Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Biblical View of Temptation

The biblical idea of temptation is not primarily of seduction, as in modern usage, but of making trial of a person, or putting him to the test; which may be done for the benevolent purpose of proving or improving his quality, as well as with the malicious aim of showing up his weaknesses or trapping him into wrong action. ‘Tempt’ in the KJV means ‘test’ in this unrestricted sense, in accordance with older English usage. It is only since the 17th century that the word’s connotation has been limited to testing with evil intent.

The idea of testing a person appears in various connections throughout the Bible.

1. Men test their fellow human beings, as one tests armour (1 Ki. 10:1; cf. 1 Sa. 17:39; māsâ both times), to explore and measure their capacities. The Gospels tell of Jewish opponents, with resentful skepticism, ‘testing’ Christ (‘trying him out’, we might say) to see if they could make him prove, or try to prove, his Messiahship to them on their terms (Mk. 8:11); to see if his doctrine was defective or unorthodox (Lk. 10:25); and to see if they could trap him into self-incriminating assertions (Mk. 12:15).

2. Men should test themselves before the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:28: dokimazō), and at other times too (2 Cor. 13:5: peirazō), lest they become presumptuous and deluded about their spiritual state. The Christian needs to test his ‘work’ (i.e. what he is making of his life), lest he go astray and forfeit his reward (Gal. 6:4). Sober self-knowledge, arising from disciplined self-scrutiny, is a basic element in biblical piety.

3. Men test God by behavior which constitutes in effect a defiant challenge to him to prove the truth of his words and the goodness and justice of his ways (Ex. 17:2; Nu. 14:22; Pss. 78:18, 41, 56; 95:9; 106:14; Mal. 3:15; Acts 5:9; 15:10). The place-name Massah was a permanent memorial of one such temptation (Ex. 17:7; Dt. 6:16). Thus to goad God betrays extreme irreverence, and God himself forbids it (Dt. 6:16; cf. Mt. 4:7; 1 Cor. 10:9ff.). In all distresses God’s people should wait on him in quiet patience, confident that in due time he will meet their need according to his promise (cf. Pss. 27:7–14; 37:7; 40; 130:5ff.; La. 3:25ff.; Phil. 4:19).

4. God tests his people by putting them in situations which reveal the quality of their faith and devotion, so that all can see what is in their hearts (Gn. 22:1; Ex. 16:4; 20:20; Dt. 8:2, 16; 13:3; Jdg. 2:22; 2 Ch. 32:31). By thus making trial of them, he purifies them, as metal is purified in the refiner’s crucible (Ps. 66:10; Is. 48:10; Zc. 13:9; 1 Pet. 1:6f.; cf. Ps. 119:67, 71); he strengthens their patience and matures their Christian character (Jas. 1:2ff., 12; cf. 1 Pet. 5:10); and he leads them into an enlarged assurance of his love for them (cf. Gn. 22:15ff.; Rom. 5:3ff.). Through faithfulness in times of trial men become dokimoi, ‘approved’, in God’s sight (Jas. 1:12; 1 Cor. 11:19).

5. Satan tests God’s people by manipulating circumstances, within the limits that God allows him (cf. Jb. 1:12; 2:6; 1 Cor. 10:13), in an attempt to make them desert God’s will. The NT knows him as ‘the tempter’ (ho peirazōn, Mt. 4:3; 1 Thes. 3:5), the implacable foe of both God and men (1 Pet. 5:8; Rev. 12). Christians must constantly be watchful (Mk. 14:38; Gal. 6:1; 2 Cor. 2:11) and active (Eph. 6:10ff.; Jas. 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:9) against the devil, for he is always at work trying to make them fall; whether by crushing them under the weight of hardship or pain (Jb. 1:11–2:7; 1 Pet. 5:9; Rev. 2:10; cf. 3:10; Heb. 2:18), or by urging them to a wrong fulfilment of natural desires (Mt. 4:3f.; 1 Cor. 7:5), or by making them complacent, careless and self-assertive (Gal. 6:1; Eph. 4:27), or by misrepresenting God to them and engendering false ideas of his truth and his will (Gn. 3:1–5; cf. 2 Cor. 11:3; Mt. 4:5ff.; 2 Cor. 11:14; Eph. 6:11). Mt. 4:5f. shows that Satan can even quote (and misapply) Scripture for this purpose. But God promises that a way of deliverance will always be open when he allows Satan to tempt Christians (1 Cor. 10:13; 2 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2 Cor. 12:7–10).

The New Testament philosophy of temptation is reached by combining these last two lines of thought. ‘Trials’ (Lk. 22:28; Acts 20:19; Jas. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:6; 2 Pet. 2:9) are the work of both God and the devil. They are testing situations in which the servant of God faces new possibilities of both good and evil, and is exposed to various inducements to prefer the latter. From this standpoint, temptations are Satan’s work; but Satan is God’s tool as well as his foe (cf. Jb. 1:11f.; 2:5f.), and it is ultimately God himself who leads his servants into temptation (Mt. 4:1; 6:13), permitting Satan to try to seduce them for beneficent purposes of his own. 

However, though temptations do not overtake men apart from God’s will, the actual prompting to do wrong is not of God, nor does it express his command (Jas. 1:12f.). The desire which impels to sin is not God’s, but one’s own, and it is fatal to yield to it (Jas. 1:14ff.). Christ taught his disciples to ask God not to expose them to temptation (Mt. 6:13), and to watch and pray, lest they should ‘enter into’ temptation (i.e. yield to its pressure) when at any time God saw fit to try them by it (Mt. 26:41).

Temptation is not sin, for Christ was tempted as we are, yet remained sinless (Heb. 4:15; cf. Mt. 4:1ff.; Lk. 22:28). Temptation becomes sin only when and as the suggestion of evil is accepted and yielded to.

The Puritan William Gurnall said, "The Christian’s armor decays two ways: either by violent battery, when the Christian is overcome by temptation to sin, or else by neglecting to furbish and scour it with the use of those means which are as oil to keep it clean and bright."

Helmut Thielicke in his book Between God and Satan calls temptation the ‘mad mirage of the heart’ because it offers us what we desire at the expense of reality. Satan’s temptations are temptations because they look beneficial to us. And easier. And less costly. And, frankly, not bad at all. Blind to temptation, we love to make our own bread. Mindful of our own egos, we supply our own needs if God seems slow or neglectful. Forsaking kingdom costs, we applaud ecclesial celebrities who peddle the most popular proofs of God’s power for a world addicted to the sensational. And our knees bow easily to worship tiny idols like style and preference, consumer satisfaction and a good reputation.

What do we do today? We pray:

Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
‘Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
‘Give us this day our daily bread.
‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’