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Sermon illustrations

Temptation

Don’t Look Down But Up

In his excellent book on the desert fathers, Where God Happens, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tells of an encounter between two monastic fathers. The first was Macarius, famous in that time as a man of God, humble, gracious, and loving. The other, Theopemptus, exhibited a judgmental self-righteousness that discouraged those who visited him and sought his counsel:

When he was alone with him, the old man [Macarius] asked, “How are things going with you?” Theopemptus replied, ‘thanks to your prayers, all is well.” The old man asked, “Do you not have to battle with your fantasies?” He answered, “No, up to now all is well.”

He was afraid to admit anything. But the old man said to him, “I have lived for many years as an ascetic and everyone sings my praises,’ but, despite my age, I still have trouble with sexual fantasies’’ Theopemptus said, “Well, it is the same with me, to tell the truth “And the old man went on-admitting one by one, all the other fantasies that caused him to struggle until he had brought Theopemptus all of them himself.

Then he said, “What do you do about fasting?” “Nothing till the ninth hour,” he replied. “Fast till evening and take some exercise,” said Macarias. “Go over the words of the gospel and the rest of Scripture. And if an alien thought arises within you don’t look down but up: the Lord will come to your help.”

 Self-satisfaction is dealt with not by confrontation or condemnation but by the quiet personal exposure of failure in such a way as to prompt the same truthfulness in someone else: the neighbor is won, converted, by Macarius’s death to any hint of superiority in his vision of himself. He has nothing to defend, and he preaches the gospel by simple identification with the condition of another, a condition others cannot themselves face honestly.

Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another, New Seeds Books, 2005, 12.

Fearing to Want

In her thought-provoking book, Teach us to Want, Jen Pollock Michel describes the tension in listening to our deepest desires: some of them these desires are integral to our identity, but they also can easily be marred by sin:

Brennan Manning was a man ordained into the Franciscan priesthood who struggled with a lifelong addiction to alcohol. He writes in The Ragamuffin Gospel, “Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.” Like Manning, every human is drunk on the wine of paradox and riddled with fear. We each have great capacity for evil and terrific incapacity for good.

These fears can obstruct our will to want. How can we allow ourselves to want, especially when we’re so infinitely adept at sin? How do we ever decide that our desires are anything other than sin-sick expression of our inner corruption? Can we trust our desires if we ourselves can be so untrustworthy?

Taken from Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel Copyright (c) 2014 by Jen Pollock Michel. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Greatest Problem with Video Games and TV

The greatest problem with video gaming is not that gaming is innately evil, but that it’s addictively good. Gaming taps our social competitiveness, our love of narrative, and our interest in problem solving.

As gaming franchises grow, digital dreamscapes are becoming holistically immersive. The greatest problem with TV is not that TV is innately evil, but that TV is endlessly good at giving us exactly what we want whenever we want it. Our on-demand platforms continue to bulge with options.

Taken from Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, © 2019, p.118. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

The Great Temptation

In his excellent book, An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling describes one of our greatest temptations in the modern age: hurry:

Hurry is a great temptation. Hurry looks like impulsive, knee-jerk reactions: “I’ll act now because I may never have another chance!” The temptation to hurry is fueled by the lie that the only good to be had must be grabbed now or never.

Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness right after his baptism at the Jordan illustrates the hurried nature of temptation and a holy response to it. Jesus is a master of the unhurried response to tempting suggestions.

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

How Transformation Happens

In The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith describes a new Christian he happened to know who came to him one day feeling dejected. He was so excited to be a follower of Jesus, but he just couldn’t shake an addiction that had developed prior to his becoming a Christian. 

Carey, you see, struggled with pornography. He was in sales and so part of his job was traveling from city to city, staying in hotel rooms. The temptation was always there. When Carey became a Christian, he thought this temptation would go away but it didn’t. When they met, “Carey’s face suddenly looked sad. I really need your help,” he said. “I will if I can” Smith replied. “Well, I’m really conflicted in my walk with God right now, it seems the harder I try the worse things get. My family is fine, and my work is going well, but in my relationship with God, I’m at the end of my rope. ‘Usually a good place to be, I said, but he gave only a puzzled glance.”

After a bit more talking, Smith interrupted, “who are you?” He asked. “Well, I’m a Christian.” “What does that mean? I asked”

“Well it means that I believe in Jesus and am trying to follow his commands. I go to church, study the Bible and have devotional times when I can find an hour here or there. I try not to sin, you know; I try to be a good person, but I know that deep down I’m still just a sinner.” “I have no doubt that you’re trying, Carey,” I said. “And I also sense that you’ve been trying quite a while, with all of your effort, but it isn’t helping.” “Exactly” he said.”

