He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. (Mark 1:13)
Struggling with temptation is a daily part of following Jesus. That’s why he taught us to pray about it.
We say, “Lead us not into temptation.” In other words, help us not to yield to temptation. That assumes that we are in fact tempted every day and that we need help in resisting temptation.
Most of us probably don’t feel especially tempted. That’s because our concept of temptation needs some work. We think about wanting a slice of pie when we’re dieting.
Or less innocently, we may think about immoral behaviors like adultery or theft, or maybe self-destructive behaviors like drug use and alcohol abuse.
But temptation actually cuts deeper into our soul than the occasional urge to do something that is obviously wrong or self-defeating.
At the heart of every temptation is an inclination to give some finite thing or activity a role in our lives that only the infinite and eternal God can play.
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul puts it this way: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” (Romans 1:25) And by the way, Paul is very clear that he means all of us. No exceptions.
Here’s what Paul is getting at. We are going to worship something, devote ourselves to something that will affirm our existence. Assure us that it’s all worth it. That there is some point to all of this. That what we do and say and undergo and overcome matters. That we are valuable and that our lives are truly significant.
Only God—the Creator—can do this for us. And yet, every day we feel a tug to settle for created things. And it’s not just Cosmopolitan-cover illicit sex or gaudy, selfishly hoarded wealth or oppressive, self-serving power that lures us. In fact, for the most part, these are pretty easy to avoid.
The most dangerous temptation of all is, in fact, to substitute the merely good for God.
Good things tempt us. Our work. Our family. Our good name. Just and moral causes like aiding the poor or fighting racism. They are so dangerous precisely because they are good things and we are unlikely to see them as temptations.
We are not meant to despise them. But neither are we to turn them into the object of our worship. And yet that is exactly what we often do without realizing it.
Temptation, you see, arises from our tendency toward idolatry. To look to created things to give our life value and meaning, security and peace.
God created us to derive the source of our significance and tranquility from beyond ourselves. From Him.
As a result of the Fall, we continue to seek meaning and purpose beyond ourselves, but our Fall-distorted souls now ask the finite things of our lives to provide our eternal souls the infinite significance we crave.
Now I realize that you may be asking something like this. What’s so wrong about giving my best at work or devoting myself to my family or helping the poor? Nothing.
But when we ask any of these activities to provide the ultimate meaning for our lives, we end up corrupting the activity, damaging other people, and leading ourselves into despair. As objects of worship they will always leave us with the feeling that there must be more than this.
Don’t believe me? Then how many people on their deathbeds do you suppose say they wish they had spent more time at the office? I’ll bet you know children smothered and crushed by the impossible demands of their parents and parents bewildered by their children’s utter ingratitude about all of their sacrifice.
These are just brief examples of the effects of idolatry. A more detailed explanation will have to wait for some other time. The point I want to make today is two-fold. I want to help you identify your own idols. And then I want to help you to escape your enslavement to them.
Timothy Keller suggests some diagnostic strategies to help us to discern what our idols are:
Consider your habitual daydream or your persistent worry. When your mind drifts to that well-visited place, you are likely to find the thing that you treasure above God.
Where you spend your money tells you a great deal about what you value. You may find that entertainments or clothing receive more of your financial devotion than the kingdom work of Jesus. Take a look at the record of your spending. Its bottom line may be an idol.
And here’s one especially for the faithful: How do you react to unanswered prayers. Do you move beyond your disappointment and persevere with hope or do you slip into despair and grow distant from God? This question helps us to see if we love God or just what he can do for us.
Look at your uncontrollable emotions, the ones you try to keep a cap on but can’t:
The ones that often lead you to say and do what you really never intended to say or do and that leave you with regrets. The ones that hang around long past wearing out their welcome.
It could be anger or envy or guilt or fear or despair. Those emotions point to something important that you sense is threatened. That’s your idol.
It is Lent, after all. So you’re probably thinking that I’m going to tell you to repent of worshipping these idols. Yes, but that is only the first step. Repentance is not enough.
By the force of our own will, we can stop thinking or acting or even feeling a certain way for a season, but as soon as our willpower flags or our attention wanders these habits come back again with even greater gusto. The imperial idol strikes back
Jesus puts it this way:
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but it finds none. Then it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. (Matt. 12:43-45)
Once we have repented, we have to replace our idol with a personal relationship with the living God. A vague belief in the existence of God will not suffice. God’s love for us and our devotion to God as a person has to be a pulsing reality for us.
If you want to know what that is like, look at today’s Gospel. (Mark 1:9-15) Before wandering in the desert, Jesus underwent baptism. When he emerged from the water he heard the Father say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)
By adoption through Jesus, we can all hear, “You are … the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)
Imagine the power of hearing and feeling that with every breath. Every heartbeat. In every context, whether harrowing or hilarious, exhilarating or exhausting. You are my beloved. I delight in you.
When you hear that, your heart leaps. That’s why Paul tells us, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” (Philippians 4:4) Make Christ your greatest treasure and you will be free from the tyranny of idols.
Rejoicing in Christ does not crowd good things out. It simply puts them in their proper perspective.
If we have made idols out of work and family, we do not want to start hating work and family. Instead, we want to learn to love Christ so much more than these things that they can no longer hold us captive.
So how do we do this? How do we rejoice in Christ in all that we do? By keeping before us what Jesus has done for us on the Cross. As St. Peter says:
Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:18)
Worship, personal prayer, Bible study, works of mercy, and sharing the Gospel are the means by which the Holy Spirit makes Christ a living reality in our everyday experience.
We see the Lord on the Cross and realize with our heart, not just our minds, that the wounds on his tortured back and the nails in his hands and feet are there for us.
We hear him say, “I have done this for you. You are my beloved.” And now the Father will forever see us through his son’s love for us, not through our own failures and idiocies.
Our joy in Christ is intermittent. It takes time to let him occupy the center of our hearts. Be patient with yourselves. Christ is persistent. And he is infinitely patient with us.
We don’t have to settle for the merely good. The treasure we long for is God Himself. And He has gone to great lengths for us to have precisely that.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, on February 26, 2012.