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Monday, April 9, 2012

Our Trials, Christ's Temptations

I find myself speechless from time to time as I examine the claims made in the Bible. There is something about taking time to consider what is being said in the Scriptures as life giving. I am convinced that if we spend time in the Bible through meditative prayer, meaning we actually think about what is being said and ask God about what is being said, we come to a place where Jesus becomes more clear to us. I think we can see this in both the Old and New Testaments.

In the books of James and Hebrews, we learn that the Greek word used for trials, peirazo, is also used for temptations. How can this be? Are all trials temptations? Are all temptations trials? How then do we escape the trap of falling into temptation? Certainly, we must consider the context in which the word is used, but more than anything, I think what is being communicated is a matter of the heart.

Everyone faces trials of various sorts and what I believe every trial ultimately does is one of two things: it draws us closer to God or it repels us away from Him. Every trial is worth acknowledging, even the trivial ones. The reason being is that every trial affects the human heart in a way that leads us to believe we must rescue ourselves from our circumstances or we must trust that God is our rescuer.

Trials repel us from God in more obvious ways to almost invisible ways through slow compromises and notions of self-reliance and self-dependance - these are the moments when we fall into temptation. We are tempted anytime we want something more than we want God, thus falling into the belief that what we cannot gain in Christ can be gained on our own. The most obvious ways are clear rebellion against God through immoral and unethical behavior to a blatant hatred of God for not giving us favorable outcomes in life. We become bitter, calloused, cold, and angry with God because we heard that God was a loving God and if God was a God of love, He would not withhold things we wanted from life. We expect to be blessed beyond our abilities, or at least at the same level as our peers. After all, what good is it to believe in God if we don't get anything worthwhile out of it?

The less obvious ways are generally only evident in the heart and visible through close examination. People who do not interact with you on multiple levels cannot say much about this. In our hearts though, we turn to God as an ultimate savior, but not an intimate one. He is only welcome into the places where we already have things figured out or into the places where we cannot figure it out on our own. In the space where we believe we can figure it out, we go in and out of debating whether or not we should fully surrender to the flow of things or if we should hold back and practice restraint on any sort of impulsivity. However, it is not even these things that really define the events taking place in our hearts. What we must constantly question is 1. am I trusting God or my own wisdom in this? 2. are humility and love driving my behaviors? and 3. what would Jesus encourage me to do in these circumstances?

Our souls are after control and power, and our hearts are after approval and acceptance. We allow fear to creep into our veins and drive our decisions more that we allow love to. This usually happens when we feel inadequate, unsafe, or threatened by something unfamiliar, unknown, and things that can potentially be painful. We often dismiss the need for faith by utilizing "wisdom" as our guiding light. I don't ever see wisdom and faith (trust and surrender) juxtaposed against each other. Instead, it seems as if wisdom requires an extreme amount of faith because wisdom is often used in times when there is no clear moral answer. Our hearts fortify themselves instead of fortifying our faith with walls instead of boundaries, defenses instead of treaties, and wars instead of feasts. We refuse to get lost again, to get hurt again, to be betrayed again, to be fooled again, to fail again, to experience pain again, so we hold onto what we know is familiar and inch forward when the tides are telling us to go with them so as to not get caught in the coral. Fighting the waves never pan out well for anyone, I know because I've tried and almost broken my neck, twice.

Every trial we experience, at the end of the day, whether its the struggle to put food on the table, or a conflict between loved ones, or learning to forgive someone that has wronged you, or trying to find ways to protect those you love, or coming to a place where we need to let go of your need to be respected, be in control, or gain approval and praise will affect the heart in ways that steer the direction our hearts face. They are either moments that measure how much you actually trust in God or moments that tempt you away from Him into other things. All of these things come from a place where we want something and whether or not what we want gets fulfilled.

The temptation of Christ is recorded in three of the four Gospels. Jesus was led into the the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan. After fasting for 40 days, Satan came to tempt Him in three specific ways. Studying this, after also reading through Henri Nouwen's "In the Name of Jesus" has given me insight into how our trials can turn into temptations if we are not careful.

