Monday, March 10, 2014

Tempting Offers

The scriptures referred to are Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11.

I'm going to offend some sportsfans right off the top. I really don't care who wins March Madness or the Olympics or the Superbowl or the World Series. They are ultimately irrelevant to my life and, generally speaking, to the life of the world. Take the World Series. Unlike the World Cup in soccer, the World Series doesn't actually include teams from all over the earth and I'm sure that there are people in South America, Africa, the Middle and Far East who would think the name not merely inaccurate but arrogant. Still, it just doesn't interest me. It's merely people playing games. I'm glad their fans enjoy it. I hope the players are enjoying it. But when people anywhere riot or get into fights over who wins a game, I am puzzled. Why do people get so worked up about a game with arbitrary rules played in many cases by people who get paid more than the President and who are just as likely to move to any team that will pay them more and whose scores will soon be old news? Are people's everyday lives actually affected by the wins or losses? Where is their sense of perspective?

Sports and games are as old as humanity, though. We love to pick sides and root for our team. And often our team preference is a matter of happenstance, depending largely on where we grew up or presently live. The people of Chicago are loyal to the Cubs despite the fact that the team hasn't won a World series in more than a century.

Unfortunately, some people think that theology works the same way. That is, that religions are essentially teams and that the rules they play by are just as arbitrary as the rules for human games. So they feel that penalizing anyone for picking the wrong team makes as much sense as inflicting physical punishment on fans for picking the Denver Broncos over the St. Louis Rams. Aren't they all basically the same?

While it's true that religions overlap a lot when it comes to social ethics—establishing justice and encouraging unity, for instance—they really see the world in very different ways and that affects how they teach you to live. Buddhists don't generally believe in a god. They believe that they should follow the 8-fold path in order to ascend to Nirvana, which is literally the snuffing out of the flame of life and therefore ending the dreadful cycle of death and rebirth into this world of suffering. Hindus believe in a rigid caste system with no upward mobility in this life as well as in millions of gods. One is Kali, the goddess of death, destruction and disease. Her devotees, the Thugs, were robbers who saw their murder victims as sacrifices for her. The Sikhs see themselves as soldier-saints. The Amish are complete pacifists, eschewing all violence and use of force. Saying all religions are alike is like saying all political philosophies are alike and therefore it doesn't matter if you believe in Nazism or in democracy. Unlike sports, the differences in religions matter. Their ideas of morality, what is good and what is evil and why, matter.

The Bible says that God is love. That is, that God is literally a love relationship, the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, a unity of love so strong that the 3 divine persons are one God. We were created in God's image and in order that we might love him back we were created, not as pre-programed robots, but with free will and the ability to choose. We have misused the gifts God has given us, made bad choices and have turned the paradise God has given us into hell on earth. We have chosen to murder, to steal, to rape, to torture, to deceive, to take away other people's freedom, to worship men or money or might or popularity or elements of creation rather than our creator. God didn't create evil; we did by making non-loving and often intentionally harmful choices. And the consequences of those choices ruin our relationships—with God, with other people, with the rest of creation and even with ourselves. So why do we make bad choices? Genesis and Matthew give us perfect paradigms of the temptation process.

It all begins with doubting God's goodness or wisdom. The serpent, the voice of temptation in Genesis 3, first makes an exaggerated assumption. “Did God say 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?” Obviously this would be an outrageously bad decision by God, leaving the man and the woman malnourished, if not starving. The woman contradicts this but the seed of doubt is planted. And often temptation begins with thinking that God is unreasonable and his rules arbitrary. That's because we don't always see the reasons for God's rules. In a similar way, a toddler doesn't understand why Mom won't let him climb up the bookcase or drink from the bottles of brightly colored fluids under the sink or open the front gate and go exploring the neighborhood on his own. From his point of view she is just being mean. He can't see that though the rules displease him, the reason for them is love.

The woman then misstates God's rule, expanding it. She says they can't even touch the forbidden fruit. And when we face a rule we disagree with, it usually begins to loom larger in our eyes. It seems to become bigger, more grotesque, more of a hindrance to our lives than it really is. Every parent is familiar with how the biggest arguments with children or teens seem to revolve around the smallest things. If they can't get a specific toy or electronic gadget, they act as if they are being deprived of all the necessities of life. If they can't wear a particular fashion item, they act as if they are being condemned to be treated as a pariah. If they are forced to miss a special event because they didn't do their homework, they act as if they are being persecuted to the point of martyrdom. They act like it is the end of the world. Deny us humans what we desire and it becomes not the most important thing in our life but the only thing in our life.

Next the woman is told “You will not die!” From doubt and an exaggeration of the size of the prohibition, we go to a flat-out contradiction of what God says. God is not just unfair but wrong. Or lying to us. The woman is being tempted to distrust God. And we often do that when we want to surrender to a temptation. “Oh, it won't hurt to do it just this once.” And then we take two steps into the minefield, see that we haven't blown up yet and figure it's safe to do handsprings.

