Temptation— necessary part of my life with Christ
Lead Us Not into Temptation is a daily devotional/ study for Lent on the subject—we should say, the experience—of temptation.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” which mysteriously implies that God could, and perhaps sometimes does. At the very least he allows it. Mark writes that the Spirit actually “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil (1:12). Would God really do that to me? Would he set up or allow circumstances that would put me in harm’s way? In sin’s way? I pray not, but, if I am Christ’s follower, should I not expect to walk with him into the wilderness, and to face temptation in my own life? Put the other way around, should I not expect to walk in wildernesses of my own, where Christ will walk with me? In other words, isn’t temptation simply a part, perhaps even a necessary part, of my life with Christ?
One translation of James 1:12 (rsv) reads, “Blessed is the man who endures trial.” Another (nrsv) reads, “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation.” In the New Testament, the same word is used for “temptation” and for “trial.” That makes sense. Temptations are most certainly trials. They are difficult, painful, and sometimes even destructive. Likewise, trials, which by their very meaning cause us difficulty and pain, often tempt us to make harmful choices or follow our worst inclinations. “Have we trials and temptations?” asks the old gospel hymn. Most certainly, yes! And if we have one, we have the other.
The truth is, there is no escaping temptation. Since temptation is made up of the inevitably disastrous mix of our own desires and Satan’s lies, wherever we are, wherever the devil is, there will be temptation. One of the Desert Mothers, Amma Theodora, illustrates the lesson with this story:
There was once a monk who because of a host of temptations that afflicted him said, “I will go from this place.” And when he was putting on his sandals, he saw another person also putting on his sandals, who said to him, “It is not because of me that you are leaving, is it? See, I will accompany you wherever you go.”
We know that, in their hour of trial, some have risen to the occasion and met the challenge valiantly. Joseph resisted the enticements of Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:7–9); Elisha refused to be rewarded for a miracle that was wholly God’s doing (2 Kgs. 5:15–16); Esther resisted concealing her true identity in order to protect her people (Esther 4:15–16); and Ananias, though he could have run the other way, did the fearful thing God asked of him when he went to see Paul (Acts 9:13–17). But I am not Joseph, nor Elisha, nor Esther, nor Ananias. I am Adam . . . and I am Eve. I fall. Regularly. So I pray as Jesus taught me. I pray that God will not lead me into temptation, because I know that, left to myself, I will always fall. I haven’t the inherent strength to endure it.
So what’s the point? If temptation is so dangerous, and so seldom overcome, what good can it possibly do? What purpose can it have? We find a clue in those profound words of Joseph to his brothers. Recalling the hatred they once had for him and the harm they brought upon him, Joseph said, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). The same can be said about temptation: Satan (who is the tempter par excellence) means it for evil, but God means it for good. How so?
Augustine was one of a number of the church’s teachers who said that it is only by temptation that he really came to know himself and came to know his God. Temptation reveals the otherwise hidden fissures in my soul, my divided heart, my conflicted thoughts, my ulterior motives. It teaches me what I am made of and what I am capable of. It purges me of my delusions about myself. François Fénelon said that temptation is like a file that scrapes off all of the rust of our self-confidence. That’s how I get to know my true self. But I also get to know God. If I succeed in standing against temptation, I come to know God’s power—the only means by which sin is resisted—and, if I fall to it, I come to know God’s mercy—the only means by which sin is forgiven. Without the lessons taught by temptation, my spiritual life is left tepid and superficial. As Martin Luther once said, “My temptations have been my master’s in divinity.”
This brings us to the title, and the subject, of this devotional. From God’s point of view, the purpose of temptation is to teach us. But, from the devil’s point of view, the purpose of temptation is to turn us. Satan’s primary aim is not to get us to do “bad things.” That goal is far too short sighted (and too easy to accomplish). Satan’s Introduction 10 Lead Us Not into Temptation purpose in tempting us is to get us to switch sides, to change our allegiances, to betray our loyalty. That is the devil’s longrange scheme. He wants us either to give in to temptation—in which case we flounder in guilt and shame—or to grow tired of standing against it—in which case we eventually give up. Either way, the end result he intends is the same: to separate us from God.
To understand the hard school of temptation better—and thereby to understand both ourselves and God better— perhaps when we realize that once again we have succumbed to sin’s allures, rather than berating ourselves for “doing it again” (whatever it is), we could acknowledge the deeper harm we have done—both to ourselves and often to others—by our disloyalty to God. Then, rather than wallowing in selfdisappointment, we could be awakened, even energized, with the self-realization (Jesus’s parable says that the prodigal son “came to himself ”): “Look what I have done. I fell for it again. I jumped the fence and ran off. That’s it! I’m getting back home as fast as I can!” This is what conviction and repentance mean, and they can be the direct result of temptation—temptation resisted and temptation succumbed to. Recalling the words of Julian of Norwich, we can take heart: “First there is the fall; then there is the recovery from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.”
Given the connection between temptation and the troubling question of our divided “loyalties,” there is another aspect of temptation that must be considered as well, and Lent is a perfect time for us to do it. In my community, before we hear the call to all the other “practices” of Lent—prayer, fasting, works of 11 love, reading and meditating on God’s Word—this charge is set before us as we gather in the church on Ash Wednesday: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance.” Lent is not only a time to prepare for coming temptations. It is also a time to discover, and repent for, temptations already past, temptations to which we have already given in, perhaps without our even knowing it, and, what is worse, not caring about it. Isn’t that the most devious of temptations: for the devil (in cahoots with our own desires) to trip us up without our knowing it? To let us think that everything is as it should be when it is anything but? To have us believe the illusion that the desert places in our hearts are lush gardens and that dry river beds are rushing waters? If it’s true that temptation raises the deeper issues of our loyalties and not just our behaviors, then perhaps the greatest trick of the devil is to get us to not pay attention.
Self-examination—presenting our lives before the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit—is the kind of “paying attention” that makes us available to God’s gift of conviction and repentance. It is the only thing that can put our “fall” into the clear light of day and make “recovery from the fall” possible. It requires staying in place long enough (maybe for forty days?) to listen to the questions: Somewhere along the way, have I already “fallen” to temptation? Where do I not even know I’ve fallen? Have I compromised myself, grown tired of the fight, or even given up in some way? What is the besetting sin of my life that continues to give the devil an easy target? Have I forgotten what God has told me? Have I forgotten God?
Through the days of Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, with these questions (and surely more) in mind, we will look at temptation as it is described in the Bible. As we begin, let us make this our prayer:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son
was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan:
Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations;
and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us,
let each one find you mighty to save. Amen.