November 23, 2014
November 23rd, 2014
12 Happy is the one who stands firm when faced with temptation because if he endures he will receive the crown of life which is promised by God to those who love him. 13 No one who is tempted should say, “I am being tempted by God,” because God cannot be tempted to do evil and he does not tempt anyone. 14 Every person is led into temptation by his own desires that draw him and entice him. And when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin. And when sin has become fully grown it gives birth to death.
It's difficult to solve a problem when you don't understand what's wrong to begin with. But even if we do know what we’re doing wrong and even if we have advice on how we should change our behavior, the real problem is not being able to implement the necessary changes.
Illustration: A number of years ago, when my son’s car died on the Pat Bay highway he was astute enough to coast into the Quadra street exit and pull over onto the shoulder. He and his friend then got out and did what I did as a young man when I got stuck on the side of the highway. They opened the hood and stared into the engine compartment. Now, Stefan knew that he had a drained battery, but he was not able to fix it because he lacked the tools to do so. He was stuck where he was. So he phoned me.
The same is true when it comes to the things that are wrong with us personally. Even if we’re very smart, we often don’t have the ability to fix ourselves. We may have a theory of what’s wrong with us, even when we get advice on how to change our behavior, we are often seemingly unable to implement the necessary changes.
I know that in some ways the problems I deal with date back to when I grew up … and the family dynamics that were a part of my life. But despite the fact that I know at least some of the reasons for my problems, doesn’t mean that I how to solve them, how to fix me.
Just for example, it is the rare person who implements a dietary change consistently and over a prolonged period of time. It is as if we are prone to fall back onto a default position that is not always good for us.
Some of you have lost friends because of your problems, or you marriage failed, or you lost your self-respect, or your reputation, or your money, or you’ve lost contact with a child or a parent, or you lost a job, because you couldn't solve you – you couldn’t fix the problem that you have.
Some people have such severe problems that they lose everything – job, house, family – even their health, they may even say that they want to change, but they still seem unable to do so.
Now regardless of whether we are Christian or spiritual or not at all interested in religious stuff, all of us know that there are times when we either do not do what we think we should be doing or we do the very things we shouldn’t be doing.
And we know this, based either on the admonitions in the NT, or the commandments in the OT, or knowledge of our criminal code, or because of social convention, and mostly because our own inner moral compass tells us.
I do not do the good that I want to do. And the evil I do not want to do is what I keep doing. Romans 7:19
When Jesus asked the disciples to stay awake and pray for him, he mentioned this fact:
The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Mark 14:38
We all do stuff we do think is right and we all fail to do stuff we think we ought to do. One could be termed the sin of commission and the other the sin of omission. And often we do not realize that the latter is as bad as the former:
Whoever knows the right thing to do but fails to do it, is sinning. James 4:17
So why is it that we don’t seem to be able to reform? Why don’t we just start doing the things we know are right or good for us, and stop doing the things we know are wrong or bad for us?
We really don’t need anyone else to tell us what’s wrong with us … the fact that our diet may be terrible, or we’re out of shape, or we’re polluting our minds, or destroying our kidneys, or short-circuiting our relationships, or squandering our money, or spoiling our kids, or shortchanging ourselves on sleep?
We know for a fact that if we did the stuff we should be doing and stopped doing the stuff we should not be doing, then we would be a better parent or a better spouse, we would be in better health, we would be less stressed, we would be a more productive, we would be happier, we would be much closer to God, we would not squander so much money, we would feel so much better about ourselves.
Even if we know what we should be doing and what we should stop doing, and what that looks like – just look at all the self-help books that are available to us - the problem is that despite all the knowledge we have we still cannot fix ourselves.
Worse, if we can't even live by our own standards, how are we supposed to live by God's?
If you’re here this morning and you can acknowledge that you’re having a hard time fixing yourself, maybe then taking a new look at the underlying reason for your problem may be helpful.
