Sunday, June 17, 2012

on temptation, and sin

Eve tempted by the serpent, by William Blake

Over the past few days, I've been grappling with the temptation to sin (I know; what an opening line, right?). Well, as anyone who's ever struggled with their conscience knows, it's easy to think of a million excuses and loopholes to make the fall that much easier. But since growing in my walk with God, it's not been as straightforward as before -- my conscience is far more tender now, and far more sensitive to God's "still, small voice".

Which of course makes sinning that much harder. I'm not talking about those thoughtless, spur-of-the-moment type sins -- like losing your temper, or being rude or impatient. I'm talking about deliberate sin -- the premeditated, calculated, cold-blooded kind. Now I'm not Catholic; I don't know which specific sins fall under "venial" (not so bad) and "mortal" (very bad). I believe, as John the apostle writes, that "all wrongdoing is sin", but I think most of us agree that certain sins are distinctly worse than others.

So, without going into too much detail, suffice to say I was struggling with the temptation to sin in that "distinctly worse" way. Every time it came to my mind, I would come up with my million and one excuses and loopholes to make giving in to it "ok", or "not that bad". But always in the back of my mind, or my gut, or my heart, would come this warning -- Don't deceive yourself. For you know how it is with sin -- every time you flirt with it, indulge it, or feed it, it grows till it consumes you and takes over your life. I've also never forgotten this quote I once read in high school: The devil is a gentleman who never goes where he is not welcome.

In walking closer with God, I've been finding it easier to be convicted, so that the moment I say, or do, or even think, something wrong, I quickly try to stop/gag/kick myself. But I think as many of us know, some sins are so very enticing, so very seductive, and we find ourselves epitomising what Jesus said in Gethsemane: "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak".

In struggling with this temptation, I felt much as the apostle Paul might have when he wrote, "I do not understand my own actions [I am baffled, bewildered]. I do not practice or accomplish what I wish, but I do the very thing that I loathe [which my moral instinct condemns]". Or, as the NIV puts it, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do". (Rom 7:15).

It was frustrating me no end -- I literally felt like one of those cartoon characters who has both an angel and a devil whispering into each ear. I could not escape that uncomfortable feeling in my gut that what I wanted to do was wrong, despite all my reasoning, and yet I wanted to just go ahead and do it anyway. How true it is that if you "walk and live [habitually] in the [Holy] Spirit [responsive to and controlled and guided by the Spirit]; then you will certainly not gratify the cravings and desires of the flesh (of human nature without God).

"For the desires of the flesh are opposed to the [Holy] Spirit, and the [desires of the] Spirit are opposed to the flesh (godless human nature); for these are antagonistic to each other [continually withstanding and in conflict with each other]..." (Gal 5:16-17).

The whole thing was really preying on my mind -- clear evidence that even thinking on sin destroys peace -- and last night, in a fit of something like aggravation, I asked my girlfriend, "Do you ever deliberately sin? I mean, actually plan to do something which in your heart you know is wrong". The fact is, I was hoping she would give me the loophole I wanted.

But she replied, "Sometimes. But I really try not to, because I'm afraid of God". Now, I know she was coming from the standpoint of being afraid she'd get struck by lightning or something, but it does capture a little of what it comes down to, doesn't it? That reverential fear of God, which should be closely tied to our love for Him. I remembered what this lady at church tearfully said about her husband, who was having an affair -- "He does it because he does not fear God".

Isn't that why we sin? For between the time we plan the sin and actually do it, we essentially lose our fear of God. It's as if He suddenly ceases to exist in our lives, like we put Him away in a box somewhere because His commands are just too inconvenient. And yet in our times of need, we call on Him with all the fervency of people who very much believe in the existence of a sovereign, omnipotent God.

We don't actually put it that way of course, because it just sounds bad, which is why excuses and loopholes are so handy for easing our consciences. And when we find that we aren't hit by a lightning bolt right there and then... It reminds me of something Pastor Andy Stanley said in one of his sermons some time back. I don't remember the title of the sermon, but he described our regarding God as "backpack God", a sort of conveniently-sized totem that we carry around and pull out when needed. I remember Pastor Andy describing the way we'd treat God almost like a pet dog, telling Him to "Stay... stay...", while we go off on spring break or do something stupid, and then adding, "But if I need You, I'll come get You".

Well, needless to say, my little exchange with my girlfriend did not help significantly, and I went to bed frustrated -- both with my weakness and -- alas! this must be admitted -- with the fact that my plans were being frustrated. I prayed fervently that God would help me overcome this, and knew with certainty that I had to go to church the next day.

And lo and behold, what should today's sermon be? Noo, not Fear Me or die. Instead, it was Do you love Me?. It was based on verses in John 21, in which Jesus asks Simon Peter three times if he loves Him. Of course Peter says he does, as most Christians do as well, but we know Peter at least did go on to prove it. The question is perhaps most succinctly answered in John 14: "If you [really] love Me, you will keep (obey) My commands". Or, as it says in the NIV, "Whoever has My commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves Me".

As our pastor said, "We obey Jesus because we know His ways are perfect, and He can be trusted. His commands don't stem from mixed motives or insecurities. Jesus asks for our obedience because He knows that obeying Him is the best thing we can do for ourselves. It is also the only way to truly love Him". And then he showed this slide on the projector screen: "If you love Me, ________________".

"For each of us, what goes in that blank will be different," he said. "What is it for you? Give up something like a bad habit or sinful relationship? Forgive someone against whom you've been holding a deep-seated grudge? Learn to be more generous and caring? What is it for you?"

And as I looked at that blank, just one answer came up in my spirit: Don't. I knew immediately then that God was telling me, "Don't do it, don't even think on it. Trust Me, just don't". And I know, from conviction and experience, that God can be trusted, that His thoughts and plans for me are "for welfare and peace and not for evil" (Jer 29). I know too that the loopholes I come up with are ultimately deceptions; one can't think, "It's not so bad, I'm only doing this -- I'm not going all the way and doing that". For surely it is in one's secret thoughts that we give the devil a foothold.

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment'. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, 'Raca [an Aramaic term of contempt]', is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell...

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt 5:21-27). As the Greek poet Hesiod said, "He harms himself who does harm to another, and the evil plan is most harmful to the planner".

And then, at the end of the sermon, when our pastor tried to get the slide with the closing hymn on, all that appeared on the screen was a multicoloured jumble of symbols, looking for all the world like some ancient hieroglyphic code. With a laugh, he said, "Let's sing our closing hymn in Greek". When the slide continued to remain indecipherable despite all the fiddling, he finally said, "Let's sing from the hymnal then. The other pastors thought of this hymn as well, so perhaps God is telling us something".

Well, the hymn was an old Methodist one, written in 1864, called My Jesus, I love Thee. When you read the hymn's opening verse, you'll understand why I'm not grappling with that temptation anymore.

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.


Anonymous said...

Gosh, thank you for this excellent, honest, insightful read. I totally know where you're coming from. I'm so thankful our God is a gracious God, and is so patient with our weaknesses. Frankly, I could think of more than a few things that could go into that "blank".

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

A fabulous, thought-provoking post. I think we are all tempted to sin at times, but the stronger our conscience, the less likely we are to cave into it. Looks like you're on the right track.

Dawn said...

Janice your content is amazing and applies to all of us. I would love to know what the sin was...he he. I love how beautifully you amazes me. Dawn suitcase vignettes xo

Beth said...

A wise and wonderful post, Janice...and one most of us can readily relate to. I daresay we've all felt at one time or another that we had an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. I'm so glad you found peace.


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