Making Tough Choices

Matthew 4: 1-11

This week we celebrated Anderson’s birthday (our two-year-old son). Part of the party preparations included a plate of delicious chocolate cupcakes that our seven-year-old Luke eyed. After a series of why and why nots I decided not to lose a battle of wits with a first grader. I laughed and went a little over the top with my argument. “If you have a cupcake, there may not be one for your little sister Caroline. She might cry and upset the whole family, especially mommy, who will be mad at me for letting you have the cupcake. This will cause the whole party to be ruined. Later in his life Anderson may be traumatized causing him to not get into college and get a job.” Luke looked at me and said, “Dad it’s just a cupcake.”

The Bible states in Corinthians chapter 10 that everyone is tempted and that the same temptations are used over and over again on us. The book of James states that temptations come to us personalized, luring us away from who we are. I remember as a boy watching my Uncle Sylvan prepare to go fishing. He would spread a row of fishing lures on his pool table at his lakehouse and explain to me and my brother how each lure was tailor made for a specific type of fish. He would hold the lure up and talk about how this shiny part would attract and how this swirled part would entice. My brother and I would sigh and know that we had to wait through that whole row of lures before we could finally get out on the lake and fish.

The Bible teaches that it is not a sin to be tempted. Jesus was tempted and yet he was without sin. Scripture teaches that God provides a way out of every temptation. That is the key- removing ourselves from that which is leading us astray. So often we think we can ride out the riptide of temptation. We are warned, but we put our feet in the sand when we should be getting out of the water, and the next thing we know we are being pulled out to sea. When we are trying to ride out temptation, we are weakened and that is when we are apt to give in. New research from a lab at Florida State University reveals that selfcontrol takes fuel – literally. When we exercise it, resisting temptations to misbehave, our fuel tank is depleted, making subsequent efforts at self-control more difficult.

Florida State psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues Kathleen D. Vohs, University of Minnesota, and Dianne M. Tice, Florida State, showed this with an experiment using the Stroop task, a famous way of testing strength of self-control. Participants in this task are shown color words that are printed in different-colored ink (like the word red printed in blue font), and are told to name the color of the ink, not the word. Baumeister found that when participants perform multiple self-control tasks like the Stroop test in a row, they do worse over time. Thus, the ability to control ourselves wanes as it is exercised.

Moreover, Baumeister and colleagues found that the fuel that powers this ability turns out to be one of the same things that fuels our muscles: sugar, in the form of glucose.

The researchers measured the blood glucose levels of participants before either engaged in another self-control task or a task that did not involve self-control. They found that the group performing the self-control task suffered depletion in glucose afterward.

Another recent study at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland featured subjects who were asked to skip a meal before they began what they thought was a test of taste impressions and memory. They were told their assignment involved radishes. The test was a plate of cookies in the room that had not been pointed out. Some went as far as to pick up a cookie and sniff it. Others, who couldn’t bear to even look at the cookies, pushed the plate away. But none of them cheated. They ate the radishes. Their forbearance, however, cost them. When the radish-eaters were asked to work on a confounding mental puzzle for as long as possible, they gave up much faster than a group allowed to eat the cookies and another that wasn’t offered any food at all. Resisting temptation is draining. It takes something out of you. Self control was seen as a muscle that gets stronger with exercise but also something that gets used up. It needs time to get replenished.

When we do not take time to replenish ourselves, we rationalize our choices. That is why temptation is so powerful. The consequences or long-term effects are overruled. We may say, “I’ll know when to stop,” or “everybody’s doing it”, or “I’m not hurting anyone.” Yet make no mistake, as we rationalize, we will soon be deep in sin. That is why temptation is so dangerous. We notice temptation in others so clearly. We see someone squandering their future relationships, their finances; their general well-being is put at risk. We see others being lured toward personal destruction, and we cannot understand why or how they could go down that road. Christian writer Kevin Pike likens temptation to taking steps down toward a basement.. Whether it is a bad habit, a dysfunctional relationship, or an addiction, each time temptation is succumbed to, a step down toward the dark basement is taken. Temptation is the fulfilling of legitimate needs by illegitimate means.

When we have a need that needs to be met and the plan is not ethical, moral, right, proper, legal, do we have the willingness to step back and let God help us stay on track? If you and I could learn to do that, to know that God is big enough to address our needs, we would be much more equipped to resist temptation. Our loneliness, our need for intimacy, our need for professional progress and professional competence, our financial need to provide for our family, each of these needs challenges us. I know that opening story was told in exaggerated jest, but I do believe that we see that one thing in isolation and out of context from our current reality. We see that one cupcake, that one temptation detached, but there is always more at stake. We are fooled into believing that temptation is isolated to the individual, but it is not. It is connectional. Others always suffer when we fall. How many children have paid the price because of the parents’ fall to temptation? If only we could realize that it is not just this argument, not just this night, not just this decision, just this contract, or just this one shady deal, it is something more. Something more is at stake- the people who love us, who count on us, who look up to us. Sometimes we feel that about ourselves and have low self-esteem, and we justify temptation by saying that it is only our future that is at stake, but actually it is our whole family that is at stake. And to expand upon that, it is our future family heritage that is at stake! Maybe that is why the Bible says that some sins are passed on through generations. We need to train ourselves to understand that temptation is always a test of our faith as well as our self control. In every temptation our confidence that God can and will come through for us is tested. If we can step back and say “no” to temptations and say “no” within the context that our faith may be at risk, maybe we then can have some new braking power.

