Temptation: what do we make of it? How do we overcome it?
Biblical teaching makes it clear, that any worthwhile consideration of what temptation actually is: requires a belief in the existence of the Devil, and of personified evil, as well as in God, Christ and righteousness.
Many Christians get confused by an apparent contradiction; found just a few dozen verses apart, in Matthew’s gospel record.
Chapter 4, verse 1 says: 'Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert; to be tempted by the devil'. Because it's obvious that the 'Spirit' referred to, is the Holy Spirit; puzzled Christians ask:
How can God, who says that he hates sin (although he loves the sinner) deliberately place Jesus in such a position of temptation?
At chapter 6, verse 16, Christ gives 'The Lord's Prayer' to his Church: one clause of which asks God the Father not to lead us into temptation.
Any confusion is not caused by contradiction, within the texts: but by radical change in the meaning of the word 'tempt'. Originally, it meant to 'try out'...to 'test for quality', just as an assayer tests the quality of precious metals.
Although, in today’s usage: the primary meaning is to ‘entice’ or ‘incite’ a person, to do a wrong or forbidden thing: we know that God does not entice anyone into anything; let alone into sin. However, sometimes, the Lord does appear to ‘test people out’, and to ‘assess their true worth’.
When Christ was ‘put to the test’ by the devil: he resisted the temptations, and overcame them. The event marked the beginning of his years of earthly ministry: throughout which he applied the very same qualities and attributes that had been proved by the ‘putting to the test’.
In 'The Lord's Prayer', Christ included a clause, which asks that we should not be 'put to the test', in the way that he had been: in case we fail.
If God chooses to test this person, or that; it is not to show their weaknesses, but to highlight good qualities; to point out strengths, and to prove their worth - just as was done with Jesus in the desert.
On the other hand, there is the devil, and all the temptations that he puts in our way. Here, too, the meaning of the word 'tempt' remains that of testing and trying out; but, when the devil undertakes such testing, he does so for reasons that are completely different from those of God.
He tries to persuade people into doing wrong things; to demonstrate to them, their lack of good qualities; and their weaknesses; in order to discourage them, and weaken their resolve to live out their faith.
The Bible offers us opposite extremes ... God or the devil ... ... good or evil ... right or wrong.
Without care and attention, we can easily arrive at a dangerous concept: out of which, human logic sets biblical teaching to one side. Such logic believes that opposite extremes must have some sort of gap or space in between.
Misplaced theology can then step in: and suggest that the ‘gap’, created by logic, is occupied by mankind; pulled this way, and that, by ‘good’ or ‘evil’; and trying to make the right choices, but…
…All biblical challenges and choices, especially in the gospels: are ‘either/or' based; either it is right, or else it is wrong; either it is good, or else it is not.
Nowhere in the Bible is there any sign of a God-given middle position; which Christians may occupy, until the ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ of various situations are made clear: and consequent decisions can be undertaken.
For the committed Christian, who has opted for God, Christ and righteousness: a ‘middle-position’ is unthinkable.
Jesus warned his disciples that the devil; working through false Christs and false prophets; can lead astray, if possible, even the elect (Mat. 24:23). Since that day: the experience of the Church shows that attractive persuasion, consistently offered, can make it possible.
The Lord God is very open and direct, in his ‘either/or’ call, and challenge, to his people. The devil is quite the opposite: being very devious and subtle, as he tries to entice God's people away from what is right and good.
Somehow: he has managed to persuade vast numbers of people that there is, after all, a middle-position between good and evil, right and wrong: a place for catching the breath; thinking things through, and making the mind up.
The devil omits to tell people, that nowhere in the Bible is there such thing as a God-allowed, 'middle-position': and that Christ spoke against the church at Laodicea, for choosing to believe otherwise (Revelation 3:16).
That church; occupied a ‘middle-position' of its own creation; which Christ refused to recognize as valid; so much so, that; speaking against it, and its practices; he said: ‘I am about to spit you out of my mouth’. (Rev. 3: 14-16).
