Lead Us Not Into Temptation
There's an old fable—the earliest record I can find is from a sermon from the 70s, but its preacher claimed to have heard it first as a Native American parable—that there are two wolves at war in the heart of every person. One wolf is despair, evil and suffering. The second wolf is hope, goodness and joy. These beasts fight eternally in our souls, the fable says. And which one will win, you ask? The wolf that wins is the one you feed.
If you recall last week's introductory sermon, the Book of James was written by James, the half-brother of Jesus Christ. James intends this letter to be read by mature Christians, who already know the basics of belief and faith, to encourage experienced Christians to keep believing and to remember that a living faith in Jesus overflows from belief in your heart and mind... into tangible good deeds and a holy life. Last week, James' opening verses covered things all believers experience: enduring challenges, asking for God's help amid difficulty, the temptations of both poverty and wealth. Today we wrap up this opening salvo from James with his look at the personal struggle with temptation that faces every Christian. James writes: “God tempts no one to evil. But one is tempted by their own desire, being lured and enticed by it. Then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin. And that sin, when fully grown, gives birth to death.”
Notice how this process starts. God cannot tempt you to sin, for that goes against God's holy nature. God doesn’t set you up to fail. Nor does James blame the devil as the main factor in whether we give into temptation. Instead, you and I are squarely in the driver's seat when it comes to temptation so that the buck stops squarely here, no excuses or blame-gaming. Notice also that James doesn't say having desires itself is sinful. Every human being has desires, good and bad, some we give into and some we overcome. But when you are “lured and enticed” by wicked desires, James says, that nurtured desire gives birth to sin, which in turn gives birth to death. Which wolf will win in your battle with temptation? Good or evil? The winner is the one you feed.
Many of you may know that I have an irredeemable sweet tooth. On more than one occasion have I baked something to give to a church member or event... and I eat about a third of them. After many years of dealing with myself, I've learned I can resist that temptation when I'm in the store, when I still have to pay actual money for it... but once that bill is paid and I own the sweets? So long, New Year's resolution. I have strong willpower at the store. But once my treat gets home, I've already invested in me eating it: the only question is when. So let's apply James' model of temptation to me. I'm at Meijer, and I see the discount baked good rack. I desire a pastry. Now I have a choice: I can immediately reject that as a waste of money and a waste to my waistline and then walk away... or I can mull over the idea. Perhaps after thinking it over, I eventually give in, as I slowly nurture that temptation. Even if I mentally argue “no” against my desire for half-price pastries, I'm still entertaining the option, toying with temptation, and so ultimately my arguments no can often make me just as “lured and enticed” by temptation as giving in right away. The mere act of thinking about it—even if I'm thinking about it to tell myself no—tempts me to give in, for the idea of giving in becomes bigger and bigger in my mind and becomes easier and easier to explain away, to rationalize, to make excuses and justifications for. The more I debate those pastries, the more I feed the wolf of temptation and the less I nurture the wolf of self-control.
It's similar with every temptation, big or small. Few intentionally plan to cheat on their partner, at least at first. Most probably start out even telling themselves “no.” But the more they think about the person they want to cheat with, even if while saying no in their heart and mind, the more chances there are for such temptation to grow. And eventually enough rationalizations, excuses and just-this-one-time justifications pile up to where... the affair just happens. It seems unplanned. It feels unexpected. But it was an act that was nurtured and built up over weeks, months or even years. For other examples, The Joker, which just won this year's Golden Globe for best actor, and Breaking Bad, a TV show that wrapped up in 2013, are both tales where the main character becomes a villain. The Joker murders and sparks mayhem. Breaking Bad's Walter White morphs from a high school teacher into deadly drug lord. Yet in both stories, the hero doesn't start out evil or uncaring. They begin as normal human beings. Imperfect, yes, but relatable and sympathetic. But slowly, ever so slowly—through trials, temptations and difficulties—they are lead downhill into acts of immense evil. It's not that the Joker or Walter White planned to be mass murderers: it just... happened. But when you look back at their stories, it's a series of little choices, little moments toying with temptation... that snowball into their dark paths. Those stories reflect James’ understanding of temptation and evil, how it tempts you further and further over time. Because in the fight between goodness and evil in your heart, which wolf wins? The one you feed.
So that's how the big bad wolf inside our hearts can grow... but what about goodness? James writes, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. In God there is no variation or shadow due to change. To fulfill his own purposes, God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” James warns that temptation comes from desires that we nurture... but righteousness, the good wolf we want to nourish, kind deeds to other people... these are not things we nurture but things the Almighty cultivates and sends down to us, through us, for us. And so James isn't saying, “To overcome temptation, be really, really good.” No. Because nobody's perfect, after all. Instead, James is saying, “To overcome temptation, turn your gaze to God, who provokes every generous and good act. God, who never changes, never fails, never ceases to love. God who promises to make us—battered by temptation we may be—into the first fruits of a new creation, ambassadors of paradise, sneak previews of eternal life's joy.” When challenged by temptation, James doesn't want you to debate or reason about the desires you wish to avoid, for that only reinforces what you don't want. Instead, turn your focus to the Father of lights, who sets the standard for goodness, who inspires and births goodness in our world, our hearts and in our day-to-day actions.
In the world of pastoral counseling, addiction recovery, and talk therapy, one technique that can be effective amounts to exactly that: replace the old behavior with something new to take its place. If you merely say, “I'm not going to give into anger, lust, addiction, shame or whatever else today,” then that forces you to think about the very thing you don't want to do, which tempts you. But if you say, “Instead of screaming at my family, I will wash the dishes to calm down and help them,” or “Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I'll volunteer at a soup kitchen to help others,” then you not only stop the behavior you don't want but also put something in its place to stop misbehavior from returning. I overcome my sweet tooth at Meijers by recognizing my desire for pastries, turning away from those baked goods, and buying fresh oranges or apples instead.
In all those cases, rather than grappling with the desire you don't want, James inspires Christians to look to God, who pours out goodness—in blessings we receive and in the blessings we give to others—and who thereby delivers us from temptation. What I love most of all in this is it flips the wolf proverb on its head. Through the grace of God, the question becomes less about whether you and I feed that evil wolf or the good one... and much more about how the grace and righteousness God feed us, making us the first fruits of God’s new creation in paradise. In the meantime, before we reach eternal rest, however, we Christians face the daily task of confronting selfish desires, recognizing our temptations, and choosing to nurture the good wolf of righteous living. When you are tempted, react not with internal debates or arguments… but with a steadfast faith that looks to God, who shows, gives, and is a righteous path for us to walk instead. Amen.