"What do I do to keep all the temptations under control?"
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

This is a good question, one that I have been asking myself from time to time over the past few years, and especially during the Lenten Season. When I am dealing with the problems of temptation, I generally like to turn to our Lord’s Temptations in the wilderness. I especially find the first temptation very telling of where I tend to be most of the time. In the first temptation, the devil suggested that Jesus turn stones into bread. While at first this may not seem like a very plausible temptation for us, in actually it is one of the greatest temptations that you and I face. You see, Jesus was really being tempted to rely upon his own abilities to feed himself, and not upon the Word of God . . . and that is a temptation which all of us, myself especially, face nearly every day. When temptations strike, they strike with the initial urge to take care of them myself, through my own limited abilities.

Jesus could have turned the stones into bread had he wanted to--and we must never forget that the Bible says that Jesus was “famished,” indicating that this was a real temptation for him. However, instead of relying upon his own ability to satisfy his hunger by transmuting the stones into loaves of bread, he turned to the Holy Word of God for strength and comfort in the face of demonic temptation.

We, too, face many trials and temptations each and every day that we live; and, in the face of these temptations we, like Jesus, have to face that “first temptation”: relying upon ourselves and not upon God. But how do we rely upon God?

I like the writings of Richard Meux Benson, the founder of the Protestant monastic movement in Great Britain and the United States. Father Benson was a man of rare insight and amazing pastoral presence. His writings are not well known in this country, but his leadership and vision in the founding of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist has left his mark on many thousands of people all around the world, including myself. I have written about their Order before when I wrote about Eldridge Pendleton, and have spoken of my retreats at their Boston Monastery in several sermons. Their Order, today, is carrying forward Father Benson’s deep-seated belief that faith is best exemplified by a life that is lived for others. The monks do live in quiet monasteries, but they are not “locked away.” They truly live for others. Theirs is a ministry of education and spiritual direction for clergy and lay ministers of the Gospel -- truly, a much needed ministry!

In Father Benson’s book Look to the Glory, which is a collection of some of his writings and sermons on Holiness and Christian Perfection, there is an insightful sermon on the place of prayer in the Way of Christian Holiness. In this sermon, Father Benson remarks on the Lord’s Prayer:

We pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” This is a prayer for the guidance of the Holy Ghost, that whatever temptations come round about us, the Holy Spirit will always be with us, to strengthen, to illuminate, to protect. So we must pray for this blessed Spirit of God: “Lead me not into temptation, but lead me safely through.

Prayer is the first active step that a Christian can take toward confronting life’s daily temptations. Prayer, of course, should always be experienced within the context of Holy Scripture; hence, we pray that the Holy Spirit would not only guide and protect us, but also “illuminate” God’s will to us. And where else are we going to find God’s will than through the Holy Scriptures?

In our prayers, we can be assured that the Holy Spirit will lead us “safely through” temptation. Of course, it would be immensely easier for us if the Spirit would guide us away from the temptations altogether, but we are not promised this--and for good reason. As Father Benson said,

Temptations which grieve us most are best for us. Temptations are to sanctify us. All great saints have gone through great temptations, though of various kinds. Our sanctification is a victory. A victory implies a struggle.

In confronting our temptations, we encounter within ourselves the many points of conflict which must be dealt with as we move toward Holy Week and our Lord’s crucifixion. The temptations are indicators of what we must work on in ourselves. They are signs of where we must focus our attention. And, it is in and through this that we rely upon God.

© 1996 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.