On a recovering heroin addict said that the most insidious thing about the drug is that it doesn't addict you immediately. He and his girlfriend started by taking it occasionally and without suffering any scary side-effects. Their descent into fullblown addiction was so gradual they didn't realize it until it was too late. Had it powerfully taken hold of them from the very beginning, it would have alarmed them and they would have fought it immediately.

So the voice of temptation tells the woman that, despite what God said, nothing bad will happen to her. In fact, the reason for the prohibition is that God is insecure about his position. “...God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” A lot of kids start drinking because all the cool kids do. Their parents are against it because they are hypocrites. Or kids smoke because they think it will make them look more grownup. Their parents are treating them like babies. The kids can make up their own minds. They're not stupid.

We disregard God's rules because we either think he is keeping good things from us or we think he is just plain wrong. We know better than God. We can handle this. We are not stupid. Thinking we are wiser than God or ascribing ignoble motives to him are good ways to end up doing stupid things. It's like when someone ignores a Warning Sign on a piece of machinery or on a piece of property. It's like ignoring the Mythbusters when they say, “Do not try this at home.” There is usually a very good reason. It is often a matter of safety. There's a reason why hair dryers have stickers that tell you not to use them in the shower. Because someone probably has and tried to sue the manufacturers for not making explicit what common sense should have told them.

Finally the woman takes a good look at the tree and the fruit and since everything looks fine (and the fruit is a shortcut to great wisdom) she gives in. One wonders how often people's last words were, “Looks OK to me.” If you are not an expert, don't go picking wild mushrooms for dinner. If you are not a construction worker, don't go climbing around building sites. If you don't know the person who sent you the email, don't click on it. People trying to deceive you know that we are drawn to what is attractive. Looks are often the least reliable indicator of whether something is safe to do or ingest or mess with. 

And be especially skeptical when an offer sounds too good to be true. Take this pill and lose weight without dieting or exercising. Don't think so. Answer this email from a bank official in Nigeria and you will be millions of dollars richer. No way. Take a bite of forbidden fruit and you will instantly be as wise as God. Really?

C.S. Lewis pointed out that the last thing someone tempting you wants you to do is think about it clearly. Temptations rarely appeal to reason; they go for the gut, for our feelings and desires. They appeal to our lust or greed or envy or laziness or anger or fear or hunger or pride. They may be presented as the smart thing to do but there is always a flaw in the reasoning. Don't ask if it's the latest thing or if it's popular or if it's what all the smart people are doing. Ask is it true or false? Is it right or wrong? Is it loving or harmful?

Basically we see in Genesis the fundamental problem with humans. God gives them the run of his whole paradise, asks them not to do one thing and they can't stay away from it. It's like when you tell a kid he can play with every toy in the room; just don't touch that one. He ignores all the other great stuff and makes a beeline for the one forbidden object. Humanity never changes. We are rarely swayed by the thought that “I could do that but I really shouldn't.” We just can't say no to ourselves.

We are told in Hebrews that Jesus was tempted in all things as we were but without falling into sin. When we look at Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, though, it doesn't look very tempting to us. I would not be tempted to jump off a building. So we need to look beneath the surface of the temptations he is facing to see what is really at stake.

The temptation to turn rocks into bread is obvious when applied to Jesus. He's been fasting for weeks. He's hungry. And he is the son of the same God who gave Moses and the Israelites manna in the wilderness and water from a rock. It should be easy for him to satisfy his hunger. The temptation seems to be, on the surface, about him misusing his power for his own benefit. It might also be about becoming a material messiah, feeding the poor to get them to follow him. We see later that when he feeds the 5000 they try to force him to be their king. What he tells them then is in line with what Jesus tells his adversary here. “Man does not live by bread alone...” and as the quote from Deuteronomy goes on to say, “...but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Humans are more than mere animals. We are spiritual beings as well. Jesus did not come to fill our bellies but our hungry souls. These days people don't starve because the world doesn't produce enough food but because it is not getting to them, often for reasons of politics and corruption. If enough people did hear God's words and put them to work, we would make sure no one was physically hungry. It's not that feeding everyone is impossible; just difficult. Which we often confuse with the impossible. When we see a starving child, we should not ask, “Why, God, why?” but “Why, man, why?”

Doctors discovered that Romanian orphanages had high infant mortality rates. And it wasn't because the babies weren't receiving food or good physical care. It was because the staff was too busy to do anything more. The children were not being cuddled or cooed over or loved. Most died from failure to thrive. Those that survived suffered from severe emotional problems. They needed more than just their material needs met. 

It is interesting that suicide rates are highest not in poor countries but in wealthy countries where people's physical needs are met but their religious ones are not. Japan, South Korea, Hungary, and Belgium are in the top 20 countries with the highest suicide rates. They are also in the top 20 least religious countries. China is both the least religious country in the world, according to Gallup, with 75% of the world's atheists and it has the world's 6th highest suicide rate. Is this because mankind does not live by bread alone?

