Sermon delivered by Dr. Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on May 24, 2009.
Hebrews 4:14-16; Matthew 16:24-26
When you are a young adult in your 20’s and 30’s, you hear people talk about how you need to take care of yourself—the things you need to do about eating and exercise. It sounds real good, yeah, yeah, yeah. People warn you about smoking, being overweight, and a sedentary lifestyle. A lot of times you roll your eyes as if to say, I will worry about that when I get older. You live to be 35 or 40 with no visible ill effects from the choices you have been making and you think, I am still standing and still doing pretty well. Then, one day it creeps up on you. Something unexpected happens. Maybe it is a chest pain, unacceptable bleeding or a number of other things that sends you to the doctor, and all of a sudden, you get the great wake-up call. You find out that consuming 300% of the minimum daily requirement of sodium just won’t cut it anymore or alternating between donuts and sausage for breakfast is just not going to make it. Maybe the doctor tells you that you are borderline diabetic, have an enlarged heart, disease in your arteries, or polyps that you don’t need, and all of a sudden, that is the day that mortality pays a visit to your house. The cumulative effect of daily choices begins to show the consequence in your life, and it is not good. You realize that while you felt no ill effect from one day to the other, you had been damaging your body and possibly even killing yourself. Day to day, nothing changes. Today doesn’t seem any different than yesterday, but when you add up over a lifetime and all of a sudden come to the day that one extra day is more than your body had counted on, BAM, there it is. You realize that all of the things you had heard and said, Don’t worry about it, all those things you were impervious to and thought would never affect you, all of a sudden it takes its toll.
In preparing the sermon, this is the point that made me change what I was going to do with temptation. Is it not the same with the soul? What we know to be true about the way we treat our bodies—the cumulative choices that we make, the things that we consume that we should not have consumed, the things that we do that we should not have done—is not the same thing true about our souls? We think that everything is just fine. It doesn’t matter. I can ignore all these things I have always heard. I can just pay no attention to them whatsoever. Then, all of a sudden the cumulative effect hits us. Instead of waking up with chest pain, we wake up with a heartache. Instead of being diagnosed with borderline diabetes, we find ourselves empty of spirit. There is nothing left to push off with for life.
If you have ever heard the seven deadly sins named, there is one that often gets skipped over because it is not very glamorous and maybe not understood. It is that great sin sloth. We think that means laziness, but if you really understand it, sloth means an apathetic despair, a despair about life in which you do nothing. That is where we find ourselves sometimes with this cumulative effect of having consumed bad stuff for our soul and having ignored the proper care of our souls. We end up in sloth. A vocation that seemed like a life-time ambition and gave us joy so much of our lives now seems like drudgery. Things that we once loved and things that gave us purpose now bore us to tears. We try to figure out what has happened, but what really happened is that the soul is sick. Just as some things are bad for the body, there are some things that are bad for the soul. There are things that are just bad for our hearts.
I think about the things that we consume. I know people want to get off on video games, etc., but it really is true. Can you kill somebody on a computer four hours a day and that be good for your soul? Can you consume movie after movie where people are either tortured or murdered? Can you watch movies for years on end where there is someone in a room being watched by TV remote and they have to choose life and death for other people be good for your soul? Can you watch reality shows where, day in and day out, people are criticized, ridiculed, and sabotaged by people they thought were their friends in order to win? Can that be good for your soul?
Some of these things kill our souls. We don’t notice it from day one to day two, from day two to day three, but you come to a place in your life where the cumulative effect is killing us. One of those things is temptation.
Here was my problem in trying to prepare this sermon. For centuries, temptation has been seen as a bad thing. For centuries in the church, the minister would preach, the congregation would listen, and it was assumed that temptation was something you wanted to avoid, something you wanted to flee from. Temptation was something you wanted to pray about or fight against. I don’t know if you have noticed this, but in today’s culture, temptation is not always seen as bad. Temptation now is morphing. It is changing in our society. If you move outside the church and take what we hear from media and places like that, temptation is often now portrayed as the pathway to pleasure. Temptation is a momentary hesitation and sometimes seen as a way of heightening the pleasure you are going to get to eventually once you have made the choice.
Can you think of things where this is true? It is now assumed that it might be a temptation but you are not going to fight it. You will yield to it. It is just a hesitation. As in many things if you can delay in getting to what you want, the anticipation of it makes it that much more attractive.
