Lead us not into temptation

Today I wasn’t at my happiest. I’d written an article that was so heavily edited by someone that I wondered if he ought to put his name to it, not mine. Several chunks of the original had been removed and complete sentences added that I never wrote – and didn’t like either. Even the theology was diluted. But there it was in public view with my name on it.

Several temptations immediately came to mind. At the top of the list and most pressing was the temptation to air off to people about it. See what they thought. And that led naturally to the second priority, to see who supported me in my wounded state. Did I have a case for being wounded? Well, yes, it seems I did. Everyone I talked to said the editor had clearly stepped outside the bounds of propriety.

Now the serious temptations began. I had a case, a reason for complaint. So, should I whistle off a blistering note to him, to trim his feathers in future? Or should I refuse to write any more articles for that publication, or what?

And then “Lead us not into temptation” came to mind, not surprisingly, because at that point I was being led into temptation. My brain wanted the editor soundly reprimanded, even if it meant wrecking my relationship with him. It was my brain, therefore, that was leading me into temptation – a temptation I didn’t like, though, because the last thing I wanted was the devil using this situation to divide two Christians. So rather than my brain doing the leading, I prayed that GOD do the leading, because he WOULDN’T lead me into a temptation that would divide two Christians. MY brain would, but his brain wouldn’t. So I prayed that HE would do the leading, because if my brain did the leading it would end up a mess.

It was a simple case of who was doing the leading in this situation, God or me. My brain was already well on the way to leading me into the temptation to do something I knew I’d regret later. My brain is really good at that too, at making things worse than they already are, and in my present agitated state my brain was already well on the way to doing exactly that again. So I felt free to pray what Jesus deeply felt the need to pray too, which in my terms came out as, “Father, lead me not into the temptation that MY silly brain would like to lead me into. Don’t let my brain do the leading here. Please, overrule my brain for me and take over.”

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Oh, to have no worries

Wouldn’t it be great having nothing to worry about? – your health’s good, no family issues, stacks of money, lots of friends, great neighbourhood, safe city and secure job. How nice.

But where on this planet is life actually like that? There’s always something gumming up the works wherever you go. If you build your house on a hill, for instance, it’s exposed to hurricanes. Build it on lowland instead, and it’s vulnerable to floods. Throw in earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, ice storms and forest fires, plus accidents, pandemics and terrorism, and truth is life’s an eggshell. It’s fragile.

It’s not an easy truth to accept. Adam and Eve didn’t accept it either, which made it very easy for the serpent to lie to them. “You won’t die,” he said, “you’ll be fine.” A worry-free life was an easy sell. It is today, too. We shell out huge amounts of cash on insurance, warranties, home security, investments, pills and religion to worry-free ourselves. Safety and security are big business. Does any of it actually work, though? Well, no, because in the end we DO die. Everything isn’t fine. The serpent was lying.

So how on earth could Paul say in Philippians 4:6, “There’s no need to worry about anything,” when there are tons of things to worry about? Because, he replies, we can take all our troubles to God and in return God gives us peace, verse 7. But how does that work in real life, pray tell? What about a father who’s lost his entire business in an earthquake, or a mother who’s given birth to a deeply handicapped baby? How can they not be worried about the future? Let’s be practical.

But God’s no stranger to our world and the awful things that happen, because he lived this life himself. He saturated himself in our suffering and death, vividly felt its pain, and he too cried buckets of tears at the hopelessness of it all. But Jesus did one thing differently: He never viewed God negatively when bad things happened. He didn’t blame God for being distant, uninvolved and uncaring. He didn’t ditch God for help from other sources, like Adam and Eve did.

And why didn’t he? Because one day, as the ever-present Jesus, he’d be able to live HIS attitude to God in us, so we could trust God like he did. Result? We’d discover the same secret Paul discovered: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…I can do everything through him who gives me strength,” verses 12-13. Including not worry? Seems so. But Paul did admit it took a while to learn it.

