Rethinking What We Mean by Temptation
Rethinking What We Mean by Temptation
March 9, 2014
When you think about being tempted, what comes first into your mind? For some of us, the word might be “chocolate.” In about 30 minutes you’re going into the Fellowship Hall for lunch and you’re going to face a selection of desserts. As obsessed as our culture is with both food and body weight, that’s going to feel like an experience of temptation. As we enter Lent, some of us are thinking about giving up desserts or giving up chocolate, winning a kind of victory over temptation. But the scripture today asks us to think about a more serious kind of temptation.
There are all kinds of low-level temptations to want things we don’t need. I like the story of the pastor’s wife who came home from shopping with a dress that cost $250. “What were you thinking?” the pastor asked. “I know we can’t afford it, but it looked so good on me I just couldn’t resist the temptation.” “Well,” the pastor said, “you should have said, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!” “Oh, I did, but he said ‘It looks good from the back, too!’”
When some people—maybe Baptists especially—think of being tempted to sin, they think of alcohol and sex. We think of both as addictions, which are temptations we give into habitually. And there is no doubt that the devil can use them to destroy people and to draw people away from loving God with their whole hearts. But American Christianity often reduces the concepts of sin and temptation to these two vices. That was my experience, at least, especially as a a teenager. I guess I was reflecting the anxiety of my parents and Sunday School teachers who were afraid that teenagers would make terrible mistakes by experimenting with alcohol and sex. I’m not saying they were wrong, but I think it would have been a deeper version of discipleship if they had worried about the dangers of us teenagers growing up loving money, or choosing careers based on self-interest, or being oblivious to the needs of the poor, or caring more about my nation than the rest of the world.
In my church in Nashville the men’s group had a coming-of-age ritual for 16-year-old boys that I think was called “the night watch.” It was a spiritual vigil for several hours one night. I bless those men for being committed to that process; not many men address the need for coming-of-age rituals. Part of it was praying with the men, some Bible study, but the most intense part involved each boy being shut up in a room all alone with a candle and a sheet of instructions for prayer. And the most intense part of that was the moment when you were supposed to write down your secret sin on a paper to confess it to God and then burn the paper. I’d be willing to bet that 90% of the 16 year olds wrote down the same sin as I did, that form of sexual temptation that does not require a partner. I wish I could go back and tell that 16 year old boy not to worry about it. But even more, I wish I could tell him and his friends that the devil has bigger fish to fry. He wants to divert you from the task God has for you. He wants to steer you away from living by kingdom values of love and forgiveness, justice and peace. He wants to keep pounding into your ears by the messages the culture gives: You are special. Happiness comes by achieving your potential. You deserve everything you can get. Life is a contest, and you are a winner. Don’t feel guilty, the devil says, about loving God or your neighbor; the core issue is learning to love yourself.
All the while the Spirit is whispering as a gentle breeze that whoever holds on to his life will lose it, but whoever gives his life away receives real life. Jesus is telling you that life is not about achievement but mission. The world, the flesh, and the devil tell us to be content with who we are and discontented with what we have. Jesus is telling us to be content with what we have and discontented with who we are. “Who are you following?” he asks us. Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, generous as they are? Tom Brady or Serena Williams? Lady Gaga or Jay-Z? All at the top of their game, but Jesus is calling us to follow a man who won by losing, whose life demonstrated downward mobility. Bonhoeffer called Jesus “a man for others” and said that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
I know that small stuff sometimes trips us up, and addiction can derail a life. But when we think of the story of how Jesus was tempted, we realize that the greatest temptation has to do with the whole direction of our lives, the why of our lives. It has to do with the goal toward which we are moving, and whether our life mission is set by God or by our own desires.
The temptation story in Matthew 4 comes at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, and the real focus of the struggle with the devil is over what kind of ministry Jesus is going to have. It comes right after his baptism, after a high moment of blessing, when Jesus saw the Spirit of God come down and envelop him, closer than his breath. He heard the voice of God saying, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased." Immediately after that "high," Jesus was led—by God's Spirit—into a low period and conflict with the devil. The words that he heard the voice from heaven say were a confirmation that Jesus was the Messiah (the beloved Son of God) and the suffering servant from Isaiah who is called "the servant with whom I am well pleased." Perhaps Jesus knew this before, but now he was ready to begin his mission as the kind of Messiah no one had expected, one who would suffer for the sins of the people and in that way set them free. The devil knows this and so he does what he can to derail Jesus and knock him off the track that the Father had set down for him.
In the first chapter of Matthew, an angel tells Joseph why Jesus is coming into the world: "he will save his people from their sins." That is Jesus' mission. Jesus himself says in Matthew 20:28 that he "did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." His mission, ordained by God, was to go to the cross to die for us as one who fully shared our humanity yet was without sin. The devil did not want this to happen, so he did everything in his power to get Jesus to substitute something else for the mission he had been given by his heavenly Father. While the cross does not yet appear in these early chapters of Matthew, it is already on the horizon, even as it is for us as we enter the season of preparing for Easter. The bottom line in the temptations is whether Jesus will be diverted from going to the cross to die.
