Finding God in temptation
God, of course, is not the author of temptation. This we know from the catholic epistle of Saint James, the Brother of the Lord and first Bishop of Jerusalem: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.” It is the devil, the Enemy, who is the author of temptation, who has ever sought to tempt man away from God, seeking man’s destruction in his envy and hatred of us. Nonetheless, it is true that God allows him to tempt us – but why? No doubt there are theological discussions we could enter into here concerning the origin of evil, free will and other matters – but I would bear in mind our patriarch, His Holiness Pope Shenouda’s teaching that “sacred fasting days…are not days when concentration is on books that increase your knowledge and information. Concern yourself with spiritual books that inflame your heart with God’s love…warmly lead you to prayer, and urge you to repent and lead a life of purity.” So in this sermon I will not be considering theologically the ancient origins of evil and temptation but rather accepting that it is part of our lot as Christians, it is simply part of the way things are and seeking to approach the subject from a spiritual and practical perspective.
“Why do we need temptations and suffering (trials and tribulations)? We are frightened little children who run from danger into the arms of a strong protector. How often in the beginning of our spiritual “growing up” would we approach God if it were not for the fact that we run to Him while fleeing some danger?”
If only we have some idea of our own failings, weakness and sinfulness then we will surely call out to God in prayer in advance of temptations, by way of preparation, beginning each day with Morning Prayer (Prime, the First Hour of the day): asking our Lord “to keep us this day without sin and save us”, praying that we “pass this day in righteousness, chastity and godly conduct”, beseeching God to guard “us from every evil thing, from every sin, and from every power of the enemy…” (Indeed we begin each week this way, praying together even as here this morning, the prayers of the Divine Liturgy, calling on God to help us). Our Lord Himself saw fit to prepare with prayer and even fasting to face our enemy, and not just in today’s Gospel where we read how “he had fasted forty days and forty nights” but in other places too where we read that “in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed”. So what hope have we got without such preparation!? But let us ever remember that our Lord was tempted – and not only on this occasion, for as the Matins Gospel concluded: “when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season.” So don’t be thinking this was it, the devil triumphed over, all temptation past – this was it “for a season”… but the enemy, the tempter would be back, time and time and time again. “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”
And then during the day as temptations assault us, as they surely will, we must call on God again, even when we are tempted, the very moment we realize that we are being tempted to sin, that we are maybe on the very point of anger or lust or whatever it may be… then it is high time for prayer, then prayer is essential… But maybe you protest that you will be in the midst of your work when the temptation comes or when you suddenly realize that it already has come – or maybe you will be busy driving, concentrating, when that other driver cuts you up and you have to take evasive action… On this, two observations: firstly you see how vital is to prepare in advance, to get up early enough to pray – and secondly who said it had to be some long and complicated prayer in the heat of battle: send up a brief ‘arrow’ prayer from your heart unto God, an instant “Lord help me” or “Lord save me” or one praying of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”. There is a famous prayer of preparation which also acknowledges our human limitations in the heat of battle, in this case physical battle but surely equally applicable to spiritual warfare, by Sir Jacob Astley before the Battle of Edgehill in the English Civil War: “O Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day; if I forget thee, do not thou forget me.” But let us strive not to forget God in the heat of battle but, however, briefly to shoot up some prayer, even as brief as two words: if we don’t have time to pray three words “Lord help me” or “Lord save me” then settle for “Lord help” or “Lord save” or even if we can only cope with one single word then simply “Help” or “Save” or let us breathe silently from within our hearts even unto our God that sacred and holy Name: “Jesus”. For that Name is powerful and He Whose Name it is hears and understands and is strong to save.
This business of fighting temptation, of resisting the devil, is a team effort – it’s us and God working together, not us working alone, neither God working alone: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” “…except the Lord keep the city, he that keepeth it watcheth but in vain.”
“Thus, if the watchman does not watch, neither does the Lord watch; but if the Lord does not watch, the watchman watches in vain. Let us, therefore, watch at the door of our heart, while never ceasing to call upon the Lord for help.
“Do not direct your gaze towards the enemy. Never get into a controversy with him whom you cannot possibly resist. With his millennia of experience he knows the very trick that can render you helpless at once. No, stand in the middle of your heart’s field and keep your gaze upward; then the heart is protected from all sides at once: the Lord Himself sends His angels to guard it both from right and left and from the rear at the same time.
“This, being interpreted, means that if you are beset by temptation, you should not consider it a matter for examination or reflection or weighing for or against… Instead, without the slightest delay, turn to the Lord and say: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. And the sooner you draw your thoughts away from temptation the sooner help comes.
“Never be sure of yourself… Never believe in your own power and strength to resist temptation… Self-confidence is a dangerous confederate. The less strength you credit yourself with, the more surely you stand…” For then, knowing you can’t get through alone you call out to God in prayer for His help and strength. They tell me that in the eye (or centre) of a hurricane it is still, it is calm, while all around swirls and rages this monstrous destructive wind. Thus let it be with you: as the hurricane of temptations rages around you, look up, “stand in the middle of your heart’s field and keep your gaze upward”, look to God, call to God, pray to God…
So we find God in advance of temptation by preparing ourselves in prayer – then we find God in the midst of temptation by calling on Him again to help and save us. And then we find He has helped us, He has saved us from this sin. And then?
Well, sometimes “we forget that God fought our battle for us and we did not achieve temporary victory through our own strength…When we become overconfident in ourselves, we are really telling God that we no longer need His help and that we did all the work ourselves. To believe this lie for too long will ultimately lead us to…hell, and our wise heavenly Father steps back to let us follow our own will so that we can see where it is leading us. In this manner He lets us learn from our mistakes because we have plugged our ears from His gentle instruction and can no longer learn the easy way. We keep forgetting about the mess into which relying on ourselves has led us.” And then we fall…
“If you are remorseful because later on you fell anyway, and if you are full of self-reproach and resolutions “never to do so again,” it is a sure sign that you are on the wrong road: it is your self-reliance that has been wounded.
“If you endure the trial, thank God who gave you strength. If you do not, rise up promptly, pray for mercy and think: I got what I deserved! For the fall itself was your punishment. You had relied too much on yourself. You have had an experience; do not forget to give thanks.”
“Every we time we fall into…transgression…as soon as we notice it, we must (instead of torturing ourselves and wasting our time without any benefit) humble ourselves at once and turn to God with hope, calling to Him from the depths of our heart…
“We must do this not just once, but, if necessary, a hundred times a day…and the last time with the same perfect trust and boldness towards God as the first…realizing our worthlessness and humility before God with a warm remembrance of the great mercies God has shown us personally. Thus we rouse in ourselves a desire to thank and glorify Him.
“Then, actually thank and glorify Him warmly from the depths of our soul. Since thanking and glorifying God is the highest manifestation of our living union with Him, if we take our downfall properly, its fruit will be (with God’s help) our rising higher toward Him.