Friday, March 24, 2017
Enduring Temptation (Matthew 4:1-11; James 1:13-15) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel
A priest was coming back to his rectory late one evening, when he was accosted by a robber who pulled a gun on him and demanded, "Your money or your life!" As the priest reached his hand into his coat pocket, the robber saw his Roman collar and said: "I see you're a priest. Never mind, you can go." The priest, surprised at this unexpected show of piety, tried to reciprocate by offering the robber a candy bar that he remembered was in his pocket. The robber replied, "No thank you Father, I’m Catholic. I don't eat candy during Lent."
In this Lenten season, we look in depth at the subject of temptation. It’s the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The story shouts out a truth, the tempter and temptation is a reality. I disagree with psychology when it argues that Satan is a figment of the human imagination, or a psychological projection of the dark side of humanity or a symbol of the fear of the unknown.
Temptation is a universal human struggle. It’s not just a problem for people whose character is weak or for the young and immature. It is no respecter of age. If Jesus, the Son of God was tempted, then certainly you and I are vulnerable. Humanity’s struggle with temptation is depicted in literature in the classic story Faust. The protagonist, Faust, a legendary 16th century magician, alchemist and scholar, is unhappy with his life and makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge, youthfulness and worldly pleasures.
Scripture teaches that temptations arise from our heart, that is, from our own inner sinful desires. That’s true. We have a bad idea, and temptation convinces us that it’s really not all that bad. But according to Scripture and the theological teachings of the church down through the centuries, temptation also arises from outside forces, from people, including the tempter, the personification of evil.
Sometimes we are tempted with something silly, like thinking about ordering a double extra-large chocolate malt topped with a mound of whip cream. Other times we are tempted with something that can literally change our lives for the worse. Embezzling from your company, or the church is one example. I have spoken to two employees who stole in churches I served and both said: “I needed extra money. I thought I would take it just once and then pay it back. I felt guilty. I had every intention to pay it back. But after I stole a second time, it became easier, and soon I didn’t give it a second thought.” Temptation can rationalize anything.
In the New Testament, the book of James says: “When tempted, no one should say, God is tempting me. For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does God tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.”
Scripture also says there is an important distinction between being tempted and succumbing to temptation. It is not a sin to be tempted; Jesus was tempted, but he didn’t sin. Sometimes people feel guilty because they are tempted. The sin is succumbing to it. Everyone has given into temptation except Jesus.
Further, the tempter cannot force you to yield to temptation. You cannot be bullied, or brow-beaten or coerced. Saying The Devil Made Me Do It, whether in humor or in all seriousness, is a falsehood. Jesus had freedom of choice out there in the wilderness. God has given us a free will. Ultimately, the decision to yield to temptation is our personal responsibility. We can’t blame it on what we ate for breakfast, or our parents, or our friends. Mark Twain said: “I can resist everything except temptation.”
Why does the tempter tempt? The Tempter wants to defeat God’s will in life and impose his will. So the tempter strives to redirect your path, to change your allegiance and loyalty, to undermine and erode your faith, and influence you to turn away from God. The tempter strives to both keep people from coming to faith in God and to cause believers to turn away from their faith.
As you think about your life during this Lenten season, is there a temptation have you struggled with? We need to be alert. Temptation is insidious. The tempter is deceptive and can make good look evil and evil look good, wrong look right and right look wrong. “Hey, it’s harmless, no one will get hurt. It’s the trend, it’s popular, you deserve it, don’t worry. Everyone is doing it, so why not?”
When we are in the midst of hardship and suffering, we sometimes ask: “Why me God? Why is this happening to me?” We doubt that God loves us. The tempter is an opportunist and strikes when we are weak, just like the deceiver tempted Jesus when he was hungry and tired after forty days of fasting. Temptation comes in all forms: food, excessive spending, uncontrolled anger, smoking, drinking, gambling, drug abuse, sexual temptation and harassment, laziness, allowing work to cause you to neglect your family, or dropping out of worshipping God in favor of another Sunday activity. Temptations test our loyalties, values and faith.
How do we deal with temptation? We must rely upon four things. Our conscience, which God has imparted to us from our birth, the wisdom of good friends, turning to prayer, and reading the Bible.
Which leads us out into the wilderness. In the first Temptation the devil tempts Jesus to turn away from God’s plan, God’s mission for the Messiah – the path of self-discipline, sacrifice, suffering, rejection, servant hood and the cross. The tempter tempts Jesus to use his power to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread. Jesus was hungry, what’s the problem? The problem is that if Jesus takes the easy way out now, it could cause Jesus to take the easy way out in the future. Could you see the temper saying: “Jesus you don’t need to bear the cross, God doesn’t really want that, you don’t need all that grief.”
God sent Jesus into the wilderness to fast for 40 days as part of God’s plan to prepare Jesus for his future mission. Like BUD’S is for Navy seals. God could tell Jesus when he could eat, not the tempter. Satan was trying to tempt Jesus to disobey God. Jesus replies: “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
In the second temptation, the deceiver tempts Jesus with the prospect of worldly power, mastery and status, if Jesus will only bow down and worship him. It is the age-old sin of idolatry. “Worship me, says the deceiver and you will have it all.” But God sent Jesus to usher in the Kingdom and to redeem humanity by his obedience, suffering, death and resurrection. So Jesus rejoins: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
In the third temptation, the devil tries to entice Jesus to tempt God by leaping from the highest pinnacle of the temple. “What a feat, look at all the followers you will attract Jesus, do it.” Jesus retorts: “Do not tempt the Lord your God.” Temptation is the devil’s business. It’s not our business and it’s not God’s business. God doesn’t tempt his followers and we are not to tempt God. Jesus stays focused, centered upon God and His mission, and refuses to yield to temptation.
This story testifies to two powerful truths. First, it reminds us that God is merciful and present with us in those times when we are tempted and even when we surrender to temptation. Scripture says when we repent, when we confess our sin, God can be trusted to forgive us, to cleanse us from our wrong, and to empower us with a fresh start to begin a new day.
Second, this story inspires us, it shows us that we too can resist and triumph over temptation. We have the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in such times. Resisting temptation is not simply a matter of will power. It’s a matter of God’s power working in us.
Rick Warren in his book The Purpose Driven Life writes: “On our path to spiritual maturity, even temptation becomes a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block, when you realize that it is just as much an occasion to do the right thing as it is to do the wrong thing. Every temptation is an opportunity to do good. Every time you choose to do good instead of sin, you are growing in the character of Christ.”
In this season of Lent, the good news is that the Tempter and temptation does not have the last word. After trying to tempt us, but we resist, the devil will leave, like in our story, and angels will come and minister to us. Amen!