The antidote to fear

I wonder how many people would agree with the Bible’s assessment that we’re not really in control of our lives at all. According to Paul in Romans 8, our lives are controlled by either one of two spirits – the spirit of fear or the Spirit of sonship. In verse 15 he writes, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.”

That’s an enlightening statement, because Paul is saying it’s only after we receive the Spirit of sonship that the spirit of fear loses its control over us. Up to that point, therefore, he’s saying we were totally controlled by fear. Were we really, though? Did fear really dominate our thinking? 

Well, yes, because if it isn’t fear of spiders or fear of the dark wreaking havoc in our heads, it’s fear of what we look like, what people think of us, what’s going to happen to us as we age, or what will happen if the world has another financial meltdown. Our lives are filled with phobias, worries and anxiousness about our families, our health, our finances, or becoming helpless in our old age. Even Christians can revert back to being fearful, as the Galatians did, thinking their eternal life depended on their own efforts (Galatians 3:1-5). But isn’t that the fear in all religions, that our future forever is determined by our efforts now? But what if we aren’t good enough now? Panic. We might go to hell, forever. No wonder religious people act like hunted animals. 

So what does the Spirit of sonship do in our heads instead? Verse 16, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.'” According to Paul, then, the Spirit cuts through the fog of fear enveloping us, by helping us realize just who we are. We’re God’s children, and being his children he’s always close and we’re never without him. And the Spirit helps us sense that, just like Lucy sensed the presence of Aslan in Narnia. She couldn’t see Aslan but she could sense he was there, close by and watching over them. So when scary things happened to them on their journey through Narnia, she knew Aslan was always in control of the outcome and she didn’t panic.   

And when, at last, all four children cottoned on to that as well, they lost their fear too. Sensing his presence was a great gift, and the Spirit has given us that gift too, so that on our scary journey in this world we too have an antidote to fear. 

When fear takes hold, how do you stop it?

All it takes is a few deaths in a flu outbreak and panic sets in. Commentators write alarming columns in newspapers about potential pandemic, TV feeds the panic around the clock, and suddenly the line ups for flu injections are huge. But when fear takes hold, it’s just like a virus too; it’s highly contagious, it spreads like wildfire, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.     

And that creates even more fear in those whose job it is to protect our health, because underrating the danger could backfire badly if the flu turns out to be a really bad one, but exaggerating the danger could get them hammered later for creating a lot of unnecessary fuss and disruption, and a “Cry Wolf” situation in the future. So now the authorities are fearful too, of either not creating enough fear to get people to protect themselves, or creating too much fear that then makes people baton down hatches, stay home and stop buying, creating more fear in those responsible for keeping the economy functioning. So now fear is spreading further and wider and faster than the flu virus itself. But that’s the world we live in; we are never far away from a crisis or the unstoppable fear pandemic that always follows a crisis, and we live on that knife edge all the time. 

What a horrible way to have to live, but, as Paul explained, there’s a “spirit” in this world that made us “slaves to fear” (Romans 8:15). That’s why we’re so easily frightened; it’s because there are powers beyond our own that MAKE us fearful, and they’re able to create a culture where fear is so ingrained that we cannot escape its grip. And to make things even worse, God has allowed those powers to rule us, subjecting us on purpose to a life of “futility” (Romans 8:20, RSV). A flu outbreak soon illustrates that, because what’s the point of it? Nothing good comes from it. It’s all completely futile.

But God offers an antidote, an injection of his own (so to speak) to protect us against this awful virus of fear and futility we’re enslaved to. It’s an injection of a far more powerful Spirit, the Spirit of “sonship” (verses 14-16), that reaches down deep inside us where the fear virus is and neutralizes it with a withering blast of who we are to God. We are his children, and a flu outbreak doesn’t change that. No crisis in this life changes that. But only the Spirit can make that real. It’s only the Spirit, therefore, that can stop fear when it threatens to get the better of us.

