Grace, free forgiveness. Undeserved acceptance. The Gospel of Christ is unique among religions. It turns upside down the idea that salvation depends on our good deeds. It doesn't. God's forgiveness, and our future destiny, depends entirely on God's generosity. But that doesn't mean that morality has no part in our faith. Faith, and God's forgiveness come first - then we start a new way of living. After we receive Christ, we want to be righteous. We want to be like him. However, we continue to live on this earth, with all its difficulties, challenges, and temptations. To truly wear the 'breastplate of righteousness' we need to understand how temptation works.
In my previous blog, "Naboth's Vineyard", I promised to expand on the subject of temptation, so here it is:
Desire is the handle that temptation grasps. If we are contented with what we have, where we are, and what we're doing, temptation finds less of a handle. I'm not saying that desire is a sin. We get hungry, we need love, we value many things in this beautiful world. But desire can be turned into temptation. We have a saying - 'I want it so badly!' - and that's a clue. If we want something badly, perhaps desire is in control.
Some desires are definitely in control. We call them addictions and, as Alcoholics Anonymous famously teaches, there's no half measures with addiction. When addicts break free, they remain vulnerable. That's true to alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography… As Christians, we learn to repent and receive forgiveness, but the images, smells, thoughts, and ideas that dragged us down remain in our memory. Those memories remain as part of our package of risk.
The Apostle John categorised three kinds of desire that can turn into temptation: "For everything in the world - the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life - comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever" NOTE 1. My previous blog focused on one of these: "Gazing at the vineyard, Ahab's fancy turned into a deep yearning." That glance, which set off a domino tumble of widespread disasters, was an example of "the lust of the eyes". Other biblical examples are King David ogling Bathsheba, Achan spotting valuables in Jericho's ruins, Ananias and Sapphira seeing an opportunity to cheat the system and, of course, Eve eyeing some tasty fruit. Eyes are valuable. Most of us rely on sight more than any other sense and couldn't imagine living without it. But our strongest sense is our greatest weakness when it comes to temptation.
Each of our senses can be a vehicle for temptation - hearing, smell, taste, touch. When John spoke about "the lust of the flesh" he didn't just mean sex. Any of our bodily desires can get out of control, taking us over. Even eating can be dangerous. When medieval churchman warned about gluttony, they were saying that greed can take over our lives and turn us away from our better selves. And then there is "the pride of life" - yet another natural emotion twisted into the unnatural and dangerous. Pride, after all, is distorted self-esteem. We need to value and care for ourselves, but we need a sense of proportion.
Some may wonder, since forgiveness comes just for the asking, why does all this matter? That's like a question that St. Paul raised rhetorically - "Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?" NOTE 2, and the answer, obviously, is "No way!" Having received God's mercy, we're forever indebted to him. More than that, we're enlisted into his army to resist every kind of evil - and that doesn't just mean evil people. It was Paul again who drew attention to the spiritual powers ranged against us, and our need for the 'armour of God' NOTE 3. I often wondered why prayer isn't listed as part of the armour, until it struck me that prayer is the battle. In prayer, we engage with powerful spiritual powers, and we need protection. A vital part of that armour is the "breastplate of righteousness". Resisting temptation equips us for spiritual warfare.
Why is temptation so strong? Because it exploits our personalities and aligns itself with our preferences. One person loves football but hates pop music. Another person hates medical documentaries but enjoys birdwatching. We're all different, but our individual desires can draw us into trouble. Temptation can begin so innocently - the accidental glimpse of a top-shelf magazine, the casual glance into a showroom, the smell of a bakery, the memory of an advert - it may take many forms. Desire isn't necessarily bad, but we need to view it in the same way as we regard a frozen pond or the edge of a cliff. Tread carefully in this area.
How, then, can we overcome temptation?
Start by learning to defer desires - even the harmless ones - so you build up strength to defeat the bad ones. Fancy something? Put it off and do something else. Make it a habit, until you feel in control. Deferring gratification is a valuable psychological exercise. Increase contentment and strengthen yourself to face the harder challenges. Overcome temptations by denying them the power they derive from desire. Ultimately, the way to defeat the pull of desire is to desire something better - like being God's good and faithful servant.
All this is very well but knowing how temptation works isn't enough to help us when the pressure is on. I didn't want to make this blog too long, so the story continues in "Overcoming Temptation".)