Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Enduring the tests of temptation and adversity


As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights and hunger… 2 Corinthians 6:4-5

IF we were fans of drive-by theology we would reduce today’s readings, the season of Lent, and the entire Christian life to one word on the church sign, the word endurance.

We don’t much care for that word, though, because it implies trouble, and we are so soft that a slow internet connection can send us into a tailspin. Besides this the world’s catechism teaches us that we deserve only good things, and more than a few ecclesiastical voices confirm that false message, but Paul’s word still stands.

In common usage endurance means the bitter acceptance of things that we cannot change. It is the frame of mind that folds its hands in passive resignation as torrents of trouble sweep over it. It hunkers down in the face of adversity, reaches for its favorite elixir, and hopes the storm will soon pass, never understanding or benefitting from any of it, but when St. Paul speaks of endurance he means something very different. He means the ability to bear all things in such a way as to turn tragedy into triumph. St. John Chrysostom calls endurance: the root of all goods, the fruit that never withers, a fortress that is never taken, peace in war, calm in tempest and security in plots. Endurance is the catalyst which turns tribulation into glory.

Please don’t confuse it with ‘positive thinking.' In worldly tasks there is a benefit to positive thinking and believing you can succeed, but optimism is of no help when we face tests of Abrahamic proportion, when the devil tempts us, or when the pressures of life fly at us like they did at St. Paul. Consider the things that Christians must endure and then judge for yourself if human strength is adequate, or if it is only through Christ that we can bear all things, and emerge victorious from them.

Abraham endured testing by God, and so must we all, but why does God test us? Does He do it to learn what we are made of or to discover how much we love Him? That’s not reasonable.  God is omniscient. He knows our thoughts before we think them and our words before we speak them (Psalm 139). He doesn’t test us to satisfy His curiosity, but to teach us how powerless we are without Him; to teach us to trust Him no matter how perilous the path, and finally so that we might attain to mature spiritual manhood and rise to the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

In any endeavor testing is necessary. It’s what makes a person competent and confident. We might read about shooting a gun, but until we do it it’s only a theory. We might study painting, but until we complete a canvas it’s only a concept. We might think ourselves very brave in the face of danger, but until we are actually tested we can never be sure. What was asked of Abraham was beyond the ken of human ability and ran counter to every instinct, natural or theological. God has asked many of us to do the same, to give up our loved ones, to lose control of them for a time, but to trust without wavering in Him who is able to raise the dead.

Abraham did not bury his head in the sand and run to the liquor cabinet until the storm had passed, and neither should we. He had seen too many impossible things happen where God was involved so he didn’t stagger. Armed with heroic faith, the kind that the Holy Spirit will give each of us when we need it, he endured the test, received his son ‘back from the dead,’ and gave us the Old Testament’s most distinct prophecy of what God would do for us in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4). It wasn’t Abraham who “so loved the world” but God, and it wasn’t Abraham’s son that would be sacrificed on the wooden altar but God’s, in order to save us from our sins and deliver us from death and the devil.

It’s not only testing that we must endure, but the temptation of the devil as well. What happened to our Lord was as intense as it gets, and the temptations that come to us are just as real, just as distressing and if we fall for them, destructive in the extreme for us and everyone we love. Jesus didn’t look for a bush to hide behind until the temptation passed and neither should we. Instead He confronted the ordeal head on, steadfast and immovable, abounding in the work that His Father had given Him to do. Far from destroying Him this temptation made Him stronger so that there was nothing that He could not handle, even the death of the Cross (Philippians 2:7). We too can learn from Jesus to resist temptation, to pray, to have the knowledge of Scripture as our weapon, and to be ready to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him wherever He leads.

Neither are testing and temptation the only thing we must endure. Paul suffered all those and was hard pressed, besides, by the numerous troubles associated with his unique ministry. In today’s epistle lesson he mentions just a few: afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights and hunger, but none of these dampened his spirit. Instead, the pressure cooker of life formed him. It made him that much more dedicated, that much more experienced, and that much more ready to handle the next calamity. We all need Pauline endurance because life is not a dress rehearsal and God calls each one of us, not to a life of self-indulgence, but to serious and important work for Him.

Does adversity humble us and evoke faith, or does it make us hard and cruel? Don’t answer the question, only repent. Lent is a season of “spiritual re-hab” dedicated to repentance and renewal, but don’t make the common error that many do about this season. It’s not about us, our sacrifices, our tears, our emotions or our piety, but like all of Scripture Lent is about God who gave us His Son, who provides the Law and the Gospel, the Word and the Sacraments, the church and the ministry, and who gives us the humility and faith to be saved and to live a different life in Christ.

Whatever your track record has been is of no consequence because in Christ there is no condemnation, He is the end of the Law for all who believe (Romans 10:4). Every sin is pardoned, every weakness forgotten, and every failure wiped out; and with remission comes new mercies every morning, so that with Christ we too might endure testing, temptation and every trouble that comes our way, and emerge with grace. Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

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