Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Temptations

Be like God. Blame God. Satisfy your physical hungers. Show off. Grab power.

These are the great temptations. Pretty much anything that entices us can be traced to one or more of them. Even if you are not a Christian… even if scripture holds no meaning for you … even if you believe that “Satan” is a non-entity that just stands for a generic concept of evil in the world … you can see the basics of what haunts you in these great temptations.

Interestingly, these five great temptations are the subject matter of Satan’s appearances in scripture. I know there are some other places where the devil makes a brief appearance here and there, but in truth, this character gets three big scenes to strut his stuff: The Fall in Genesis 2 and 3; the Book of Job; and the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4 (and corresponding passages in Luke and, briefly, in Mark).

All five of them are branches off of one tree - selfishness. All temptation attacks at our most vulnerable point - ourselves. Some are based on our love for ourselves; others are based on our areas of self-loathing where we are tempted to try to make ourselves better. Selfishness, then, lies at the heart of what is evil within us. Ultimately, our failures relate to our attempts to promote ourselves, to strive for that next blessing, to assure ourselves our “best life now.”

Temptation #1: Be like God.
In the Genesis passage, the temptation is simple: “Don’t you want to be like God?” The essence of this story is not that we are like a four-year-old who does not know better when we are tempted to disobey. No, the forbidden fruit story is about the lie that the serpent offers: if we eat the fruit, we can be like God. We can know good and evil just like God does. This is what speaks to us – the chance to make more of ourselves than is intended, than is good for us, than we can really be.

In the end, while the fruit may have been lovely to look at, its taste would not have compelled Adam and Eve to break the rules. What made the difference was that they wanted to know what God knows, to see what God sees. The temptation was to go beyond their limited human view and to become godlike.

That is, always has been, and always will be Temptation #1. We do not like natural limitation. We chafe under the idea that there is something out there that is better, stronger, faster, smarter than we are. That is why “The Six Million Dollar Man” was a hit TV show. It is why movies like “Transformers” and “Superman” and “The Incredibles” tickle our fancy – the idea that we can transform into something more godlike holds great sway.

To let go of this temptation is to accept that we are only what we are. We can achieve, we can grow, and we can learn; still, there is only so far we can go. That acceptance – which is ultimately the key to reliance on God – is difficult for most of us. We can’t accept that there are things we do not understand, that we cannot do.

Temptation #2: Blame God.
Job has been blessed. He is rich and happy and respected. Satan offers the proposition that Job will only be righteous so long as he continues to be rich, only so long as the blessings continue to pour. This temptation comes to Job not directly from Satan but instead from Job’s companions who philosophize through the bulk of the middle of the book. If, like me, you read the Book of Job as a play, you see Satan as the background godfather of these unhelpful speakers. They may not know who is pulling their strings, but those of us who have read the first two chapters of the book – Act One if you will – understand who is feeding them their lines.

Job is told that his onslaught of problems must be God's reaction to Job's sinfulness, despite Job's protestations of piety. Ultimately, even Job’s own wife urges him to “curse God and die.”

This is Temptation #2. Blame God for what is wrong. We can dress it up in great philosophical debates surrounding the question that seems to haunt so many: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” As we debate that question, we find ourselves saying that bad things really should not happen if God is actually all-loving and all-powerful and all-knowing; therefore, our reasoning goes, God must not be one of those things. Or maybe God is none of them. We blame God. We say God really does not love, and/or God really is impotent, and/or God really has no clue.

Once we give in to Temptation #2, of course, we become an easy target of the other great temptations. If God is really not “all that,” then it is much easier for us to try to be godlike, and our self-interests are that much more at the forefront.

Temptation #3: Satisfy your physical hungers.
Jesus has wandered in the wilderness, fasting, for almost six weeks when the Tempter makes his third great entrance, stage left. It is now that the last three great temptations are scripted.

The suggestion that Jesus turn the stones into bread is not a temptation for Jesus to do a cheap magic act. If that were all it is, it would not have much application to us mere mortals who can do no better than silly card tricks. No, it is far baser than that – the temptation is for a very hungry Jesus to make Himself some bread. Forty days of fasting and wandering has left Jesus tired, hungry, and needy. “End your fast. Use your power. Eat something. Nobody is here to see. Nobody will know. You have needs. Make some bread.”

Timing is everything with Temptation #3. There would have been no point in coming to Jesus at the wedding feast at Cana and suggesting that He turn rocks into bread while He is turning water into wine. Jesus was not hungry then. He was not needy.

