Monday, June 8, 2015

Lead Us Not into Temptation

The topic comes from our Sermon Suggestion Box, but reference is made to Genesis 3.

In the Lord's Prayer, why the line 'Lead us not into temptation?' Why would God lead us into temptation when we find it so well all by ourselves?” Our sermon suggestion question gets right to the point. Why did Jesus, in giving us a model prayer, have us ask God not to put us in the way of temptation? Would God do that? Doesn't the letter of James say, “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone?”

Part of the answer to these questions have to do with the exact words used and part has to do with the nature of temptation itself. Let's take these in reverse order.

We all know from experience what temptation is. It is the siren song to do something that we know we shouldn't. Or it can be the almost instinctual shrinking from some good act that we ought to do, but don't wish to. Sometimes it is the voice that says, “Go on! You know you want to!” or “You'd be a fool to let this opportunity pass without taking advantage of it!” or “What the heck! Just this once!” Temptation can even appear as the cool voice of rationality, giving you a list of reasons why you should or shouldn't do something.

However you view the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent in Genesis 3, it is an absolutely true picture of temptation. The snake first minimizes the negative consequences of the contemplated act. In this case he says, “You will not die!” And that's true in the literal sense. But when Eve goes against God's command, part of her dies. It is the beginning of spiritual death, the death of her relationship with God. If not reversed, it results in total separation from God, the source of all love and goodness.

Several years back, I read in the Miami Herald about a teenager who was really angry with her father for his strict rules. So she accused him of abusing her. The state swooped in and took her out of that home—as well as her siblings. The kids couldn't even see their mother until she was cleared by DCF. Then they couldn't go back home until the father left. The girl took back her false accusation but the process still had to be completed. Eventually it was confirmed that her accusation was groundless and the family was reunited. But the damage was done. Things would never be the same. A certain measure of trust had died the day the girl started the whole thing.

So the serpent accuses God of fibbing or at least exaggerating the consequences of the behavior in question. Then he talks up the advantages of going ahead. And the woman starts looking at the fruit and adding more reasons as to why it was desirable. And then she just does it. Like a teenage girl, chafing under her father's rules, Eve has no idea how much misery she is setting in motion. Adam goes along with her without any objections. But when God quizzes him about his disobedience, he unchivalrously points his finger at his wife, and indirectly at God, blaming “the woman you gave me.” Notice that distancing language he uses. I bet his wife never let him forget that. And I'll bet he brought up what she had done whenever things went badly for them. And the whole thing probably popped up just about every time they argued. A part of their trust and unconditional love for each other died that day.

As C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Screwtape Letters, his delightful satire of how devils would see human life, fuzzy thinking is a key part of temptation. If we have been well-taught and retain our wits we can resist most temptations. Most of us go along with the rules of society. We don't embezzle from our companies or murder people or sleep with every person we meet. But then a strong temptation seizes us, rationality goes out the window and we find it hard to fight the urge. Maybe your finances take a downturn and for the first time it occurs to you that if you borrow just a little of the cash you handle at work, you could put things right and pay it back. Or you meet someone really exciting and attractive, who really understands you, someone you wished you had met before meeting your spouse, and you find yourself back in the giddy throes of infatuation and acting like an adolescent in love. Or maybe your temptation is to use that very damaging piece of gossip you heard to eliminate someone vying for the position you want at work. Or maybe the temptation is just to go along and not make waves, to not disclose the deceptive business practices of your company or the illegal behavior of your boss or coworker. Hey, times are tight.

And so you rationalize. You come up with reasons to do what you want to do anyway, reasons that don't really hold up to logical analysis. Which is why you don't even share them with your closest friend. Of if you do, and they get shot down, you ignore the whole exchange.

So you just don't think too hard about the fact that your taking company funds is going to be discovered by someone someday and it's not going to be laughed off. Or you don't really think about all the damage you're doing to your marriage with all the lies, and with all the time spent “working late” and all the extra expenses. You don't think about the very real problem of trying to treat 2 different people as the number one person in your life. Or if you're the “other woman” you don't really want to think about the fact that if he is willing to cheat of his wife, there isn't any guarantee that he will be any more loyal to you. And you certainly aren't going to think too hard about the kind of person you are becoming by doing these things.

So as our suggestion writer says, it's not like we need lots of help in finding temptation. Heck, there are whole sectors of our economy whose primary purpose is to tempt people into doing and buying what they shouldn't. It's not like the soda companies are going to say, “There is no reason on earth for you to drink this stuff. Water is healthier.” It's not like the lottery is going to say, “You have a better chance of being hit by lightning than winning. Put your money to better use.” It's not like Las Vegas is going to say, “If you need to keep what you do here secret, you really need to reexamine your life.” Instead they are trying to bypass your capacity to say “No.” Why need we worry about God leading us astray?

The Greek word translated in the Lord's Prayer as “temptation” can also mean “testing,” especially in the sense of testing the strength of something, like metal, through the application of pressure. So the NRSV translates the petition as “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” The New Jerusalem Bible says, “Do not put us to the test.” These reflect the fact that we do not need to worry that God might tempt us to do wrong but we do want to be conscious of the fact that God might put us in situations that could end up testing our strength. Why would he do that? Not out of idle curiosity, but rather because that is where we are needed. Just as a general sends soldiers where the fighting is fiercest and their skills are required, God sometimes puts us where things are most perilous because we need to hold that line or push back or relieve others under fire. Why?