Killer flu – God’s idea?

Flu killed around 50 million people between March 1918 and June 1920. Half the world’s population was infected, including people in the Arctic. The Spanish flu, as it was called, has been described as “the greatest medical holocaust in history,” and it’s been popping up in mild and lethal form ever since. In its lethal form it causes a massive overreaction in the immune system, among healthy people especially, and that’s what makes it so deadly. 

To add to our worries, there’s a strong hint in Romans 8:20-21 that God made lethal viruses on purpose. “For the creation was made subject to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in the hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.”

First of all, God made us “subject to frustration” – and how true that has proved to be, because we cannot stop ourselves dying. How frustrating. But God also put us in “bondage to decay,” where we cannot stop ourselves falling apart before we die either. No matter how hard we try we cannot reverse the ageing process, or eradicate all the diseases that kill us. We can’t even stop flu. It remains a constant threat, therefore, and if it doesn’t burst into pandemic proportions this year, it’s a ticking time bomb for the future. 

But why would God do such a thing to us? Paul answers that in verse 21 – it’s “in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” What we long for and hope for – a world free of death and disease – will happen one day, but before it happens there’s a lesson to be learnt, that we are children of God, not God. It’s an important lesson, because our destiny, Paul writes, is to live as God’s children in his loving care and freedom forever, but how will that ever happen if we think and act as if WE are God and masters of our destiny?

So God creates a world where it becomes obvious we are NOT masters of our destiny. He creates a flu virus that can kill us, and no matter what we throw at it we cannot kill it off. It simply mutates and pops up in some other form, to get the point across to our thick, resisting heads that we’re not God. God is God, and he proves it by making us subject to death and disease – whether we like it or not, BUT always “in the hope that” we STOP thinking we’re God and we’re happy being his children instead.

Free of fear in a world that feeds on fear

We live in a world that feeds on fear, and the New Year won’t be any different. For the next 365 days we’ll be fed the same steady diet of doom and negative predictions for the future. It never lets up, around the clock. But aren’t our fears justified? Name, for instance, just one problem threatening our survival that we’ve solved:

War? Still happening.

Disease? Still rampant.

Famine? A child dies every 3 seconds from starvation.

Pollution? If we stopped all carbon emissions tomorrow morning, it would still take a hundred years for the atmosphere to clean itself.

Stretching the Earth’s resources beyond their limit? The oceans could be dead by 2050.

Religious nutcases? They’re on a roll.

Exploitation of the poor by the rich? Look what greedy bankers did to our global economy – and will do again as soon as they possibly can.

People? Haven’t changed – we’re still the same self-centred, short-sighted, judgmental, anxious mess we’ve always been.

No wonder we’re scared for our kids and grandchildren, because what’s the world going to be like for them if things keep going the way they are? And look how quickly our secure little world can descend into chaos. We live on a knife-edge, and we know it. And when people become really frightened, they stop at nothing to survive, and that’s scary too.

So when Paul writes in Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear,” that’s an amazing statement, because our experience on this planet is nothing but being slaves to fear. We live in fear of not having enough money, fear of cancer, fear of crime, fear for our children’s future, fear of wild weather, fear of what evil people are capable of, fear of being ripped off, and fear of getting old and dying. And, what’s more, we constantly and deliberately feed our fears, filling prime-time TV day and night with endless news of catastrophes, tragedies and predictions of doom. We are addicted to fear and ruled by it.

Is there an antidote for all this anxiety? Yes, verse 6, “The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.” There is a power that God provides that removes our fears. And how does this Spirit power work exactly? It removes the cause of our fear, which is, and always has been, our hostility to God, and replaces it with “the Spirit of sonship,” verse 15. And when it dawns on us that the greatest power in existence is in fact our Father and he loves us as his children, what on earth is there to be scared about – even in a world like ours?