If, in biblical teaching; Christian doctrine, and church experience; there are no such in-between places; then how is it that so many Christians seem to find it natural, and sweetly reasonable, to believe that there are.
Perhaps the simplest answer is our continual need of security: which we value highly, and work hard at maintaining.
Very few people ever want anything at all to do with the devil. It is a fearful thing, dangerous, and, eventually, deadly.
And many people; even regular churchgoers; do not want to enter into a deep commitment to God, either. They see it as a risky thing: ‘Who knows what he might ask of us?’ ‘Who knows where such commitment might lead?’
So they devise what they deem to be 'safe' middle-positions. To a certain extent, Christianity has become a 'spectator religion'; with comparatively few people being fully committed, and actively involved.
One great and harmful temptation for Christians, and their churches, is this: To do nothing in particular ... about anything in particular ... through not really being anyone in particular ...as they sit in their self-created middle positions; and hope that all is well, and will remain so.
The Word of God tells us, quite specifically, not to do evil deeds, and a number of such things are listed, as examples, for our guidance. Most Christians readily agree; and do not, deliberately, undertake bad actions.
However, the Word of God also tells us, just as specifically, to do good deeds, and, again, a number of such things are listed for our guidance.
Here, Christians are not so ready to deliberately enter into a positive attitude towards righteousness: and to consistently; actively; undertake good deeds.
The usual reason for not doing so, is the belief that, through having nothing to do with evil, they are, automatically, doing good. ‘Not so!’ says Jesus.
Christians may pride themselves that, in this or that situation, they did nothing bad. But, so very often, they miss the point; that they didn't do anything good, either.
Our concepts of falling into temptation: usually relate to sins of commission, where bad things are actually done. However, far more subtle, and common, are sins of omission, where the good that might have been done, is not done.
Today, as yesterday; including Bible-times; the most all-pervading of our temptations, has nothing to do with what we call 'The Seven Deadly Sins'.
Instead, as already touched on: it consists in doing nothing in particular; about anything in particular; through not being anyone in particular; let alone actively representing Christ, in his needy world.
To the Church at Laodicea (at Revelation 3) Jesus said: ‘I wish that you were 'hot' for me, where I could bless you yet further ... or 'cold' against me, in your many sins; where I could forgive you, and you could start all over again ...
…’but you have chosen to create a neither/nor middle position, where I will have nothing to do with you at all.....I spit you out’.
We might think: ‘Surely our dear Lord didn't quite mean that’; but, far more surely, he did say, and did mean, such things.
At Matthew 12:30. Jesus says: ‘He who is not with me, is against me; and he who does not gather with me, scatters’ .
He did not say: ‘He who is not actively against me, will be considered to be for me’; yet that is what so many of today's Christians seem to believe.
In conferences, and meetings, where ‘for-or-against’ voting takes place: a neutral vote counts for nothing at all - and so in the Kingdom of Heaven.
God yearns towards the world that he loves; and longs to do it good. He chooses to reach out to people, through people: especially through the Church, which he has appointed to be as Christ, to the needy world.
In all of this, there is no place at all for the neutral vote. In various ways, God says: ‘You have only two options before you. Choose the right one’. Nowhere is this more clearly put, than at Deuteronomy 30:19, when Israel was about to enter the 'Promised Land'. It says:
This day, I call heaven and earth to witness against you, that I have set before you, life and death, blessings and curses. Now, choose! Choose life, so that you and your children may live…
…’and that you may love the Lord your God, and listen to his voice, and hold fast to him, for the Lord is your life’.
These words are both a stark warning about the consequences of the wrong choice; and a promise of the blessings that follow the right choice.
One temptation; all too common within our churches; is to deny the Word of God that says: ‘You have just two options. Therefore, choose the right one’.
Christians deny the Word of God, whenever the devil's deceits, or their own mental reservations, entice them to create a middle-position; a third option that stands against the divine will; and bars entry into divine blessing.
May we resist such a temptation; and overcome it; in the same way that Jesus did: through recognizing and accepting what God calls us to be, and to do.
May we make the right choice for, as he said: the Lord is our life. Amen.