In case you weren't aware, you are in constant danger. Everywhere you go, signs and labels alert you to the danger all around you. There are warnings like:
"Caution: The contents of this bottle should not be fed to fish." - On a bottle of shampoo for dogs.
"For external use only!" - On a curling iron.
"Not intended for highway use." - On a 13-inch wheel on a wheelbarrow.
"Not suitable for children aged 36 months or less." - On a birthday card for a 1 year old.
"Do not use as ear plugs." - On a package of silly putty.
"Fragile. Do not drop." - Posted on a Boeing 757.
"Beware! To touch these wires is instant death. Anyone found doing so will be prosecuted." - On a sign at a railroad station.
"May be harmful if swallowed." - On a shipment of hammers.
"Warning: May contain nuts." - On a package of peanuts.
With all of these dangers around - airplanes that can't be dropped, hammers than can't be eaten, and peanuts that contain nuts - it's amazing that anyone is still alive!
It's not just warning labels that make us shake our heads. Sometimes we get so used to hearing about danger that we stop noticing the danger, even when the danger is real. Today we're going to look at a danger that Jesus talked about in the prayer that He taught us to pray. The problem is that the danger is so familiar that many of us have forgotten that the danger is real.
The phrase is at the very end of the Lord's Prayer that we've been studying these past few weeks. Let's say the prayer together.
Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not to temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
The last part of the prayer says, "And lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil." The danger we're going to look at is temptation. Unlike last week, when we prayed for forgiveness, this is something that Jesus could relate to. He never had to ask for forgiveness, because Jesus never sinned. Jesus could pray this prayer, because He faced temptation, just like we do. He taught us to pray something he might have prayed Himself: for help in dealing with temptation.
I came across a list this week of the top nine temptations that people face. See if you can relate to anything on this list:
3. Being self-centered
5. (Tie) Anger/Bitterness
5. (Tie) Sexual lust.
Any of this a temptation to people here? The study also showed that temptations were more potent when people had neglected their time with God (81 percent) and when they were physically tired (57 percent). So if you're tired and haven't spend time lately, you're in extra danger! That just may be a whole bunch of us.
The discouraging thing about temptation is that it is lifelong. Even Jesus, who was perfect, endured temptation. You don't reach the point at which the temptation stops. No matter how spiritually mature you are, you will still continue to face temptation. Sometimes the temptation increases even as you become more spiritually mature.
It's a discouraging thing to face temptation all of the time. It's an even worse thing to give into the temptation. I'll bet there's an area of your life in which you especially face temptation. For a lot of us, that area is also where we experience a lot of failure. We're discouraged and feel completely defeated in that area of our lives.
I want to ask you to think about that area in which you are especially tempted. Go ahead, it's safe. I won't ask you to stand up and share or anything. Just think about it. It might be one of the nine areas that we just listed.
Now think about how successful you are in fighting the temptation. Go head, honestly. Again, it's safe. How successful are you in handling the temptations that come your way?
Now one more question. How often do you pray about that area of temptation? If you're like me, not a lot. It's a funny thing. We are tempted and often defeated, and yet the very area that gives us the most trouble is sometimes the last thing we pray for.
My goal is simple this morning. I want to ask the question, "How should we handle temptations and trials?" It's an important question to answer, because all of us face temptations and trials, and many of us are struggling right now with handling them.
The answer, according to Jesus, is this: "Ask for God's help." The best way to handle temptation is to ask for God's help - not just in the moment, but even in preparation. It's simple, isn't it?
But we need convincing. I know we need convincing, because the fact of the matter is a lot of us aren't doing it. A lot of us don't regularly come to God and say, "God, I need your help with pride, because you know how much I'm tempted in this area," or, "God, please help my thought life, because you know how much I'm tempted to sin in this area." Human nature is that we don't talk about these areas, for a lot of reasons.
Maybe you can relate to the person who said, "There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud" (Carl Sandburg). In prayer, I find that I want to present my eagle side to God. Yet it's the hippopotamus part that really needs the prayer.
The two sentences Jesus gave us actually pack a lot of weight. If we unpack them a little, they give us three reasons why we should be praying about our temptations. Let's open them up a little, and then we'll close by actually doing what Jesus tells us.
Why pray about our temptations? Three reasons:
1. Because temptations are dangerous
A British Columbia-based nursery is trying to track down people who bought poisonous plants that were incorrectly labeled "tasty in soup."
Valleybrook Gardens, which distributed the plants, has worked with government officials to locate the buyers of 17 improperly labeled perennials sold at stores in British Columbia and Ontario from April 18 to 25. Only eight of the plants had been accounted for by Sunday.