Temptation 1: Stones into bread

Matthew4:2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Henri Nouwen calls this the temptation to be relevant. In other words, the temptation first set forth by Satan to Jesus was to do something that would make him matter - to give himself a way out of his hunger. To do something utilizing power, instead of expressing a type of gratitude that comes from experiencing grace regardless of the circumstances. We have to remember here that Jesus had been fasting for 40 days and thoughts of His provision of Manna to the Israelites for 40 years must've been flashing before His very own eyes. After 40 days, Jesus was completely empty in body. He had entered into this trial full of the Holy Spirit - in essence, in fellowship with the Godhead. After 40 days however, his body was calling out for nourishment, just a drop of something to fill His stomach. At this moment, Jesus was completely empty and as with anything else that is empty that needs to be filled, He was looking to be filled as well. Anytime we are hungry or in great physical pain, every reality outside of that one becomes null to us if we ascribe to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. However, Christ demonstrated that there was a greater reality He ascribed to, a reality where He would be able to rely on His relationship with the Father and the Spirit to be sufficient.

Henry Nouwen says that he is "convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal Gods love. The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God's Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life." The temptation Jesus faced, that we all faced is to do something that matters. To leave a mark on society as someone who left a legacy worth noting. After all, how great would it be if we could feed the hungry, house the homeless, nurse the children, heal the sick, and care for the elderly? These things, Christ certainly called us to do, but that is not what the temptation is. We often times ignore how weak our hearts are. We are all trying to find significance somehow, to find meaning. Those that try to numb themselves by trying to distance themselves from allowing anything to matter to them are trying to cope with the reality that the things they have found meaning in the past have only brought them pain, so it would be better to disengage, then to engage.

The problems in being relevant come when we consider our strengths, assets, gifts, and abilities to be more important than they actually are for the kingdom of God. God does not use strength, but weakness, and we see that over and over again. For it is in weakness that we find that the only relevance we have is in our standing with Christ. It is in weakness that we can remain humble, to be patient, and to exercise a level of understanding that allows us to trust in the sovereign hand of God instead of relying on our own efforts. In other words, we learn to recognize that God doesn't need us, but His love for us drives our fulfillment regardless of the circumstances we face.

In life, there will always be immediate needs, deadlines, problems, burdens, and things to fix around us. No one wants to go hungry, and no one wants to see anyone else fall into a deadly sickness because of the lack of accessibility or into sex slavery because of our apathy. Sure, we always want to increase our capacities to be more effective in life, and there is nothing wrong with that. What should drive us is God's love, but the thing is, we cannot feel like we are full of God's love when we are searching for meaning in other things. The moment we try to be relevant, to define our own search for significance, is the moment we elevate ourselves above others and place ourselves at the pinnacle of importance. We come to a prideful conclusion that without us, there would be no way that things would get anywhere. The truth is, the world would be fine without us. God would still accomplish His will whether we were gracious to participate or not, so we shouldn't ever find ourselves feeling pressured to have to do something. The only thing we have to do is make sure that we allow God to love us, and even that is something we cannot do on our own strength. What makes us relevant to God, is the only thing that should matter - for in our relevance to God, we will become all the more relevant to the world through love. Relevance is a matter of the heart.

Temptation 2: Find out if you are who you think you are

Matthew 4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 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.’”

7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

We all have identity issues. We go through the majority of our teens and twenties trying to figure out "who we are." Again, in a weakened state, Christ is put to the test. As Christ forewent food, a tinge of doubt might have crept in (theologically debatable: don't call me a heretic because I don't know where I stand on this yet), but the moment it might have, Christ was there prepared with the Truth of God's Word to stand on. He made a claim that what gives Him life is not food, but fellowship with God. This time, Satan attempts to throw Jesus off balance by making Him question WHO He is. We must remember that throughout all of eternity past, there was no want unmet, no desire unfulfilled, and no need that was felt in Christ through the Trinity (I won't go into the doctrine of the Trinity here). Christ was perfectly satisfied and delighted in the fellowship He had.

Then, to share His great love, God created the heavens and the earth and placed man on the earth. This was God's going public with His love. We know that Adam ate of the fruit tree, that Abraham was called by God, and that God used a bunch of imperfect people to be the spiritual bloodline that would lead to the Messiah. However, here he was, weak, empty, hungry, and exhausted. The devil wanted to throw Jesus off balance and made Him question the core of who He was, his identity.