The first temptation comes because Jesus is hungry. He has been fasting for forty days and nights. The devil thinks, Well, Jesus, now you are finding out what this fully human business is really like. It's not much fun to be hungry, is it? Now you see what it means to be weak. Are you sure this is what you want to do? Look at these nice round rocks on the ground, Jesus. They look a lot like loaves of bread, don't they? You say you are the Son of God, right? Is this any way for the Son of God to live? Can't the Son of God just tell these stones to turn into bread?
We may wonder: what would be wrong with that? What's wrong is that the devil is asking Jesus to turn away from the two most important parts of his mission: his sharing in human weakness and his absolute trust in God to take care of him. The devil is saying: throw off this fully human stuff, give up this Clark Kent stuff and make yourself Superman. Don't just sit there in your weakness and wait for God to provide for you. Take matters in your own hands and make yourself some bread! Jesus answers with a verse from Deuteronomy, in a passage about how God caused his people Israel to suffer hunger so that they could learn that they do not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. What is more important to me than food, Jesus replies, is what my Father says. I live by his word, and I trust him to feed me.
In the second temptation, the devil says, So you really trust God, do you? Show me how much you trust him. Look, here we are at the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem. If you really believe his word, claim his promise in Psalm 91 that he will give his angels charge over you. Just jump—and those angels will catch you.
We may wonder: what would be wrong with that? What's wrong is that there is a big difference between trusting God in a spirit of submission to his will—that attitude that says "If he chooses to make me hungry, I will trust him"—and the so-called faith that demands miracles thinking that we've got God by his promises and we won't let go. Jesus responds with another verse from Deuteronomy from a time when the people of Israel demanded a miracle: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." Faith does not mean trying to make God less than he is; it does not mean taking away God's freedom. Faith means trusting God to be who he is and to act in merciful and just ways for our own spiritual growth.
This temptation to do something spectacular is also another attempt to short-circuit Jesus' mission. If he gives up his human weakness and starts letting the angels rescue him, he will never make it to the cross. He would be acclaimed as a wonder-worker, yes, and perhaps as Messiah, but he would not be headed to the cross. When Jesus told Peter that he was headed to the cross, Peter said "No, not you! You are the Son of God! We won't let that happen to you!" And Jesus said to him, "Get behind me, Satan." It was the same devil, speaking through a friend. When the soldiers came to take Jesus to the cross, Peter tried to defend him with a sword, but Jesus said, "Don't you know that I could call twelve thousand angels if I wanted to? But this is what must happen." When Jesus hung on the cross, the people shouted, "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross. Use your powers!" But he would not. He had a mission.
In the third temptation, the devil cuts to the chase. He seems to have tired of subtlety. Somehow the devil took Jesus to a very high place and showed him all the kingdoms of the world: Rome, Egypt, India, China, all of them and all their glory. He said, This is what you want: to bring in a kingdom of your own, to reign over these people with justice and mercy, to have a world at peace. I will give you all worldly power over every political entity on the globe. There is only one condition: you must worship me. We do not have to ask what is wrong with that. But we may miss the point that seeking worldly power as a way to accomplish God's purposes is worshiping the devil. To trust in government or politics rather than in God himself is idolatry, and it means conceding that the devil is ultimately in charge rather than God. He is not. Jesus said, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him." If the Lord your God calls you to a life of weakness and sacrifice in his service, don't accept the presidency. Any step out of the will of God is a step down.
You could say that Jesus’ temptations were unique to him because of his role as Messiah, but I don’t think that’s true. There is a devil, a force of evil in the world who dominates the culture, and his chief purpose is to divert us from the full life that God intends for us. The devil wants us to settle for childish pleasures when we could have the deep joys and satisfactions of becoming the people God intended us to be and sharing in God’s purposes in the world. The devil wants us to worry about what we eat, what we drink, and what we wear, but Jesus says the only thing to focus on is God’s reign in the world.
The father of lies tells us that we come to church to get our own needs met and that what God wants for us is our own prosperity. How can any follower of Jesus listen to that stuff? The evil one tempts us as he tempted Jesus not by calling us to do evil but by calling us to take shortcuts and to avoid the suffering necessary for spiritual growth and service to others. He calls us to settle for good enough when God has something more, something higher and more fulfilling for us. As it’s often said, the good is the enemy of the best. It may be that the devil’s way is to make us put family ahead of God, or put church ahead of God, or put America ahead of God. And he may try to convince us of all the good we could do if we could just get ourselves in positions of power, when we know we can only get there by using the devil’s means.
During this season of Lent let’s reflect on the deepest temptations we face, and reflect on the victory that Christ has won for us. Hebrews 2:18 (NIV) says “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” He can help us when we are tempted to divert our life energies into seeking our own well-being, and Jesus himself is the magnet pulling our life energies toward real life that lasts. When we are tempted to be self-serving or self-pitying the way ahead is to look to Jesus, the author and finisher, the pioneer and the end-point of our faith.
- Harbor ChurchBox D2Phone: 401-466-5940
Block Island, RI 02807