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What is the real purpose of temptation?

By Rev Gav

One of the traditional ways of thinking about sin is that sin is a set of spiritual laws or a cosmic list of rules that have to be obeyed to appease God and keep God and keep God happy, however Christians believe that the consequences of sin were dealt with, once and for all time, upon the cross of Jesus Christ, and that nothing we can think, say, or do, can separate us from God’s love. Yet, we know that there are still temptations in our lives that, when we succumb to them, damage our relationship with ourselves, others, the world around us, and therefore also damage our relationship with God.

We know that evil and love exist in the world, and that they are diametrically opposed. In the same way that love seeks to restore and build relationships, evil seeks to break and destroy them. Sin, in itself, cannot separate us from God’s love, and God knows that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. God knows that if we sin, the free gift of forgiveness is available to us, therefore the real purpose of temptation is to see our relationship with God destroyed.

For example, take gossiping. The damage in succumbing to the temptation of gossip is not that we have committed a sin, but the resulting broken relationship with the one about whom we are gossiping. The real question we should be asking about whether something is ‘sinful’ or not is, “Does this thought, word, or action damage my relationship with myself, others, or the world around me, or does it directly damage my relationship with God?”

There is no perfect metaphor to describe the spiritual reality in which we find ourselves, however, I would like to share with you one such metaphor, as I believe it will help us as we look at the subject of temptation.

I would like you to imagine, if you will, a wide river, full of fast-flowing water. This is the River of Temptation. Each one of us is immersed in the river and none of us are without sin, for we all succumb to temptation and say, think, and do things that hurt ourselves, others, the world around us, and God. We are all being swept along by this river and our feet are unable to hold to the river bed. Jesus, whose feet are firmly connected with the ground, wades out into this river and reaches out a hand to those being swept along, however, when confronted with the reality of our own sin, we are tempted to do four things: hide, doubt, strive, or divert.

The very first response to succumbing to temptation is guilt and shame. We can feel shame for things we have thought, said, or done on a daily basis, but also, we can carry a sense of guilt for years, allowing the burden of it slowly buckle us. In the River of Temptation, we are exposed, naked, and we know we are sinful. Steeped in shame, we hide from Jesus, and to achieve this, we duck our head under the water. Can you think of anything more daft to do, than to duck your head under the water of the very river that is sweeping you along?

The second response to succumbing to temptation is to doubt God’s love. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, Satan asked, “If you are the Son of God then turn this stone to bread,” and, “If you are the Son of God then throw yourself down from here.” That same voice speaks into our own heads, “If you really are a Christian then you wouldn’t have said or done that thing,” and when we listen to that voice we doubt we are children of God and heirs and inheritors of life in all its fullness. Am I really good enough? Surely, God is angry with me? Am I really forgiven? In the River of Temptation, we turn our backs on Jesus and do not think God wants to save us. We think the outstretched hand is for someone else and so we choose to ignore it.

Thirdly, our response to temptation is to strive and be self-sufficient or independent, believing we can cope in our own strength and have no need for God. In the same way that in the wilderness, Jesus was tempted to be self-sufficient from God the Father, and use his abilities to turn a stone to bread, we are tempted to try and make it on our own. So many of our temptations appeal to our egos — to trust in our gifts, talents, and wealth, and be independent from God. There is nothing wrong with having good things or receiving the wonderful gifts that God gives us, however, we are often tempted to do things without acknowledging that we need the ongoing presence of God in our lives. In the River of Temptation, we swim against the current in our own strength, and it feels good. We feel strong, and for a time, we hold our own against the current, not realising we will never make it to shore.

Our final response to temptation is to divert, and like Jesus in the wilderness, be tempted to give our loyalty, and cling to something or someone other than God. There are Christians, even in the church, who cling to things other than Jesus Christ, and it feels scary to let go of that which they feel is saving them, for to take the hand of Jesus means having to let go of everything else! In the River of Temptation, other hands are outstretched to us that promise hope and salvation, but the reality is that only Jesus has feet firmly on the bottom of the river and only the hold of Jesus is completely secure. From our vantage point we cannot see that all these other people and objects are not secured to the bottom, and because we are holding on to that object or person we cannot see that the horizon is moving and we have a false sense of security. There are lot of things floating in the River of Temptation — gurus, self-help books, wads of cash, or perhaps even, floating Bibles, doctrines, or even floating churches.

The story of Jesus in the wilderness is the story of the Saviour, who, being repeatedly tempted, never succumbed, and because of this, was and is able wade in and keep feet firmly on the bottom. Standing in the River of Temptation, God holds out a strong arm, ready, willing, and able to clutch the hand of any who reach out and grab it, and through clinging on to Jesus, we too can call out to others and encourage them to take hold.

What do you do when you succumb to temptation? Do you hide? Do you doubt? Do you strive? Or do you divert? My prayer for you is that you will hold on to the promise of God, that you will reach out and take the strong hand of Jesus, and that you will know that you are God’s forgiven and beloved child, now and forever.