As a consequence, temptation is something that we take for granted. We come to church and hear about how we are not supposed to be tempted, how we are supposed to fight temptation, and you are thinking, What ancient planet did he come from? Temptation is just a part of getting to what I really want.
We always think about it in terms of eating too much, smoking, drinking, illicit affairs, and that sort of thing. But the kind of temptations that most of us don’t pay any attention to we give in to every day. They are things like the temptation to criticize anybody at any time because it is my right; the temptation to speak my mind no matter who it offends; the temptation to be prejudiced because it is my opinion and I should be able to say my opinion; the temptation to be bitter; the temptation to be angry. You get the idea.
How many times can you think of in your lives recently where there was the temptation to be angry and we said, No, I am not going to do that because that is not what Christ would have me do? Most of the time, we think, I have been offended and I have the right to say this. It is my God-given right to act like this and I am going to act like it. We give in and we act any way we want to. Very few people resist temptation.
Do we really think, day in and day out, allowing our souls to do whatever we want to do in the moment does not have an affect that kills us, that deadens the soul, that takes us away from Christ? Temptation is the first warning sign. Temptation is like physical pain. You touch something and don’t realize it is hot and you get a little pain. It is an early warning, Let that thing go. It is hot. It is going to hurt you. Temptation is the first warning of the spirit that we are approaching something that is going to hurt us. Temptation lets us know, Danger, Will Robinson. Stop! Don’t do this! This is going to hurt you.
Instead of saying whatever we want to say, criticizing whenever we want to criticize, having whatever we want to have, indulging ourselves without any thought for anybody else, we are reminded that this is something we need to back away from. This is something we know will do damage to our hearts. Can you say everything that comes to your mind without any regard for anybody else all your life and think that you really cultivated your soul? Can that happen? I don’t think so.
We come to church; we sing the hymns; we pray; we are in this place that reminds us of worship because this is where we gather. Most of the time when we come here, we leave with the sense that the one thing we want in our lives is to be close to Jesus. The one thing that we really want is to please God. The one thing that we want more than anything else in our lives is peace with God. But we cannot give in to every temptation that comes our way and indulge ourselves forever and have a satisfied soul at the same time. I challenge you to find me the person who has done it. Everybody thinks they will be the first but it won’t happen.
The point of Hebrews 4:14-16 is that Christ was tempted. He was tempted in every way that we are except he didn’t sin. So we know that the temptation in a thought—I might do this, I could do this—that in and of itself is not a sin. Christ, having come in the flesh, understands what we deal with. There is no temptation that comes to any one of us that Christ himself did not know. Therefore, the writer of Hebrews says, we have a High Priest, a High Priest that we can approach because this priest understands. This priest intercedes for us with God that we might receive the help that we need, that we might receive the spiritual resources that we need, in order that we might resist and come closer to God.
It is not just giving in and getting everything we want that brings us closer to God. It is hard for us to accept the denying self thing or this giving all to God and putting ourselves after that, but this is what the scriptures tell us. If we really believe that they are true, then we know that it is in the resisting of temptation and the power of Christ operating in us that we find our souls healthy, near God, accepted by God, and at peace with God.
The sermon takes a little detour to remind us that there are a lot of things in our lives that do us no good. We may not notice it from Monday to Tuesday, or from Monday to the next Monday, but over a decade or lifetime, the cumulative effect of choosing these things kills our hearts. Temptation seems like a waste of time to a lot of people. Why fight it? Give in. Enjoy it. But we find that every time we choose ourselves, we have not chosen God.
Understand this. The pathway to peace with God, which I think in our better moments we all know we want, is denying ourselves the things that would kill our spirits that includes temptation. We are not alone. Jesus himself understands every temptation. Do you think Jesus himself did not understand the temptation to choose himself in the Garden? He sure did. Jesus himself is our helper. Jesus himself is our aide that we might overcome, that our hearts might grow strong, and that our spirits will grow to be more like him.
On a Memorial Day, we think about all these people who have passed from us and we think about the goodness of their lives, the best qualities, and the things that we admired. Do you think that now, on the other side of Jordan, they would not tell us to avoid the things that kill our souls and accept Christ’s help for the greatest challenges our souls face?
In the end, there is peace with God.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.