What to do with Temptation
In 1947, Time magazine published a lengthy article on C. S. Lewis. His image appears on the front cover of the magazine, then the most important weekly publication in the news and culture business. Lewis earned this distinction by the success of his book, The Screwtape Letters.
This is a series of letters written from an imaginary devil or demon to another imaginary demon. The first is named Wormwood, and the second is named Screwtape. Wormwood is the trainer, and Screwtape is the trainee. Screwtape is being trained in how to tempt a particular human person. Screwtape writes to his older, wiser trainer Wormwood, giving daily reports on his efforts to tempt his assigned human; we do not have those letters. Wormwood responds to these reports, these letters from Screwtape, with his own letters, and these are the ones collected into this book. Wormwood gives Screwtape advice on how to dissuade the person from believing in God and living for Christ.
It is a clever literary device, which is one reason the book was so very popular then and now. But there is another reason: it deals with the most common human experience: temptation.
We all deal with temptation, every one of us: young and old, wise and silly, saint and sinner, you and me. We are all tempted. C. S. Lewis wrote about it, and Jesus taught us to pray about it.
Do not lead us into temptation.
What tempts you?
Many of us are tempted by food: too much food, too rich food, too fast food. I read this week that half of the world will be obese by 2050. Already that is true in the United States. We in our church need to pay more attention to what we eat. We need to find healthier places to eat on Sunday. Do not lead me to temptation when church is over, and we head out to Sunday dinner.
We are more than halfway through the Christian season of Lent. Lent is a time when many people, not me, but many people give up things. It is an act of sacrifice, or surrender, or clearing out some overgrown weeds in our soul in order that some virtues might flourish. Did you give up something this year?
Two weeks ago, on my way to preach in Kentucky, I drove through Atlanta and stopped at a church whose pastor was once a student of mine. He is half my age. It was Wednesday night and I arrived in time for dinner. I ate at the table with the pastor and his wife and their two children, plus another staff minister and his wife. The pastor stood to speak about the practices of Lent, and he spoke about this pattern of giving up something. He paused in his teaching and asked each table to talk about this. I turned to the only other person at the table, his wife, the preacher’s wife, and said, “Do you give up things for Lent?” She replied, “I would like to, but I haven’t.” What would you like to give up during Lent? I asked. She responded, “I really want to give us cursing.”
Well, there’s that.
She is not the only person tempted with things related to speech. Some are tempted to say something when the occasion calls for silence. Some are tempted to stay silent when a voice is very much needed. To be silent in the face of injustice, or rudeness, or mockery, and taunting is a powerful temptation.
All across our country taunting is a thing. It is a wicked thing. It cultivates a herd mentality when a pack of mean kids or adults turns on somebody. They don’t dress right, or speak right, or love right, or conform right, and some bully begins the taunt. It grates on your moral equilibrium. You want to protest. You want to say, “Back off, guys. Let’s go do something else.” But you are tempted to go along, to shut your mouth, to join in the meanness just by your silence.
Knowing when to speak and when to stop is great wisdom. It is also great strength. It is great courage. To speak up when the easy thing is to stay silent is a wonderful gift. I remember the day, clear as a bell, when our family was gathered in another state for a medical emergency. Another woman in the waiting room began to speak and speak in a way that demeaned somebody in our family. It was a rant, we call it now. She should have shut up. I didn’t know what to say. I thought, as I often do, I won’t jump into this verbal fray and maybe it will die down.
But not my wife. She knew it was time to speak. I don’t recall what she said. But she took up for the child who was being scolded. She spoke clear, strong, and direct. It was powerful, and in some ways, so out of character. I was stunned, and I was so proud. It was the right word at the right time. I succumbed to the temptation to silence; she answered the call to speak. She was right, and I was wrong.
James the brother of Jesus wrote about temptations: the temptation to pride among the rich, the temptation to anger among the irritated, and the temptation to discrimination within the community, the temptation to presumption among those who refuse to care for others, and the temptation to envy and jealousy among those who have less, and the temptation to criticize others who are different from you.
But James the brother of Jesus also addresses the issue of speech. “Not many of you should become teachers for we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Then he speaks more generally, “We all make many mistakes. If we could control our tongues, our speech, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way.”
