Monday, July 13, 2015

Temptation: The Equal Opportunity Troublemaker

“I can overcome anything – except temptation.” I don’t know who first made this admission, but it was probably Adam and Eve. And we’ve been saying it ever since. Must be “part of our DNA.”

The first biblical couple, of course, had been given everything they needed in the Garden of Eden, and God had provided unlimited access to all but one thing – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which stood in the middle of the garden. That alone was off limits, out of bounds, verboten. But like little kids told not to touch a hot stove, or to keep their fingers out of the cookie jar, the temptation was too much to withstand.

Just because the flower looks pretty, that
doesn't mean it's not a pesky weed.
They probably didn’t run immediately to the forbidden tree to sample its forbidden fruit. They most likely strolled all around paradise, enraptured by all they saw, tasted, smelled and experienced, but every once in a while would glance at the tree labeled “Don’t Touch.” Eventually, their glances turned to longing and, prodded by the tempter, Adam and Eve started thinking, “Why can’t we eat from that tree? What’s so special about that one? Is its fruit better than all the others we’ve already tried? Why won’t God let us have fruit from that tree? If God is truly a loving God, He’d let us have it too!”

Ultimately the temptation won out. They eased over to the taboo tree, plucked a piece of fruit and took a bite. Hence they engaged in what theologians call “the original sin,” instigating the Fall of Man, and we’ve been wrestling with temptation and sin ever since.

As someone has wisely noted, if sin wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t want to do it. Stuff we don’t like or don’t want to do doesn’t trouble us at all. I’m not tempted to eat liver, or Brussels sprouts – I don’t like them. But hotdogs and French fries, pizza, or an ice cream sundae, those are another matter. I’m not tempted to squander hours watching the craziness of the Kardashians, “The Bachelor” or “Honey Boo-Boo,” but can easily become mesmerized by a marathon of “Twilight Zone” episodes or repeats of “NCIS.”

Being made in the image of a Creator God, we have repaid Him by becoming amazingly creative, even in the types of temptations that captivate us. We’re tempted by greed, gluttony, sexual lust and cravings of other kinds, selfishness, envy, anger, resentment, pride, independence from God, arrogance, even – as one website recently pointed – taking questionable shortcuts to success. Why invest time and struggle and energy if we can achieve our goals the “easy way”?

“I can’t help it!” we offer as justification when temptation gets the best of us and we succumb to sin. “The devil made me do it!” we protest, echoing the excuse of Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine” from TV years ago. “I’m only human!” we explain, essentially implying it’s God’s fault.

But we can’t blame God because the Scriptures assure us He will never tempt us to sin. James 1:13-14 declares, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone, but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.”

Earlier in this passage it does state God “tests” us: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance…” (James 1:2-4). But there’s great difference between “tempting” and “testing.”

Tempting is being presented with an opportunity to do wrong, to sin. Testing, on the other hand, has the positive goal of presenting us with an opportunity to grow spiritually, to excel in our faith. It’s like the difference between one athlete who, as the big game approaches, elects not to work out and instead spends the day drinking beer and eating potato chips, while another spends several hours in the training room, doing everything necessary for being at his best for the game.

We can play the “Nobody’s perfect” card, a convenient alibi for doing – or not doing – as we know we should. But as an old friend of mine pointed out, “You can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair.”

Certain temptations vex each one of us, and what tempts me might not faze you. But we all know our own temptations and through diligence we can avoid what James describes: “…after desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15).

Fortunately, the Scriptures promise that temptation followed by sin doesn’t have to be our “default setting.” There’s a way out, it says: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape” (1 Corinthians 10:13). 

For a recovering alcoholic, the “way of escape” can mean not entering the local bar. The person wanting to remain faithful to his or her spouse might need to avoid a compromising setting with an attractive coworker on a business trip. Maybe the “shopaholic” needs to avoid the mall. The embittered family member may need to extend forgiveness, even if undeserved or not requested.

Temptations are all around us, beckoning to us like roadway billboards. But they don’t have to assemble nests in our hair.

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