“So let me see if I have this right. You’re a Christian, but you’re also a sinner. Is that right? Yes. So if you’re a sinner, then what behavior would be normative for you? I asked “Well, I guess sinning. But that doesn’t seem right. “And it certainly doesn’t feel right, either, I suspect. The reason, Carey, that it doesn’t seem right or feel right is because it isn’t right. Your approach is consistently failing , right?” Right, he concurred.

Maybe there’s another way…and that other way is what I want to talk with you all about this morning. The focus, ultimately, is about the stories we tell ourselves about our identity. Are we, first and foremost sinners, or, as our scripture text told us, “new creations, where the old has gone and the new has come?” In order to get there, we need to continue to put to death the language of “I’m just a rotten sinner” and replace it with “I am a new creation”.

I think a part of the issue here is that we are so aware of our sinfulness, and if we’re not, it’s probably because we are a sociopath, that it feels better to refer to ourselves as just a “lousy sinner,” or even a “forgiven sinner”.

This way, we feel as though we are being honest about our shortcomings. But the problem is that when we use that language all the time, inside our heads, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and so we find ourselves like Carey, stuck in our sins.

As Smith has accurately put it: “the teaching that we are fundamentally sinners leads to failure.” And this is hard for us because many of us come out of traditions where pastors spend their entire sermon yelling at the church to get their acts together, that they sinners and that God is angry at them. The preacher who yells at his church may have a lot of remorseful Christians feeling guilty at the end of the service, but they don’t have any tools to change, so ultimately they will go back to the same struggles they started with.

Now don’t get me wrong, sin is a problem…in fact, it is most of the problem when it comes to our lives. There are churches that will gloss right over sin as though it doesn’t exist, and that is a problem too.

But when we start with our sin nature, when we focus on it incessantly, then it can become very difficult to avoid doing it. It’s kind of like if I tell you not to think of an apple. What’s the first thing you are going to do: think of an apple because I just put it in your mind.

So, we need to shift our perceptions. We need to shift our stories, and our scripture text gives us a good idea of how to do that. After spending a couple of months meeting with James Bryan Smith, his narratives, his story began to change. Instead of seeing himself primarily as a sinner, he saw himself as a child of God. A couple years later James ran into Carey and it was clear his life had been transformed. He told James “The day I got it was when I was preparing for a trip out of town. I used to get nervous, and I would pray, “Lord, I don’t want to fail you again. But this time I had no anxiety.

“When I got to the hotel room, I walked to the television, closed the doors of the console and smiled. I whispered to myself, “I know who I am. I am a child of God. I house the fullness of God. I was never tempted to turn the TV on, I’m not prideful, I know that sin remains, as you taught me. But it doesn’t reign anymore. I used my free time to read and rest. I knew I could sin, and I knew God would still love me. But I didn’t want to sin. That when I knew it had finally taken root in me. I never knew it could be this easy.

Brothers and Sisters, you too house the fullness of God. You are not defined by your sins but by your existence In Christ. Our job is to change the stories in our heads to match that reality.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source material from James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows (The Apprentice Series), InterVarsity Press.

One Step At a Time: Advice from the Desert Fathers

The following story comes from the collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt, teaching that would have first been transmitted orally (around 350-450 A.D.) and later written down for the spiritual nourishment of generations to come (much like the Old and New Testaments). The material is rich and profound and can be applied to a modern audience, as the following encounter demonstrates:

A brother fell when he was tempted, and in his distress he stopped practicing his monastic rule. He really longed to take it up again, but his own misery prevented him. He would say to himself, “When shall I be able to be holy in the way I used to be before?”

He went to see one of the old men and told him all about himself. And when the old man learned of his distress, he said: “There was a man who had a plot of land, but it got neglected and turned into waste ground, full of weeds and brambles.

So he said to his son, ‘Go and weed the ground.’ The son went off to weed it, saw all the brambles, and despaired. He said to himself, ‘How long will it take before I have uprooted and reclaimed all of that?” So he lay down and went to sleep for several days. His father came to see how he was getting on and found he had done nothing at all.

Why have you done nothing?’ he said. The son replied, ‘Father, when I started to look at this and saw how many weeds and brambles there were, I was so depressed that I could do nothing but lie down on the ground.’ His father said, “child, just go over the surface of the plot every day and you will make some progress.’ So he did, and before long the whole plot was weeded. The same is true for you brother; work just a little bit without getting discouraged, and God, by his grace will reestablish you.

Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 76.

The Spirit & Temptation

In their excellent book Invitation to a Journey, M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton discuss the poignant insight that it is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the Wildnerness. What does this mean, from a Biblical, theological perspective?:

Isn’t it interesting that the Spirit, the source of Jesus’ empowerment, is also focal in the temptation that follows: “The Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted” (Mt 4:1)? We tend to think of temptation as something totally alien to us, something from outside that intrudes into our lives.

