Monday, October 10, 2005

Not Beyond Your Strength

I’d like to tie up a couple loose ends on the theme of overcoming temptation. I will use the following text, which many find to be a source of consolation, and which some simply refuse to believe: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1Cor. 10:13).

When you experience some severe temptation, you may be tempted to think that it is beyond your strength to overcome, so you end up giving in. The joke is that the best way to remove temptation is to give in to it. Well, if that’s the case, the joke’s on you. Giving in only assures that it will return, more frequently and powerfully than ever before, because you have secured its place in your mind and soul. Habits are a lot harder than random temptations to get free of. A habit is not merely the product of a psychological or emotional attachment (though that’s part of it). It also has a biological component, for the brain tends to “re-wire” itself according to what we desire. If a certain thought or act gives you some kind of satisfaction, your brain will habituate itself to that thought or act by linking neurons to form a pathway for impulses to follow which will produce or increase that sense of satisfaction (see Dr. Gerald May’s fascinating study, Addiction and Grace). Now you have a biological as well as a psycho-emotional vulnerability to temptation, and by this time you may indeed be starting to think that resistance is beyond your strength—especially if you are lax in your spiritual life and have thus abandoned all lines of defense.

But God is faithful, says the Apostle, and will not let you be tempted beyond your strength. This presupposes that you’ve not already allowed yourself to become completely addicted to some sin, but even then all is not lost. One’s guilt is somewhat mitigated if the act is a result of a compulsion that vitiates freedom, but one is still guilty for freely paving the way for that compulsion to take root. As one of the fathers said, you can hardly blame a drunken man for stumbling—after all, he’s drunk! But you can blame him for choosing to get drunk in the first place. On the relatively level field of spiritual warfare, however, we all have an assurance of victory if we employ the means I’ve mentioned the past few days.

Anyway, back to God’s faithfulness. He will provide a way to escape or endure the temptation without committing sin—if you are willing to co-operate with his grace. The Apostle uses both those words: escape and endure. Each has its place in the fight against temptation. The best means is to escape, for we can’t ordinarily trust that we have what it takes to outsmart the devil. He still does possess angelic nature, which is essentially superior to ours, though the devil’s is perverse and corrupt beyond repair. So the first thing to do is to ask God for the way of escape when temptations become severe. But it may be that, try as we might, and even pray as we ought, we cannot escape whatever is hammering us or relentlessly clamoring for our attention. In that case, God is probably asking us not to escape but to endure. He will ensure that it will not be stronger than we are, for we can do all things in Him who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13). But we may simply have to ride the storm out, determined unto death not to give in, while raising our eyes to heaven in confident (if urgent) supplication.

Mostly we give in because at some level of our being we simply want to give in. We want to be overpowered so we can have an excuse for relaxing our vigilance. It’s a kind of relief to succumb. But as I mentioned above, the relief is short-lived, and before long we find ourselves in the same battle all over again, so much the worse for having relented, and needing even more strength this time around. But if we do endure (and endurance will lead to escape, if we can’t escape immediately), we will find ourselves with renewed strength and courage. If every defeat makes us weaker, then every victory makes us stronger.

God’s faithfulness isn’t necessarily manifested in protecting us from all temptation. Sometimes he allows such attacks so that we can prove our love for Him through fidelity in trying circumstances. This will add to our everlasting glory and joy. Trust that He knows what He’s doing. The Russian saint Nil Sorsky says that if a potter knows just how much heat to apply to a particular vessel so that it becomes strong yet does not crack, and if a man knows how much weight he can load on his donkey so that it is not overburdened, then surely God knows how much temptation or trial we can take—to strengthen, not to break us.

We’re all in this together. Even if we aren’t all susceptible to the same temptations, we all have our weaknesses; we all struggle with desires that are not of God; we all have to fight the good fight, against evil and for righteousness. “Be strong, let your heart take courage, and hope in the Lord” (Psalm 30/31:25).