FIGHTING TEMPTATION: When We Fail
We are four weeks into our Fighting Temptation series.
Question: How is it going with that?
Are you on a hot streak against temptation like never before?
Have you been sinless for three weeks?
Are you a perfect, 1,567-0 against every temptation in the month of March?
Maybe a better question is:
Have you won any temptation battles?
Today we’re going to talk about what to do when you have failed at fighting temptation. Before we do that, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. Two Different Reactions
The lesson we are going to look at is from the book of James 4. James is a letter written by James, a pastor in the early Christian church to Christians everywhere. In his letter, James gives all kinds of guidance to FIGHT temptation. He tells them to not be prideful (1:11), to be slow to anger (1:19), to get rid of moral filth (1:20), to watch their tongues (1:24), to not show favoritism (2:1), to care for others (2:15), to not curse (3:10), to not be envious (3:14), to be peace-loving (3:17), to not fight amongst each other (4:1), to not covet (4:3), and to not be romantic with someone that isn’t your spouse (4:4).
That’s a lot of commands.
That’s a lot of opportunity for temptation.
But about midway through chapter 4, James begins to talk about what to do if you find yourself falling to temptation. He identifies two completely different approaches to losing: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (4:6)
Have any of you been watching the NCAA Tournament? Teams win and teams lose. It’s interesting to listen to teams when they lose – whether it’s in an interview or Twitter – there’s really two different reactions to losing:
Some say, “We lost. We didn’t play well. We didn’t deserve to win. We failed.”
Others say, “It was the refs’ fault.” “My teammate didn’t play up to his potential.” “I read a mean tweet and I wasn’t able to focus like I should.”
Two different reactions:
Humility and Pride.
It’s the same thing when we fail at temptation.
We can respond in humility or pride.
God opposes the proud.
God gives grace to the humble.
II. Types of Pride
But it’s not necessarily that easy.
One of the trickiest things about pride is that pride tends to be very good at disguising itself.
It’s very good at not realizing its own sinfulness.
It’s very good at making you think – that it’s not prideful at all.
Because of that – I would submit that each and every one of us -- even long time Christians – struggle with some version of pride when we fail to temptation.
Here’s a list of a few different prideful ways that we respond when we fall to temptation. Which one are you?
1. The Bar-lower-er
It’s like the high jump. Did any of you have to do the high jump back in high school gym class? It isn’t easy. You have to time your run, time your approach, plant off the back foot while arching your back in the air, throwing your feet back and then jack-knifing over the top.
If you aren’t very good at it, what happens? The coach lowers the bar. From 5 foot to 4 foot 6 inches to 4 foot to…maybe let’s try laying the bar on the ground.
Bar-lower-ers do the same thing with the bar of conduct that God has set:
“God, I know you said to love my spouse – but marriage is hard. You should be happy! I wasn’t that rude.”
“I know the Bible says, ‘Don’t lust,’ but that’s unrealistic. God’s probably happy that I didn’t actually sleep with her…for long.”
“I know the Bible says, ‘Love your neighbor,’ but have you met my neighbors? I’ll tolerate them. What more can you really ask for?”
And there’s no sorrow.
There’s no humility.
Because the bar-lower-er makes it over the fake bar that he set up – while ignoring the divine bar that God set up way over his head.
2. The Fixer
That name comes from politics. A fixer is the person on your political team who has the ability to fix any negative, dirty laundry news story and make you into the hero of the narrative. If you’ve ever watched Scandal, this is Olivia Pope’s job. She finds out the bad story that’s going to hurt her client, she reworks it, and feeds that story out instead in order to make her client look good.
The Spiritual Fixer responds to sin the same way.
Bitter and angry at work? No. I was just standing my ground against all the bitter and angry people who were challenging my ideas!
Cheated on my wife? Nope. I’m just a romantic. A fan of true love. I’m the good guy in the story.
Said something racist? Nope. I was baited into it…by some other friends…who knew it would happen. They’re the real racists.
And there’s no sorrow.
There’s no humility.
Because the fixer imagines himself the hero of his story --- even when God says he’s clearly not.
3. The Accountant
Kudos to actual accountants. They do impressive work. They take numbers. They take receipts. They take line items and mistakes and put them all together to try and make the numbers balance – no matter how it is.
This is hard work. It’s why Kevin from The Office developed a “Keleven” It’s a made up, magic number he uses to balance the numbers when he can’t figure out the mistake.
The Spiritual Accountant does the same thing. They try to take the seeming “good” that they’ve done and balance it against the bad that they just committed. Like some kind of magic number, they try to make it balance.