We learn from Jesus’ experience, however, that the most critical temptations attach themselves to the call and empowerment of God that defines the meaning, value and purpose of our existence. It was so for Jesus. His first temptation went to the heart of who he was, and it is the temptation our culture has succumbed to.

“If you are the Son of God, speak, that these stones may become bread” (Mt 4:3). Do you see the nature of this temptation? The temptation is for Jesus to use his empowerment by the Spirit to do something that will authenticate God’s call. More significantly, it is a temptation to reverse the roles of being and doing, the temptation our culture has succumbed to. We tend to evaluate our own meaning, value and purpose, as well as those of others, not by the quality of our being but by what we do and how effectively we do it.

Taken from: Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright (c) 2016 by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Temptation Without Sin

We read of the temptations of Jesus, but we never hear of a confession of sin on his part. He never asked for forgiveness, though he told his followers to do so. This lack of any sense of moral failure on Jesus’ part is completely contrary to the accounts of the saints and mystics in all ages. The closer men and women draw to God, the more overwhelmed they are with their own failure, corruption and shortcoming.

Taken from Know Why You Believe by Paul E. Little Copyright (c) 2008 p.55 by Paul E. Little. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Tender Conscience is a Terrible Thing to Waste

I’m not a big movie buff. I’ve seen my fair share, but if I have an evening free I’d rather read a book, play a game, or watch sports than take in a movie. My wife, on the other hand, likes movies, mostly BBC costume dramas and other pretty innocent fare. But sometimes there will be scenes that unsettle me. Usually these are sexual or sensual in some way. It doesn’t take much skin for me to feel guilty. Is this because as a guy I am more susceptible to visual temptation?

Definitely that’s part of it. Is my sensitive conscience a sign that I am progressing in sanctification? I’m not sure. I have to be careful (with movies in particular) that I don’t assume my pangs of conscience mean everyone else tuned in is committing sin. But when my conscience is pricked, I should not continue watching.

A tender conscience is a terrible thing to waste. Incidentally, I’ve learned over the years that the simplest way to judge gray areas like movies, television, and music is to ask one simple question: can I thank God for this?

Taken from The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung, © 2012, p.43. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Temptation & Ethics: Partial Goods

But let me point out something we almost always fail to notice. We can only be tempted to something that is good on some level, partially good, or good for some, or just good for us and not for others. Temptations are always about “good” things, or we could not be tempted: in these cases, “bread” “Scripture” and, “kingdoms in their magnificence.”

Most peoples daily ethical choices are not between total good and total evil, but between various shades of good, a partial good that is wrongly perceived as an absolute good (because of the self as the central reference point), or even evil that disguises itself as good. These are what get us into trouble.

Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters: Scriptures for Lent, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011.

What If Satan Told The Truth When He Tempted Us?  [Part 1 of 2]

Think for a second what it would be like if Satan were to tell the truth when he tempted people? Could you picture what that would look like? Imagine if Satan tried to tempt us honestly; it might go something like this:

SATAN: You should cheat on your wife with that good-looking girl in the office.        

PERSON: I don’t think so. It’s wrong, and it would hurt my wife.        

SATAN: Fair enough; you make a good point. But look, I’ve run a cost-benefit analysis for you. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Benefits:

  1. A few moments of physical (if perhaps awkward) pleasure.

Costs:

  1. Disobedience to God.           
  2. Erode your communion with God.           
  3. Ruin, or possibly even end, your marriage.            
  4. Humiliate your wife.            
  5. Mess up your kids’ lives.           
  6. Public humiliation and exposure.            
  7. Might cost you your job.            
  8. Might mess up your coworker’s life.            
  9. Diseases?          
  10. Unwanted pregnancy?          
  11. Dishonor and disgrace on your church.          
  12. Wreck your witness to others.

PERSON: Yeah, wow. Umm . . . no, thanks.

Mike McKinley, Did The Devil Make Me Do It?: And Other Questions About Satan, Evil Spirits, The Good Book Company, 2013.

The Devils Logic [Part 2 of 2]

If I were making a list of benefits like the one Mike McKinley imagines, only this time using the devil’s actual logic, it might look more like this:        

  1. Experience the excitement of new romance.        
  2. Get the kind of satisfaction my wife isn’t willing to give or interested in giving anymore.        
  3. Find someone who listens to me and actually understands.        
  4. Relieve this stress and boredom.        
  5. Feel attractive and desired.        
  6. Feel loved.

Those are the lines we follow when we ponder affairs. We give an inch at a time, compromise after compromise, not in the explicit interest of disobeying God and dishonoring our marriage vows, but in the interest of fulfillment, beauty, and enlightenment. Sin makes an emotional kind of sense to us that defies biblical reason, and the devil is more than happy to help us with that too. After all, God forgives anything, right?

Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel According to Satan: Eight Lies about God that Sound Like the Truth, Nelson Books, 2020.

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Temptation. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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