Sunday, March 27, 2022

Tempted and Tried

Now came the moment Abraham was dreading. He knew his son Isaac had his suspicions. But now Abraham had to confirm them. Explaining what God had demanded, telling Isaac all the reasons Abraham knew it'd be okay in the end, this was still difficult, even as Isaac understandingly let himself be bound and placed on the altar. This was a 'mountaintop experience' neither of the two would ever forget. Abraham's heart pounded in his chest as he raised the knife, ready to plunge it into the body of his precious son who meant the world to him, the son who was God's promise of a future and a legacy – the son whom God had insisted on having returned in blood and flame. But before Abraham could build up his momentum, the voice of heaven froze him in his tracks, releasing him and providing a substitute.

The record of the binding of Isaac, that near-sacrifice of the beloved son of promise, begins in a curious way. It says that “after these things, God tested Abraham...” (Genesis 22:1). It's the first time the word for 'tested' or 'tempted' shows up in the Bible, and it's the same word we'll find again in the Lord's Prayer. But by the time of Jesus, Jewish tradition had filled in all of Genesis' gaps in Abraham's story. As later Jews told it, humanity was beset by “cruel spirits” who aimed to lead people astray into sin (Jubilees 11.4). Against such a background, they imagined a young Abram praying to the Creator to “save him from the straying of the sons of men” (Jubilee 11.17), saying: “Do not let them lead me astray from following you, O my God” (Jubilees 12.20).

The same traditions later imagined a devilish 'prince of hostility' approaching God about Abraham and urging that he be put to the test by having to sacrifice Isaac. It's like a scene ripped from the Book of Job, with Satan challenging God over how God's servant will react. But here, says the Jewish legend, God had been testing Abraham all along: “The LORD... tested him with his land and with famine, and he tested him with the wealth of kings, and he tested him again with his wife (when she was taken) and with circumcision, and he tested him with Ishmael and with Hagar his maidservant (when he sent them away); and in everything in which he tested him, he was found faithful, and he was not impatient, and he was not slow to act, because he was faithful and a lover of the LORD” (Jubilees 17.17-18). That's how they put it. And now, after all that, Abraham would find himself tested again, to see whether he trusted God enough to return the very son through whom God promised his future. The devil urged the test in hopes of tempting Abraham to turn away in disgust, to lose faith, to cling so tight to his dreams that his love for God would shatter. But the same test the devil meant for evil, God meant for good – to show off Abraham's faith, to shower Abraham with merit, to lay a foundation for all future sacrifices by a father's willing offering of his only-begotten son on the mountaintop. Abraham passed that test.

It wouldn't be his last. The same traditions advanced to a tenth great test, the death of his wife Sarah, after more decades together than any of us get alive – however long they were married before God called them to an unknown land, and then sixty-one years after that. And it's said the angels watched, “testing him whether he would exercise self-control” in the midst of his grief, or whether he'd crack under its strain and withdraw his trust from God (Jubilees 19.3). But in this test as well was Abraham “found faithful” (Jubilees 19.8). Only on the other side of this did the tradition imagine Abraham blessing Jacob, praying that the devil would never “remove you from following the LORD” (Jubilees 19.28), and teaching him to pray that “the Most High God shall protect you from destruction, and from all the ways of error he will deliver you” (Jubilees 22.23). For all the patriarchs would endure their share of testing (Judith 8:25-26).

Centuries later, Moses and the Hebrew tribes would find themselves in the desert. And that was a field of testing not unlike Abraham's own journeys. Repeatedly, Moses tells the tribes that God had resolved to “test them, whether they will walk in my law or not” (Exodus 16:4). “You shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the desert, to humble you and to test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2). And in all this, as with Abraham, God's motive was clear, said Moses: “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, so that the fear of him may be before you, so that you may not sin” (Exodus 20:20). God acted as he had in the desert “so that he might test you, to do you good in the end” (Deuteronomy 8:16). That was the goal! But, alas, the tribes were little like Father Abraham. Most of them failed their tests, finding them a pretext for temptations to creep in. You have put me to the test these ten times,” God objects, “and have not obeyed my voice” (Numbers 14:22). And so “with most of them, God was not pleased” (1 Corinthians 10:5).

God settled a new generation in the land promised to Abraham, the land from which God had told them that, if they were faithful, “then the LORD would drive out all these nations before you” (Deuteronomy 11:23). But as Israel moved into the land, Joshua warned that if they didn't remain faithful, then they could “know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you,” with the result that these pagan sharers of the land would be “a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the LORD your God has given you” (Joshua 23:13). Which is exactly what happened. As the people dallied with idolatry, God handed them over to their own sin, declaring, “I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died, in order to test Israel by them, whether they will take care to walk in the way of the LORD (Judges 2:21-22). The Canaanites and Philistines were left in the promised land “for the testing of Israel” (Judges 3:4) – essentially, make-up homework for an Israel on academic probation. But what God meant as a test, the pagan peoples (and the demons who inhabited their idols) meant as a temptation, an opportunity to derail Israel's faithfulness and mission.