The thing we have come to believe is that our identity is constructed from within. There is a belief that we are who we are because of something that we generated by ourselves versus being influenced and conditioned by external forces. We ignore the cultural variables that shaped our thinking, the relational experiences that shifted our thinking, and the value decisions that affected our choices. At the end of the day, we somehow draw the conclusion that our lives are a product of our skillful planning and strategic thinking over almost everything else. We start to take credit for where we ended up if successful and only if we fail, do we blame the world. Somehow, we made it. Of course, very few people believe this to this extreme, often times giving credit to their parents for having foresight or a mentor who decided to give them a hand up or just sheer luck, but you know that there is a seed of this "I did it mentality" when people get angry with others for being incompetent, impatient with people who are slow, show little compassion to those who are below them, and get frustrated when things don't go their way.

Our identity, if it is rooted in our abilities will always lead us to look down on people, to consider ourselves better than others, and to try to be the ones to humble others. We find a place we belong in the social stratum and exploit that position for our own gains, intolerant of people stepping on our toes, making sure that we get the respect we deserve for having reached a certain position, being affiliated with a particular group, or a member of a certain association.

At this moment, Jesus' entire foundation was being shaken. He was weak, yet was not overpowered. In this weakened state, Satan was trying to get Jesus to shake His belief in Himself - in God! Often times, our faith gets weak. Fortunately for us, it isn't the strength of our faith that saves us. It isn't our good works, nor our church attendance, nor our involvement in community service, nor our ability to be kind to the person that just irritated us. It is sheer grace - the undeserved love that God gave to us by coming to us so that we could receive Him. At this very moment, Satan was trying to get Jesus to question the Father's love for Him. After all, what Father would let their child plummet to their death if they had the ability to prevent it or to save them? When our identity is placed in anything outside of God's love for us, there is a great propensity to be insecure when the thing we place our identity in is threatened or depleted. If our identity is in relationships and our significant other leaves us, we become devastated. Our identity was placed in something that couldn't sustain it. If our identity is in our career or ability to make money, when that doesn't happen, we become depressed and driven by worry because our ability to provide was the reason we were worthy of love. Our identity was placed in something that couldn't sustain it. We place so much of our identity in things that we think would make us worthy to receive love that if they start falling apart around us, our security falls apart within us.

When Christ was tempted, He made it clear that God was God, and that God was not one to change. He understood the Gospel. His entire being was so oriented to bringing honor to the Father that there was nothing that could stop Him from trusting in the leading of the Spirit into the wilderness. He knew that He could rest in the Father's love for Him and the Spirit's good intention for Him even in the midst of extreme difficulties. His identity was in love, not in anything that He did or could do, not in proving that He was a somebody worth saving, and especially not in anything rooted in selfishness. Satan's attempts are always to tell us that God's love for us are not enough and that we cannot trust in the works He accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our salvation.

Temptation 3: God is not enough, I will give you the world.

Matthew 4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”

How do you tempt God (Jesus) away from God? Again, we must remember that Christ was fully God and fully man - you will get a wrinkle in your brain from trying to understand that one. Essentially, Satan was attempting not for Jesus to disbelieve in God, but to disbelieve in God's goodness.

In this world, we must realize that there exist pulls and pushes to go in one direction or another. The temptation is to believe that these pulls and pushes are neutral, which if we considered them in their objective state, would be true. However, our subjective motivations are what defines whether the neutral becomes detrimental to flourishing. Our hearts are wired to desire. That's the good part. The sad part is that when sin entered the world, our desires became distorted. We began to want things we shouldn't want (think of kids wanting sweets before a meal) and the things we should want somehow became cloudy. We were intended to desire God because God is the only one that could fulfill all of our hearts desire without leaving any space. Our hearts began to take what it gathered through sight and make it the fulfillment of their desires. We must guard against this.

Satan knew that for Christ to even potentially give up His relationship with God, even in the midst of being weak and with the knowledge of what was to come on the Cross, that He would have to offer the world to Jesus, literally. No great job, no sexy spouse, no perfect kids, no amount of money, no amount of power, and no amount of fame would do the trick. It had to be everything the world had to offer bundled up into a package. Satan knew this because He knew the infinite value of God and the only way to distract Christ might have been to shroud His ability to see God clearly and to show Him something more attractive. Of course, Christ prevailed.

As we think about this, one thing that stuck out at the end is that after being tempted, Jesus was ministered to by the angels - almost as if He finished 10 rounds with Mike Tyson, Goliath, the Titans, and Hercules at the same time. We must remember that God will never leave us nor forsake us, that the times when we want anything more than we want God are times when we aren't letting God's love be sufficient in our lives. That in all things, even if we go through difficult moments in the present, it will pass. He will never abandon us, and will always be with us until the end.

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