Reflection for Lent: Resisting temptation and the cosmic struggle against evil

Feb 13, 2018 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

During Lent, we’re reminded of how Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. This was God’s way of ensuring that Jesus’ humanity was mastered, working in perfect harmony with his divinity; that he was prepared for the ministry where popularity would tempt him to pride, and humiliation to despair. Jesus resisted the devil’s schemes, and so later was able to remain humble amid the adulation; hopeful and trusting in God’s sovereignty as he was being crushed.

Jesus went without food; faced and conquered head on the desires for power and prosperity natural to his human nature, so that he would be able, when the time came, to go to the cross and take the sins of the world on himself. He went through temptation in the desert, so that he could later endure torture and death. He did it for us, so that our salvation does not depend on how well we pass our tests, but on the grace that he demonstrated to us.

The Bible does not try to cover up how difficult this was for Jesus. He is not portrayed as detached and otherworldly, as if somehow because of “the joy set before him” he was oblivious to pain. His disciples saw his physical and psychological agony. He succeeded, knowing what he was doing, with immense courage and constant trust in God – in contrast to the disciples themselves, who are portrayed as seeking after human power, failing to grasp God’s plan, cowardly and fearful. Their salvation could only be by faith, not by their own efforts. And yet throughout his ministry Jesus taught that as his followers, they too would be tested and tempted, and that through their practice in resisting temptation, putting self to death and Jesus and his Kingdom first, the church would grow and spread.

So Lent calls us first to look at Christ, how he took on satan at great personal cost and won; how he prepared for his unique sin-bearing role which alone could bring us forgiveness and peace with God. The Gospel is primarily about us looking at his victory and sharing in it. But then, this season also focuses on the next stage of discipleship: to look at ourselves, to imitate Christ in our own battles with temptation to sin. The church has often struggled to maintain this balance, either emphasising our effort and turning faith into a daily grind or self-help philosophy, or so emphasising God’s grace and love that our need to resist temptation, live holy lives and be counter-cultural is lost.


There is a powerful illustration for the necessity of resisting temptation in the Lord of the Rings. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the films (I met someone in this category the other day), it can be summarised like this – Frodo Baggins has to destroy an extremely dangerous and powerful ring with a little help from his friends. (That’s inadequate, a bit like summarizing the story of Pride and Prejudice as “girl finds a husband”, or the Die Hard movies as “tough guy gets his vest dirty”, but it will have to do).

Frodo is an ordinary ‘Hobbit’, a harmless, insignificant creature wanting to live a quiet life. In a scene near the beginning of the first film, the ring comes into his possession, which means that his life is changed forever. He is aware of a new cosmic reality, of forces of evil which will take over if he does nothing. When he and his companions know what the ring is, he must destroy it, and there is a constant temptation to misuse it, and so part of what they have to do is to remain focussed, to constantly choose good and reject evil. If Frodo refuses to go on the journey to destroy the ring, or if he yields to its power, then its not just him that will die, but the whole world he loves.

Frodo’s immediate response is to offer the ring to Gandalf, the wise wizard, who responds “don’t tempt me” in a way reminiscent of Jesus refusing Peter’s suggestion that he does not need to go to the cross. But for both Frodo and Gandalf, for the ordinary person and the eminent influential figure, the call is to deny self and put to death the thing that seems to offer freedom and comfort, but in fact calls them to the service of evil.

In the same way, before someone becomes a Christian, they see their desires, and fulfilling or not fulfilling them, simply as part of being a human being. But once someone has understood that God is real; that Jesus really is alive; that the devil is trying to derail our lives and wreck the world, life totally changes. The choice facing every person, whether low or high in status, to go God’s way or my own, has implications in the spiritual realm not just for the eternal destiny of the individual, but much wider. So resisting temptation is not being a killjoy, or denying a valid part of your humanity as some may say – it is a statement that you are taking part in the cosmic struggle against evil.

In Romans 8:5-7, Paul speaks of two types of person: those who live according to their sinful nature, and those who live according to the Spirit. Temptation is the desire to indulge the sinful nature inside us. The verses following tell us a bit more about what it means to be controlled by our sinful nature – it is “death”, an absence of true life; it shows a mind hostile to God and refusing, even unable to obey his laws.

But there are crucial aspects of the Christian faith which aren’t reflected in the Rings story: the cross of Christ, and the giving of the Holy Spirit. In the Lord of the Rings, destroying the ring, a symbol for the sinful nature, is up to Frodo and his friends. At the end, when he’s on his own, there’s nothing to sustain him but his own courage and inner strength. If he fails, then all is lost.

In Romans 8:3-4 Paul makes three extraordinary statements that tell us something different about our struggle. First, “the law was powerless” meaning that knowing what’s right and wrong is not enough to stop us giving in to temptation, or to prevent the global advance of evil. But second, God’s Son died in my place as a sin offering, so that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us”. This is justification: God declaring us acceptable to him despite our failure, because of Jesus’ success, rather than because of our success in resisting temptation. And then thirdly, he makes it possible for us to live in a new way: “according to the Spirit” rather than constantly being dragged down by sinful nature.

This is expanded in vv12-13. Like Frodo, we have an obligation to go on a journey to destroy the precious thing which leads to sin – otherwise the result is death. But unlike Frodo, we are walking with One who has already done it for us, and we can can claim the help of the Spirit of God himself as we turn away from evil and live for Christ.

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