Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Daniel Blogs: Temptation and what we really want

As the story of the first chapter in Daniel begins to unfold it is interesting to see what Daniel accepts and what he rejects in his new home. He agrees to learn the language and study the literature of Babylon and he agrees to have his name changed, but he makes a stand when it comes to the issue of eating food from the King’s table. In the culture of the time to share a meal was to commit oneself to friendship and if you did so with the King in such a way you were accepting an obligation of loyalty to him. Daniel was therefore rejecting a symbol of dependence on King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was committed to living a life which acknowledged Yahweh alone as Master, as Sovereign, as King, as Father. And so he refused to eat Nebuchadnezzar’s food. Such was Daniel’s commitment that when his first attempt to get a more simple diet fails he tries again. Asking once and being denied would perhaps have been enough for most in such dangerous circumstances. Disrespecting the King by rejecting his food could have seen Daniel killed. But Daniel shows that he wasn’t simply trying to follow the rules, this wasn’t about legalism for him, rather he was seeking to live a faithful life. It was about his relationship with God, the condition of his heart.

When we think about temptation I think that this is an amazing lesson. Daniel didn’t give up and say, “Well, no one could say that we didn’t try.” He didn’t say that because he wasn’t interested in doing God’s will for the sake of doing it, he HAD to do God’s will because he wanted it, he craved it, he had internalised it. It was part of who he was. So often we know what the right thing to do is and yet we choose the wrong thing because, in the moment, in that second of temptation, we want the thing we are tempted by more than we want to follow God. It is as simple as that. We chose what we wanted most. I have done that many times and I am ashamed of my foolishness. Because I KNOW that God’s way is the best way and I have seen that to be true - I have experienced it on many occasions. And yet in the moment of temptation I forget or don’t want to remember. I am fooled in to thinking that the world’s way is better.

Shane Claiborne says, “Christians are not people who are no longer tempted but people who have seen enough of God to be able to resist the kingdom of this world. Our eyes have caught a glimpse of the Promised Land, and it is so dazzling that we can no longer settle for what the empire has to offer.” I think that this is great and it is true. I have seen MORE than the world can offer. I have seen God give me back one hundred fold all that I have put before him. I have enjoyed the warm embrace of my heavenly Father and YET, AND YET I cannot say what Claiborne makes sound so simple, I cannot in good faith sit here and type, “I am tempted but I am able to resist the kingdom of this world.” Sometimes I can, when I look to God for strength. But a lot of the time I fail and I sin and I hate myself for it. I mourn my sinful nature. In his song Vertigo Bono says, “My soul cannot be bought but my mind can wander” and I feel a connection to that idea. In a verse I draw encouragement from Paul explains some of what is going on here by referring to the battle we wage with our fallen flesh. In Romans 7 v 19 and 20 he writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but the sin that dwells within me.” This reality forces us to the foot of the cross where we can only look to the grace of the sovereign God.

Part of this is a matter of trust. I have to believe that God’s way is the best way. I have to trust that the abundant life which he offers to those who follow him is really abundant and that it is real. We have to trust in God. Because the thing about sin is that it often offers a quick hit, it offers something which seems really nice and it usually offers it right now. And sometimes what God offers isn’t about right now. It is bigger and better but maybe it is also later. So we have to trust that God is going to deliver. If I say to you that I have a cake for you, a really special one that I have baked myself. And you can have it and enjoy it tomorrow, but ONLY if you DO NOT eat the cookie that your other friend will offer you right after you’ve finished reading this blog. The only way that you are going to say no to that little tasty morsel of a cookie is if you trust in two things – you gotta trust that I am telling you the truth, that the cake exists, and you gotta trust that I know how to bake, that the cake is going to be sweeter than the cookie. Just like Daniel, if we are going to follow God, we have to trust that his way is the best way. It makes sense then that C.S. Lewis sees pride at the heart of our weakness for sin. Pride tells us that we can go our own way, that the path we will hack out for ourselves will see us reach a better destination, quicker. We think we know better, that our cookies are where it's at. And so we rebel.

Like all things this trust will grow the more we learn to love God. When Jesus is asked about what the greatest commandment in the bible is he says two things. He says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind” and he adds a number two. “Love your neighbour as yourself.” He says that all the other teaching hangs on those two. We must start with love and the rest follows. When we make mistakes, determining to be more disciplined in future will get us nowhere if we don’t tend to the relationship. Because it’s only when we love God more than we love ourselves and the world around us that we will choose him in that moment of temptation. It’s like the difference between learning French for a test and learning French because you met a beautiful French girl or boy and you’ve fallen head over heels for them. The way you learn that language, the way you follow its rules, how much you care about pronouncing it right, is going to be completely different depending on what it is that is motivating you. We are to love God as Father, yes, but Jesus describes himself as the Bridegroom, the Church as his Bride. As Phillip Yancey suggests, “God desires not the clinging, helpless love of a child who has no choice, but the mature, freely given love of a lover.” When I lived in Derryvolgie, Steve Stockman would often say, “What we need to do is LOVE God and then do what we like.” Because when you truly love God what you want to do will be in line with what God loves. So we spend time with him, we speak with him, we live life with him. As lovers do.

Daniel chose God’s way and stepped out in faith, as he would time and time again in his story, trusting that his Father would be there with him, for him, when he needed him. He sets up a test with this servant – simple food, ten days, bet you we’ll be as healthy as anyone. And God was there, right there with him, not only ensuring that after those ten days Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego all looked great but ensuring that Daniel would find favour with those whose help he needed. And when they came to be tested by King Nebuchadnezzar after their training was over, they didn’t just look great but Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were found to have more understanding, more wisdom than any of the other supposedly wise men of the kingdom. In a way that reminds me of God’s promise to give us a hundred fold more brothers and sisters in Mark, Daniel and his friends were said to have ten times more wisdom than the wisest in the kingdom. As Proverbs declares, fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Following God and resisting temptation is easily typed about. If it was a matter of knowing right from wrong it would be a much simpler enterprise. But it's not about what you know, it's about what you want. Choice after choice is made based on what it is that we really want and those choices build on each other and who we are becomes the sum of their parts. Do we really want to follow the Father? If we do, how deeply we fall in love must exceed how deeply we fall in to temptation. We must trust that we are loved back by one who is both willing and capable of offering us the best there is. And when we realise that yet again we have cheapened ourselves by following after the things of our cookie cutter world, when we have settled for less when more was offered, when we are left broken hearted by our own infidelity, we look again to the Father who promises to keep picking us up and dusting us off and the Lover whose love is big enough for the both of us.


"I can resist everything except temptation" - Oscar Wilde


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