Temptation is par for the course in life. We experience everything from the big ones to the garden variety choices on what to eat, how to spend our money, and what to say on a regular basis. Daily. Hourly. Constantly. We wrestle with temptation. We give in to temptation. It is a part of our reality – and it happens all the time. But we don’t see it as a gift. Eric Elnes, author of Gifts of the Dark Wood, suggests that Temptation can be a rare and precious gift.
There is a challenge with temptations that are good – but the wrong good. Often we are faced with the temptation to do what is expected or acceptable instead of what is the best thing. To do the WRONG good, which is easier, instead of the BEST good, which is harder.
Jesus. The Temptations that Jesus faces in the desert are examples of the wrong good. In Luke 4 (and Matthew 4), Satan comes to Jesus after a long period of fasting and suggests that he demonstrate his power to the world by doing a few well-chosen miracles. These miracles would identify Jesus with the heritage of Israel – making bread in the desert as manna was provided to Israel, testing God and idolatry – all temptations in the wilderness. Jesus’ responses are all from Deuteronomy. He responds to the temptation to make bread by loving God with his whole heart, who will satisfy ALL of needs. He refuses to compromise his devotion to God for the world’s power, loving God with all his might. And he refuses to demand that God save his life, or soul, by intentionally placing himself in jeopardy.[i] Jesus reveals himself as the true Son of Israel – one who loves God with all his heart, might and soul and refuses to be pulled away from that love and worship. He insists on following God’s purposes for his life – he is true to both his identity and the relationship that holds him steady.
Shallow. These temptations also invite Jesus to focus on showy signs and wonders, to court popularity, and stay on a more shallow surface level of miracle-worker rather than focus on his identity as the Son of God.
It is interesting to note that in the course of his ministry, Jesus does feed the hungry, challenge the political powers and perform miracles. But these are not his primary identity or calling. They occur in the context of his message to preach, teach and embody the in-breaking kingdom, or kin-dom, of God. Of themselves, these actions would be the WRONG good.
II. Thomas a Kempis, “We usually know what we can do, but temptation shows us who we are.” Temptation shows us who we are…and challenges us to go deep.
Jesus. Jesus provides us with a model for resisting temptation: Jesus is empowered by the Spirit, prays regularly, and shows compassion for others. Jesus faithfully resists temptations to do less or other than what he was called to do. He relies on scripture – he KNOWS scripture – and refuses to put God to the test.[ii] And his words from Deuteronomy instruct us to make life more than just focus on meeting physical needs: we are to worship and serve God alone, resisting temptations to divert or distract us from our true purposes.
Challenge for us: The choices aren’t that clear. We don’t live in a world where Satan appears to us on a high mountain. Our choices fall in the gray area most of the time – not in high resolution opposites. As followers of God who value community we find ourselves resisting the polarization that at least momentarily appears to turn things into if/then opposites. We find ourselves saying regularly, “It’s not that simple.” “It’s complicated.” We live in complex world where values clash over what is most important on a regular basis. Daily, Hourly.
Temptations help us find who we are in the midst of that. They tend to throw up the contrasts for our wrestling. They point out the shallow answers, the palatable answers, the paths that will be popular and not rock the boat – so we can LOOK for the best answers which are rarely the popular or palatable ones. Temptations point out where we must dig in and work!
As a congregation, we are faced with temptation of doing what is comfortable, perhaps familiar, or exploring new territory where God is already moving. The challenge is to move away from messages that people are comfortable hearing, and include the costly calls to which God is calling us. It’s a similar challenge in our relationships: we can spend too much time on our careers and less in quality time with our spouse and children. The pressure, the temptation, urges us to take the well-worn path. But that path is the temptation.
Engaging meaningfully with the temptations that we face will reveal our BEST PATH. Or be our undoing if we aren’t paying attention. If we choose the BEST PATH we will find ourselves living into God’s intentions for us. Eric Elnes says, “There is a world of difference between doing good, and doing the specific good that you are called to do…You can (and will) do a lot of good by walking the path that brings you most fully alive int his world, but in order to stay on this path, you must learn to say no to doing a great many “good” things.”[iii]
Temptation challenges us to go deep…to take the harder, but truer path.
III. Our best paths…our best selves and our truest callings are found in the moments when we completely give ourselves up to God and just exist within that relationship. Bear with me.
Thinking back to childhood… remember a moment when you simply gave up your worries and existed in a different dimension. Jonathan Martin tells his story in Prototype, where as a young boy he would ride his bike around in circles in their cul-de-sac, dreaming up fantastic stories of saving the world, robot servants, and such. As an adult, when he rode a bike he recalled his childhood experience and said that he had not realized that his bike rides were his moments of not being alone, of feeling the presence of God with him, and God’s intense love for him. [iv]
Author Madeleine L’Engle has two series of stories about families where there is a “star-watching rock” where they go to feel the presence and love of the infinite. When they are confused or hurting, members of the Murray and Austin families go to look at the stars.
Perhaps your childhood was marked by exploring woods, where this sense was real – or riding horses with your hair blowing in the wind, or walking through fields of corn or working in a garden – but chances are there was sometime when you felt connected with something beyond yourself. This is the best good to which we are called by the one who created it. When we stay true to that calling, resisting temptations to compromise it, our lives are replete with satisfaction and greater in joy.
Martin says that our early experiences may not have been associated with God. Faith grows in bits, helping us to see the world that we already know through different lenses, in new ways. “It’s not even so much about finding something new; it’s more about recognition, about seeing things for the first time as they truly are. It’s interesting how people who come to understand God’s love for them often describe the feeling as a homecoming, even if they can’t remember being “home” to begin with. There’s a reason for this. Coming awake to God’s infinite love can seem so foreign and yet feel as if it’s where we’ve always belonged, because God, in His hovering delight, knows every boy on a bike and every girl on a trampoline. That sense of being known and delighted in stalks human beings the world over, even when we do everything in our power to act as if we do not know love.”[v]
Letting go. Allowing ourselves to rest in the relationship with God helps us connect not only with the Infinite – but with our true selves.
Conclusion: So yes, temptation can be a gift. It helps us see what is distracting us – and what is our true path. It reveals who we truly are, and helps us connect with God who is our source and our strength. And Jesus’ model helps us to – to remind us that God is the source of our lives, and that relationship with God, life with God is the life for which we were designed – the one that will bring us joy.
[i] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, 100. (Luke volume)
[ii] NIBC, 98.
[iii] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood, 117.
[iv] Jonathan Martin, Prototype. “Identity,” which is chapter 1, 6-20.
[v] Martin, 14-15.