March 10. 2019 First Sunday of Lent- Temptation of Jesus- Year C
Seeing how temptation is a common challenge we all face, and as our scripture reveals even Jesus faced, I think it very helpful to talk about this insidious problem of Christian living. I would like to use the insights I gained from Rick Warren's examination of the topic. In Rev. Warren’s bestselling Christian book "40 Days of Purpose" he dedicates two of his forty chapters to this topic of Temptation and I’ve found those chapters extremely helpful.
First off, a person needs to know how temptation really works.
It works in four major ways; Desire, Doubt, Deception, and Disobedience. First Desire, we often assume that Satan temps us from without. Things “out there” like images or bad people or our surrounding environment. Yet, we see in Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation, Satan often starts from within. It was a natural inner desire to eat when hungry that Satan started with. However, Satan turns the desire into a need for a shortcut. "Do it now! You deserve it!” Satan takes a legitimate inner desire but suggests it be satisfied in the wrong way or the wrong time, and always out of line with God’s will.
Jesus’ response is a kind of "I'll eat when God says it’s time to eat." Meaning to allow an inner desire to overrule God’s will for our life is not the right way to go about things. Temptation likes to make a statement without asking any questions. It states, “it’s only natural!” without asking, “Is it God’s will?”
We need to realize that natural human desires without spiritual direction lead to destruction. The natural desire for food without spiritual direction leads to over eating, obesity, poor health. The natural desire to avoid pain without spiritual direction is the easy road to addiction to alcohol, pain killers, even suicide. That is why Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to ask for our daily bread, nothing more nothing less. “Give us this day our daily bread” is a prayer to submit our needs to God’s will and God’s timing so they remain holy desires rather than unholy temptations. That prayer relies on God to provide what we need rather than what we “greed.”
Whether it’s a desire from within or without Satan makes it a temptation by transforming a desire to fill a need by turning it into a lust to fulfill a greed. The desire to fulfill a need can accept God’s timing, can submit that need to God’s will. A natural desire is a holy thing until it refuses to submit to God’s will or accept God’s timing. Soon the natural need turns into a unholy greed that says, “I can’t trust you God! I can’t trust you to be in this pain with me and sustain me. I’ve got to solve it now with this illicit drug, this alcohol.”
Doubt is another trick of the trickster. He used it to get Adam and Eve, "Did God really say you would die if you ate from the tree?" (Genesis 3:1) And almost caught Christ "Didn't God say he'd keep you from harm, that he'd catch you if you jumped?" (Luke 4:9) Satan tries to get us to doubt what God has said. When Jesus responds, “You shall not test God,” (Deut. 6:16) it’s his way of stating, “God doesn't have to prove himself to me, for me to trust him.”
Doubt in and of itself is not the problem, just like desire in and of itself is not the problem. The problem comes when instead of responding to doubt with faith, we respond with fear. We fear God doesn’t have a good outcome planned, “What if?!” We fear God doesn’t know how to handle this problem. “What if?!” Fear takes our doubts and drives us away from God whereas faith takes our doubts and draws us closer to God. Fear subtly screams, “What if?” but Faith calmly states, “As If!” As if God would abandon me! As if God can’t handle this! As if I’m not a child of God! Faith allows us, no empowers us to say in the midst of all our doubts “God, I don’t know what you are up to, I don’t know where this is going but I trust you.” The bible records 365 different times that God and Jesus remind us to "Be Not Afraid." One for each day of the year.
The third trick of the trickster is Deception. The bible tells us that Satan is the "father of lies." So much of what Satan says is believable but it's only a half truth or completely untrue. "You can get away with it. Everyone else is doing it. Besides it’s only a little sin." I like what Rick Warren says about a "little sin" it’s like being a "little" pregnant… "sooner or later it will show itself." If we want to avoid being deceived, we need to know where to find truth. Yet, we have so much fake news out there where do we find a trustworthy source to base our life on.
There is no better authoritative source for our life than God. This connection with God, our source of truth, should be like an electric plug. It should have two prongs: prayer and scripture. (Rather than talk of these prongs as a positive and negative I’d rather call it a defensive and offensive position). First our defense, there is never a time that we are "too far away" to call on God. God tells us "Call on me in times of trouble I will rescue you and you will honor me." (Nahum 1:7) When temptation strikes, often you don't have time for a long conversation with God. You don't need to make it fancy or presentable simply cry out; David did in the psalms, Peter did as he sank in the water, Paul did in prison, and millions of others have prayed this kind of "microwave prayer" O God Help me!
Prayer is a ready defense with God. But so many of us just play defense and never go on the offense against Satan. When we plug into God, we should plug in with more than just the single “prong of prayer.” We should also connect with God through the study of God's word. Reading and memorizing scripture is a very strong way to connect with God. And it is absolutely the best offensive weapon we have against temptation. It was what Jesus used to shoot down the devil. Now remember the devil can quote scripture, the difference is that it’s done without belief. When we grab hold of God's word in full belief of its truth the devil has little chance to change our mind, heart, or behavior.