The label should have read, "All parts of this plant are toxic," but an employee changed it to, "All parts of this plant are tasty in soup," said Michel Benoit, the nursery's general manager. "The employee was making a practical joke and thought it would be caught by a horticulturist," said Benoit.
There are a lot of our temptations that come labeled, "tasty in soup." Well, not really "tasty in soup," but they come labeled as something good when in fact they pose a great danger. Temptation always comes marked as something harmless, something that will make us feel good and that will do no harm. When we're tempted, we always see what we'll gain if we give into the temptation, but we rarely see the downside.
In the States, they have these advertisements for prescription drugs. The drugs always look like they can do wonders for your health. Then the commercials always end with all the side-effects and warnings. "May cause nausea and vomiting. Do not take if you have a history of heart disease or high blood pressure." On and on. By the time you've heard all the side-effects and warnings, you're not interested in taking that medicine anymore.
I wish temptation came with a list of side-effects and warnings. I wish that the temptation always came with a notice, "May cause a loss of character and spiritual deadness." Or, "May cause you to lose your marriage." A large part of the Proverbs that deal with temptation are all about the side-effects that come along with temptation. When we're tempted, it sometimes helps to remember what we'll lose if we give into that temptation.
That's also why we need to pray about temptation. A lot of times, we are blind to how dangerous it is. We need to pray, because all we see is what the temptation offers. Because of the invisible danger of temptation, we need to pray.
Where did I get this from? Jesus said, " And lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil." The two words to highlight here are temptation and evil. A lot of people have wondered how we could pray, "Lead us not into temptation," as if God is in the business of tempting people. There are a lot of different ways of explaining this. One of them is to understand what the word temptation means here. Temptation could be translated either temptation - the desire to do something wrong - or trial. While God doesn't lead us into temptations, he does sometimes lead us into trials to strengthen our faith. God intends these times for our benefit, but Satan can use them as an opportunity to tempt us to sin. Somebody's said, "The devil tempts us to bring us down, but God tests us to bring us up. "
If we really realized the power of temptation, like Jesus did, it would lead us to prayer. If we give into temptation, it has devestating consequences.
The rest of the phrase says, "Deliver us from evil." The last word, evil, could refer to either evil in general, or it could refer to the evil one. Some translations say, "Deliver us from evil." Others say, "Deliver us from the evil one." The problem is that a lot of us see this prayer as a prayer that we would be good little boys and girls and behave and not be naughty. This isn't a prayer that God would keep us from being naughty. It's a prayer that realizes that the enemy would destroy us if he could. Jesus said in John 8 of Satan, "He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him." Satan isn't a cute little character with a pitchfork who knows how to have a good time. He is a murderer and a liar, and his agenda is to destroy your soul.
That's why we can't afford not to pray about our temptations. Think again about the area in which you're tempted. It's easy to think of those as being little character flaws or peccadilloes. They're not. Sin isn't something minor. Sin can capsize the soul.
I've seen this myself over the past year. A couple of my friends have been caught in situations in which they gave into temptation, and the results have been devestating.
Listen to how one person (Milton Mayer) describes it:
A farmer never notices the corn growing minute by minute. But if he stays in the field long enough, he wakes up one day to discover that it has grown over his head. The people who make up the malleable masses weren't bad at the outset. But through a series of gradual steps, they ended up in bad situations—in over their heads.
Because one day we could wake up and discover that the corn has grown in over our heads, through a series of decisions to give into temptation, we need to pray about your temptations, because the temptations pose a grave danger to our lives. If we realized how dangerous they were, we would pray a lot more.
There's a second reason why we should pray about our areas of temptation:
2. Because we can't handle temptation by ourselves
There's something implicit in this prayer that realizes that we can't handle temptation alone. That's one of the reasons why we don't do so well with temptation when we aren't praying about it.
For one thing, we kind of like temptation. It's almost a little fun to be tempted. Somebody once said, "What makes resisting temptation difficult, for many people, is that they don't want to discourage it completely" (Franklin P. Jones). Sometimes we blame Satan for temptation when he isn't to blame. He doesn't even have to tempt us. We go looking for the temptation ourselves.
We go looking for temptation. We also overestimate our ability to handle temptation by ourselves. I don't know if it's a macho thing, or just human nature, but a lot of us tend to think we can handle a lot more temptation than we really can. We put ourselves into compromising situations thinking we can handle it. If somebody challenges us, we say, "What? Don't you trust us?" The appropriate answer to that question is, "No!" We can handle less than we think we can. As the saying goes, "I can resist anything but temptation."
One of the worst dangers we face is our own presumption, the believe that we are secure and self-sufficient. The very area in which we think we are safe is the area in which we are in danger. If you ever find yourself saying, "It couldn't happen to me," be careful.