Sure. I was grumpy this morning. But I was nice from like 1:15-3:30p yesterday afternoon so…
I have been gossiping a lot lately. But I did go to church Sunday and Wednesday for the Meditation service.
I know I told a lie there. But this morning I told like 4 truths. Things like “Good morning” and “I had an egg for breakfast.” It all balances out.
And there’s no sorrow.
There’s no humility.
Because the Spiritual Accountant thinks they’ve made up for their wrongdoing – even when God says the only way to make up for sinful wrongdoing is death.
4. The Bootstrapper
This type of person “Pulls themselves up by their Bootstraps.” Have you heard that phrase? Apparently, it means to be lying on the ground with your boots on and then, to grab ahold of the strap at the top of the boot until you are standing. This isn’t actually that possible. It’s really, really, really hard. Hence the phrase, “Pulling yourself up by your bootsteps” being an exemplary thing. If you can do that, then people will forget all about the fact that you fell – they’ll be way too impressed by the fact that you pulled yourself up by the bootstraps.
Spiritual Bootstrappers think they can do the same thing. They focus on how they’ll get themselves out of sin to distract themselves – and God – from the fact that they have sinned.
I know. I know. I got drunk for the 8th day in a row You might even call me addicted. No worries. When I get out of this, it’ll be that much more impressive.
Yes, I lost it on my kids again. But I’m gonna keep improving, keep working harder, and I’ll figure out how to deal with 4 whining kids all by myself.
And…I said things that made my spouse mad at me. But I’ll fix it. I’ll buy flowers. I’ll buy a nice card. I’ll send her a cutesy emoji. I’ll pull myself out of the pit I dug.
And there’s no sorrow.
There’s no humility.
Because the Bootstrapper distracts himself from his severe sin by looking at his half-hearted, sin-tainted, feeble efforts at righting it.
5. The Humble Looking
This seems a bit like an oxymoron. Because this type of response to sinning doesn’t seem prideful at all. In fact, they sound humble. They say things like, “I am a miserable sinner.” “I did an awful job.” “I am a horrible, no good, very bad person – God!”
It sounds humble.
God, I have so much sin, that it’s too much for you to handle on your own. I’ll try to help.
God, I’ve done so much wrong. I don’t think your blood can cover it all.
God, I really messed up. I can’t ask you to help. I don’t belong in church. That wouldn’t be right.
There’s false sorrow.
There’s false humility.
And there’s this strange clinging to a tiny ounce of sinful dignity, because “I’ll feel better about myself if I can help God out with getting rid of my sins.”
Here’s the truth:
All five of these responses to sin are prideful.
All five of these responses to sin set oneself up against God.
The Bar-lower-er says, “God, your bar wasn’t good enough. I’ll make my own.”
The Fixer says, “God, you don’t know the whole story. You’re wrong for rebuking me.”
The Accountant says, “God, if you don’t accept all the good I do for you, you’re the one who isn’t any good.”
The Bootstrapper says, “God, don’t patronize me. I don’t need your help. Even if you tell me I do need your help.”
The Humble Looking says, “God, you can’t do this on your own. You need my help.”
All five of these responses to falling at sin will leave you…imagining that you’re up and on your feet again.
When in reality…
You’re still lying on the ground.
You’re still beaten.
You. Aren’t. Getting. Up.
God opposes the proud…
God gives grace to the humble. (v.6)
III. Blessings of Humility
Our Old Testament lesson was from the book of Judges. Have you ever read the book of Judges? It fits in really well with today’s lesson, because it is filled with a very repetitive theme:
Repeated, repetitive failures to temptation.
It’s a cycle.
Israel falls to temptation.
God warns them to stop.
Israel has too much pride to listen.
God warns them again.
Israel still doesn’t listen and…
God is against them.
God sends a foreign nation to overtake them.
Israel is overrun by the Assyrians, the Moabites, the Philistines.
The once proud people of Israel are defeated – lying flat on their backs.
As they are on their backs…
They realize that they cannot get themselves out of the predicament.
Their story changes.
They ask God for mercy.
He sends a conqueror.
He sends a hero.
He fights for his people and gives them the victory!
Friends, there is blessing in humility. Look at what James says:
1. The Devil Flees
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (v.7)
Which seems strange. Because you would expect your best chance at beating the devil to involve puffing your chest out, getting really big, really prideful. Like scaring off a grizzly bear. You act as impressive as possible so as to scare him off.
The devil is not scared of you.
Not one bit.
