When I was in early grade school, I loved Apple Sticks. They were shaped like a thin granola bar, only they were much healthier. The bright green hard candy was 100 percent sugar and food coloring, I’m sure. I remember one day after school being at the little five-and-dime candy store. I don’t recall why I went there. What is vividly clear, though, some 45 years later, is that I had my eyes set on an Apple Stick. But I didn’t have the 25 cents it cost. I remember walking up and down the two aisles in the store. I thought, should I take the candy or not? My best friend was with me, encouraging me, of course, to take it. But what if I get caught? Would I go to jail? Clearly I was being tested.
Eventually my friend got tired of waiting and left. The nice man working behind the counter struck up a conversation with me, which led to concern as time passed. “Don’t you have to get home from school? Aren’t your parents going to worry about you and wonder where you are?” After pacing this little candy shop long enough to wear out the soles of my shoes, I gave into temptation and grabbed the Apple Stick. I looked back over my shoulder the entire bike ride home. I was certain that every phone ring and doorbell chime was the police coming to take me away. It was the worst tasting piece of candy I’d ever eaten and an early lesson in temptation and the power of good and evil, right and wrong. In hindsight, I’m convinced that after two hours the cashier knew exactly why I was there. Mercifully, he stepped away from the counter knowing that I would get my candy and return home, easing the concerns of my worried mom.
Two thousand years ago there was a man who was tempted in the wilderness to use his miraculous powers to provide for himself. He chose a pattern of life, though, wherein he would always use his powers for others, never for himself. He healed the sick. He opened blind eyes. He raised the dead. His power was always used for others, not for himself.
That tells us something profound about the Spirit-filled life. Do we seek our own advantage? Do we want things for ourselves that others cannot have? Do we use the powers that are given to us – physical, financial, mental, spiritual, or whatever – for ourselves or for the well-being of others in the community?
We often view the source of our temptations as some Darth Vader character lurking in the dark that occasionally steps out of the shadows to do battle with us. But we need to understand something about ourselves. We will always encounter temptations in our lives. They are part of our spiritual journey, an opportunity to deepen our relationship with a higher power by choosing what is right. Do we see temptations as an opportunity or as a downfall? It’s much like the glass half empty or half full. The way we see them will influence how we respond.
Mae West once said, “I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.” All joking aside, the source of our temptation is almost always our own legitimate, normal, natural desires. Desire for food, sexual intimacy and approval of others does not come from the devil. These are normal desires. It’s how we respond to these temptations that will build up or break down our spiritual character. We will not overcome every single temptation. It’s just not humanly possible. But will we learn from our mistakes? That is also a part of our spiritual journey and the deepening of our lives.
So, how do we avoid temptation?
The first thing we can do is flee temptation. We need to remember that just as there is always a pathway into temptation, there is also one that leads out of it as well. Find that path and choose it.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “We must learn by experience to avoid either train of thoughts or social situations which FOR US (not necessarily for everyone else) lead to temptations. Like motoring — don’t wait till the last moment before you put on the brakes but put them on, gently and quietly, while the danger is still a good way off.”
Another thing we can do is create accountability with someone else that can help us in our struggle against temptation. It could be a friend, spouse, neighbor or colleague. We don’t need to go into detail with our accountability partner about our struggles, but it needs to be someone we can confide in; someone that can give us an unfiltered, objective and honest point of view.
Whatever we do, we need to go easy on ourselves. Some battles we are going to win and others we are going to lose. Temptation is not a one-and-done elimination process. If we’re on a diet and we break it by eating a cookie, we don’t throw the entire diet out the window. Neither should we feel obligated to eat the entire package of cookies. One concession to temptation need not mean a surrender to all temptation.
Above all, be prayerful when faced with personal struggle. Some temptations are more than we can handle on our own. In these situations or any others, it is important to be able to reach out beyond all earthly means. Seek the guidance of a higher power, and know that power is there to guide you through both good times and bad.
Rev. Terry O’Brien’s column appears monthly.