Finally, the result Satan most desires from all this deception and doubt is Disobedience. Disobedience is where what began as an idea gets birthed into a behavior. James warns us "We are tempted when we are drawn away and trapped by our own evil desires. Then our evil desires conceive and give birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my dear friends!" (James 1:15-16)
So, if that is how temptation works how can we stand a chance against such an onslaught? First, don’t be intimidated. You see many Christians beat themselves up because not only do they struggle with resisting tempting behavior they can't even control their thoughts and feelings of temptations. We need to accept the fact that temptation is natural, Christ was tempted. Temptation only becomes a sin when we give into it. Martin Luther talked about temptation this way "you cannot keep the birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair." Satan's traps are formidable but not inevitable.
The second step is to stay alert. Lots of well-meaning folks have convinced themselves that there is no such thing as a tempter, Satan, or Devil. This overconfidence and arrogance leads to being an easy mark. It’s like going to a tourist location convinced that there is no such thing as pick pockets. Stay alert for situations that put you at risk, temptation risk that is. Peter tells us "Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce and would like nothing better than to catch you napping."(1 Peter 5:8) I'm sure Jesus would have liked a nice nap after 40 days of fasting, but he remained alert knowing he was at risk and the devil wouldn't let another opportunity pass.
And that brings up another point about Jesus’ temptation. It’s not one and done. Luke tells us that the devil retreats for another day. That means that for Jesus this was not his last encounter with the Devil. In fact, in the garden of Gethsemane they have yet another face off. Every day, Jesus had to carry out his mission with the devil lurking in the shadows. And so, it is with us we are constantly living with temptation. We may often have temptation lurking, but we also need to know as Christians we always have Christ walking with us.
So how do we live with temptation without being a slave to it? Rick Warren suggest four different responses: Refocus- on Godly things, Reveal- the ungodly to the Godly, Resist the Devil- recognize the tempter behind the temptation and Realize Your Vulnerable to Satan and Valuable to God.
One mistake we make is to focus on a temptation- “O Lord deliver me from ice cream its various flavors, especially the cookie dough ice cream with its burst of sugary flavor and the succulent morsels of chocolate and O Lord deliver me from the evil toppings that are available at Baskin Robbins, Cold Stone, and Dairy Queen. Help me resist the recent two for one cone sale at...” Guess who's won that contest?!
When we hear temptation calling, we need to hang up the phone not continue the conversation. We need to Refocus on Godly things. But how many of us have easy access to godly things? This is yet another reason to have scripture stored in your heart and mind so that you can easily change the channel. Romans 8:35 “who can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus,” or John 3:16 “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” or Revelation 21:4 “Where there will be no more tears and God will wipe away every tear from every eye,” or John 10:10 “I have come so you may have life in all its fullness." If you have enough of those verses ringing in your ears you’ll be saying “What was that Satan? I can’t hear you over all God’s promises!”
First Refocus, second Reveal. This is something so many Christians just don't do and probably why so many Christians suffer so greatly. Reveal means to reveal your ungodly problem with godly people. The bible tells us to "confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed."(James 5:16) "You are better off to have a friend than to be all alone... If you fall, your friend can help you up. But if you fall without having a friend nearby, you are really in trouble." (Ecclesiates4:9)
Do you really want to be healed of the persistent temptation that keeps defeating you over and over? God's solution is plain: Don't repress it; confess it! Don't conceal it; reveal it. The saying in 12 step recovery programs goes “Revealing your feeling is the beginning of healing.” That is the whole secret of these various 12 step groups revealing and confessing their sins in a godly group- folks who have agreed to acknowledge a higher power, God. Revealing an overwhelming temptation to trustworthy godly folks means you no longer struggle against Satan as a “lone warrior” but as a foot soldier in God’s triumphant army.
Another important aspect is to Resist the devil. This means recognizing the tempter behind the temptation. Remember we can't help being tempted, and we need to not dwell on our temptations that doesn't help. What is helpful is to see through the details of the temptation to the source of the temptation, the tempter himself. When we recognize the tempter behind our temptations the desire often dries up. When we can see Satan for who he is and what he’s up to, it’s easier to turn to God.
And that leads to the final point Realize we are vulnerable to Satan and valuable to God. The key in every temptation is to not be self-sufficient but god centered, to turn to God. Satan feasts on proud Christians every day! Jesus could have said, “I can take you on Satan cause I'm a good person.” But he didn't! Jesus knew his source of strength was his heavenly Father. Jesus relied on his heavenly Father with prayer, fasting, and scripture.
None of us are spiritually immune to sin. But when we rely on God, our spiritual “immune system” is activated. When we remember how much God loves us. When we claim the grace, God pours over us through Jesus’ blood on the cross. We realize how much God values us even when we fall, that’s when Satan’s tools of desire, doubt, and deception become ineffective.
In closing I'd like to leave you with some words of wisdom from Rick Warren: "Temptations actually keep us dependent upon God. Just as the roots grow stronger when wind blows against a tree, so every time you stand up to a temptation you become more grounded in Jesus. When you stumble, (which you will) it is not fatal. Instead of giving in or giving up, look up to God, expect him to help you and remember the reward that is waiting for you."
I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John16:33) May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.