Sunday, February 26, 2012

This Way or that

James 1:12-18                                                                                                                              Matthew 4:1-11

"Disasters are the common lot of the saints, who must suffer them.  It is by enduring them and overcoming them that the virtue of the righteous has always been noticeable.  With invincible strength they have defied all trials - the heavier the sufferings they endured, the more courageous were their victories."  Sulpicius Severus (4th century priest & monk), "Letter to Eusebius"

There can be no more righteous battle than to stand toe-to-toe with the evil one and not blink, and there is no more courageous victory than to watch as the evil one turns on his heels and walks away after having suffered such a loss.  While we may never have the same experience Jesus endured in the wilderness, the temptations we face on a daily basis are no less challenging - quite simply because we are much easier marks.

We must never be led to believe - nor lead others to believe - that every thought which crosses our minds is heaven-sent whose only criteria is whether or not we like it.  It is this fabled notion of grace that has led many believers so far down the path of darkness that they could not - perhaps would not - find their way back.

While Jesus was successful in His face-to-face encounter with the devil incarnate in the wilderness, James was quick to point out to the faithful that the temptations we face will not always be so clear; that the temptations we face will be far more subtle, much more deceptive, and incredibly more enticing because we will often not be able to tell the difference between that temptation which may be external in the form of divine "testing" as in "persecution" - and the more internal temptation borne of our own base desires and impulses. 

One is obviously imposed on us against our will even by external forces that are not necessarily "minions" of the evil one but are equally opposed to godly standards of living and absolutely reject the notion of "sacrifice".  Because we often refuse to believe the Lord would "allow" bad things to happen to His people, then, we reject this notion of a "trial" that must be endured; we only want to be happy and personally fulfilled.  We might be more inclined to believe "Satan is out to get me", but we will generally reject the idea that we are being "tested" toward perfection so that we may be better prepared and strengthened to endure even greater challenges; challenges which are sure to come *IF* we are deliberately and publicly working for our Lord. 

The apostles endured such persecutions and many were put to death - and still are even today in other parts of the world - but all of them - including James - "consider it nothing but joy because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance ..." (James 1:2, 3).  In other words, good things come from the endurance of these trials; namely, a stronger and more enduring faith that transcends a mere acknowledgement of a spiritual concept. 

Literally staring death in the face by way of external forces beyond our own control without having endured such previous trials in which our faith is tested would cause even the most well-meaning disciple to rethink his or her faith, as in the case of the Christian pastor who has been condemned to death in Iran.  In this pastor's case, he was given opportunities to renounce his Christian faith and reconcile with Islam, but he has apparently refused these opportunities and has remained steadfast in his faith - and it may cost him his life.  This kind of faith DOES NOT come ready-made out of a box!  This kind of faith which may have never been tested before may actually fail many of us because we have not actively engaged in that faith.  It is the difference between being willing to believe something and being willing to trust Someone.

The other is more internal, and more closely resembles those temptations that were laid before Jesus in the wilderness.  These things were not "imposed" on Him, but they were presented to Him in that "subtle" way by which most temptation comes - inner desires.  There are few of us who would not be tempted by an offer to eat whenever we are hungry - such as rejecting fasting as a spiritual discipline, be free from danger and harm, or to have the world at our disposal for our use and our pleasure.  We would be inclined to reason that we could use that power and wealth toward the "greater good" without realizing how easily corrupted the human race can be; even, perhaps especially, Christians who have not seriously been put to the test.

There is a haunting story from Texas in the late 90's, the very sad tale of a devoted Christian, husband, and father who had finally reached the end of his financial rope after a series of job losses (lay-offs).  He finally hit the TX lottery that was worth $31 million.  At first believing the lottery win to have been a godsend (a reflection of James' reality), he gave generously to all who asked - including his church.  He also spent lavishly on homes, cars; the "good life", the so-called "American Dream" that in reality became this family's "ultimate nightmare".

By his own actions, by his own inner desires, by the deception in which he had convinced himself of Divine Blessing and "personal" favor, this poor man took this fortune and created for himself more problems than he could ever have imagined.  Before the end of the 2nd year after winning the lottery, he had told his financial advisor that winning the lottery "was the worst thing that ever happened to me".  With nowhere else to turn - I wonder where his church and "friends" were when his world came crashing in around him?? - and after having sold his lottery annuity to one of those companies that offers to buy the annuity out for cash, he was so far in debt that he could see no way out.  Less than 2 years after receiving this "divine blessing", he took his own life.

You and I can look at this story and many others just like it, shake our heads in disbelief, and refuse to believe such a thing could happen to us - the arrogance of PRIDE will do that to the human mind.  We can see the foolishness in this man's spending decisions.  I can see the foolishness in his pastor's willingness to accept the gifts given by the man - thereby setting in stone this man's perception that the Lord bestowed this favor upon him ("something for nothing").  And what is worst of all: he had spent so much after having sold the annuity that after his death, his family was left to struggle with paying estate and personal property taxes on what turned out to be an "illusion".  The taxes, of course, were very real.  The wealth?  Not so much.

This is not to suggest that all persons are so easily corruptible.  It is, instead, a taste of reality mixed in with James' admonishment and warning that what may appear on the surface to be a blessing, a "godsend" only according to our inmost personal desires and covetousness, could in reality deceive us as easily as any marginal Christian who does not study Scripture can be deceived by the evil one's "selective" Scripture quotes.  Of course the evil one may not have been aware he was try to use The Word against THE WORD Himself at first, but he clearly knew what would have worked with an ordinary human being with ordinary emotions and extraordinary desires.

The "good" and "perfect" gifts which come from Above must be discerned according to what is "good" and "perfect" according to our Holy Father's standards.  These gifts are those attributes - rather than money that comes from nowhere - within us that help us to move closer to sanctification, to spiritual perfection and grow in the faith.  These gifts enable us to draw a distinction between that which will build us up - and that which will ultimately destroy us ... and those we love.

Whether or not we receive and use these gifts to the glory of our Lord is determined by the choices we make - and which way we choose to go.  Today - and every other day - you and I must choose because Jesus never proclaimed Himself a "spot on the road".  He is THE PATH, the "WAY" of the Journey.  Will we embrace only that which indulges our personal desires, insisting that the Lord has "personally" blessed us for our "personal" use - OR - will we push aside self-indulgence and realize the True Blessings which come from Above?  It is either "this way or that" ... there is no third alternative.  AMEN.   

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