Temptation: a sexy word. Those cakes look tempting. I’m tempted to buy that buy of shoes. Seems harmless, perhaps. But the Bible suggests that temptation is a killer.
Words for the Week
James 1:13-18 (NIV)
When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
Matthew 6:13 (NIV)
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is an attractive character. Scholars suggest that Milton was criticising the church for being oppressive. But my English teacher taught us that Milton was honest – sin is attractive otherwise no one would do it. In other words, temptation is tempting. Big business capitalises on this, adverts entice us to eat a bit more, drink a bit more, spend a bit more and then we’ll be popular, successful, loved. But let’s not be deceived. C.S. Lewis explains that temptation is more than just temptation to do wrong; it’s being drawn away from God’s best, to what’s easy rather than what’s good. In these frightening times, the world needs a church who is not just avoiding sin, but engaging in the beautiful kingdom of the Prince of Peace.
As we seek to be a counter-cultural church, reproducing the life of Jesus, it’s worth reflecting: who or what is responsible for temptation? These passages present a tension – James is clear that temptation originates in ourselves, whereas Jesus’ words in Matthew imply that temptation comes from without, presumably from the devil. It’s a both/and picture. While it’s good to pray the Lord’s Prayer – Father, lead us not into temptation, save us from evil – we can go some way toward also being the answer to our prayer. It’s healthier for us to take responsibility for what we listen to (or ignore) and look at (or turn away from) than to blame external attack every time. We are absolutely dependent on God and absolutely responsible for our own lives.
And how do we resist and live holy lives as temptation whispers, sometimes screams, on every side? Temptation is incremental: I’ve never been tempted to murder but I am tempted to speak out of anger or hurt rather than love; I am tempted to avoid those whom I find difficult to like. In order to protect myself from more ‘serious’ temptation, which would grow into ‘serious’ sin, what I need to do is practice on the everyday stuff.
Holiness is a habit. Or as Aristotle put it, you are what you habitually do. By now we know that holy means ‘set apart’, in other words distinct or boundaried. We are to take responsibility for discerning what kind of behaviour suits us in our true identity as children of God. Neil Postman, quoted a few weeks ago in Soulfood 213, argued that we are being overstimulated into passivity. For us, temptation may not be so much temptation to do wrong, but temptation to do nothing.
“Whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out…”
Screwtape, the senior demon in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. He is speaking about the people he is trying to draw away from God.
The good news is that it’s not a question of gritting our teeth. Jesus set us free so we are free indeed! When we focus on the goodness of God, the unchanging Father of lights, temptation isn’t so tempting anymore. The path that He leads us along doesn’t need any extra spice – he’s already taking us on a wonderful adventure! Our amazing calling is to be the ‘firstfruits of all he created’, the display of God’s glory (Isaiah 61:3), representing the new thing He is doing restoring all things.
Own it personally…
- What does temptation look like in your life? Is it more often temptation to do wrong or temptation not to do anything?
- Are there any areas where you’re avoiding responsibility for the temptation you encounter? What steps can you take to counter-act temptation?
- Pray the Lord’s prayer and ask God to show you ways in which you can be the answer for yourself.
- Discuss the above with a trusted friend or mentor.
We must learn by experience to avoid either trains of thought or social situations which for us (not necessarily for everyone) lead to temptations. Like motoring—don’t wait till the last moment before you put on the brakes but put them on, gently and quietly, while the danger is still a good way off.” — from a personal letter from C.S Lewis to a friend
Speak it Out – Pray and Prophesy
Abba Father in heaven.
You are holy.
May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as well as in heaven.
Please give us what we need for today.
Please forgive us as we forgive.
Please don’t lead us into temptation, but save us from evil.
(Matthew 6:9-13 paraphrased)