We can look back at things that have tempted us and recoil at our foolishness, forgetting what our perceived needs were at the time. The physical temptations that come to us are always timed to hit us the hardest. I am willing to bet that very few are tempted to sexual promiscuity on their honeymoon. But when things are hard, when we have needs that we are certain no one else can understand … then is when the temptation comes to fulfill the need, to satisfy the hunger. After all, God made us this way, right? Our hunger is natural. God will understand that the rules don’t apply to us. God would not have built this desire into us and then expect us not to do something about it, right?

Temptation #4: Show off.
Satan proposes that Jesus jump off the temple roof and let the angels gently carry Him to the ground. Satan even quotes scripture – accurately, I might add – to make the point. This misuse of Psalm 91 is the great example of why using individual verses as proof-texts for our own needs and over-literalizing scripture is dangerous, but I digress.

What is the essence of Temptation #4? At first glance, it is popularity, esteem, and self-aggrandizement. What could be in it for Jesus to jump off the temple? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the temple was very public, and surviving such an event would make Him an instant hero. His personal relationship with the angels would be the talk of the town.

The temptation is that life is all about me. What can I do? What do I have to offer? Who will notice me? When will the world stop for a moment so that I can have my fifteen minutes of fame?

Temptation #4 has another level. It is about control ... self-importance ... ego. Perhaps more subtly, but much more dangerously than a simple reach for popularity, His focus would be on all the cool things He could do rather than on fulfilling His sacrificial mission. For Jesus to use His power in such a way would bastardize the power of God. To make such a production – even if nobody saw it and popularity were not an issue – would be to take gifts God has given Him and use them as a sideshow. Showing off cheapens everything you have been given, every talent you have, as you cram them into a box for display, even if you are just displaying for yourself. Jumping off the temple to force the angels to catch Him would be, for Jesus, the ultimate demonstration of controlling the world through egotistical whim.

That is a prospect that makes all of us salivate at times. If only we could do such a thing!

Temptation #5: Grab power.
“I will give you reign over all the kingdoms of the world” is Satan’s final shot at Jesus. We can debate whether or not Satan is telling the truth – does the devil really control the world enough that he has this to give to Jesus? Would he have followed through on the promise and given this power to Jesus if the Christ had bowed down to him?

I think the answer to both of those questions is yes – if not, this is not a real temptation for Jesus. Temptation #5 is all about the chance to grab what can truly be yours. It is no temptation to suggest to me that if I do what you want, you will make me King of Sweden – you do not have that power, and so I have no temptation to follow your suggestion.

But when power is there for the taking, this temptation is real. We have to be careful, because we want good people to have power. Having power is not necessarily bad, any more than having wealth is bad or being popular is bad. When, however, grabbing power for its own sake becomes an end in and of itself – when we agree to bow down to Satan so that we can have power – then we are in the midst of this great temptation.

Machiavelli teaches us that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but that clich̩ misses the point of scripture. Before you can be corrupted by power, you have to gain the power. There are those who sincerely seek power as a means of helping and leading, and more power to them Рshow me where to vote. But the person for whom power is the end instead of the means is the person targeted by Temptation #5.


I believe we overcomplicate much in life. Our analyses of what is evil and wrong in the world can take complex turns as we dissect our motivations and actions.

Perhaps it is not so complicated. Perhaps it is all about these five great temptations: Be like God. Blame God. Satisfy your hungers. Show off. Grab power.

It is worth thinking about.

Friday, September 10, 2010

God in the News

It is the eve of the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I want to focus on two instances where God is in the news.

One is the much-discussed (and now at least temporarily "suspended") plan of a church in Florida and a church in Kansas to burn a copy of the Qu'ran, apparently in protest over the planned Ground Zero mosque or maybe just as a general anti-Islam statement. This choice has been fully vetted and discussed in print and in cyberspace, and I am not going to add to that debate per se.

The second is the cover story of today's USA Today concerning actor Michael Douglas and his ongoing treatment for throat cancer. Saying that he has not really thought through mortality issues because he does not think he is dying, Douglas is quoted as saying "I haven't found God yet."

These two seemingly unrelated items strike a chord with me. On one hand, a church openly appeals to hatred as a tool to provide a message. On the other hand, the concept of God is a punch line. I believe that each has to do with the other.

So long as the church operates not as the Body of Christ but rather as just another human organization with very human ideals, it will focus on political goals and popular ends. The politics is not limited to any one direction, of course. For every right-wing church that wants to burn a book or picket a funeral, there is a left-wing church that wants to promote a coffee shop agenda of so-called tolerance that in fact amounts to anything goes.

