TRIALS AND TEMPTATIONS
For a sermon topic this week we are back to looking at the questions that many of you submitted asking for sermons on a particular issue. This week's question has to do with temptation and testing, which is about as confusing a topic in the Bible as it is in our daily lives.
The Bible says quite plainly that God puts people to the test. In the Old Testament, God tests Abraham and also tests the Israelites in the desert. In the New Testament we find the story of the temptation of Jesus and see from the text that it was the Spirit of God that drove Jesus into the wilderness to meet the devil. That's not a really comforting thought. In the other corner is this morning's passage from James, which says in no uncertain terms that God has nothing to do with temptations. Well, what are we to believe? Are the trials and temptations that come our way tests from God or not? Does God want us to fail? It can be very confusing. I can't promise you that the answer I've come up with is foolproof, but try it on for size and see if it works for you.
The clue came for me out of the passage we read in James. The fourteenth verse reads "But one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it." Maybe, I thought, there is a difference between testing and temptation. Maybe the test is the outward circumstance and temptation the inner response. As I thought about that, it helped a lot.
I tend to view life as a type of school...a place we have been given by God to learn how to love God, ourselves, and one another. If you come to me and ask me what life's purpose is, that's what I'm going to tell you. We are here to reflect the glory and the nature of God by learning to love as God loves. It doesn't matter if you make money doing it; it doesn't matter if it takes a long time or a short time. We are given this opportunity to learn to love as God loves so that we may live in that love eternally. God is a social being whose nature is love and God wants company. But only that which is based in love can exist in God's presence. So, God created us as companions, enough like God to be able to be in relationship with God, but enough different from God that love is something that we need to work at and learn. Our lives on earth are the school for that endeavor. That's my answer to the meaning and purpose of life.
If that is the case, then simply living is a test of sorts. A test is simply a way to demonstrate what we have learned. Every minute of every day we are confronted with situations in which we have a choice...we can put love into practice or we can do something else. Every response we make...from the way we choose to answer the telephone to the major life decisions that face us...all are opportunities to show what we are made of...to demonstrate what we have learned about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. In that sense, every minute of our lives is a test.
In a large sense, that means that God is the one behind all tests, because God is the one behind all life. In a more specific way, however, God is not behind every specific test. Some situations in our lives may well be engineered by God for our instruction, and the Bible gives us examples of that. But there are clearly other times when God has had nothing to do with the situation we are in. Many situations are caused by our own choices, some are caused by other people's choices, and some really seem to be thrown at us by great evil. So I would say God has given us an arena where testing is part and parcel of living, but any individual situation may or may not be coming directly from God.
However, I think that testing and temptation are two different things. While the Bible says plainly that God does test us sometimes, James tells us that temptation comes from within. The Greek and Hebrew words make no distinction between testing and temptation, and the two are related. But I think this is a case where English has done well to have two separate words. The test is the outward circumstance...which may or may not have been engineered by God. The temptation, however is the inward struggle we have as we choose how we will respond to the test.
There is really no better picture of what temptation is than the typical cartoon rendering of it...you see a little devil on one shoulder and a little angel on the other, both whispering opposite bits of advice. The angel is whispering the loving answer, the devil is whispering the self-serving answer...which is the temptation. God would have absolutely nothing to do with self-serving advice. God would never even remotely suggest the route of selfishness...even as one option on a multiple choice quiz. It is beyond the pale of who and what God is. That is what James is talking about. God is not going to suggest a loving option and a non-loving option to see which one you will take. God will present the loving option only.
So the short answer to the question is that God sometimes tests but never tempts...God will never try to sway us to the wrong side, even as a way of testing our fidelity. God will simply present the circumstance to give us an opportunity to strengthen our faith by choosing the good. Not only that, but God's testing is open book with a help line. First Corinthians 10:13 assures us, "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it."
The difficult part is that you still have to do the test...and life testing is quite a bit different from a paper and pencil test in a classroom. A couple of months ago I was at the rehearsal dinner for a wedding and the conversation turned to golf. Since the wedding was at a country club, someone asked the Best Man if he golfed. "Oh yes!" he said, enthusiastically. Glad for a common interest, the other person probed further. "Where have you played?" he asked the Best Man, "What course do you like best?"
