Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sunday Musings: The Fighter, The Fish, and The Floozy

Someone in my Bible Study group recently said this about his formative years: "I knew what I knew, but I didn't know what I didn't know." I am convicted of the truth of this in my own life.

I know that I know the Bible; but more and more I am discovering how much I didn't know that I didn't know it.

Take James, for example. How many of us wish there were more to the Gospels, more about Jesus and what He was like and how He lived before He comes on the scene as an itinerant missionary on His way to the cross? Did you know that James was Jesus' younger brother? If anyone had the "inside scoop" on that mysterious portion of His life, pre-disciples, it would be James.
How did I not know this? I've memorized the first book, but to me, James was always "James-the-servant-of-God-and-of-the-Lord-Jesus-Christ-To-the-twelve-tribes-scattered-among-the-nations-Greetings." Paul's epistles start the same way, so I just assumed James was like that. It was just another guy who wrote a letter about Christianity and all that preliminary stuff was just words to be gotten out of the way so I could go on and embark on what the book was really saying.

Then the pastor at my church starts preaching through the book of James, and it totally blows my mind to think, "Hold up! This guy is Jesus' brother! That must mean they practically grew up together!" The passages of James take on new meaning as I realize that when James is talking about "Let the lowly brother rejoice in his exultation, and the exalted brother in his humiliation"--he's referring to the fact that a Godly believer, though he be poor, will be exalted, and the ungodly person, though he be rich, will come to ruin. When James mentions "trials" and "temptations" and how they will "develop perseverance"--probably the first thing on his mind is his brother Jesus when He returned from spending forty days hungry, isolated, and tired--and tempted by Satan. Watching his brother's face as Jesus relates the events of those trials, and how He stood against them like a prizefighter and didn't give up and didn't give in, it's no wonder that James can tell us with such confidence, "the testing of your faith develops perseverance, and [when] perseverance finishes it's work, you will be complete, not lacking anything." Because even a man who had nothing to sustain himself for forty days, and yet survived even the direct confrontation with the Devil, because He relied on the strength of the Holy Spirit to pass the test of His faith.

Today's sermon was on the passage that speaks of temptation. James uses three analogies that I have paraphrased into three distinct characters: the Fighter, the Fish, and the Floozy.

The Fighter

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12)

The first analogy is that of a fighter--but an athlete, not a soldier. The "crown" is the traditional laurels given to the victor in a competition. This is significant in the fact that temptation is the battle cry that sounds in the skirmish, not the whole battle. As the pastor said it, "It's the kickoff, not the whole game." Being tempted is distinct from actually following the urges and doing the sin that you have been tempted to do. 
Jesus was tempted. Luke makes no bones about that in his account (Luke 4:1-13). He was hungry, isolated, and tired--and vulnerable. We are the same way; we let ourselves get tired, isolated, and hungry (whether spiritually or physically) and Satan takes opportunity of our vulnerability and seeks to drag us down with temptation. Because we are vulnerable, we tend to look at the size of the oncoming temptation and see only the outcome Satan wants us to see: our own defeat, our selves caving to the irresistible draw yet again.

It doesn't have to be this way. Temptation is the beginning of the test, not the end.

A competitor who has trained in his sport does not give up the minute he sees the other team walk onto the field. Will the temptations be easy to withstand? Not always. Does that mean that it's impossible so we might as well give in when they come? Certainly not. "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." (1 Corinthians 10:13) There will always be a way to beat the other team. We just have to rely on God to show it to us, and we have to take it. The temptation doesn't count as a failure if we resist it. Just because we have temptations doesn't mean we're somehow slipping or lacking. God's timing is never off; just because you've never faced a situation this difficult before doesn't mean you're going to fail. In reality, you've never been more ready. God works through the trials to bring you to the point where you can remain steadfast in circumstances that--had they come any earlier--would have chewed you up into little pieces. 
Temptations are tests of our maturity. If we resist and remain steadfast, the result is that we have "let steadfastness have its full effect, that [we] may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." (James 1:4) We have won the match. We have earned the crown.
And it doesn't have to end there. The winner of a sport receives a medal or a trophy--something to remember the victory. When you achieve a victory in the face of temptation, log it away, write it down somewhere, so that the next time opposition hits, you can remember how far you've come to get to where you are.