The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans speaks about what our situation as human beings is:
While we were still
sinners… Romans 5:6,8,10
Paul tells us that part of the reason we have a problem, that we seem to be powerless when it comes to our choices, is that we are ungodly and sinners – by our very nature. Now before we get too offended by those terms, let me just remind you that ungodly simply means that we are not like God and that sinner literally means “someone who has missed the mark,” a sinless person being someone who hits the mark or who is morally “perfect.”
Knowing just how fallible we are, we would have to be quite deluded if we think we are LITERALLY sinless and god-like. So maybe there is a person who you know that needs to be reminded: “You are not like God, you’re ungodly.” Maybe it’s you or me who need that same reminder: “You are a sinner, you’re missing the mark, you are NOT perfect.” Everyone is on a level playing field. We all have a character flaws, we all struggle.
The point is that we all sin, we all mess up, and we do so from an early, early age. It seems to come naturally. It is something we are born with. It is not something we have to learn, although we may learn how to get better at it over time.
This is what James (Jacob) points out in our passage:
Every person is led into temptation by his own desires that draw him and entice him. James 1:14
Being tempted – always has a negative connotation. Every one of us is tempted to do something wrong - an act of commission – or to leave undone something good – an act of omission. It is a universal condition: EVERY person is tempted.
James points out that the source of temptation is from within, not some external force that is acting upon us. We are not simply innocent bystanders … even if we seem to be powerless when confronted with temptation. So James points out that we should not blame God for when we are tempted.
Some of you are old enough to remember Flip Wilson’s character, a woman named Geraldine who blamed all her actions on the devil. (hard to imagine that he died 16 years ago, almost to the day – Nov 25). When Geraldine’s husband was angry about her buying an expensive dress, she retorted, “The devil made me buy this dress.” The catch phrase, “The devil made me do it,” entered popular culture in the 1970’s because of Flip.
In fact, one of the titles for the devil is the tempter (1 Cor 7:5; 1 Thess 3:5). Eve was tempted by the serpent, identified as the devil in Rev. 12:9; Satan tested Job but had to get permission to do so from God. Jesus was tempted by Satan before his ministry began (Mark 1:13). But in almost every instance, Satan’s goal is to bring a separation between mankind and God, a falling away from faith.
When I look at this painting by Norman Rockwell, I feel for the baker who’s surrounded by tempting cakes and tries to eat a few carrots and a bit of salad. Could he blame God for his predicament? Yes he could, but it would be wrong to do so. Similarly, we could blame our own unethical behavior on God providing such an environment at our place of work.
Temptation for men in particular is the availability of porn on the internet (12% of all sites are porn related). Some people are addicted to online shopping, gaming, gambling or networking. We could blame God that he is the ultimate source of our addictions because he allows these temptations.
Greed is pretty much endemic in our society, regardless of what people earn. In a lot of people, this ongoing desire for wealth breeds, avarice and self-indulgence, that is, the absence of charity – what I spoke on last week. Again, we could blame God for allowing our society in general for the temptations we face.
But as all of these overheads show us, James is right when he says that the real problem is with our appetites, our desires, whether it be for adrenalin, alcohol, acceptance, or pleasure.
Most of us who have been in church for any length of time or if we’ve read the Bible, we know that part of the solution with regard to overcoming temptations is that Jesus did something for us.
If we go back to Romans 5, Paul writes
While we were still powerless, at the right time Christ died for (us) the ungodly. … God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us … we have now been justified by his blood … while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son. Romans 5:6,8-10
Because we are ungodly and sinners, Paul writes that we are enemies of God, in that our sinful actions have separated us from God.
In a sense this is illustrated for us very early on in the Bible in the story of Adam and Eve.
When they disobeyed God they were banned from the Garden of Eden – in essence from God’s presence.
The gospel, the evangel, the good news is called the message of the cross – In essence, Jesus’ death paid whatever penalty we may have incurred or will incur for missing the mark so consistently - so that, in God’s eyes,
1. our sins are no longer counted (positionally we have been made just, we have been justified) and therefore
2. we are brought back into relationship with
God (we are reconciled to him).
