Temptation and desire

This is a sermon for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is 1 Timothy 6:6-19.

Paul wrote to Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”… well, there’s plenty I could say about that, isn’t there?

Don’t worry.  This part of the letter is intended primarily as instructions for those who are leaders of the church.  Paul’s concern here is people who are acting as teachers and leaders in the church, and receiving material support for doing so, not out of right motives but because they want the money.  In the part of the letter just before the bit we heard this morning, Paul talked about the bad outcomes from this kind of leadership; envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, wrangling among those who are depraved, imagining that godliness is a means for gain.

Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it?  If the only interest I had in you, as a community, was how much money I could get from you, our relationship would be one of exploitation rather than one of love.  I hope that at least some of the time I manage to make it one of love.

But what interested me about the reading, actually, was the way that Paul talks about temptation; and that’s something that we all have to deal with in the Christian life.  He says that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation…”

It makes succumbing to temptation sound so easy and natural, doesn’t it?  It’s falling.  Just like anything falls when it’s dropped, because of gravity, the idea of “falling” into temptation makes it sound like, well, you know, there was all this money and it just pulled me into its orbit and I was a bit helpless to resist it, because, you know, it was there.

And if you think about temptation like that, then really we’re just at the mercy of whatever big temptations might suck us in, because they have that irresistible pull on us, and we don’t have the ability to move away.

But I don’t think it’s really like that – and I don’t think Paul did, either; I’ll say more about that in a second – so maybe it’s worth digging a little deeper than this language of temptation as “falling” and see if we can come up with any ideas that might actually empower us against our temptations.

You see, I don’t think temptation starts with the pile of money or the sexy person or the chocolate or whatever it is that tempts us.

Listen again to what Paul said:  “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation” – we’ve noted that –  “and” he says, “are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires.”

Senseless and harmful desires.

Isn’t that where temptation really starts?  With desire?  Isn’t it my desire to feel that I have some control over my circumstances, or to have nice things, or even to be able to be generous, that makes the temptation of money so easy to fall into?  That is, it’s not the money itself that’s the problem, but what the money means to me; what difference I think it will make to my life.

When I do marriage preparation with couples, one of the things we spend quite a bit of time on is their attitudes to money, and how they want to manage finances.  Not because there are right and wrong answers, but because not having a shared approach to money is one of the biggest causes of conflict in marriage.  And without fail, what comes out in those discussions is that money means different things to the two people.  For example, for one person money will mean freedom, and he or she will resent too much constraint on spending and enjoyment.  But for the other person, money will mean security, and he or she will be anxious about too much spending.  Well, you can see where that’s heading, can’t you?  Cue endless arguments.  But it’s not really the money (or lack of it) that’s driving the arguments; it’s the desires that the money can fulfil, and how those desires are at odds.

And I suspect a lot of temptations are like that.  We have all of these desires – often we’re not really even conscious of them – driving us, and then when something comes along that we think can fulfil those desires, we’re pulled along by it as if we’re falling.  But it’s really our desire that set us up for that in the first place.

Now let me be clear.  I’m not saying that all desire is bad, and that the Christian life is all about suppressing desire.  We’re made to have desires – we are made in the image of a God who has desires – and I think for most of us, the attempt to ignore or suppress our desires mostly leaves us in a very unhealthy place.  More than that, I think desire is a good thing; I think our longings, desires and loves can even be holy things that point us towards God.

After all, if desire is all bad, we couldn’t really have the Song of Songs as part of the Bible, could we?  That book is all about holy desire, and the fact that we have Scriptures like that suggests that we should take our desires seriously as clues to knowing God more deeply, and living for God more faithfully.

So we have desires, they’re a normal and healthy part of us, they can be an important part of our spirituality…. but.  But they can also be “senseless and harmful,” in Paul’s words, and that’s when they set us up for a fall.  So when the tempting thing comes along, we do fall headlong into it.

So where does that leave us?  I’d suggest that it points out to us that our desires deserve to be taken seriously.  Reflecting on our own experiences of encouragement and fulfilment, as well as frustration and disappointment, can give us clues to what’s going on beneath the surface for us, what deeper needs and desires are driving our choices.  And when we recognise those, we can put in place strategies and plans to act out of those desires in ways which are healthy and appropriate, which, instead of seeing us fall headlong into temptation, see us able to sail by unaffected, since we don’t have unrecognised desires driving us off course.

We pray, each time we say the Lord’s prayer, that He would “save us from the time of trial” – or in the old words, “lead us not into temptation.”  And of course it’s good to pray that, but it’s also good to do what we can to responsibly save ourselves from unnecessary trials, by making sure that we are as little susceptible to them as possible.  Our reading from Timothy this morning has given us some pointers on how we might do that, and in doing so, “take hold of the life that really is life.”

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