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Overcoming Temptation – Jon Cooper

A couple of hundred years or so after the English had first settled the east coast of America, and following a period in which they’d relied upon the native peoples for everything from basic food and shelter to a steady supply of furs for the lucrative ‘Cruella Deville coat’ market back home, they succumbed to temptation like a child who knows where the biscuits are kept. ‘It was the usual temptation,’ writes Hugh Brogan in his History of the United States of America, ‘to believe that what we want with passion must be right; and that the means of obtaining it cannot be sinful.’ They became guilty of ‘a land-lust’, says Brogan, which would guarantee, in their eyes, ‘independence, prosperity and prestige’, and the desire to take it from the bewildered natives, who had no concept of land ownership, was ‘as insatiable as the sea’.

This succumbing to temptation initiated what Francis Chan would refer to in his teaching series on the book of James as ‘a cycle of desire’. As a result of this desire, the native people experienced, over the course of the nineteenth century, both literal death and the death of their culture and way of life as they were tricked out of their lands and forced onto tiny and infertile reservations. But the cycle of desire into which the settlers (of various European extractions) fell was more subtle, and akin to the cycle to which Chan refers. The details of its stages can be found in James 1 v14-15:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away [from God]. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.

It’s not difficult to see how, in the case of the settlers and American natives, this happened in an earthly setting. As death was ‘birthed’ (one small tribe of natives was moved, for example), the desires of settlers continued to grow as they realised that they could carry on doing this, moving more people further and further away, taking increasingly more land, boxing the people into smaller and smaller reservations…..

We are guilty of allowing the same processes to happen in our lives, albeit on a (hopefully) smaller human scale. Our own desires for money, recognition (interestingly, two of the things that those European settlers craved with their ‘land-lust), ‘our way’ to be recognised as the best way… These sinful actions grow, eventually giving birth to ‘death’, in the form of unhappiness and misery, in our own lives and, critically, the lives of others.

Our desires are like the fungi of the genus Ophiocordyceps – which entomologists and people who spend too much time on Youtube – may know as the zombie ant fungus. A spore of this seemingly alien organism is eaten by an ant, quickly spreading throughout its body. Cells of the fungus which make it to the ant’s head release a chemical which attacks the ant’s brain, hijacking its nervous system. The ant is forced to climb to the top of some nearby vegetation, where the ant remains, paralysed, until it dies. The fungus then grows a spore-releasing stalk from the back of the victim’s head, ready to scatter them as ‘food’ for the next hungry, unsuspecting drone.

Disgusting…. Just like, says James in as many words, the results of us giving in to temptation. But it’s impossible not to give in to the temptation to sin, isn’t it? At least, it certainly feels like that. How do we do it without becoming a nervous wreck, or a hermit in the Outer Hebrides? A description from Brogan of an earlier settler on the American east coast, John Winthrop (‘the first great American’), sheds some light on the matter; ‘he wrestled intelligently with his temptations, in the process discovering the great strength of his character… his days were marked throughout by an earnest and honest attempt to mould himself…. according to the will of God.’

Further reading reveals that Winthrop may have had a whiff or two of the fanatically Puritan about him, but this snippet shows clearly a foundation of Scriptural solidity. God knows our bodies are weak (Matthew 26 v41), but 1 Corinthians 10 v13 and Hebrews 4 v15-16 both talk about the help we can receive from God when we are tempted, and the fact that our temptations are nothing new (Jesus himself was tempted, even). We can be confident that our hearts are made clean as we come to him (Psalm 51 v10). It’s not about locking ourselves away from any form of temptation. Rather, we must seek to overcome temptation by being ‘an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God’ (Romans 6 v13) – basically, use the distraction technique of doing something positive instead.

If we spend our time worrying about temptation, then we’re like the ants that fret (if ants were capable of any form of thought, fretting included) about the fact that the next thing they swallow might be a horrifying parasite that’s going to kill them… Better to be an ant that learns to recognise the fungus and avoid it. And if we slip up, then how should we respond to that? Allow ourselves to be dragged further into sin, further away from God? If we do that, we’re like the settlers who only saw more and more land, more and more reason to exploit and persecute the native peoples. Better to try and ‘do a Winthrop’ – mould ourselves to the will of God, wrestling with our temptations, and discovering a greater depth of character – one that is increasingly like Jesus. Can we initiate a cycle of selflessness instead?