When I decided to respond positively to the call of God to invest my life’s energy in pastoral ministry, I made preparations to enter The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. On the day before I was to leave for my continuing study, one of the stalwart ladies from my home church came to bid me godspeed and to give me a gift. When I opened the package, I found one of those embroidered samplers so popular at the time that read, “Yield not to temptation.”
Tucked in with the gift was a religious tract entitled, “Resisting Sin in the Big City.” I remember wondering even then, how would she know? However, this woman who had spent her entire life in that one city and church was duly concerned that this young man might fall for the immoral enticements of the big city, which she believed was the abode of the devil.
If only temptation were that simple, then we could face it head on. If the only temptations we ever faced concerned moral indiscretion, we could laugh the devil out of town and smugly claim, as did one Midwestern college, that it was located 40 miles from the nearest sin!
The truth is, however, that we encounter much more profound and vexing temptations. Times of testing that try our souls come to us surely as they came to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and to Jesus in his wilderness struggle. Jesus’ three resolute responses to his temptation help us to make our own responses in those wilderness challenges that come to us.
“And the tempter said to Jesus, ‘If you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.’ But Jesus answered, ‘Not by bread alone shall people live, but by every utterance from God’s mouth.’”
That would have been a quick and convenient way for Jesus to get people to follow him: to provide them immediate gratification, to bribe them with material things, to satisfy their physical needs, and gloss over – even discount – their deeper spiritual needs, because such a strategy would require less time, prayer, and work and involve fewer struggles. Always there is this temptation of expediency and the lure of believing that short-term goals are all that matter.
The Bible is full of people who yielded to the temptation to be expedient. But we do not need to look only in the Bible. We face the same temptation. It comes at those critical character choices we make for truth over deceit, for responsibility over indifference, for keeping our promises over sneaking off from them. The temptation comes in our relationships with others and the covenants we make: when we decide for marriage as a long term commitment or short term experiment; when we decide for love as affirmation, loyalty and trust over the long haul rather than as an exercise in getting what we want and need, when we decide for friendship as coming through the worst together instead of being together only in fair weather.
Too easily we say “yes” to the expedient and thereby say “no” to God. We need Jesus’ ringing words: “We shall not and do not live by bread alone, but we live by every utterance that proceeds from God.”
“Then the tempter took Jesus into the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the Temple and said to him, ‘If you are God’s Son, throw yourself down. For it is written, “He will give His angels charge of you,” and “They shall bear you up in their arms lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered, ‘It is also written, “You shall not tempt (or test) the Lord your God.”
Always there is the temptation of exploitation, the temptation to use God, to bargain with God, and to misuse and take advantage of one another. Jesus was enticed to do the same – to use God in order to create a sensation that would attract immediate attention and give him the limelight. This is what the many pseudo-messiahs of Jesus’ day attempted in order to get a following, but Jesus would have none of it; and with a decisive “no!” he replied, “You shall not test the Lord your God!”
The same temptation comes to us to exploit God for our own ends. We may try to manipulate God for our own glory and to meet our needs. How often we misuse God in trying to win an election, to pass a final exam or win a championship game, to increase our business or advance us in our profession, to promote ourselves and our prejudices. The temptation is so insidious because we can fall for it in the name of religion and, as T.S. Eliot put it, end up committing the greatest treason – “Doing the right thing for the wrong reason.”
In the wilderness, Jesus said “no” to exploiting God and said “yes” to reverencing God and God’s Kingdom.
Again the tempter took Jesus to a very high mountain and pointed out to him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur. He said to Jesus, “I will give you all of these things if you will fall down and pay me homage.” Then Jesus said, “Away, Satan! For it is written: ‘You shall pay homage to the Lord your God, and Him alone shall you serve.’”
Always there is the temptation of equivocation, the temptation to set aside our faith commitment, to sell out to lesser gods, to renege on our promises, to compromise our principles, to prostitute ourselves, to lower our ideals.
The temptation comes to us today, nudging us to ease up on our faith, in order to get out from under what faith requires, to turn from God when God demands too much, to reject trust in God and place it in a thousand idols: money, success, status, possessions, science, technology, military force, and pleasure. They will save us, we say. They will fulfill us, we say. When we yield to the temptation to equivocate, we end up lying to God, lying to one another, and lying to ourselves – pursuing a shadow of our true being and thinking it is real.
However, like Jesus, we can say, “Away, Satan! We shall worship the Lord our God and God only shall we serve. We shall not tempt God. We shall live by every Word that proceeds from God’s mouth.” We can say “no” to the tempter and say “yes” to God, and find life that is fully alive and love that heals us and brings joy to human wastelands.
In the drama, “A Man For All Seasons,” Cardinal Woolsey visits Sir Thomas More, who had stood up to the King and all the King’s court and is now imprisoned. The Cardinal says to More: “You are a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see the facts flat on, without that terrible moral squint of yours, you could have been a statesman.” More replies, “Can I help my King by giving him lies when he asks for truth?”
When More’s daughter comes to him and asks him to compromise his stand for truth and justice, More says: “When a man makes a promise, Meg, he puts himself in his own hands, like water. And if he opens his fingers to let it out, he need not hope to find himself again.” So he did not yield. He did not yield.
“Away, Satan!” We will say “yes” to God, and God only shall we serve.
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.