Standing Up to Temptation Sermon
How to Stand up to Temptation
If you sometimes get discouraged because you wind up doing stuff that doesn’t rise to the level of your best intentions, don’t worry. Today we are going to talk about practical steps you can take to increase your willpower and resist temptation.
Temptation is part of the human condition. Even Jesus was tempted. Temptation is when we crave something that runs counter to our best interests and God’s intentions for our lives. We hear the word “temptation” and the first things that pop into our minds have to do with food or lust. But it’s a very broad subject that includes everything that isn’t really for you. Temptation is subtle, it’s not usually for something obviously immoral: Should I steal that bag of cash? It usually sneaks its way in through the little things. Should I divert my attention away from doing something meaningful or should I open 47 more websites or apps on my phone?
Playing on your insecurities
You heard the scripture. Jesus goes right from a mountain top experience where he is baptized and hears the voice of God telling him that he is God’s beloved child, in whom God delights. Then the spirit drives him into the wilderness where he is tested for 40 days and nights which recalls the 40 years the Hebrews spent in the wilderness after they escape from Egypt. In the wilderness, they shaped their identity and learned the lessons of trusting in God to provide for them.
Wilderness has a way of revealing what you really are. We all go through metaphorical wilderness experiences. In the wilderness, temptation comes. If you get tripped up with the devil language in our scripture, relax. For us, it’s not some devil making us do things. Temptation comes from within. We can get there all on our own without some Flip Wilson, “The devil made me do it,” routine.
The tempter introduces each temptation by saying, “If you are the son of God…” It is a play on insecurities. We’re all insecure about something because none of us is as great at all the things we’d like to be great at. Sometimes we are tempted to be something we are not to try to prove ourselves to someone. I’m not a goody-two-shoes, here let me show you. I’m not a loser, here look at all the degrees on my wall, the assets in my portfolio. I’ve put all my priorities, neglected my family to prove this to you. How often do you let your fears or insecurities drive your behavior, your decisions?
Playing on your self-entitlement
They say that when it comes to how you see yourself, there are too great temptations. The first is to think less of yourself than you should. The other is to think more highly of yourself than you should. Some scholars think that the sense of the tempter’s challenges are saying, “Since you are the Son of God…” That is, he is playing on a sense of entitlement. That is a great temptation. We might think, I can do this action because no matter how bad it is, at least it’s not as bad as what other people do. I go to church, so I can act like a jerk at the store. It’s not a big deal, God’s got me, God will forgive me. So, we give in to those little things that accumulate.
Like a marshmallow, the more you focus on it, the worse it gets
Maybe you’ve seen the marshmallow experiments on YouTube videos. They give a young child a marshmallow and tell the kid they can eat the marshmallow but if they wait ten minutes, they will get two more marshmallows. Then the adults leave the room and the cameras roll. You see some kids who have no problem, they get it. Wait and I get even more. They distract themselves and play with other toys in the room and get the reward. Instinctively, they know not to sit there and focus on the marshmallow—so one strategy for overcoming temptation is to distract yourself, put your attention on something more wholesome, healthy.
Some kids do that and get the better deal. But other kids agonize, squirm, hold it in their hands, roll it around, smell it, and pretty soon they just pop it in their mouths. The more you let yourself focus on it, the more likely you are to do it even if it is not in your best interest to do so.
So often the temptations that consume us are places where we sacrifice our long-term interests to satisfy our short-term cravings. One of the best indicators of success in life is the ability to make short-term sacrifices for longer-term gains. No, I’m not going to party all the time in college, I need to learn some stuff, too. No, I’m not going to put all my money into that car or gadget, I’m going to be disciplined in saving. I want to be a good parent so I’m not going to just give in right now to shut up the kid.
Shortcuts to a downfall
In the wilderness, the tempter offered Jesus shortcuts. Command stones become bread. Jesus was the first one tempted by fast food. Prove to everyone who you are through spectacle. He even tried to get Jesus to just impose his will on everyone. I will give you the authority, the kingdoms of the world. Just grab it now instead of letting people come to faith and spreading the word through kindness and love. How many times do we see people going for the short-term, by taking shortcuts? You can take a shortcut to a downfall.
That long-term view is important. I heard someone say that if you think about smoking, it’s hard to get a reason not to smoke just one more cigarette. Just one more isn’t likely to cause much damage. There is never a time that is not true. But if you aren’t looking at the long-term, you don’t quit and suffer the damage.
One strategy people use successfully in dieting is to be able to recognize a craving and just be able to say I’m not going to eat that right now but if I still want it I can have it later. They take the focus off the immediacy and usually don’t feel that same need to have it later. One person in our church told me that just counting to ten has saved him from cookie gluttony on many occasions. Cookie monster sees cookie, eats cookie. But you have tools for more self-regulation and other options.