Paul the apostle writes elsewhere what we all know, Self-control is a gift of the spirit. We all want self-control. But every one of us struggles with things we cannot control. In some cases, but not all, we call this lack of control, addiction. Sometimes, I think we are all addicted to something. Food, drugs and alcohol get all the attention.
But there are many other kinds of addiction. I want to mention tobacco and caffeine but also what are known as behavioral addictions, such as gambling, sex, and shopping. The internet can be addictive. Cravings, compulsions, and the inability to stop anything are serious and debilitating life conditions. Any and all of these cause a patient to chase a pleasurable feeling while incurring adverse consequences.
I recently learned that the popular actor on the sitcom “Friends,” Matthew Perry (who played Chandler Bing) was in the throes of alcohol addiction almost the entire time he was on the show: ten years. He hid it well. Last year, he wrote this in his memoir: “I’ve been to rehab fifteen times. I’ve been in a mental institution, gone to therapy twice a week for thirty years, been to death’s door.” That is quite a confession. He estimates he has spent $9 million on getting clean. Now at age 54, Matthew has been sober for 24 months. He said last year, “Sobriety had now become the most important thing in my life.”
Which brings us to these words of Jesus: Do not judge others.
Jesus reminded us that we have our own problems. You have enough problems of your own to worry about somebody else’s problems. This is what judging is: deflecting attention from our own shortcoming by drawing attention to the shortcomings of another person. It is a weasel way to live.
Do not judge the way another person sings, or speaks, or walks, or lives. Do not judge the way another person thinks or prays or works or laughs. You never know where they started in the race of life. They may have started way behind you, due to family or finances, something beyond their control. They may be struggling to handle some physical or mental issue; they may be just holding it all together. They may be doing the very best they can. They may be doing better than you would do if you were handling what they are handling. Do not judge. Be compassionate towards people. Be understanding toward people.
I’ll make a confession, and while I speak, you confess your own sins! I went to preach two weeks ago, and Sam was with me. I asked him to read the preaching text for me, Acts 8, the story of the Ethiopian and his conversion. Sam politely declined, and I did not press it. But later, I wish I had pushed it. The man who got up to read scripture is a long time friend of mine. I performed his wedding ceremony twenty something years ago. But this Sunday, and any Sunday I suppose, he demonstrated his lack of talent for public reading. It was as if he had never read the text before, and I was embarrassed. I sat there judging this man for the way he read the Holy Bible. Is that not the lowest of the low?
Later, in a very general way, I asked Sam what he thought about the whole service. “You embarrassed me,” he said. What do you mean, I asked. “You called my name.” By which he meant, I did what I do here every Sunday, saying, “I’m so glad to have my daughter Sarah Kate and my grandson Sam with me today.” Then he said, “I should have read the scripture.”
Maybe he was doing some judging himself, or maybe he was rebuking himself for refusing to use his significant talent for the good of the congregation. Yes, he should have read the Bible in public that Sunday, and perhaps that experience will motivate him not to judge others but to take any opportunity to use his gifts for the glory of God and the common good.
Pope Francis has a word to say about this temptation prayer. We are not Roman Catholics, but we recognize that the Pope, whoever he is, is the most visible and influential Christian in the world. And I happen to like this one!
Six years ago, he presented to the Conference of Bishops in Rome a new wording for the prayer. Instead of “Do not lead us into temptation” Francis suggested “Do not let us fall into temptation.” That version now appears in the Catholic Missal, as they call their worship guide book.
We understand why he wanted it changed. Because he had been reading the Bible, the little letter of James, which I quoted moments ago: “When you are being tempted, do not say ‘God is tempting me.’ God is never tempted to do wrong, and God never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away.”
It is not the devil and it is not the Lord, it is us, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer, and patience, standing in the need of love and forgiveness, standing in the need of joy and hope.
“Come close to God,” James writes in chapter 4, and God will come close to you…. Humble yourself before the Lord and God will lift you up in honor.”
What is your struggle today? Call out to God for help and healing.
What is your temptation today? Confess it to somebody and to God. What is your point of failure today? Look to Jesus, who was tempted in every way just like us. In every way, isn’t that a wonderful phrase? Such an expansive, inclusive phrase. Wherever you are, Jesus is there: suffering with you, struggling with you, and saying to you in the words of this Bible, “Come unto me, all you who struggle and are burdened down, and I will give you rest.”