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Lent 1: Temptation

10 February 2008
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11; Psalm 32 Blessed are those
Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him. James 1.12

Temptation, like the teenage term of approval 'wicked', gets rather a good press these days - if you put the word in your internet search engine, you will get page after page offering you the delights of assorted temptations.

The process of overcoming your misgivings to yield to the seven deadly sins of anger, avarice, envy, gluttony, lust, sloth, and pride is presented as at least as enjoyable as the 'sinful' (term of approval again) pleasure itself. Advertisers capitalise on this trend to market everything from fast cars to chocolate.

All of the deadly sins (with the notable exception of envy) give at least momentary pleasure when merely sipped, as it were, and in homeopathic quantities could scarcely be described as sinful (no doubt the Archbishop of Canterbury himself is occasionally tempted by a teeny- weeny glass of sherry or a spoonful of chocolate mousse and he is obviously neither a drunk nor a glutton). And without a modicum of lust, the human race would be extinct.

The risk is the one taken by the young lady in the limerick:

There was a young lady of Riga
Who went for a ride on a tiger.
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And a smile on the face of the tiger.

Mick Jagger summed it up:

It's all right letting yourself go, as long as you can get yourself back. In other words, who is in control: the temptee or the tempter?

In the words of Thomas Jefferson: Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it.
Or, as we read in the first letter of St Peter: Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.

Not that the Devil has it all his own way, as Hilaire Belloc tells us. Sometimes he too is in the position of the lady from Riga:

'The Devil, having nothing else to do,
Went off to tempt My Lady Poltagrue.
My Lady, tempted by a private whim,
To his extreme annoyance, tempted him'
.

In this morning's story of the Fall, as soon as we hear:
of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,Genesis 2.17 we know what is going to happen next: the inability to resist temptation, and the consequences of this failure is one of the basic seven plots of literature.

The Bible repeatedly warns us of the dangers: Let no one say when he is tempted 'I am tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. James 1:13-15

The problem is the relative strength of the temptation concerned versus our consciences. As La Rochefoucauld said: If we resist our passions, it is more because of their weakness than because of our strength.

Edmund Cooke warns us:

So you tell yourself you are pretty fine clay,
To have tricked temptation and turned it away.
But wait, my friend, for a different day;
Wait till you want to want to!

If we repeatedly overrule our conscience when it pricks, it will eventually wither away, like a muscle that is never used. Books of quotations are full of one-liners on this subject. Some recommend giving in at the first hurdle:

I can resist anything except temptation : Oscar Wilde; or

I deal with temptation by yielding to it : Mark Twain.

Or you can regard all attempts as doomed in advance:
Temptation is an irresistible force at work on a movable body : H L Mencken. Or:

Opportunity may knock only once, but temptation leans on the doorbell : (Anon).

But, as Angelo said in Shakespeare's 'Measure for Measure': 'Tis one thing to be tempted...another thing to fall.'

Just saying 'no' may be difficult, but it is not impossible:

I count he who overcomes his desires braver than he who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is the victory over self : Aristotle.

Or this, by C S Lewis: A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is....A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. Mere Christianity Book 3 Chapter 21

The corollary is that each successful attempt at overcoming temptation strengthens the sinews: Every conquering temptation represents a new fund of moral energy. Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before. William Butler Yeats

John Bunyan makes a similar point: Temptations, when we meet them at first, are as the lion that roared upon Samson; but if we overcome them, the next time we see them we shall find a nest of honey within them.

Of course, what makes resisting temptation difficult for many people is they don't want to discourage it completely. As St Augustine of Hippo famously said: Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.

There are two possible mechanisms for resisting temptation. In Charles Spurgeon's words: Some temptations come to the industrious, but all temptations attack the idle.

Or, as Franklin P Jones suggests: Nothing makes it easier to resist temptation than a proper up-bringing, a sound set of values - and witnesses.

But, joking apart, being in the grip of temptation, unable to resist, is no laughing matter, as Danzae Pace knew: Being out of control is one of the worst feelings in the world, sometimes even worse than pain. It is its own kind of pain.

Clarissa Dickson Wright describes the searing pain of the alcoholic, trying to climb back to the light after having descended into the pit:

After my father's retirement from hospital, there was a huge upsurge of violence. From then onwards my mother and I...were bashed about on a weekly basis, sometimes just bruises, sometimes broken or cracked ribs, and always verbal abuse...when my father had gone it was as if a gale had stopped blowing or a great black cloud had passed away...sometimes people for various reasons, particularly grief, will drink heavily for a while, but then come to their senses and stop. This is not the way for us alcoholics: once the illness has kicked in there is no way we can go back to controlling our drinking. ...there is a saying that religion is for those who don't want to go to hell, spirituality is for those who have been there. The (AA) steps are all designed to focus on a power greater than yourself, whether it is God or the power of the group...just so long as it isn't you.
'Spilling the Beans'

After forty days in the desert, Christ is first tempted with bread. To use his divine power to satisfy extreme hunger seems reasonable enough. What use will he be in God's service if he is physically weak? The second temptation sees the tempter...turning the words of scripture back upon him. 'It is written...' so surely it must carry divine approval if he demonstrates his confidence in God's protection? The third temptation is also carefully angled. Surely it is in the interests of those he came to save that he should control the world as soon as possible? Each temptation seeks to justify the means by the end. Jesus' rejection of these temptations commits him to a life of hardship and self-denial, to patient trust in his heavenly Father's care and to achieving God's mission by God's means.
'The Ministry of the Word', by the Rt Revd David Stancliffe

O Lord, we have no strength against those multitudes of temptations that daily assault us: be thou pleased either to restrain them or to assist us, and in thy faithfulness suffer us not to be tempted above that we are able to overcome. Amen. Prayer of Richard Allestree

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