Not only that, but God had warned in advance that there'd be another test for Israel. For from within their very midst, God would allow false prophets to arise, even working signs and wonders, with potential to seduce Israel into chasing after lies. “For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 13:3). These false prophets, with their desires and agendas, were a temptation for Israel. Some were pagan prophets, like those kept by Ahab and Jezebel who advocated for false gods (1 Kings 18:19); others were false prophets who told lies in the name of the true God, promising things God hadn't spoken (1 Kings 22:6). But God allowed and used that temptation as an arena of testing, whereby Israel could triumph by insisting on faithfulness and by “purging the evil from their midst” (Deuteronomy 13:5), thus calling down God's mercy and compassion on them again (Deuteronomy 13:17).

Some of the tests seemed more ordinary. After King Hezekiah had begged God to heal his fatal illness and give him years more to live, God put Hezekiah to the test. Ambassadors came from Babylon – how would Hezekiah react? “God left him to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart” (2 Chronicles 32:31). But, boasting to the Babylonians, Hezekiah showed them all the riches of Jerusalem. And when Isaiah told him this would result, several generations later, in captivity in Babylon, Hezekiah refused to pray for Jerusalem's future the way he'd prayed for his own. Tempted by pride and selfish shortsightedness, Hezekiah failed the test.

On the other side of failure and exile and struggle and oppression, Jewish teachers begin to teach that, as with Abraham and Israel and Hezekiah, anybody who wanted to be faithful and righteous should expect to be targeted by temptations God would allow as a test: “My child,” they'd say, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials” (Sirach 2:1). That would be a defining experience of the righteous – that “they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself” (Wisdom 3:5).

Onto that scene, enter Jesus – descendant of Hezekiah and Israel and Abraham, but first and foremost the only-begotten Son of God. And just as the Hebrew tribes, once freed by the waters that separated them from Egypt, were led into the desert of temptation, so Jesus, after his own baptism, was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert to be tested by resisting the devilish temptations to which Israel had constantly fallen (Matthew 4:1). Over and over did the Tempter seek to prey on Jesus' human appetites – food, validation, control – but all to no avail, for Jesus was armed with the words of God we too can read, and he used them to triumph in the test. “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).

Only after Jesus had resisted temptation and been proven supremely faithful in the test did Jesus teach us this prayer we pray today. After asking provision and pardon, now we ask preservation. And it's important to see that, in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek, the words for 'test' and 'trial' and 'temptation' – that's all the same word. The difference is only in perspective and motive. Every test God authorizes is meant for our good, meant to give us a chance to stretch, to shine, to succeed; whereas temptation aims at having us not succeed but succumb. That's the devil's angle, that's the world's angle, that's the flesh's angle, but it's never God's angle. God doesn't root against us: “He himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). He wants us to be shocked to our senses, to cry out in prayer for help, and then to put that help to good use.

The prayer Jesus teaches us is faithful to God's history of working for exactly that in Israel. In fact, other Jews were praying in almost the exact same language. At bedtime, the rabbis invited devout Jews to pray: “Lead me not into error, nor into iniquity, nor into temptation, nor into disgrace.”1 And when waking up and washing his face in the morning, the same Jews were invited to pray: “Attach me to your commandments, and lead me not into transgression, nor into error, nor into iniquity, nor into temptation, nor into disgrace.”2 It was a daily prayer not to be abandoned to sin, not to be allowed to go astray. It was their prayer for preservation.

What Jesus gives us here is a condensed version, but what makes this shorter line so powerful is that we pray it in light of Jesus Christ. After the desert, Jesus continued to go through trials (Luke 22:28). Often, these came through the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:1; 19:3) – who, refusing to see who Jesus is, were heirs of Israel's disobedience, because they were literally, in the flesh, putting the LORD their God to the test. And the apostles stood by Jesus in all these tests. But then came that 'opportune time' until which the devil had retreated – the hour that was “the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53), in which Jesus “himself has suffered when tested” or tempted (Hebrews 2:18). And Jesus said that same hour would be a test for the apostles as well. “Watch and pray,” he told them, “lest you enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). What was the test? Whether Peter and the others would be loyal to Christ in his suffering, whether they'd risk sharing his persecution, whether they'd keep his commandment of love, and whether that love would win out over fatigue and fear. That was why they needed to watch and pray. But they didn't. They ran. But Jesus endured the final test: the cross. And he won.

