The Line Between Good and Temptation
On March 5 I was privileged to preside at The Church of the Resurrection in Odessa, Florida. Here is a summary of my message to them.
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
This morning, these particular scriptures fit together like a hand in a glove. The Old Testament reading describes the fall of humanity, the Gospel portrays the symbolic reversal of Adam’s failure, and the Epistle describes the eternal significance of the events. Yet our focus is normally so narrow when we discuss them. Genesis teaches us that all good lies start with a little bit of truth. In the case of Adam, God tells him that he is not to eat of the tree in the center of the garden, or he will surely die.
It is interesting to note that when God says this to Adam, Eve has not even been created yet.
[At this point in the sermon a lady from the church piped in, “See! It couldn’t have been Eve’s fault.”]
Thank you for your point, but hold that thought …
The serpent later strikes up a conversation with Eve through three temptations that will forever change our view of God.
“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 So when the woman saw that
1) the tree was good for food,
2) and that it was a delight to the eyes,
3) and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,
she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who
was with her, and he ate.
DESIRE TO BE LIKE GOD
Pointing fingers does not change the damage done.
The serpent, knowing that death will not be immediate, drives a wedge between humanity and God. Then he tells Eve that she can know the difference between “good and evil”. This half-truth does the most damage. Look around you. We still wrestle with what is good and evil, because we are finite creatures without all of the facts. The political mess in which we currently find ourselves should be proof enough. But the lie has a much more damaging impact. The serpent changes humanity's perspective on God’s motives by telling Eve, “You will be like God if you eat and He is jealously trying to keep you from becoming like Him.” God is no longer for us in this scenario but against us.
As we read through Genesis, we often end up pointing fingers to affix blame. Eve succumbs to temptation, the serpent misleads and lies, and Adam fails to correct Eve and trust God. But the question of blame is the wrong one. There is enough blame to go around, and it does not really matter. Everybody had to play his part for the break to be made. Adam, the proper name for the man and the Hebrew word that means ‘humanity’, goes from paradise to the wilderness. The question we are left with is this: can the mistake be reversed? If so, how? How can humanity avoid similar mistakes going forward?
Matthew answers the first part of the question, in his gospel. He shows the symbolic breaking of Adam’s curse as Jesus undergoes the same three temptations.
1) And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter
came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become
loaves of bread.”
2) Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple
and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
‘“He will command his angels concerning you,’“
“‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
3) And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
DESIRE TO BE LIKE GOD
At this point, we normally focus on the overarching story of God’s redemptive plan, just as Paul does in Romans. There is a first Adam who causes the fall and a second Adam, Jesus, who comes to redeem the fallen world. In church words, Jesus brings about the possibility of justification before God. The chasm that has separated man and his God has been overcome by God himself through Jesus, the Christ.
Jesus, being completely human, must also be completely divine. Even after two thousand years of debate, these lessons are hard to grasp, let alone to apply in some way that seems to impact our daily lives. Paul explains that the fall is not only reversible but that it has been reversed through the work and sacrifice of Jesus. What we often forget, though, is that Jesus faced the temptations through his humanity, not his divinity. True humanity has the ability to overcome sin, not on its own, but in complete submission to the Father. There is hope in understanding that life with God is real and available, but where do we see this in our lives? Where is the return to paradise?
Our experience seems to tell a different story, but only because we must rely on our faith to connect the here with the not-yet. The Bible tells us that the Kingdom has come but not yet fully. We are to begin living a kingdom life now, understanding that we are still in the wilderness, waiting for final redemption.
Here is where the second and third parts of the question are answered. We now know through scripture that Jesus needed to die a criminal’s death and be vindicated by God raising him from the dead to usher in redemption. The death and resurrection of Jesus provide the how, but the more complex part is this: how do I face temptations today?
This part of the story is messy and individualised in many ways because our personal experiences, issues and challenges are unique to our person, but looking at an example through another’s eyes can be helpful to identifying subtle areas of temptation that before may have gone undetected.
As many of you know, I have been working with New Covenant Church for the past two and half years. Previously, I worked as a hospice chaplain. Right before Christmas, my wife and I felt the nudge to fast and pray for God’s guidance concerning our future. I guess I should also let you know that one of the people in our congregation had given a word that God was doing something new. With all of the things happening at AMIA, we felt that the word was directed to New Covenant because of the new international role it would be assuming, and in many ways it probably does apply to that circumstance. For my family, though, it took on a personal significance as well.
During the fast, my wife, having not heard the word given to the staff, stated that she felt that God was doing something new, an affirmation of the previous word. I had increasingly been feeling a sense that God was asking for more, but I am not one who hears God directly. Only by looking backward and seeing where he has lead me can I identify his hand on my path. On the first day of Epiphany, like it or not, I was going to be doing something new. My role at New Covenant had come to a close, and I was free to seek God’s leading.
It’s in this context that I find myself evaluating temptations. Suddenly very good things may very well be a temptation, and not the will of God.
For example, as part of our continued prayer, my wife and I both felt that God was trying to teach us about complete reliance. Throughout my work life, I have always valued being employed over family considerations. My security was tied tightly to my employment. But what if God was calling me to more? I was pretty sure that I could get a conventional chaplaincy position, but I also knew from my past experience that a huge proportion of that position would be documentation. I also would be walking away from additional parish responsibilities that I grown to love. Seek you first the Kingdom of God. Matthew 6:33 popped in to my head. Is that from God or is that from my naive application of the scriptures?
A large part of my role at New Covenant had been serving the fringes. With the disenfranchised in mind, I began to wonder what a chaplaincy to the community would look like. The more rocks I overturned, the more I was sure that people were falling through the cracks, and God was calling me to do something about it. I began to check in with people whom I trusted spiritually to see what they thought about the idea. Almost to a person, I saw their eyes light up. They felt a similar need, and they asked good questions. Many of those I could not answer, and a couple remain unanswered.
So my immediate need of income and a salary could be viewed as a temptation, a good and necessary thing that might just pull me out of God’s will. Tawdra and I took the season of Epiphany to ask God for just that, an epiphany. We prayed, and we came alongside friends and trusted partners for counsel and prayer. Slowly, questions have been answered, and some pieces have fallen in o place, but no major contracts are on the horizon.
As Lent begins, we have entered into the second phase of temptation. Did we really hear God right? Are we being carelessly naive? Is this of God, or are we deluding ourselves?
As I prepared for today, it struck me how our situation mirrored the sanctification process. We are constantly looking, evaluating and testing to see if we are in God’s will. Each time we pray with friends, each time we receive news that we perceive as either good or bad, we try to first ask, “What could the Lord be telling us?”
By realigning to His will, we can redirect or repent, to chart a new course heading forward. One friend told me, “If you have peace in what you are doing, then keep doing it!” So we may not know for sure until we look back and see God’s hands all through this process, but for now His peace is enough.
If all succeeds, there may be a temptation to try and take on the world in my own power, but for now, I am learning to be content walking at the Master’s pace. Some days I am more content than others as I learn to rely on Him for my daily bread.