Isaiah 55: 1–91 Corinthians 10: 1–13
Holy Trinity Lamorbey
14th March 2004
Being Tempted and Feeling Guilty
One of the jobs of a parish priest is to clear up misunderstandings.
Some misunderstandings arise between people. You know how it is: Mrs A says something to Mr B and he takes offence; not because Mrs A intended to give offence but because he misunderstood something that she said. Misunderstandings of that sort are the stock-in-trade not only of churches, but schools, hospitals, clubs and colleges.
But it’s with misunderstanding of a different sort that we shall be concerned this morning. Perhaps it would be better to call it a "misapprehension". It’s what happens when someone who may have been going to church for many years has somehow managed to get the wrong idea about some important aspect of the faith.
A visiting preacher is in a better position than a resident parson to talk about such misunderstandings because he won’t be saying to himself "surely after all these years and all the sermons I’ve preached here nobody can seriously think that" whereas a visitor has no such anxiety.
The particular matter today concerns the two phrases Being Tempted and Feeling Guilty. At first sight they mightn’t seem to have much in common, but in my experience those who misapprehend the one are likely to be the same people who misunderstand the other. Besides, both phrases have a distinctly "Lenten" tang about them, and, as we shall presently see, they are more closely related than people think.
So first of all Being Tempted.
It’s most important to understand that being tempted is not the same thing as being sinful. If it were, then Jesus Christ would have been the most sinful person who ever lived, since, as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, "[he] was tempted at all points like we are, yet without sin". Because it is necessary to believe that Jesus was (and is) perfect – otherwise he could in no way have atoned for our sins by offering himself up as the Perfect Sacrifice – we must understand that Temptation and Sin are two quite different and distinct things, even though, of course the one often leads on to the other in our experience.
Listen again to what St Paul said in the second reading this morning:
The man who thinks he is safe must be careful that he does not fall…
And then he adds:
The trials (or temptations) that you have had to bear are no more than people normally have. You can trust God not to let you be tried beyond your strength, and with any trial he will give us a way out of it and the strength to bear it.
Remember also that the Greek word translated as ‘Temptation’ in our bibles can equally well be translated as Trial or Test.
Now that puts a different complexion on the business of being tempted, doesn’t it? Instead of looking at temptation in the negative way most people understand – that’s to say as a matter of always having to say ‘No’ to what we want to do or to possess – try thinking of it in the same light as what we are always doing in our professional lives – that’s to say, continually applying what is called Quality Control to any job we have in hand. If we do not, then our standard of work – and we ourselves – will inevitably start slipping downhill. Only a little to begin with probably, but eventually, if we fail to heed the warning-signs, we shall come in for a real shock and find ourselves saying "why ever did I do that!"
The truth is of course that our workmates could tell us that they’ve noticed, for instance, our timekeeping has been gradually slipping over the months, or our workmanship deteriorating with the attitude "oh well, it’ll have to do, won’t it?" The question we ought to be asking ourselves of course is: "Do what?"
Our faith, no less than our work, can become the victim of this same malaise unless we are in the habit both of regularly testing ourselves, and taking seriously any hint of criticism that comes from other people, whether at work or in the Church. By doing so we shall discover more about our true state in the eyes of God than we expect. So for example if we find ourselves getting ever more exasperated and bad-tempered with a work-colleague or fellow-Christian, perhaps someone whose domestic or marital or financial difficulties are more serious than we realised, it should serve to remind us that it is we, as well as they, who are being ‘put to the test’. They are having to endure their ‘trial’; we are ‘under trial’ for the way in which we do, or do not try to make matters better rather than worse for them. The question we should be asking ourselves is not ‘why are they being so horrible?’ but ‘what should I be doing to make things easier for them?"
For God, as Saint Paul says, will not let you be tried beyond your strength, and with any trial he will give us a way out of it and the strength to bear it. And providing we firstly make use of that ‘way out’ which God is offering us, and secondly look upon the trial or temptation as a Quality-control Test being performed on ourselves, we shall discover the joy and peace which come from forgiving and being forgiven.
Then what about Feeling guilty? Well the first thing to note is that Guilt isn’t something you feel but something you either are or you are not about something. If Guilt were nothing but a feeling then the remedy for it would be a couple of aspirins or a glass of whisky.
But Guilt is a state, the state we are in when we knowingly and willingly rebel against the way God has bidden us to follow. And that is something that no amount of aspirin or whisky can do anything about. Whenever we succumb to temptation and fall short of the glory of God, it is only the atoning blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which can restore our relationship with Him; and that restoration has to be accepted [by us] as well as offered [by God].
That’s something which few people, even regular churchgoers completely fail to understand. The way we feel about our faith is almost totally irrelevant guide to its actual quality. What accountant would dare to say, looking at a column of figures, "well, they feel right"? Which of us who is a doctor or a nurse would say of a patient, "well I feel perfectly well about them"? Or what engineer would say of a newly built bridge "well it felt all right when I walked across it"? In the end there is no substitute for putting our feelings about anything to some sort of objective test?
Now do you see where all this has landed us up? We’re back in the world of testing again. Lent, preparing for Easter is Testing- (or Temptation-) Time. If we accept the Trials that God subjects us to, in a positive way, then we shall certainly come through them all the stronger; but if we try to live a trial-free life, then we’re in for a disappointment: firstly, because life just isn’t like that; but furthermore, the very next time a serious trial or testing experience faces us, whether it’s a bereavement, an illness, or a work-related trauma we shall be that much less prepared to face it, and that much the more likely to continue on our way on the morally downhill slope.
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