When I saw the lectionary
text for this Sunday, I sighed. Who wants to talk about temptation?
And what more is there to say? It may seem odd that this text pops
up over and over on the first Sunday of Lent. But maybe not. We
begin our Lenten journey by remembering who and whose we are. We
affirm that God alone is our God and him only shall we serve.
I started preparation
by identifying my own questions about temptation.
What is temptation?
Who or what tempts us?
Was Jesus really tempted?
Why does the Lord’s Prayer say, “lead us not into
temptation.” Does God tempt us?
And in my research I
found some answers that enlightened me.
Looking at the story
of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness we start with the conundrum
that Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where
for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” It sank in that
“the Spirit” was responsible for this confrontation
with the Evil One, and that the temptation lasted 40 days. That’s
a long time! It makes the focus of Satan’s temptations even
more difficult. The Spirit knew what Jesus needed to learn in order
to begin his ministry as a Messiah of the people. The Satan/Jesus
dialogue reflects the real source of help:
Satan: If you are God’s
son, make some bread out of this rock and feed yourself.
Jesus: It is written, we don’t live by bread alone.
Satan: I own all the kingdoms of the world (lie). I’ll give
them all to you, if you worship me.
Jesus: It is written, worship and serve the Lord your God alone.
Satan: If you are God’s son, throw yourself down from the
pinnacle of this temple. It is written, the Lord will command his
angels to protect you so you won’t dash your foot against
Jesus: It is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the
Are we tempted by the
same things? Hunger? check! Temptation is strongest when we feel
empty. Popularity? check! We like being well thought of. Power?
check! Who wants to be powerless? In every case Jesus combats these
temptations by quoting scripture. Finally in the third temptation,
Satan gets wise, and quotes scripture himself. He references Psalm
91:11-12 and Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 6:16: Don’t tempt
“Left to ourselves,”
David Brooks says, “we often desire the wrong things. Whether
it’s around the dessert tray or in the late-night bar, we
know we should choose one thing but end up choosing another.”
Paul said something like that, too. We understand what our long-term
interest is, but end up pursuing short-term pleasure. Even good
things such as friendship will leave us unsatisfied if the friendship
is not attached to something higher. Jesus shows us the things worth
finding and what we should be willing to lose.
1 Corinthians 10:13 is
a familiar “temptation” verse with lots of promises.
It says, 13” No temptation has overtaken you except what is
(1) common to mankind. And (2) God is faithful; he will not let
you be tempted (3) beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted,
he will also (4) provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
Paul is referring to God’s deliverance of the Israelites from
slavery in Egypt, dwelling on the theme of God’s faithfulness.
“God continues to provide paths of deliverance when we are
tested. Whatever the temptation, it can be thought of as a test
of one’s strength, the verse says, and God has built us --
made us -- in such a way so that it’s possible to not yield
The Journal of Consumer
Research shows that some ways of saying no to temptation are more
effective than others. Researchers took two groups of 60 undergrads.
One group was told that each time they were faced with a temptation
-- such as to eat ice cream -- they were to tell themselves “I
can’t do X.” The second group was told to say “I
don’t do X.” All the students were then asked to answer
a set of questions about healthy eating. As they handed in their
answer sheets, thinking that the study was over, they were offered
a complimentary treat -- either a chocolate bar or a granola bar.
After each student exited, their snack choice was recorded.
The researchers found
that of the students who told themselves “I can’t eat
X,” 61 percent chose the candy bar. Of those who told themselves
“I don’t eat X,” only 36 percent chose the candy
bar. Evidently this terminology improved the odds that each person
would make a more healthy food choice. The researchers theorize
that saying “I can’t” reminds us of our limitations,
while saying “I don’t” reminds us of our power
One little word -- don’t.
Martin Luther spoke of “one little word” in the third
stanza of “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” “The
prince of darkness grim, / we tremble not for him; / his rage we
can endure, / for lo, his doom is sure; / one little word shall
fell him.” The word Luther had in mind is “You lie.”
Calling the tempter a liar might be helpful as well, reminding us
of the costs of yielding to temptation itself.
Henry Nouwen comments
that our most significant encounters with Christ often come not
before or after or beyond the struggle, but in the midst of the
struggle. Christ comes at that moment and says, “As soon as
you turned to me again, I was already beside you.”
An anonymous writer gives
us important understandings about temptation.
1. Temptation is part and parcel of the human condition. If we could
vaccinate ourselves against temptation, would that be a good thing?
2. We need to distinguish between being tempted and yielding to
temptation. Anger is a common emotion that can tempt us to strike
out at someone, but it isn’t a problem until we yield to that
3. Temptation is a road with forks in it. These forks force us to
make decisions. Sometimes they are major intersections, other time
minor detours. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul says, “My grace
is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
The forks in the road are good places to remember that. We can ask
God for grace and power, not only at the onset of a temptation,
but also beforehand in our regular life of prayer. That may be why
“lead us not into temptation” is one specific petition
that Christ included in his model prayer.
A father had been teaching
his 3-year old daughter, Caitlin, the Lord's Prayer. For several
evenings, at bedtime, she would repeat after me the lines from the
prayer. Finally, she decided to go solo. I listened with pride as
she carefully enunciated each word, right up to the end of the prayer:
"Lead us not into temptation," she prayed, "but deliver
us from e-mail. Amen." Some of us who are swamped with junk
advertisements would agree!!
There is a temptation
to categorize sins. Did you notice that anything having to do with
sex is at the top of the list? There are also addictions -- smoking,
drinking, drugs, porn, gambling, etc. The answer seems simple --
just say no -- but addictions by definition require more than sheer
We all experience the
“softer” temptations. Like working too much, neglecting
the family, spending too much money, chocolate, spreading gossip,
undermining a coworker, neglecting a prayer life, chocolate, reading
everything but the Bible, spending too much time on Facebook or
the iPad, needing the latest technological gadget. And did I mention
chocolate? Mae West says, “I generally avoid temptation unless
I can’t resist it.”
We’re talking about
behaviors that in and of themselves are neither good nor bad, right
nor wrong. The goodness or badness is determined entirely by motivation,
intention and attachment. When we give even the softer temptations
priority in our lives, God gets shoved aside. Here are some self-determiners
of right or wrong:
Are you retreating within yourself, ignoring others?
Is it a compulsive behavior?
Do you have to excuse and explain yourself?
Do you attempt to hide the behavior?
Are you trying to avoid feeling?
If you remember nothing
else from this sermon, here is some profound wisdom that Paul himself
would have understood. Judith Wright calls it “the math of
more.” By adding real, life-enhancing, nourishing activities
to your life, you will naturally subtract the need for a soft temptation,
literally pushing it out of the way. The “math of more.”
You need to add to subtract.
We can remember that,
no matter what wrong thing we are tempted to do, those temptations
can never separate us from God’s love. True love and authentic
actions require free choice. Jesus wants us to love and obey him
FREELY -- not because we’ve received a spiritual vaccination
against being tempted, but because we choose to love God.
The last phrase of the
Lord’s Prayer was added years after Jesus taught his prayer
to the disciples. But it serves to remind us why we should resist
temptation. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver
us from evil. For yours, God, is the kingdom and the power and the
glory forever. Amen.