I don't know if you remember when thieves broke into our Prime Minister's residence, back in the days when Chretien was still living there. The man managed to scale the fence surrounding the property without being noticed by security. He then entered the house. The noise he made woke up the Aline, the Prime Minister's wife, who locked the door to the bedroom. Chretien famously prepared to defend himself with a sharp-edged Inuit carving. Fortunately, bodyguards responded quickly and arrested the man.
One of the reasons why the thief managed to get in was because the guards weren't expecting him. With all the security, and the fact that thieves aren't regularly trying to break in, it's easy to get complacent. It's when you're complacent that you face the real danger.
Oswald Chambers wrote, "The Bible characters never fell in their weak points but on their strong ones; unguarded strength is double weakness." We're vulnerable. We're not just vulnerable in our areas of weakness. We're also vulnerable with our strengths. No matter we need prayer!
Paul said the same thing. He wrote in 1 Corinthians, "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!"
Your danger increased as well when you started to follow Christ. Before then, you weren't much of a threat to Satan. He was content to leave you alone. But the evil one doesn't retreat without a fight. He will do everything he can to sabotage your soul. You are not just up against yourself; you are up against principalities and powers. Evil is real. It is "large, cosmic, organized, subtle, pervasive, and real" (William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauwerwas)
Well, what I've talked about has been pretty bleak so far. The two reasons I've told you to pray about temptation is that temptation is very serious and dangerous to us, and that we need the prayer because we can't handle temptation alone. So far I've presented a pretty dark picture of our prospects. We can't end here. Jesus gives us some hope in this prayer, and it's where I want to finish off today. It's the third reason why we ought to pray about our temptations:
3. Because God is ready and able to help us in temptation
So far we've seen that temptation is dangerous and that we are powerless against it. It's in this last part that we find hope. Jesus told us to come to God and to ask for his help. God can and does protect us from temptations that we can't handle, and when we live a life of dependence on him, we can tap into the Spirit's power to handle temptation rather than our own.
It's ironic that the path to victory over temptation is to admit defeat. It's to stop fighting it on our own power and to come to God and to make it a matter of prayer. It's when we stop trying to lick the problem on our own that we begin to draw on God's power. With God's help, we can withstand temptation.
It's another example of God turning weakness into strength. When we come to God in weakness and depend on Him, He find His strength to help meet our needs.
I've talked a lot about the dangers of temptation today. I would be misleading you if I didn't also remind you that as powerful as temptation is, God is stronger. We should take temptation seriously, but not too seriously. Evil is a threatening power, but it is a defeated one. We need to recognize the reality of evil, but also the reality of His power over it. Jesus' victory over evil is not just out there, but it is also available here and now for each of us. We can walk into the darkness and discover that there, too, God is present, and his power is more than enough.
In the coming year, we're going to talk a lot about how to live in the reality of the new life that Christ has given us, and how to follow him in every area of our lives. Today, though, I want to just dwell on this one area. Let's stop pretending we have it all together and that we can handle the temptations that we struggle with. Many of us haven't been praying about our temptations. I'd like to suggest that we take seriously what Jesus taught us: make our temptations something we pray about. Regularly come to God and say, "Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil."
It's safe to admit our struggles to God, because we are loved by God. Henri Nouwen once said in an interview:
I cannot continuously say no to this or no to that, unless there is something ten times more attractive to choose. Saying no to my lust, my greed, my needs, and the world's powers takes an enormous amount of energy. The only hope is to find something so obviously real and attractive that I can devote all my energies to saying yes…. One such thing I can say yes to is when I come in touch with the fact that I am loved. Once I have found that in my total brokenness I am still loved, I become free from the compulsion of doing successful things.
In the end, the best strategy for dealing with temptation isn't to battle the temptation, but to fall into the hands of the One who can ultimately meet our needs, reach into our brokenness, and give us the strength that we need.
Earlier, I asked you to think about the area where you face a lot of temptation, maybe even a lot of defeat. What I'd like to suggest is that for the next week, every day, you pray about it. Come to God, admit that it's a struggle, and say, "God, I need your help. Keep me safe in this area, safe from my own self and safe from the Devil."
I wonder what would happen if we dropped the mask and started to get that honest with God. Fifty-five years ago, in a conservative evangelical school in which there was tremendous pressure to look like you had it all together, students were invited to come up to the microphone and share what was on their minds. For some reason, a student got up and simply began to confess. Something broke. For 47 continuous hours, student after student got up and admitted struggles and sins that they had been keeping to themselves, too afraid to admit to one another or to God. Masks were dropped, people got real, confessions took place, and people asked for help from God with their temptations. And now, over half a century later, we're still talking about it.
Part of our growing up in Christ is dropping the mask, admitting our need for help, and praying, "Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil." Let's do that right now.