From that experience, the apostles knew more tests would come their way. Paul says he experienced “trials” or tests in his ministry (Acts 20:19). And the Apostle Peter – who always regretted the memory of having denied Jesus and thus failing that test – taught us that, if we aim to serve the Lord, we should expect trials and tests and temptations ourselves: “Do not be surprised by the fire among you taking place as a trial for you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). “Now, for a little while (if necessary), you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Peter 1:6). Some of those trials come from situations in which we find ourselves, as when the early Christians were tested and tried in persecution, pressures that threatened to break their spirits. Some trials come from seductions, like the deceitful trickery of false prophets, in the world and in the church, whose effect is to reduce clarity and lead us astray. And other trials come from self, for as James says, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires (James 1:14).

So, when God calls us from our comfort zone, we might be tempted to withdraw or grumble. When God points us toward our mission, we might be tempted to flee the other way. When God summons us to sacrifice what's dear to us, we might be tempted to hold it back, to say “Anything but this!” When God shows us the way of the cross, we might be tempted to hide our face. When we're praised, we might be tempted to fatten our pride. When welcomed, we might be tempted to overstep our bounds. When offered fame and fortune, we might be tempted to barter our souls. When shown paths to pleasure and power, we might be tempted to jump at the chance. When voices sow confusion, we might be tempted to blur the faith. When surrounded by a world gone mad, we might be tempted to go along to get along. When put on the spot, we might be tempted to speak and act from earthly wisdom. When shouted down, we might be tempted to muzzle the good news and lay low. When contradicted, we might be tempted to argue with fools according to their folly. When provoked, we might be tempted to lash out in anger, fear, and defensiveness. When offended, we might be tempted to wish for fire from heaven – or to make our own revenge. When discouraged and demoralized, we might be tempted to despair. When bereaved and bereft, we might be tempted to bitterly sour our souls.

But one thing we cannot be in this life, and that's free from temptation, exempt from testing. We follow in the footsteps of Abraham, a stranger and pilgrim in a foreign land not yet our own, yearning to be found faithful lovers of the Lord, crying out “I Surrender All!” and hoping we're honest after all. We follow in the footsteps of the Hebrew tribes, journeying from baptizing sea into the desert sands and dreaming of the promised land; and along the way, we're challenged to embrace God's commandments, tempted by the restlessness of our own desires, and tested to make prayer (rather than complaint) our gut instinct and our lifeblood. We follow in the footsteps of Israel, learning to coexist in a world that aims to seduce us, learning also to resist voices of cheap compromise or sharp separation that arise within the camp, and learning further to pray as ardently for those we claim to love as we do for our own life-or-death desperations. We follow with eyes fixed on Jesus, watching as the Spirit carries him to a lonely place to deflect the devil's tempting offers with God's richer words. And as he triumphed in the test, we crave to share in his victory. And we follow the apostles as Jesus urges them to watch and to pray for grace, to loyally stay by his side in the dark and dreadful hour, to boldly confess him between the world's treats and the world's threats. None of them were exempt from temptation, from testing, from trial – so neither can we expect to be. But we have been equipped with this prayer. So what is it we're asking?

First, when we say “Lead us not into temptation,” we ask not to be placed in situations too difficult to bear, we ask not to be given more than we can handle, not to be “drowned by the temptation.”3 When Paul was thinking of the tribes in the desert, he applied their story to us and said, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13a). But there could be a temptation that's uncommon, a temptation that's beyond ordinary life experience, like false prophets whose signs and wonders are so great “as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). But even in the vast den of vice and villainy that was Corinth, the church there hadn't faced such uncommon temptations. We pray that we not meet them either.

But Paul continues: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” (1 Corinthians 10:13b). Like Jesus said, even where the spirit is willing, sometimes the flesh is just too weak (Matthew 26:41). There are trials and tests that each of us might be ill-equipped for – maybe tests I could handle but you couldn't, or tests you could handle but I couldn't. I might be able to face a test of social pressure and mockery for Christ – there's the willing spirit – but be unable to face a test where terrorists gouge out my eyes – there's the weak flesh. Another Jewish prayer of the time asked: “Do not let me enter that which is too difficult for me” (Psalm 155:11). That's what we're asking. We don't want to be in the position of third-graders handed a calculus exam! We ask God that, for each person, he give them tests appropriate to their ability and readiness – to not bite off for you more than you can chew, or for me more than I can chew. Just the tests each is capable of, please.

Second, we ask for wisdom to avoid situations of needless temptation. Don't be that kid in class who asks the teacher to please assign more homework. Just as it can be easy to despair of the weakness of our flesh, so it can be easy to become overconfident – to think that your willing spirit will surely compensate for your weak flesh. That was a problem for the tribes in the desert, and to that story Paul adds: “Therefore, let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). In the early church, this sometimes played out in tragic ways. As early as the second century, we have records of Christians who, eager for the privilege of dying as martyrs for Jesus, rushed in and denounced themselves as Christians in court. They volunteered to be put on trial, trying to force the persecutors' hands. But in many such cases, such a Christian could see the lions, get scared – there's that weak flesh – and then be induced to deny Jesus and sacrifice to pagan gods.4 Today, too, we might flirt with temptations, confident in our ability to overcome, or thinking we'll gain something by choosing them for ourselves. But instead, “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). Ask wisdom to keep yourself out of temptation's reach, so far as it depends on you. Ask wisdom to be humble and watchful.