On the other hand, when you are humble…
When you admit that you can’t do it alone…
When you call out for help…
He’s absolutely terrified!
2. God Comes Near
This is the reason the devil is terrified. Look at what James writes, “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” (v.8)
Because God is a God of mercy.
He is a God of compassion.
He is a God who helps those who need help.
He erupts volcanos.
He flicks his wrists to send hurricane like winds.
He pours out rushing flood waters.
He is the undisputed, undefeated, champion against temptation – and there is no love lost between him and the devil.
God shows up and the devil runs.
He does one of those things that the Roadrunner used to do in Looney Tunes and leaves a cloud of dust behind.
James writes, “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (v.8b)
Because the reality is that falling to temptation can feel awfully icky.
It can feel like the end of a long day working outside.
There’s dried sweat on your forehead.
Dirt under your finger nails.
And this…stench that just seems to be deeply entrenched in your skin.
He washes us cleans.
He washes away your guilt.
He washes away your shame.
He washes away the stink and the stench.
And replaces it with the beautiful perfume of the phrase: “Forgiven.”
4. Uplifting to the Highest Heights
James writes, “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (v. 9-10)
The truth is the humbling yourself means that you will be lowering yourself.
There’s a moment when you say, “I am a sinner.”
A moment when you say, “I failed, again.”
A moment when you say, “I can’t do this on my own.”
During that time, you can feel really low.
God forgives you.
God uplifts you.
God lifts you up beyond where you were before – and places you up beside Him – in His kingdom!
Do you get it? If you fall and a friend picks you up, your feet are back on solid ground.
But if you fall and God picks you up…your feet are on heavenly ground.
IV. What Now?
The one WHAT NOW? It’s pretty simple:
When you fail against temptation…
Humbly seek God’s help.
Humbly hear his promise of forgiveness.
No matter how many times you’ve fallen to temptation.
Like the son in the story that Jesus told.
Remember what he did?
He came up to his dad – long before his dad was dead – and said, “Give me my inheritance! I’ve had enough of living under your roof. I’m sick and tired of doing what you tell me to do. I’m sick of being here. There’s a whole world full of life out there. Give my money. Give my money so I can leave and never have to look at your ugly face again.”
And his dad was sad.
But he gave him the inheritance.
A couple hundred thousand dollars.
And the son takes the money.
He heads to the city.
He goes downtown.
He rents a high-rise $4,000 a month apartment.
Every night he goes to the finest steak restaurants.
He drinks top notch scotch after drinking top shelf vodka after drinking a $25 dollar shot of whiskey.
And he buys for his friends.
And he buys illegal drugs for him and his friends.
And he buys women for him and his friends.
And he wakes up around 2 pm the next day.
And does it all over again.
The money’s out.
No one will hire him.
He gets evicted.
His “friends” ignore his text messages.
He pretends to have enough cash for an Uber out of the city – only to pretend like he left his wallet in the other pants when he gets to a local pig farm that’s hiring.
And he gets a job.
Feeding the pigs.
He gives them slimy old applesauce.
He gives them moldy old cheese.
He gives them this greenish, brownish muck that he’s not sure – isn’t snot.
It looks so good.
He’s so hungry.
And he says to himself, “I should never have done it. I should never have left my dad. I had it good in my dad’s house. I was fed. I was clothed. I was…home.”
I don’t deserve to be his son.
But…maybe he’ll let me clean the outhouse. And gives me a few pieces of bread for supper.
He makes his way to his dad’s house.
When he reaches the dirt road, the long dirt road that leads to his Father’s house…
He takes a deep breath…before he walks up.
But before he can get far, way off in the distance…his dad. He sees him! And he takes off down the dirt road.
And the son thinks, “Here he comes. He’s going to give it to me. He’s going to scream at me. He’s going to tell me how awful and terrible I messed up and that I should buzz off and never be around again.”
And as his dad approaches.
He lifts up his hand.
And his son braces himself to be smacked on the cheek.
His hand doesn’t hit his face.
It embraces him.
But the son shrugs him off! “Seriously, Dad! I sinned. I did wrong. I don’t deserve to be your son! Let me work my way back. Let me do my own thing. Let me be a worker on the lowest run in your farm.”
But the dad…isn’t listening.
“Hey Walter! My son’s back!! Run; tell the cooks to get the steaks from the freezer. Go grab some of my finest wines. And text everyone that I know. There’s a party at my house tonight.”
Because…This son of mine is lost; but NOW? is found.
Friends, this is God’s reaction to you.
When you fail against temptation, humbly return.
And you’ll be welcomed home.
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