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The Anatomy of Temptation

March 6, 2017

“The Anatomy of Temptation” Matthew 4:1-11 © 3.5.17 Lent 1A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Susan has spent most of her work life in publishing, communication, and office management. But when we met on a spring Friday in 1980, she was a court reporter taking down the proceedings in some hearings before a federal magistrate. As we got to know each other, I learned that in her training, she had to become familiar not only with legal terms, but also, among other things, human anatomy. If there were a case involving malpractice or an insurance claim after a car accident with injuries, she would likely need to know what the parts of the body were called, since she was responsible for an accurate account of everything that was said. She could hardly stop the attorney or the witness and ask “How do you spell that?”

Our training, in this case as followers of Jesus, also needs to include instruction about anatomy, but that of temptation, not the human body. Don’t worry. There won’t be any technical terms to remember, and the course is quite short. In fact, we’ll only be considering three parts of temptation’s structure.

First, we take a look at the mouth of temptation. Listen again to the devil’s voice in the story: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” This was a confrontation over calling, an issue of identity. The devil challenged the very relationship that told Jesus who he was and what he was to do.

Who of us has not been in the same spot, wanting desperately to close our ears against the accusing voice in our head that challenges our deepest and most cherished convictions and assumptions about ourselves? Each of us has a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. We could call it our personal myth, not in the sense of something false, but a tale that interprets events in our lives, gives them meaning, helps us understand why we are who we are, how we got to this place in our journey.

See if you can relate to any of these. The tempter’s voice, using a very personalized vocabulary, syntax, and inflection says: “So you claim to be competent, do you? What nonsense! You’re an imposter, a fake. You bluff your way through life. You’re sloppy and unproductive. You make bad decisions for your business, your family, yourself. Better work harder to prove your worth.” And the bread of our labor turns into a stone of stumbling. “You fancy yourself a great parent. Hardly. You’re doing a lousy job. Your kids will grow up to hate or at least resent you, and they will suffer emotional problems their whole lives that will be visited on their children.” And the vista of the future that once was bright and hopeful suddenly is bleak. “You think you’re pretty smart, huh? Got degrees on the wall? Lots of experience that brought you know-how from the School of Hard Knocks? Plenty of common sense? In fact, you’re ignorant, a fool. To call you stupid is an insult to stupid people.” And we reach the pinnacle of learning only to find we are so precariously perched we may easily fall.

The lie temptation tells us in all these scenarios and so many others we could imagine is that if the great stories we tell about ourselves were somehow found to be untrue, we would be without identity. We wouldn’t know who we are. But it’s not our word, our story, our myth that tells us who and why we are; it’s the Word of God. God names and calls us his own in baptism.

There’s a line from a song by a band from back in the day. It goes: “In the desert, you can’t remember your name.” It’s our loss of memory that temptation is counting on. We can cheat it, overcome it, silence it, if we remember in the desert who has given us our identity, if we recall our name. We are God’s children.

So the mouth of temptation is full of deceit and falsehood. We examine next the face. In doing so, we find that temptation seldom reveals what it really looks like. It wears a disguise. Sometimes it comes masquerading as a good thing. Surely there could be nothing wrong with Jesus satisfying his hunger after such an arduous fast. Certainly if he could gain fame quickly and enlist people to work for his good purposes, he should take the opportunity. Who could object to a few shortcuts here and there? Wouldn’t the ends justify the means?

Temptation can also wear the mask of piety, and does. The devil knows the scriptures, too. How can you argue with the Bible? That’s the fallacy of cherry-picking, one-verse Christians, who base a whole approach to human relationships or an entire system of doctrine on a few passages or just one. Maybe that’s why the Westminster divines, in framing the famous confession of faith, insisted we compare Scripture with Scripture. And I would add, we need to read everything through the lens of Christ.

We can be influenced to do all sorts of sinful things that violate our relationship with God and neighbor if we can be convinced they’re biblical. We can oppress others. We can exact revenge. We can decide who’s in and who’s out with God. Beware of people who quote Scripture as they urge a course of action that something inside you is telling you is not quite right. Jesus countered the Bible, or a twisted interpretation of it, with the Bible. We can, too. But we have to be biblically literate and know responsible principles for dealing with Scripture.

Finally, we take a peek at the brain of temptation, to see how it thinks, what’s its tactics and strategies are. Really the MO of temptation can be summed up in one sentence: “Hit ‘em while they’re down.” Sneaky, backhanded, cruel: that’s temptation. Jesus was hungry. He was alone. He was a would-be leader with no followers. He was struggling with his identity. He was wondering about how to use his power. Everything the devil promised our Lord was something he would have to work hard for or had denied himself. There was nothing inherently wrong with having sufficient food or exercising influence or even impressing people and being known. But the cost the devil demanded was too high.

Temptation knows the chinks in our armor. All of us have places we’re vulnerable, a spiritual Achilles heel. Some gnawing question, some persistent doubt, some unfulfilled dream or desire, some repressed resentment against God or a neighbor. The strategy of temptation is to ask, as in the primeval garden: “Did God really say…?” What we want out of life may be worthy and worthwhile, but the aim of temptation is to convince us that we should sacrifice everything we have and are to gain it. We’re seduced into bowing down before idols. But they can’t save. Only God deserves our worship.

It turns out that the anatomy of temptation is human anatomy after all. It’s part and parcel of each and all of us, arising from within ourselves and urged on by the company we keep and the circumstances we’re in. The voice, the face, the brain of the tempter is our own.

But thanks be to God, temptation is not the only or the last word about how we are made inside and out. The psalmist said God knows how we are made; he remembers we’re dust (Psalm 103). Another poet wrote that the Creator “formed [our] inward parts” and our “frame is not hidden” from him. He praised God that human beings are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” intricately woven by a divine wonder worker (Psalm 139). Every strand of hair on our heads, Jesus said, is numbered by God (Matthew 10:30).

That’s the last, best word about how we’re put together, the way we’re structured. Temptation and sin can be and will be conquered. Jesus, the True Human, showed us how by his discipline, his determination, his sense of self, his engagement with Scripture, his facing of his fears and questions. May God give us grace through this Lent and every day to follow his example and depend on his presence.

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