Free executive director Shon Bruellman, but they can also cater to a population that might not be comfortable gathering in person.
Instead, the 90,000 who have used courses from Setting Captives Free are assigned a mentor they meet only in cyberspace.
"It's really a good bridge for somebody to reach out to someone anonymously," Mr. Bruellman says. "They don't know the mentor. They've never seen him..... It's kind of a bridge to get people out of the dark and into the light."
Though tempting forces can be difficult to quantify, wide-ranging research points to mounting challenges.
Two examples: Alcohol manufacturers spent more than $500 million between 2001 and 2003 on advertising in magazines with a large underage readership, according to findings released last month from the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.
Meanwhile, Internet poker grew from a $300,000-per-day business in January 2003 to a $4.3 million-per-day industry two years later, according to Dennis Boyko, who tracks the industry for pokerpulse.com.
In this environment, techniques for resistance are getting fresh attention. Catholic men in the Manassas, Va., area have been gathering this year to discuss techniques found in "Every Man's Challenge" by Steven Arterburn and Fred Stoeker.
"The big thing is, you have to choose what you let in and control that somehow through people giving you encouragement that you can do that," says Bob Bennett, cochairman of Fishers of Men, as the Manassas conference is called.
Since avoiding visual titillation altogether is no longer an option in today's world, he says, the challenge shifts to this: "What do you do with that [image] once you've seen it? Is that something you dwell on, or is it something you divert yourself away from somehow?"
Today's strongest temptations aren't always toward vice. In Shelley's view, many pressures encourage greed and lying, which can be equally destructive.
"We're all so tempted to spin," Shelley says, "and quibble with definitions in an attempt to deceive, or withhold information that may be germane.... It always presents itself as, 'Nobody is going to get hurt. It will only be to your advantage - more power or more possessions.' "
For all the shifting circumstances, however, the instincts people struggle to subdue may not have changed much through the centuries.
On this premise, Ahmad Sakr helps southern California Muslims fight temptation by visiting Islamic centers and encouraging what he sees as timeless staples of spiritual growth: family counseling, an annual retreat, pilgrimage, and, if necessary, a few scare tactics for the youths.
"The only way we can scare them, if I may use the word 'scare,' is to say God has put two angels on each human being's shoulders, I tell them, with camcorders," says Mr. Sakr.
"The one on the right shoulder, he records all the good things that we do," he says. "The one on the left, he records everything we do wrong.... So be careful."