Now a lot of Christians stop at this point. They basically say, “I’m so happy I’m a Christian because every day I can fill my bucket with all the things I’ve done wrong and then, in a few second prayer at night, I can dump them all out, be forgiven, so that, the next morning I have an empty bucket I can go out and fill again with all kinds of bad things until I go to bed.”
In other words, they see the forgiveness they receive from God on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice as a license to do wrong. But as James points out, when someone simply allows sin to become “full grown,” the result can death, that is, spiritual death. Why? Because eventually a sin that becomes entrenched will cause us to walk away from God.
So what is the answer? Well, the passage in Romans that we’ve just read …
… strongly implies that the believers who have been justified and reconciled to God by Jesus’ sacrifice now have some kind of power, they are no longer powerless.
NT doesn’t just bring the promise, the good news, of Jesus dying for all the things we have done wrong in the past, the things we’re doing wrong right now, and all the things we will do wrong in the future … there is a second part to the good news which we sometimes forget.
The apostle Paul puts it this way:
Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead you live under the freedom of God’s grace. Romans 6:14
Living under the requirements of the law leads to sin. However, living under God’s grace leads to freedom … freedom from sin, freedom to keep from doing what’s wrong, as well as freedom to do the right thing, freedom to do what we know is right and good.
So this freedom is something that is ours when we focus on God’s grace and love for us. Writing to the church in Corinth he points out that:
Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new creation. The past has passed away and everything is new.
2 Corinthians 5:17
It is somewhat like a caterpillar who, after pupating, crawls out of its cocoon a butterfly. This newness is to allow believers to fly instead of to crawl. In other words, there is a metamorphosis that has taken place.
Paul speaks of this metamorphosis in most of his letters. For example, his prayers for the believers in and around Ephesians centered on this newness becoming a living reality:
I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, (asking) that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know (experience) … what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe …. Ephesians 1:16 -19
And a few paragraphs further into his letter, he writes another prayer:
I bow my knees before the Father ... (asking) that … he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being … (God is the one) who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.
We also find a reminder of this second thing, this newness, this power, this freedom to make the right choices, in 2 Peter:
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by sinful desires. 2 Peter 1:3-4
To summarize these verses:
In Christ …
• I participate in God’s nature and receive his power
• God’s immeasurable power is directed at me
• The Spirit strengthens me with power from within
• God can do more in me than I can ask or think
• I have everything I need to live as God would want
• I can escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires
However, this metamorphosis does not mean that the physical, emotional, relational or psychological needs and desires simply disappear. We still get hungry, we are still sexual beings, we still need to feel loved and accepted.
Believers are therefore not immune to temptation or failure. For years I struggled between the tension of being a new being in Jesus and yet still feeling that struggle described in Romans 7 - I do not do the good that I want to do. And the evil I do not want to do is what I keep doing
So sometimes it may appear to the butterfly that he’s still reduced to crawling along the ground. It feels like the new creature sometimes hasn’t morphed into existence. It feels like the power of addiction cannot be resisted, or that finding a positive way to channel physical desires is out of reach.
If you’re familiar with the hymn, “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing,” you may remember the stanza that reads:
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
The chains of yesterday surround me - I yearn for peace and rest. I don't want to end up where you found me.
And it echoes in my mind, keeps me awake tonight
I start the day, the war begins: endless reminding of my sin. And time and time again your truth is drowned out by the storm I'm in. Today I feel like I'm just one mistake away - from you leaving me this way
Cause I can't bear to see the man I've been, come rising up in me again
So we can be caught up in this quandary. Apparently I’m a new creature in Christ, all things are new, yet how come I do not seem to be experiencing complete freedom in Christ?
Living as a slave to sin takes no initiative on our part.
Why does the quandary of Romans 7 resonate more with me than the solution to the quandary in Romans 8, where we are told that “the law of the Spirit of life has set us free from sin so that we can live out God’s will if our minds are set on the Holy Spirit.”
So let me give you an illustration why we are still struggling to take hold of our new being and what it means to have our minds set on the Holy Spirit. Prayer, for example.
