The only thing that can tempt us from God is a gift He has given us. Eve was tempted by a good fruit that God had made and took the fruit over the eternal giver of gifts. After that it became difficult to distinguish the gift from the temptation because our eyes were blinded.
Knowledge, for example, especially of the sort Eve sought (really a deep wisdom when you think about it – you don’t think she would have been distracted by a minor temptation, do you?), will always be a marvel. Considered in itself, it is a delight to the soul. If we had purity of heart it would be deeply satisfying, as it is for God. But by preferring this knowledge above the giver of every good gift, what is, in itself, holy and precious, became a source of death. Perhaps you hear the resonance in what Paul says about the law in his letter to the Romans.
Potiphar’s wife could only tempt Joseph with gifts God had given her. But Joseph knew his place and became an archetype of overcoming and a type of the one who overcame every temptation.
David, a man after God’s own heart, was defeated by a very similar temptation, and he followed a pattern very much like our first parents.
If we dont’ think clearly about temptation and the goodness of the thing being used to tempt us, we can lose our balance and fall off the other side of the wagon. For example, Homer’s Odyssey is a gift from God to the church, because, as Paul tells the Corinthians, “all things are yours.”
In Christ, approaching it with the mind of Christ, we can gain tremendous insights. We can see the analogies between Odysseus’ return and the second coming of Christ and our hearts can be warmed and challenged. We can see the admiration that flows through the text and be reminded of what I like to call “the duty of worship.” We can see in Odysseus the Greek path to wisdom (many were the cities he visited, many the minds he learned, many the pains that he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea striving for the homecoming of himself and his companions) and we can contemplate both its value and its limitations. And we can simply enjoy it as a gift.
That last phrase is important, because one danger of trying to read the Odyssey or any other great literary gift in a spirit of fear is moralism. We can be afraid to enjoy it, so we can protect ourselves from the temptations in it by 1. determining that it is not safe and therefore we should not go near it, or 2. we can contort it into something other than what it is.
The gifts God gives us lose their power when we don’t receive them as what they are. To read the Odyssey as a text for 19th century Victorian morality (an Elsie Dinsmore) would lead to some really silly acts, like bowdlerizing it. The Odyssey is not safe. Neither is philosophy. Neither is math (as Pascal’s father knew when he forbade him from studying Geometry too soon for fear he would lose his mind in its beauties). Neither is a beautiful women; nor a self-confident man; nor Shakespeare; nor a growing Christian classical school; nor a well-behaved, respectful child; nor a soothing song.
All of these things can draw us to it instead of the good they embody. And that is the whole point. God is good. The only reason anything can ever be tempting is because it is in some way like Him. If, therefore, we determine to protect ourselves from being misled by shunning everything that might tempt us, we have simply turned aside from every gift God has given us to draw us to Himself. It’s very ironic I know, but fear doesn’t arise from faith.
How then are we to handle temptation? Perhaps the foundational virtue of the spiritual life is gratitude, which is itself a mixture of humility, appreciation, and acceptance.
If Eve had remembered that everything was already hers, would she have been tempted to hurry up and get this wisdom by eating the fruit of the tree? There’s something about the stories of the martyrs, both in the Bible and collected over the centuries, that always amazes me. Hebrews 11 does a nice job of listing the accomplishments of men of faith, and then he says,
and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: and others had trial of cruel mockings and sourgings, yes, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
One of my favorite stories is of St. Lawrence, who was roasted on a grill for his confession. After a while he turned to his tormenters and said, “I’m done on this side, you can turn me over now.”
Historically speaking, we can never know what actually happened at these martyrdoms, and certainly plenty of the martyrs felt the suffering deeply in their bodies and souls, but for so many of them they went with a lightness and a confidence that takes the breath away. How were they able to do that?
In I Corinthians, Paul rebukes the Christians for taking each other to the secular courts to settle matters among themselves. In his exasperation, he appeals to them: “Why not rather be defrauded?”
How can he say something like that? To be defrauded is to be shamed and humiliated, not to mention the loss of material goods.
Throughout the New Testament every author has a perspective that is foolish and imprudent. To return to Hebrews:
Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.
Notice that when he says “looking diligently” he doesn’t say what to look at. That is probably because he said, back in 12:2, that we should look “unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him…”
Lose sight of Him, both what He endured and where He is now, and all hope is lost. Then we will become bitter, defiled, fornicators, profane. And we will join Esau.
For you know that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.
Is this the essence of death? He gave up his birthright for a bowl of pottage. Why? Because he stopped diligently looking at Christ, by anticipation. He forgot that he was the heir of Abraham’s entire inheritance, so the pressure and fear of the moment broke him.
We cannot go day to day choosing pottage and then, one day, when the big tests come, find ourselves willing to choose the inheritance that we have not enjoyed for all this time. That is the choice that Christian schools face today. Days of testing are coming and I am not any more optimistic that Christian K-12 schools will keep the faith than I am proud of Christian colleges keeping the faith.
What I have noticed is that we are so fearful of failing that we are unable to enjoy the inheritance. We want the world’s acceptance, as formalized in accreditation, certification, professionalism, and acceptance. Why? Because we need to learn to “look diligently.”
Esau found no place for repentance, and many, many Christian schools won’t either in the time of trial ahead of us. Let me keep quoting our author of Hebrews because it is pretty amazing:
For you are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more: (For they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart: And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake:)
And Esau was hungry! And we are afraid of accrediting bodies and parents and standardized tests and college admissions. What are you looking at!?
But we have not come to this earth-shaking mountain on which God descended to give Moses the law. No. Look again. And look diligently:
But ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.
Every single lind here refers back to the Old Testament, so it is hard for a non-Hebrew to enter into it. It merits looking diligently into it, since it is a summary of both our hope and what we have already come to. This is our fellowship and our company.
He’ll provide a different perspective a few verses down:
See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall we not escape, if we turn away from Him that speaketh from heaven: Whose voice then shook the earth: but now He hath promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven.” And this word, “Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.
There is a great shaking coming for the Hebrew Christians. The temple is about to be destroyed. They are, many of them, about to lose homes and riches. But those things which cannot be shaken will remain. Now get this: and remember Esau. Look diligently at what he says here:
Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire.
Below he adds words we must not forget:
For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come. By Him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to His name.
Everything that matters is eternal, and, in Christ, it is ours.
It is because we forget the extravagance of his gifts to us (He will, after all, serve US at the heavenly banquet) that we give in to temptation. To avoid envy, covetousness, and strife, the solution is not to beat ourselves down and despise ourselves. It is to remember all we have in Christ. And what is it that we have?
Learn to enjoy it.