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Temptation: Thought for the First Sunday in Lent

 The collect for today is:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

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 JeffersonDo 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’
.

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 moveable body : H L Mencken.

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.

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’

But the most tempting temptation of all must be the one that appears to Christ: to do something that is in the interests of those he came to save:

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

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

 

The illustration is a photograph taken by masyras and downloaded from wikimedia under CCL of ‘Temptation of Christ and Satan in the desert’ at Chora Church in Istanbul.

12 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...
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Cartoon characters Calvin and Hobbes had a hook on it.

“Calvin: Do you believe in the devil? You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of man?

Hobbes: I’m not sure that man needs the help”

26 February 2012 17:35
UKViewer said...
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“Lead us not into temptation! Just tell us where we’ll find it!”
Sam Levenson

!Saintliness is also a temptation”
Jean Anouilh

26 February 2012 18:06
Lay Anglicana said...
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I love all three of these – and thank-you for commenting: don’t you think you should be blogging on the subject yourself?! :)

26 February 2012 18:34
UKViewer said...
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If I blogged on it, I’d probably need to be ‘shriven’ afterwards.

But I’ve successfully managed to resist the temptation to blog as I’m on a lent blog famine.

But, I didn’t give up on commentating on blog posts.

Temptation is a vast subject, which wiser people such as you have written about for generations. I just like some of the funnier quotes. My favourite is the Oscar Wilde one.

26 February 2012 18:42
Lay Anglicana said...
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Actually my favourite bit in that piece is mine!
‘Without a modicum of lust, the human race would be extinct’

No one seems to mention this very much, but some deadly sins are actually necessary to our survival…

26 February 2012 18:49
Kathryn de Belle said...
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Doesn’t lust in this context refer to strong sexual desire without love?

Is it fun to be wicked? I think if something is fun for a Christian, it can’t really be very wicked. Fun is a light-hearted word.

It is possible to enjoy, in a perverse kind of way, anger, gluttony, lust, and sloth, but only in the in the short-term. Conscience gets in the way of fun.

For myself, I’ve given up worrying too much. If what I do or don’t do hurts another, then it is a problem. Writing that sentence has made me realise that my worst sins, the most harmful sins, are those of omission. Oh dear!

Lay Anglicana said...
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The question of lust – I had always taken it to mean sexual desire, pure and simple, with or without love. But of course sexual desire in the context of marriage is not wrong.

The question ‘is it fun to be wicked’ was meant to relate to the world of advertising which we live in, as well as -on the surface- the world of the teenager.
I really believe that wickedness is NOT fun (as Clarissa Dickson-Wright describes so evocatively)because it carries so much misery with it.
The theme for today is really what constitutes temptation for you, and how you manage to resist the temptation or, alternatively, deal with the results.

26 February 2012 20:59
26 February 2012 20:52
UKViewer said...
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I think that Lust is more than sexual urges. We lust after power, money and a whole range of other things. Lust=greed=envy, so intimately tied in together.

I’ve always thought that being tempted is not a sin, giving into it is the sin. But, scripture and the last Pope, actually tells us that lusting after something is as bad as doing it -ergo, we sin.

Would love to have some clarification of this.

27 February 2012 08:50
Lay Anglicana said...
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To hear is to obey – Wikipedia has:
The word lust is phonetically similar to the ancient Roman lustrum, which literally meant “purification”. This was the five-year cycle time for the ritual expiation of “sins” called the lustration as practiced in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, occasionally involving human sacrifice. Sexual intercourse was one of a list of sins requiring lustration. Another similar word existed in ancient Latin, lustratio.[2]
The Seven Deadly Sins, written during the 5th century is a similar list of sins requiring expiation or forgiveness. These doctrines forbade even thoughts and desires for fornicatio (fornication), later generalized as luxuria (lust/lechery).[3][4][5] The concept also was progressively embodied in debates about mandatory Clerical celibacy beginning in the 1st through 5th centuries and following. For example, Henry Charles Lea states that “Sixtus III barely admits that married persons can obtain eternal life” in his “Sacerdotal History of Christian Celibacy” (p. 45). He also states, “Siricius and Innocent I ransacked the Gospels for texts of more than doubtful application with which to support the innovation “. (p. 53)
However, in the 11th to 15th centuries the northern European usage of the verb still meant simply “to please, delight;” or “pleasure”. A related form “lusty”, originally meant “joyful, merry” or “full of healthy vigor”. See.[6]
The word “lust” began being used in the 16th century in the Protestant Reformation’s early non-Latin Bible translations. This is despite the fact that the original Koine Greek Bible has no single word that is uniquely translated as heterosexual lust. q.v.
Today, the meaning of the word still has differing meanings as shown in the Merriam-Webster definition. Lust: 1. a: pleasure, delight b: personal inclination: wish 2. intense or unbridled sexual desire: lasciviousness 3. a: intense longing: craving b: enthusiasm, eagerness . See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lust

27 February 2012 09:24
UKViewer said...
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Laura, thanks for that. I’m a bit more educated.

The Pope’s (and RC) stance is that if you think about temptation, its as good as giving in to it. E.G. a married man admiring a pretty women is regarded as committing adultery in his heart. Nothing about admiring the beauty and diversity of God’s creation. It’s lust, pure and simple.

If it was only that simple!

It certainly gives a sense to the old saying “Its all in the mind”! I suspect that there’s some half-way house here, but I’m not clever enough to discern it. Probably something to do with ‘intention’.

27 February 2012 19:53
A. Pink said...
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You quoted Danzae Pace above. Can you tell me please who who he is (or was)? I know this is a little off topic, but I can’t find any biographical information and thought you might know more about him. Thank you.

Lay Anglicana said...
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Good question – I am afraid Google has a lot to answer for. I found him (or even her?) quoted in several anthologies of quotations online, eg http://www.quotesinternet.com/author/pace-danzae/, but I am afraid I do not know any more.

19 March 2012 18:21
19 March 2012 17:20

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