Radishes vs. cookies: Willpower depletes as you use it
Resisting temptation has a lot to do with willpower, the mental fortitude to resist. John Tierney and Roy Baumeister wrote a book called Willpower: Unleashing Humanity’s Greatest Power. Wherein they look at the studies done on self-regulation and willpower. One of the things they find is that willpower is like a muscle, the more you use it during the day, the more fatigued it gets. Forcing yourself to do things or make a lot of decisions can deplete your willpower.
One experiment involved sitting Stanford students in a room filled with the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and a bowl of them on a table. They were told not to eat the cookies. Another group was seated next to a bowl of radishes. After having to resist the temptations both groups were given an insolvable geometry puzzle. The students who’d been resisting cookies gave up twice as fast as the radish group. They had expended their willpower on the cookies.
That’s why it is often when we are weak, tired, or have had to use our willpower in making decisions all day that we get home at night and break our intentions. We don’t have enough left. It’s also why making a long list of things to change all at once seldom works. You use your willpower to make one big change and don’t have enough left to do the other things you want to do. Often if you want to make a change, add something, or subtract it from your life it’s good to apply it in the morning.
When was Jesus tempted? When he’d been out there in the wilderness for 40 days, depleted, hungry. Researchers find that when our brains get lower on glucose our willpower drops precipitously. Proper diet plays a role as does a proper sense of self and rest.
Willpower can be built up
But the good news is that willpower is like a muscle and it can be built up over time. One of the surprising findings was how making a change in one area where you use your willpower in one area of life will provide more self-regulation in other areas. Students who worked for several weeks on their posture—standing correctly and sitting up straight—started seeing benefits in other areas of life they were
So, if you want to work on this you can incorporate a new discipline like posture or breathing exercises or a spiritual practice of something like the daily examines where you
1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.
Religion helps with temptation
One of the findings that scientists were reluctant to talk about was that religious people—across religious traditions—tend to exhibit more willpower than those with no spiritual tradition. It’s not that we aren’t tempted and often give in, it’s that a faith tents to bolster a sense of self-regulation and willpower tends to be stronger. Why is this?
We might say that God gives us strength and we rely on God’s resources. The scientists hone in on key features of religion such as clear ethical boundaries, accountability, and the support of others who are trying to live by the same values.
One of the ways not to have to use up your willpower muscles is to have clear boundaries, bright lines that you do not cross. A sense of right and wrong, things that you just build your identity around that you know you won’t do. You build these things into your identity. Similarly, you find recovering addicts make declarations saying they won’t drink or go to bars or involve themselves in the kinds of social situations that triggered them in the past.
When Jesus was tempted, he kept going back to scripture to find his rootedness. I won’t put God to the test, I won’t live by bread alone. Our faith gives us a moral framework were somethings are just automatic and don’t rise to the level of fondling the marshmallow.
Lone wolves fail
The research is clear that when we associate with others of the same values and support each other in trying to do better, we wind up elevating our behavior and strengthening our willpower. Jesus was most severely tempted when he was alone. That is why we are always working on building community in this church. It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself.
It’s part of why they suggest that when trying to make a change in life you tell other people you are doing it. They can ask how it is going and encourage you on the journey.
Another indicator of building self-regulation is how much you monitor or keep track of the things you want to focus on. In the long-term weight loss is sustained more by people who regularly weigh themselves and can make course corrections along the way instead of doing what I do and get super fat and try to lose it all in a hurry (again). Financial security is often built through seeing how much is there, doing simple things like balancing the checkbook. You can have apps that limit your time on social media or the number of websites you look at every day. An advantage we have over Jesus is that there are tools that we can use to help us on the journey. The disadvantage we have is that today there are more things tugging at our attention all the time that distract us from what is really important to us.
David Blaine is a performance artist who does all of these extreme things that require incredible willpower—like sit in a glass box in London and not eat for 40 days or get the world record for putting his head under water. But I read where he says that when he isn’t in training and motivated to use his willpower his whole life can go awry. He said I can go from 180 pounds to 230 in a heartbeat. I can go 40 days without eating but put a cheeseburger in front of me when I’m tired and not motivated, I can’t resist.
Keeping our motivation is part of what faith helps us with. We build it into our lives to worship, to praise, to ask for God’s help to do what is right and worth doing.
One of the things that caught my attention in the temptation narrative is the temptation to command stones turn into bread. I’ve always focused on the fact that Jesus was the first to be tempted by fast food. But now I’m seeing that the verb command is key to understanding what was going on. Jesus could have turned his ministry into a bunch of commands. He could have commanded belief. But he resisted the temptation. He wasn’t about imposing his ways on others. The only command Jesus gave was that we love one another as he loved us—fully, sacrificially.
We so want to command, control things. We build up our plans, structure our lives to give the illusion of more control than we have. But there is an element of trusting God that Jesus modeled for us. Maybe that is why the Serenity Prayer by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has been such a huge help for so many in recovery from addiction: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”