It takes a thief to catch a thief,” the old saying goes. In other words, sometimes you need someone with experience. A cleaned up and recovering addict would be a better spokesman for sobriety than me, because that's not an area with which I've had to wrestle. Let's say a person in recovery decides that she is called to work in a mission in the area where she used to buy her drugs in order to help others trapped in that lifestyle. But that could really test her because being around substance abusers might trigger cravings. Studies show that the reward centers of the addict's brain get revved up in anticipation of getting high just by looking at pictures of drug paraphernalia, or of places where one used to go for drugs, or even pictures of people exchanging money. So the places where she would be of the most use would also be the places that most tempt her to return to her habit. If she really feels called to this ministry and not, say, working in the office away from the front-line action, and if she shows a knack for it, she is going to need help.

The petition asking God not to subject us to testing is linked to the next one: “but deliver us from evil.” So we are not so much asking God to keep us clear of anything at all that can test us—which in effect might make us useless to God—as we are asking to be kept safe even while under testing. In other words, “Lord we ask not to be put to the ultimate test but whatever you do, protect us from succumbing to evil, from being defeated or overcome by evil.” Or to put it more simply, “Lord , don't subject us to any test beyond our ability to bear.”

In his 1st letter to the Corinthians Paul writes, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to humans. God is faithful and will not let you be tested beyond your ability, but will, along with the testing, make the way out, so you will be able to endure it.” This spells out what is implied in Jesus' prayer. God will not test us beyond our strength. He will provide the way out. We can trust him on that.

One of the things that can help us is a thorough knowledge of the Bible. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, he used the scriptures to frame the situations properly and counter the lies he was being fed. When I first became a Christian I was given verses to memorize, many of which helped me frame this sermon. But Bible verses cannot be used as magic incantations or protections. Instead by continually studying and meditating on God's Word, one finds oneself being steeped in the mindset of God. One starts to see sins not as stuff God just happens to dislike but as things that disrupt, degrade and destroy the harmony of God's creation and of the relationships of his creatures with him and with each other. Goodness is spiritual well-being and evil is spiritual disease and individual sins are symptoms of it. God wants to keep us from unhealthy ways of thinking, speaking and acting for our own good.

Like a deep knowledge of medicine, a deep knowledge of the Bible helps one see problems before they develop and take pre-emptive action. We clergy are required to attend a workshop on sexual harassment and sexual exploitation. When it came to the part where we were told not to get romantically involved with parishioners, one of my colleagues joked, “Just say 'no.'” Nancy Reagan was ridiculed for her approach to drug use but there is a lot of common sense in using this as an initial response. When you see temptation coming your way, don't listen to its enticements; don't engage in justifications; don't get entangled in arguments with yourself, especially ones that you'd love to lose. Just say “No.” A lot of the ethical complications that people get themselves into could be avoided if, when the situation first arose, they recognized it for what it was and just said “No!”

Unfortunately, we live in a time when the recognition that not every moral issue is a matter of black and white has led many to believe that no moral issue is ever black and white. There are no moral absolutes, we are told. But that is not true. Theft is wrong. Murder is wrong. Sexual abuse is wrong. Knowingly harming another person or allowing them to be harmed, especially for selfish reasons, is always wrong. We may debate whether the basic principle applies in this situation or that, such as, “Is it murder if you kill someone in self-defense?” But you don't throw out the core ethical principle because of exceptional circumstances. The existence of airplanes does not nullify the law of gravity.

As more people grow up without the basic moral and theological education provided by going to church, they are less able to recognize, much less handle, temptations. It is no longer rhetorical to ask certain questions, such as: Is lying wrong? Is shoplifting wrong? Is cheating wrong? How about impregnating someone and then letting mother and child fend for themselves? Are there any categories of human beings you just shouldn't have sex with—another person's spouse, siblings, children, the unconscious, the unwilling, or someone under your authority? Do successful people have any obligation to help those less fortunate, especially if their labor contributed to their success? Are the only restrictions we should observe on our behavior legal and not moral? In a world where more people can name Marvel superheroes than can state the 10 commandments, we need to reintroduce the concept of things you just don't do, period.

One thing to keep in mind: evil is always a bad deal. It is a cheap knockoff of good. It is never worth the price. Its promises are bogus. Its pleasures are temporary but the damage it does is not. Yet, like “get rich quick” schemes, people keep falling for it. We never learn that if it seems too good to be true, it is probably neither good nor true.

The good news is that we have an ally in fighting temptation: the Holy Spirit, God within us. When we seem to be at the end of our strength, we can tap into his. When we can't think of reasons to resist, he will provide them. The only condition is that we must call on him. We must, in the heat of temptation, pray to him, honestly and continuously. Just that shift of attention from the shiny object of our illicit desire to the divine lover who seeks our redemption is enough to break the spell at times. And as long as we stay in contact with him, praying for help and with a clear head, we can, with his help, not stray from our path. As Jesus said in Gethsemane, “Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation.”

But what do you do when you do give in to temptation, when you never said “No” before or during the act, when you never looked for God's way out, when you listened to serpentine rationalizations rather than God's clear command? What do you do the morning after when you realize you've let God, yourself and those who rely on or love you down? Are you beyond redemption?

The other good news is that God is gracious and forgiving. In 1 John, it says, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Is there a limit to his forgiveness? In Matthew 18, Peter asks Jesus, “If my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive him? Up to 7 times?” Jesus says, “Not up to 7 times but up to 70 times 7.” In the Lord's Prayer, we ask that God forgive us as we forgive others. If we forgive our brothers and sisters that often, how often will God forgive us?

Provided we are truly trying to turn to him and follow his ways, he will forgive us as often as necessary. He does not give up. He does not grow tired of us or lose faith in us, the way we often lose faith in him and in ourselves. He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. Unlike the promises of evil, we can trust him to do as he says. For one very good reason: he loves us.  

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