Monday, October 06, 2008

Lead us not into temptation...

I heard a sermon on the subject of temptation yesterday. A few simple points were made: temptation is not a sin (Jesus, after all, was tempted); God does not send temptation, but does permit it; temptation can help us to grow in the Christian life.

I think that was all, though the sermon was about twenty-five minutes and looked at several verses of Scripture. No stories, or anecdotes, as far as I can recall. It was intended for new Christians, so I didn't actually expect to learn anything new.

Still, it got me thinking about the subject of temptation. It all seemed more straightforward in Biblical times. People were tempted to gross immorality, or violence, or idol worship, or similarly unpleasant activities. All clearly wrong. Somehow life these days seems filled with grey areas. I don't, personally, get tempted to commit violence or theft or adultery. Nor do most of my friends. I don't even use bad language, or covet my neighbours' oxen...

Of course, I might gossip a bit, or think negative thoughts about someone, or criticise the preacher... but I don't experience great temptation related to these things. There's no feeling of being caught beforehand between doing the right or wrong path. When I'm in the midst of people grumbling, I usually join in. It's only afterwards that I feel it may have been wrong.

My temptations are more towards what we used to call the sins of omission. I should really clean the windows/water the plants/tidy my paperwork, but I'm involved in reading/blogging/email, so I procrastinate. Maybe I do the chores later, maybe I don't. Nobody gets hurt either way, and I sometimes wonder if it really matters. Does God actually mind if our windows stay dirty for an extra couple of days?

Then there's the temptation to excess, in an activity which isn't sinful, such as reading books. At one extreme, it's clearly a good thing to spend, say, half an hour each morning reading an inspirational Christian book. I don't suppose anyone would object, either, to half an hour at night reading a light novel, to help me fall asleep. We might quibble over which novels are constructive, and whether some might be harmful to read, but in general I think most people would agree that reading, in moderation, is a good thing. So is eating, and taking exercise, and writing email. Even more controversial activities such as playing computer games, drinking wine, or eating chocolate have their place.

But if I spend fifteen hours every day reading books, or if I become so engrossed in my computer that I neglect everything else, or if I eat so much junk that I start to destroy my body by becoming overweight and unfit - or, indeed, if I make a god out of exercise and spend every hour trying to stay thin and muscular - then I have fallen into sin.

So far, that's clear.

The problem is, there's a huge mid-ground between those extremes. And some people want to measure everything. If it's perfectly fine to eat two squares of chocolate once a week, after Sunday lunch, but it's wrong to eat twenty bars of chocolate every day, what about two squares of chocolate every day? Or one small bar every day? Where do we draw the line?

The thing is, there's no such line. It's not that simple. Each of us is different, and temptation hits us in different ways. If I eat a bar of chocolate on Sunday afternoon, and enjoy it, I haven't done anything wrong. However if I eye up another bar, knowing I'm actually full and really don't need any more chocolate, then I'm facing temptation. Someone else might eat three bars before having that fleeting feeling that they've had sufficient. Someone else might not ever be tempted to over-indulge with chocolate. Personally I don't drink alcohol or smoke, so I don't face any temptations as far as those are concerned, but other people struggle with them every day.

My 'sin', according to Enneagram theory, is that of sloth. Not that I don't do anything, but that I procrastinate about what really matters. I know that's true, and my main temptation is to put off what I know to be important. If God is prompting me to write an article, and I decide today is the day to clean the windows, then I am facing temptation. It's hard to see it as wrong when I'm tempted to do something positive, but if it's not the way God is leading me, then it's not what I should be doing.