Third, we ask, when facing a necessary temptation, to be guided and steered away from sin. Hebrews tells us that Jesus is “a high priest who... in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). We want to be like that! In the face of whatever temptations come our way, we want to be guided away from sin. But that can be difficult. Paul warns even those who try to help others untangle themselves to “keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). There's a real danger there. For, as the Jews imagined Abraham telling Isaac: “Be careful not to... commit a mortal sin before God Most High so that he will hide his face from you and deliver you into the power of your sin” (Jubilees 21.22).

Much like that, in Scripture we read how God cooperated with Pharaoh in hardening Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 8:32; 9:12). We read how, because of Israel's idolatry, they were handed over to graver tests, complete victory being withheld from them (Judges 2:21-22). We read how, because of the nations' idolatry, “therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (Romans 1:24). What we ask is for none of those stories to be our story! We're asking God to never deliver us up into the power of our sin, to never hand us over to worse trials, worse temptations, because of the path we've chosen. Even if it's what we've earned, even if it's what we've asked for in every other way, this prayer is our prayer for God not to hand us over or abandon us to sin. We ask God to do the opposite: not to stand aside or be absent or be out of reach, but to get involved, to preserve us, to actively guide away from sin. We ask to be like the ancient Philadelphian church who, because they endured their smaller trials faithfully, heard Jesus promise, “I will keep you from the hour of the trial that is coming on the whole world” (Revelation 3:10). For we know that, “because [Christ] himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).

To that end, fourth, we ask to receive the grace to be successful through the test or trial or temptation. Paul can assure us that, in answer to our prayers, “with the temptation [God] will also provide... that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13d). Paul shares us his personal story of an affliction he had – “a messenger of Satan,” he calls it, and “a thorn... in the flesh” – and how he begged Jesus to just take it away, to get rid of it. But Jesus' answer was a clear no: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Whatever the situation was, it was a test for Paul: a temptation to grumble, but also a chance to rely on the Lord for power to endure. And that power, extended from Christ to Paul, is grace. 

In the same way, when we pray “Lead us not into temptation,” it's as though we're saying: “God, I may not want this thorn, I may not want this temptation, but if you have a purpose of showing your power in me, then don't hold back your power! Open my hand and put your power there; open my heart and pour your grace there. Fill up my soul, fuel my endurance, empower my will with your strength, to say no to the temptation and yes to your glory. For your sake, I'll be content with this weakness, for if I'm weak, then it's all the more obvious how strong you have to be in me – so pull me through!” 

And that's the prayer we need to be praying! If the tribes in the desert had prayed for grace, they could've all made it to the promised land in just a year or two, and dined on the sweetness of the Lord. If Hezekiah had prayed for grace, he could've had wisdom to stave off the exile. If only the apostles had prayed for grace, Peter could've stayed true in the hour of darkness, maybe even died on a cross beside his Lord and then risen with him. So what if you and I prayed for grace as soon as we caught a whisper of temptation, as soon as we felt our weakness meet the sharp end of the testing thorn? What could that power and grace do in us? What could we overcome?

Fifth, finally, we ask that, once the divine purpose of the test is accomplished, we then be rescued from the temptation or trial. We ask that we not be left in the situation, needlessly tempted beyond what can bear fruit. Paul assures us that “with the temptation, [God] will also provide the way of escape” (1 Corinthians 10:13c). Peter likewise declares that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials” (2 Peter 2:9). Our prayer – “Lead us not into temptation” – calls on those promises to be found true by us, in our experience, in our lives. We ask to be extracted, to be led back to moral and spiritual safety to regain strength and reflect on what we've gained. 

 And what should we have gained, as we'll see once we're out? “Count it all joy,” says James, “when you meet trials of various kinds.” Why? “For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). And “blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial” or temptation. Why? “For when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). There it is again! Like Abraham, in Christ we want, above all else, to be found faithful, to be lovers of the Lord. And whatever tests God chooses to allow for us, we pray that it would always and only be such as to get us there – and that God would bless us with success. Thanks be to God! May he make it so. May he lead us triumphantly through all temptation and all trial.  And so let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not succumb to temptation and give up (Galatians 6:9). Amen.

1  Babylonian Talmud: b. Berakhot 60b.3

2  Babylonian Talmud: b. Berakhot 60b.6

3  Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catecheses 5.17

4  Martyrdom of Polycarp 4 (mid-second century); compare Peter of Alexandria, Canonical Letter, canon 9 (early fourth century).

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