It is not unforeseeable that in such a world, ideals of God are laughable to many. Why should God be a realistic concern of those whose primary public view of the alleged people of God is caricature?

The anniversary of 9/11 will provide opportunities for God to be in the news again. Some will blame the attacks on God (or praise God for "causing" the attacks). Others will use the opportunity to evaluate one or more of the leading religions of the world, all of which call on God - whether they use the name "Yahweh" or "Allah" or "Jehovah" or "Father."

I am not suggesting that all religions are the same, for they are not. I am not suggesting that all religions are equally acceptable, for they are not. I am not suggesting that Islam is as reasonable a way to approach God as is Christianity, for I do not believe that it is.

I am suggesting, however, that when people choose to act or speak the name of God, they do damage to that name when they act stupidly, unlovingly, counter-productively, or insanely. Blowing up buildings in the name of God is insane. Burning books (especially books that you have not read) in the name of God is, at least, counter-productive. It is not, however, the same as blowing up buildings, and the hyperbolic editorials that have suggested that it is are reaching for a story. Still, for the people who claim to be God's to disregard how their actions will affect the perception of God because they want to make a point seems to me to lead more and more people simply to disregard any serious consideration of God at all.

I have no idea about Michael Douglas' personal religious convictions, if he has any at all. But I do know that "finding God" in deathbeds and prison cells is a common joke.

I don't pretend that we Christians will be anything approaching perfect. We are going to make horrible mistakes that defame the God we represent - we often do. But to do so intentionally in the name of an end that is not even claimed to be a godly goal is beyond me.

If our Christian witness is to have any meaning at all, it has to mean that we are conscious of how our words and actions portray God to the world. When churches are embarrassed to say the name "Jesus Christ" out loud for fear of making someone uncomfortable, it is not surprising that people are not interested in Jesus. When churches are indistinguishable from shopping malls, it is not surprising that visitors act like customers, who expect to be "always right" and who will move on to the next location as trends change. When churches strive primarily to be culturally relevant, it is not surprising that they fail to have any permanent meaning to those who can find better music online and cooler pop culture references on "The Daily Show."

And when any so-called church makes the news for politics (much less hatred), it should be expected that the response will be a political one. God gets left in the dust, to be picked up by the quipsters who need material.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Life Is Not Fair

I will call them "the Smith family." "Smith" is not their real name, but I want to respect their privacy. Most who have known me a long time will know about whom I am writing.

The Smiths and my parents were best friends as I grew up. I am an only child - the Smiths have lots of kids. I just went to their big house and blended in whenever I got the chance.

I was with one of the Smith daughters the night I broke my elbow and ended my baseball career.

When we made a move and sold a house before school was out, we lived with the Smiths for several weeks.

I could go on about the nature of my relationship with this family, but you get the point.

Dr. Smith died this week. He was 80 years old. I understand that these things happen. It is sad, but it is a part of life, and I am at that stage where many of my friends' parents are starting to pass on.

But the Smith family is different. In the last 10 years...

... their son-in-law was sued. I represented him. He won, but the process was debilitating. He had done nothing wrong, but he suffered the indignity of accusations directed toward his personal and professional competence.

... they lost a granddaughter to a drunk driver. She was brilliant and funny and beautiful and completely innocent, and her life was snuffed out by idiocy.

... their daughter and her family lost their house to Katrina. Washed away. Nothing left.

... they lost another grandchild - this time a boy - and a son-in-law to yet another drunk driver. Again, no fault at all on the part of the Smith family. Complete lunacy.

I am pretty good about philosophizing about why bad things happen to good people, and I think that my answers make some sense in the abstract. I don't think Dr. Smith would argue with them.

Still, as yet another blow strikes this good family that means the world to me, the philosophies and the answers don't satisfy. They seem, in the words of the great Old Testament Teacher, to be a chasing of the wind. My humanity wants the good guys to win and the wicked to suffer. My world, however, does not work that way.

Dr. Smith would have found that Teacher's approval, for he loved God and obeyed God's commandments.

You know Smiths in your life - good people who, for some reason or for no reason, appear to be special targets for what life has to throw at all of us.

For today, I am not thinking it through. I am not philosophizing. I am not trying to satisfy myself or anyone else with so-called answers. I am just sad.

Say a prayer for my friends the Smiths and for whoever the Smiths are in your world. Life happens to all of us, eventually. You will be a Smith some day, and you will covet the prayers and cares of your friends then too.

Smith family, I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, and I am sure that He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it at the day of Christ.