Prayer is a wonderful thing. We connect with God, the creator of the universe through prayer. When we pray our hearts and our attitudes can change, we can sense God’s presence, we can receive a sense of peace and joy when previously there was none. The more we pray, the closer we come to God, the more sensitive we become to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Prayer can change our lives, our destiny, and the lives and destiny of others. In fact, I am convinced that we can never really experience the Christian life if we do not pray.
However, a lot of Christians believe that they are obligated to prayer. Prayer is a commandment applied to them from the outside: Thou shalt pray! And so, prayer is seen as a responsibility, a discipline, a requirement. And if that’s the case, then it’s very easy to see prayer as a chore or a burden, instead of a privilege and joy.
And when that happens, it is much more likely that either we feel guilty about not praying enough, or our prayers are reduced to a litany of requests, or that we will actually resent being obligated to pray.
Whatever the case, we pray less. And when we pray less, we no longer sense God’s presence, we no longer hear the Holy Spirit whispering into our conscience and so we become virtually prayerless.
And we cannot expect God’s empowering presence to be present with prayerless people.
But what happens when we are:
so overjoyed at being forgiven,
so excited about the eternal life,
so blown away by God’s grace,
so overwhelmed by his love …
that we have
this inner desire,
this inner need,
this inner longing …
to thank God,
to praise Him,
to speak with him,
to ask for advice and direction,
to intercede for others?
Prayer just becomes something different from some monotonous chore or a list of requests for ourselves.
Paul himself was the kind of person who felt absolutely blessed beyond measure that God could forgive him for persecuting the church.
I am nothing… 2 Cor 12:11
The very least of all the believers … Ephesians 3:8
I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
1 Corinthians 15:9
And so he was constantly in prayer, constantly thanking God, overwhelmed with gratitude.
He constantly prayed for others, because he wished for their spiritual growth and maturity. When he wrote:
Pray without ceasing
Give thanks in all circumstances
Do good to everyone
Do not quench the Spirit
Abstain from every form of evil 1 Thessalonians 5:15-22
Be filled with the Spirit.
As the Spirit leads, let there be psalms, hymns and songs among you.
Sing and make melody with your whole heart to the Lord.
Always give thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father. Ephesians 5:18-20
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. … Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. Ephesians 6:10,18
Paul was describing his own life. Prayer, rejoicing, thanksgiving was part of his life, just as breathing was. This is what Paul meant when he wrote about walking in the Spirit, or opening oneself up to being led by the Spirit.
This is the reason why the HS was able to work in his life and give him the ability to abstain from every form of evil.
If he wasn’t doing this, he would have quenched the Holy Spirit … he would have permitted sin to have control over him … his whole thought life would have rotated around what he calls, “the things of this earth” (Col 3:2) – his mind would not have been renewed - his life would not have been transformed (Rom 12:2).
But keep in mind … for Paul to experience what he did, there was this incredible transformation from
obligation to privilege,
from bondage to freedom,
from working hard at keeping the law of Moses to being free to live out the law of love as motivated by God’s love.
Paul is showing us what it looks like to live without sin as the master over our mouths, our eyes, our minds, our insecurities, and our appetites?
In closing, let me return to James 1:12, the verse we started with today:
Happy is the one who stands firm when faced with temptation because if he endures he will receive the crown of life which is promised by God to those who love him.
But there is also this incredible joy not having to dredge through, shoulder, a huge list of do’s and don’ts, obligation upon obligation … but feeling free to do the right thing simply because there is this motivation from within based on a deep appreciation of God’s love and grace.
• TEMPTATION IS UNIVERSAL, EVEN AMONG CHRISTIANS
• FORGIVENESS IS A GIFT FROM GOD THROUGH CHRIST
• POWER TO STAND FIRM COMES IN LARGE PART THROUGH PRAYER
• PRAYER MUST BE A RESPONSE TO LOVE, NOT AN OBLIGATION TO LAW
• MORE PRAYER = MORE POWER
• MORE POWER = MORE JOY
IF I’M LOST IN A PRAYER-LESS AND POWERLESS EXISTENCE,
WHAT EXACTLY WILL I DO TO TURN THIS AROUND?
WILL THIS BE A BURDEN OR A JOY?