From Temptation to Transformation

“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”  This is the question that got our series started. To many of us, the notion of God tempting us seems inconceivable.  If God is loving and good, why would God be the source temptations that might lead to our personal or professional undoing?  Why would God bring us to trial, and test us, knowing that we fail more often than succeed – or just barely get by, hurting ourselves and others – in difficult times?

This is a legitimate question to ask – In the wake of temptation are broken marriages, dishonest business dealings, health crises, addictions, and automobile accidents, not to mention the seductions of power that lead to government sanctioned violence and trauma.

This sounds like divine “entrapment” – being led to temptation -putting us in situations where we are likely to make harmful mistakes.  If God is the source of temptation, how can we trust God’s love for us? If God is helping us one day, and hurting us another, how can we know when God is on our side or if what we are experiencing, when we turn our back on what’s best for us and others, is God’s will or our own desires?  Instead of passing the buck as comedian Flip Wilson did with his excuse, “the devil made me do it,” we can excuse our mistakes with “God made me do it.”

All of us know what it’s like to be tempted. Who hasn’t been tempted to choose the lesser path or a behavior we know is harmful to body, soul, or relationships? The apostle Paul confesses, “The good I want to do, I don’t.  What I want to avoid, I end up doing.” Or as the old adage goes, everything good in life is immoral, illegal, or fattening.

I believe that God is on our side.  So, I avoid using maxims such as “God never gives you a problem you can’t handle” or “God is testing me with cancer or failure.” I don’t believe God causes cancer or guides us to make wrong decisions.  I don’t believe God is out to get us; I believe God is out to love us.

Now some versions of the Lord’s prayer have tried to reinterpret the suggestion that God causes temptation:

In their book on worship, “Human Rites,” Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild paraphrase –

Strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

The New Zealand prayer book takes a similar approach –

 In times of temptation and test, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

Philip Newell’s states–

Don’t forsake us in times of conflict but lead us to new beginnings…

While these soften God’s involvement in temptation, there still is an element of threat – we can fail despite our best efforts to walk the right path; we can be corrupted despite our attempts to be moral.

Temptation is real and becomes more challenging as we move from childhood to adulthood.  Jesus went to the desert to discern his vocation, and experienced Satan’s tempting.  Scripture suggests that God’s Spirit sent Jesus to the desert to test his vocation and commitment.  In the desert, Jesus was tempted by good things – food, power, and security.  Yet, even good things can be abused when they get in the way of better things. Food is intended to be enjoyed and nourish us. Yet, we can overeat and eat the wrong foods – we can put our health at risk and have diets whose production leads to hunger among other people. Power is good but power can be destructive – power can be used in ways that lead to death and division.   Security is good but if it is our highest good, every stranger is a threat and diversity is dangerous.

Life is ambiguous: our greatest strengths can be the source of our undoing. Moreover, every achievement has a challenge hidden within. We rejoice in technology, but what was intended to be labor saving makes for 24-7 lives in which we never get down time.  We are delighted at the use of internet and social media but it can be employed for bullying, and cyberwarfare.  We like having the news at our disposal: but “breaking news” every fifteen minutes heightens our anxiety and weakens our ability to discern the difference between fact and falsehood.

In the temptations we experience, God is implicated. Let me repeat that. In the temptations we experience, God is implicated; God has a role. God’s creativity opens the door to human freedoms that can hurt as well as heal, harm as well as help. Had evolution stopped at single cell organisms, no one would worry about global climate change.  Had God radically limited human ingenuity, we wouldn’t be talking about nuclear war or genetically modified foods that may modify us!

“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”  Perhaps, we need to go back to the fatherhood and motherhood of God.  I know what it’s like to be a parent and grandparent, and good parenting often means putting limits on children and youth that seem painful at first or presenting them with challenges to help them grow.  How many of us had to overcome our children’s tears to help them learn to ride a bike or swim or sleep in their rooms? How many of us had to withdraw our help so that they could do a task on their own? Parenting may not mean always making life easy for your children, and your decisions may seem harsh, even if no direct ill is intended.  But, growth requires push and pull.  A good parent, however, ensures as much as possible that the child succeeds by her or his own efforts by not creating impossible situations, by respecting her or his level of maturity, and by constructing a safe environment to encourage maximal freedom and creativity with as little risk as possible.

God is the best of parents, and like a good parent, God cannot overcome our freedom and must – along with us – deal with the consequences of our actions.  We may choose against God’s vision, we may decide not to grow, or we may use our new achievements for self-interest, but every step of the way God is seeking to overcome – to deliver us – from the evils we might knowingly or unknowingly create.

God’s way is that of Shalom, justice, joy, and peace: the evolutionary and moral arc is aimed at Shalom for us and the world. Yet, divine challenges may seem painful: it is challenging when your values are questioned, it is painful to struggle and succeed one day at a time with addiction, your personal and moral muscles ache when you try be a better person.  In such moments, God is not just the source of calm but the engine of novelty and progress, and healing and wholeness. But, amid the challenges and struggles, God is with us, giving us chances time after time, so that we might in all the ambiguity of life, seek God’s realm on earth as it is in heaven and find our wholeness in a realm where tragedy is transformed by beauty, and love wins the day.