Jesus felt and understood temptation and we can follow his lead. The book of Hebrews tells us that we do not have a high priest who cannot relate to us, but we have someone who knows our temptations because he has faced and gone through every temptation. Every temptation we face in life has been conquered by Jesus. Maybe we won’t be tempted to turn stones to bread, or be tempted to jump off of the temple, but we may be tempted to check our ethics at the door in the name of self promotion or survival, especially in this challenging economic climate. We all feel weak and are much like Jesus in the desert. We have so many voices remarking on how bad times are, wondering when the economy will turn, and questioning the future in this uncertain economy.

We need to remember that we are children of God, beloved by God, and let that fact be our answer when we hear those voices and are tempted to react. Before Jesus went into the desert he heard the voice from heaven say, “You are my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” The voice from heaven was quoting from Isaiah 42 and Psalm 2. The quote from Isaiah would have been well-known to a Jewish audience acquainted with the Scriptures. It was a quote from the first of Isaiah’s Servant Songs in which the coming Messiah is described as a suffering servant. The quotation from heaven also uses words from a royal psalm, a psalm that would have been read when a new king was crowned in Israel and was reminded that as king he was to be a servant of God, indeed the Son of God. So, if you put together these two quotations from the royal psalm and a suffering servant song of Isaiah together, the message to Jesus would have been that yes, he was God’s Son and yes, he had a unique ministry ahead of him that was unlike any other king’s calling. What were the voices that Jesus heard? They were voices of competing groups within Judaism calling him to be their unique type of Messiah. The Zealots claimed that God’s kingdom would come about through force, through military revolution that would throw out the Roman infidels and occupiers. Naturally they expected the Messiah to be a military leader. The Pharisees, by contrast, claimed that the kingdom of God, the reign or rule of God, would come about through obedience to the hundreds of oral laws that grew out of the written Law, the Torah. Understandably, it is the Pharisees who become enraged when this Jewish rabbi named Jesus, whom some believed to be the Messiah, openly defied many of their rules and laws. The Sadducees were yet another group that claimed that the kingdom of God would come about as a result of greater loyalty to the festivals and sacrifices of the Temple. The Essenes were another group within Judaism who believed that the kingdom could only come about when the faithful within Israel withdrew from a cruel and ungodly society and became, as it were, spiritual hermits, holy and detached from a flawed and perverse world.

It could be that as Jesus heard these voices in his head as he made his way through the wilderness, he also heard the voice of God spoken through the Prophet Isaiah and the Psalmist reminding him that he would be a different kind of king bringing in God’s kingdom through peace and love. Jesus answered the first temptation of changing stones to bread with a quote from Deuteronomy chapter 8 which recalled the time that the people of Israel were fed by God with manna from heaven. We have so many hungers, not only physical but also emotional, relational, spiritual hungers. We are hungry for love, for companionship, for a sense of worth and for a sense of security. We hunger for meaning and for rest. Some hunger for freedom from physical pain and from emotional pain too, like the loss of a loved one. This quote from Deuteronomy chapter 8 teaches that one moment we will have more than we need, then suddenly we will lack something. When that happens, we are challenged to trust God to help us meet that need. Jesus said that man shall not live by bread alone. Man does not live by closing deals alone, or income alone, gadgets alone, or sex alone, or drink alone, or …. When Jesus was tempted to throw himself off and let the angels catch him he answered with another quote that recalled Exodus chapter 17, the story of the people of Israel quarreling with Moses in the desert. “Weren’t we better off in slavery in Egypt? At least we were well fed and provided for and not wandering out here in the desert.” Jesus answers that we should not put God to the test. We should not intentionally put ourselves into situations that have the potential to be devastating, believing that God will bail us out. The third temptation applies to those who are ambitious and driven in their jobs, whose lust for progress sometimes tempts to just for a moment temporarily set aside the values and beliefs. Jesus is tempted to figuratively jump through the ring of fire. Again Jesus reaches back into the Old Testament context to the nation of Israel, recalling the moment that the people of Israel are about to move into the Promised Land. Moses states that their cities will be so wonderful, and they will be on such a quest for self-esteem and international status, that in this Promised Land they may be tempted to forsake God. The speech states that when God brings you into the land, into groves you did not plant, do not forget about God’s blessing. When things are going good for you, be careful that you do not forget the God who brought you out of the land of slavery.

Jesus gives us a prescription of holding onto our faith. This teaches us to look back upon our life and not forget God’s providence. Let us remember that Jesus followed God’s will and did not fall prey to temptation. In the same way, we will be faced with temptation, but we are not helpless against it. Jesus tells us that prayer prepares us. Remember the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus tells the disciples to pray so they won’t fall to temptation? We can battle the voices of our day with prayer, but we need to walk out of the desert of temptation. If we feel weak and vulnerable yet remain in situations in which we know we are tempted, it is like praying that we won’t get burned but still sticking our hand into the fire. When Jesus left the desert of temptation, he was ministered to by angels. That is a beautiful way of saying that God was there, God was real, and God’s grace and strength were sufficient. Let us help each other by being the place in world where the voice of God is heard telling us how much God loves us. Let us receive strength to make it through the desert into the presence of angels. Let us be angels to others and help others facing temptation hold on to God’s loving guidance. Let us remember that we are connected to each other and to God and not let that temptation that seems so small and insignificant disconnect us. Remember, God will bring us out of the desert!