So the first temptation is to expend our energy on something other than what we really need: God. Without him, most people find life not worth living. Jesus did not go into the wilderness to feast but to fast and hear what God was saying to him about his upcoming mission. Jesus will not compromise his relationship with God over food, in sharp contrast to what Eve does.

Next Jesus is tempted to jump from the pinnacle of the temple and be caught by the angels. Again this would not be a temptation for me. But for Jesus this would be a spectacular demonstration of his divine power and a great way to start off his mission. His adversary even quotes the Psalms to back up his suggestion. As Shakespeare said, the devil can cite scripture for his purpose. But Jesus has a counter quote: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus did not treat God as his special effects team but as his Father and Lord. He didn't try to paint God into a corner or demand stuff from him as proof of his support. Jesus' mission was about substance, not flash. His miracles serve his mission, showing God's love through healing minds and bodies, feeding the hungry, saving the disciples from a storm at sea, and restoring the dead to their grieving families. He used his powers to help others, not to hype himself.

We have all heard of people doing foolish and reckless things as a show of their faith in God. Pat Robertson said God had told him the outcome of the 2012 election. He was as wrong then as when he predicted Armageddon would happen in 1982. At best that kind of stuff makes him a laughingstock; at worst it damages the faith of some Christians. Recently preacher Jamie Coots, star of the reality show “Snake Salvation,” died from a snake bite received during one of his worship services. Even if we were to accept the verses in the longer version of Mark 16, on which this practice is based, there is nothing there that commands people to pick up snakes and handle them. But I bet it is a lot more exciting than a sermon which explains that these verses are not found in the oldest and most reliable biblical manuscripts or that Jesus refused to do miracles just to prove himself.

We face this temptation every time we speak for God on matters that are not found or well-grounded in scripture. Or when we tell God what we think he should do, instead of following Jesus and what he said we should do. We should always know the context and general thrust of any passage we quote. Way too much damage has been caused by people erecting whole rickety theological structures on a few overburdened and misused verses. There are lots of bright and shiny notions about God that look and sound good but are just not true. We need to go beyond superficial appearances and attractive lies, in contrast to what Eve did.
Finally the tempter makes a blatant bid to get Jesus to worship him as a quick way to make the kingdoms of this world into the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. Hey, it would speed things up and there would be no need for anybody to get crucified. Jesus again quotes scripture: "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

We face this temptation whenever we feel we must have something “no matter what it takes.” Or whenever a leader says something must be achieved “at all costs.” Or when we endorse the idea that “Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.” We may not see it for what it is but we are essentially selling our soul to the devil when we say that the end is so noble that it justifies the means, however unethical. What Eve desired, to be like God, was such a good and desirable thing she was willing to disobey God to achieve it. We see this at work when people cheat to win elections or lie to win an argument, or when they use fear or hate to persuade people to adopt their position. We are not to fight evil with evil but as Paul says in Romans 12, we are to overcome evil with good.

The right thing to do is not always the easy thing to do and that is why we find ourselves tempted. We begin to doubt God's goodness or wisdom or fairness. We stop trusting him. We get caught up in appearances and muddy thinking. We neglect the spiritual for the physical. We figure it won't hurt to break the rules this once, especially when the goal is so noble. And surely God won't let us get into any real trouble if our intentions are good.

There are real moral dilemmas out there, where two values seem to be at odds, like when pursuing justice threatens to disrupt the peace or when seeking peace seems to mean not giving everyone full justice. Those are times when making the right choices are really hard. But a lot of time what we think are tough moral choices are simply situations in which what we want is wrong and we want to somehow make it right. We want to justify it. We need to trust that God is wise and that his rules are expressions of his love. 

And we need to trust him to help us fight temptation. In 1Corinthians 10:13 Paul writes, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to humanity. God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond your strength but with the temptation will provide you a way of escape so that you are able to endure it.” Ways to escape include honest prayer, an appropriate verse or passage of scripture, a helpful distraction, a call to a friend who will help you, or an opportunity to literally leave the site of the temptation. Musician Bobby McFerrin uses song. I hadn't heard that one before but singing a rousing and meaningful hymn or inspirational song might be enough to break the spell which temptations seem to exude telling you that you will inevitably succumb to them. Remember that God's Holy Spirit is in you, the Spirit that empowered Jesus as he faced down every temptation life could throw at him.

And remember that the last temptation is the temptation to despair, to think that you will never be able to conquer your temptations and that God will give up on you for falling and failing. Nothing could be further from the truth. As it says in 1 John, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God forgives all who repent. Just admit your sin, get up and start again to follow Jesus. By his death he freed us from the penalty for sin. Through living in his Spirit, we are gradually being freed from the power of sin. When we enter his Kingdom, we will be freed from the presence of sin. For we will be with him and we will be like him forever.

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