Note to readers: The version printed differs from the recorded version in several places. I made some changes that morning in response to a news story, but decided to put the original here on our website.
"And do not bring us to the time of trial."
Pentecost XVI (O. T. 23); September 4, 2016
I wonder what I can tell you folks about temptation; you may know more about it than I do. What are your favorite temptations? People responded: chocolate, food, pie
What makes them tempting? Taste, comfort
Now, the same word in the Bible means both "tempt" and "test." And the modern Ecumenical version of the Lord's Prayer says, "Save us from the time of trial" instead of "Lead us not into temptation." So, what is it about those temptations you talked about that makes them a test? Test of will-power; will I stick with my goals?
In the Bible, most of the time when someone is tested, the test is a test of faithfulness. Will I remain faithful to the God who saves me? Will you remain faithful to Jesus Christ?
The people of God have had our faithfulness tested over and over again. When the Hebrew people settled in the Promised Land, God wanted them to get rid of all the vestiges of native religion in the land, because God knew they would be tempted to slide into other religious practices that weren't true to the God who saved them. And God was right; they did. They were tested and they flunked.
Early Christian people were tested by the State. Their oath of allegiance to Jesus conflicted with the oath of allegiance to the State, and so their test was whether they would stay faithful to Jesus or would give in to the demands of the State to put their loyalty there. Some gave in, of course, and others went to jail or to the lions or to the stake.
What tests us? Most of the things we think of as temptations – well, they are temptations. Food and sex and drink and the pleasures that money can buy all really are temptations. And they are all created by God for some good purpose. Things that are evil in themselves are rarely truly tempting; it is only things that are good but can be misused that are tempting.
They become a test when we start letting them substitute for a faithful life, a life that glorifies God, a life that proclaims that Jesus is Lord. Okay, here's one example, but it's only an example. There are other possibilities. Many of us use food to self-medicate when we have feelings we don't know how to manage. If I'm lonely, I eat. If I'm sad, I eat. Or drink. If I'm bored. If I'm excited. If I'm nervous. All of these are ways of avoiding dealing with the real issue. If I'm lonely, then perhaps I need to deal with the issue of needing friends. If I'm sad, perhaps I need to unload to my pastor. Or my dog. If I'm bored, then I need to look for some way to get active.
Life in Jesus Christ is supposed to open us to honest relationships with others, to an engaged life, to connections. But it's often easier just to open a bag of potato chips, or a bottle of something. The test may be a question of will-power, or of trying to stay morally upright, or to pray or do something generally religious. Or the test may be simply one of looking at myself and my life in the light of Jesus Christ, an honest assessment, and identifying what I really need to do, instead of avoiding it.
Does anyone connect with that? Do you ever turn to something such as food or booze or sex or drugs (even legal, prescription drugs) as a way of avoiding dealing with the real issue of what you need to do? This question was rhetorical.
The prayer is for God to save us from such times. The Bible doesn't promise that God will make such times go away, but there are promises. One promise is that whenever testing comes, God will help us deal with it (I Corinthians 10:13). Sometimes this promise is misrepresented as "God never gives you more than you can handle." Nonsense. Sometimes we break under the strain. What it does promise is that when you are tested, God will give you the strength to deal with it. You and I still need to take the initiative to look straight at the test and deal with it, rather than running to the cupboard or the bottle or the favorite porn sites, and God will give you and me the strength to do so, if we want it.
And I don't know if this other promise is ever explicitly stated, but it sure is witnessed to by the Bible: God is shaping things in life so that we will, in the long run, be better off if we face our tests than if we run from them. Jacob was afraid of his brother Esau, and he had reason to be. More than once Jacob had cheated his brother, and when he learned that his brother had grown wealthy and powerful and was coming to meet him with a large number of armed men, Jacob was terrified. But Jacob didn't run. Jacob didn't crawl into the bottle (or the wineskin, if I don't want to be anachronistic). He faced his brother. The hugs and kisses and kind words still didn't quite overcome his fear (he may never have really believed he was forgiven), but he slept better afterward. His life never got easy, but at least he got through that test.
It was a test of faith because God had promised to stay close to him and look after him, and if he had not faced Esau then he would show he did not trust the promise of God. But he did trust the promise of God, he did face his test, and it turned out well. I said I wasn't sure this promise that if we face our test then God will make us better for it is explicitly stated, but maybe it is: "All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). It doesn't say that everything is good, or everything is easy; it says that if God has called us and we love God, then the many facets of our lives, including our tests, will help us along to salvation.
And so we pray "Lead us not into temptation" or "Save us from the time of trial." We ask God to help us when we are tested, so that we will remain faithful to God. And God promises that God will help us with our testing. Likewise, it is clear that when we face our trials squarely, rather than run to the many things that can tempt us to avoid them, that God will help us along the way to salvation.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church