The Fish

"Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God,' for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire." (James 1:13-14)

Sometimes we face temptations with all the mental capacity of your average salmon. It's instinctual, a knee-jerk reaction: we see the bait and we scoop it up without even bothering to entertain the slightest suspicion. It's flashy, it's desirable, it feels good in the moment--and all of a sudden we're in the fisherman's boat trying to figure out how we got there.
What's the remedy? If it's desirable, we should avoid it? Does it mean that to avoid swallowing the hook we must shun every kind of goodness and happiness we see, no matter how wholesome it may appear? That does sound effective: "Avoid all manner of bait-like foods, and you will never swallow another hook." And yet...if we call the match because we don't like the size of the opponent, how can we receive the victor's crown?
There are desires within us that God gave us... for HIS glory. They are gifts that bring us the most fulfillment when we use them according to HIS direction. When giving in to our desires leads to consequences and destruction, it's not God's fault. It's ours.
The Fall was the consequence of a desire (the desire for nourishment and wisdom) perverted and turned away from God's design. God's not sitting on His throne with a fishing pole, waiting for us to nibble at the bait so He can sink His hook and whack us on the head for being naive idiots. He's watching over us with the desire that we will resist the alluring temptation and remain steadfast in our submission to Him.
Just because we follow Christ doesn't mean we won't ever be tempted; just because we have temptations doesn't mean we aren't followers of Christ. Christ Himself was tempted; His man-nature had the same desires and needs that we have. (Hebrews 2:17-18) And yet He did not sin--by the power of the Holy Spirit, He faced the temptation and resisted it. The Victor remained steadfast, that He might redeem the victims. And by claiming that victory, we too can tap into that same strength to withstand the temptations. Not by shutting our eyes to any kind of sensation of pleasure--but by turning the desire over to the Holy Spirit working within us, by submitting that desire to the authority of Christ, as He submitted to His Father.

The Floozy

Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:15)

The third way we might respond to temptation is in the manner of a "floozy." We see it, we like it, we'll "date" it, we know it's not good--but there's just a little part of it that makes us feel "good" in a little part of ourselves... and we just keep coming back... until it happens... The "inevitable conception" (sin)... and by then it's too late to say we've resisted, too late to revert to the "steadfast virgin"... but if we let the sin become "fully grown," the end is always death. 
It never looks that way at first; temptation never reveals it's ultimate goal of death. We're promised a "good time" and "health and wealth and happiness"....

The end result of sin is always death. God tells us sin's ultimate result, because He loves us and He doesn't want to see us "messing around and ending up hurt." He tells us exactly where "running around" with sin--no matter how glamorous or "warm-and-fuzzy" it feels--will get us.

The end result of sin is always death--but sin doesn't have to be the end for us. Jesus faced temptation; Jesus resisted temptation. Jesus paid the penalty of sin (which is death) for anyone who would accept His payment and submit to His leadership. If we repent of the sin and rely on the redemption provided for us by Jesus, He will redeem us. "If we confess our sins, He [Jesus] is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9)  By a "one-night stand" with sin we birth death; by a "once-for-all" death, Jesus gives us life.

So where does that leave us?

At the end of the sermon, the pastor pointed out that the first word of this passage is "Blessed." Do we want God's blessing in our lives? I know I do! I also know that I have yet to develop consistency in resisting temptations. Yet therein lies the key to living the God-blessed life: "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial." I have all the tools I need (namely, the redemption of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit) to step into the prizefighting ring with confidence. I just need to practice the moves, I just need to strengthen my muscles--I just need to hold on to His strength. It's not just a nice sentiment, it's a promise:

Persevere, and you will be blessed.