"Oh," said the Best Man, "I've never been out on a course, but I know how to play." He was serious. And he began to get quite defensive as his questioner began to imply that he wasn't a golfer at all. He insisted that he did know how to golf, even though he had never actually played the first hole. That Best Man may well have been able to sit down with a multiple choice exam and pass a golf test. But, ultimately, that is not what golfing is for. To really pass the golf test, you have to actually play the game. You have to get out on the course, swing a club, and hit the ball. Maybe you do it well and maybe you don't...but if you don't ever get out on the course, you're not playing golf. And golfing is not easy. I had a boyfriend in high school that played golf, so I tried to learn. Well, let me tell you, when you swing with all your might and that club hits the ground...it is jarring! I didn't last long.
Life is that kind of test. It is something you have to actually get out and do. You can sit in church all you want, reciting creeds and singing hymns. You can take Bible studies and understand perfectly well that Jesus taught us to do everything in a spirit of love. But being a Christian is like being a golfer in that it doesn't count for much what you know in your head if you never actually get out on the course and put it into practice.
And that's where the temptation comes in. God is always there to cheer you on...but God is not the only one present. There are other voices, too... "You're too tired to visit her today, it can wait." "You won't fit in if you don't take a drag." "If you say that, they'll think you're a religious fanatic." "If you defend him, they'll think you're doing the same thing." "She deserves this after what she did to you." "Don't tell anybody or you'll lose your job."
You know the voices...I know the voices, they visit me, too. Those voices have nothing to do with God; they are temptations. They might be outside voices, like Jesus experienced when Satan tempted him in the wilderness or when Peter tried to get him to avoid the Cross and Jesus said to him, "Get behind me, Satan!" Or they might be inner voices, like the voices Paul struggled with when he said that he seemed never to be able to do the things he wanted to do, but seemed always to end up doing what he didn't want instead.
So what's a person to do? How do we make it through? Well, my experience is that the best way to defeat temptation is through a combination of love and knowledge.. If we have studied God's word enough and spent enough time in prayer and worship to develop a close loving relationship with God, we will both know what God wants from us and we will love God enough to do it. When we truly love somebody we are much more likely to act in their best interest. The best obedience is obedience done out of love rather than out of fear of punishment.
But what if our love still falls short, as it does for all of us at some time or other? Then, I think we need to remember that temptation is a mind game and that the tempter who plays such mind games with us is known in Scripture as the Father of Lies. The good that is promised with the temptation either never materializes or it leads to even greater pain. The temptation to embezzle millions of dollars that seems to have seduced so many corporate executives was true insofar as it promised to make them rich. But it neglected to mention that it would lead to the complete collapse of their companies and probably prison sentences.
Jesus met his temptations with God's word. The Word made Flesh faced off with the devil by using the Word made words...Scripture. Whether you look at that story symbolically or literally the message is the same...God's word can counter temptation at every turn. But if you want to beat temptation, you had better know God's word going into it. You had better know God's Word made words in Scripture and God's Word made flesh in Jesus. Don't expect to hold up without it.
All through the letters of Paul, he tells us to pay attention to what we are thinking. Romans 12...be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Philippians 2...let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus. Philippians 4..."whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you."
If you dwell on the sin you are trying to avoid, then the cycle that James describes kicks in... "One is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved." Forget the sin. If you are tempted by the beauty of another woman, think of the beauty of a flower instead. If you are tempted by riches, start counting the blessings God has already given you. If you are tempted to be lazy, think of the souls still needing to know of God's love; if you are tempted to be a workaholic, remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. And remember that the temptation is always based on a lie, no matter how true it may seem on the surface.
We can't cover in 20 minutes all that needs to be said about temptation and testing, but I can promise you that if you choose the road of discipleship...if you are willing to say to God... "Yes, I believe that the life revealed in Jesus is the life we are meant to live. I want to learn to be like that. I want to follow Jesus. I want to be a disciple of Jesus." Then God will begin to work with you and teach you and give you all you will ever need to meet every test that comes your way and to fight every temptation that might intrude into your mind.
You can't just sit here one Sunday morning and then go out and say "Yes, now I will win over temptation and pass every test." Study is helpful, but there comes a time when you have to actually get out on the course and play. Knowing how to approach a test does not mean you will not have to take it. The Christian faith is ultimately about living, not thinking. Our knowledge gives us some powerful tools, but those tools will need to be matched by the experience of actually living in love...living as Jesus did, with him as our model, guide, and teacher.
I'll close with another reminder from Paul, also in Philippians chapter 4: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
© 2002, Anne Robertson
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