This is the last post in a series about godly choices, all based on Jesus’ wilderness temptation. You’ll find my first blog on this topic here. The below thoughts summarize preceding points and address Jesus’ last test: Matt 4:8–11.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
What you worship affects what you decide. Satan offered Jesus the kingdoms of this world, with one prerequisite: worship me. That is, value what I value; viz., love only your way, want everything for yourself, desire to appear important. God’s love is selfless, unmerited kindness that desires the good of the beloved. That is, he doesn’t love you because of you: your strength, your deeds, etc. He loves you, because he is love. He loves you, even if you reject or misuse his love. He doesn’t say, “I’ll love you, if you do this or that.” Is your heart turned upon itself or towards God and others? Are you able to love people unconditionally or do you instead “love” them for what you can get out of them? Sin is the self turned away from God and what he values. Paul’s gospel, contingent upon union with Christ, commissions and ethically empowers one to shift from a life turned in upon itself (Luther) or turned to things (Augustine) to one lovingly turned towards God and neighbor. (Rom 12:9–21; 1 Cor 13; Phil 2:4–11; 1 John 2:15-17; 3:1–4:21)
Do your goals and motives support each another? Christ’s mission is to make the kingdoms of the world the kingdom of our Lord. He will one day complete this task! In the above temptation, the devil promised Jesus a shortcut toward a godly goal: If he’d value (i.e., worship) Satan’s ways and not God’s, he’d quickly complete his task. Jesus decided that his motives and his actions would honor God, even if this meant fulfilling his life’s purpose later and by way of pain and not ease. Typically, who we are and why we do something is more important than what we do. (Rev 11:15; 1 Cor 15:24–27)
Unfortunately, one day many religious people will hear God say, “Depart from me, for I never knew you” (Matt 7:21). Why? Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Matt 7:13–20 helps answer that question, “The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life — to God! — is vigorous and requires total attention. Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned.”
Upward and Outward. Jesus’ wilderness temptation focused on his vertical relationship with the LORD, his God centeredness. By way of the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus spoke shortly after his temptation, he then taught about the God-centered horizontal life. Of course, none of us can live up to this level of perfection; nonetheless, when we study both of these passages (Jesus’ temptation and Sermon on the Mount), we’re taught that a healthy vertical relationship with God supports heathy horizontal relationships. For a people-centered life reflects a God-centered heart! We can’t effectively love others unless we have a healthy God-centered heart, for wounded people wound others; misled people, mislead others. How will your decision affect those around you? Will it hurt them? Are your deciding out of hurt? Are you deciding from a reservoir of ambition? As you decide, remember that the pursuit of God and his goodness in your life does not necessarily parallel the pursuit of the American dream of upward mobility, comfort, and abundance, and especially so when done at the cost of others. Is this decision more about you than others? Maybe the choice you are wrestling over asks that you to die to yourself and your stinking thinking. Maybe you are in the midst of a vertical, heart correction that will eventually manifest itself in a better horizontal life expression. Maybe this season is part of your heart getting realigned so that in God’s timing—after you have successfully worked through the wilderness trial—your life will more effectively reflect the Sermon on the Mount.
Aim for the center, not the fringe. Unlike Eve, Jesus didn’t casually converse with the devil. He instead said, “Away from me, Satan!” A steadily sown thought gives birth to a decision; repeated decisions produce habits; longstanding habits determine a person’s destiny. When tempted to decide poorly, Jesus didn’t entertain wrong thoughts; therefore, he didn’t deviate from the Way. Meditate on a lie and you’ll make a wrong choice. The results will be the same, if you let our mind wander towards error; over identify with a secular culture; see how close you can get to the line of immorality without crossing over it. Paul encourages us to “take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ”! This word was at the epicenter of his counsel to a Christian community whose values and definition of success were wrong; it was also key to Jesus’ unwillingness to entertain a lengthy discussion with Satan. Instead, Jesus rebuked every thought that was contrary to God’s ways; his last rebuke culminated in the devil’s departure. Augustine helps amplify Paul’s counsel: Some thoughts “cascade out in a rush … they thrust themselves forward en masse as if saying ‘Surely we are what you want?’ With the hand of my heart I drive them away from the forefront of my recollection, until what I am after emerges from obscurity and comes out of hiding into plain sight.” (Gen 3:1–7; Pro 7:21; 2 Cor 10:5b; Conf. 10.8.12)
Success isn’t always quantifiable and often wrongly defined. God measures success from his perspective: eternity; we often, instead, gauge things in light of the tangible now. The LORD values internal and foundational qualities; reversely, we commonly obsess over externals and non-essentials. God treasures people, we often esteem quantifiable things and actions, over people. Further, God doesn’t delight foremost in sacrifice, religious activities, intelligence, or other natural gifts; he does, however, esteem characteristics like humility, justice, mercy, love, obedience, and a life of worship that consequentially brings goodness into our lives and those around us. (Mic 6:6–8; 1 Sam 15:22; Eccl 12:13; Isa 1:14–17; Matt 6:33–34; 23:23)
Unfortunately, we especially justify motives and actions that have religious overtones and often condemn people and things that don’t appear, from our value systems, to be important. The following three examples exemplify this point.
At the Transfiguration, Peter experienced something amazing; however, his first inclination was to talk, build, and initiate. Instead, God wanted him to listen, wait, and follow his lead. Like Peter, until we mature, we think our ideas are best; we innately and foremost want to be important; that person who leads others to do something great for God; and that one others notice as unique and better.
In his day, the prophet Jeremiah didn’t appear successful: people either ignored or mocked him, his life had little impact on those around him. He resultantly struggled: he questioned his value and calling, argued against God, and labeled himself as one who “sat alone.” Fortunately, Jeremiah’s inner struggles didn’t affect his outward steps. Unfortunately, most of Israel rejected Jeremiah’s message. They were a religious people, who knew how to quote scripture to justify their lifestyle (Jer 7). Generations later, Israel would canonize Jeremiah’s words. How would I have reacted to Jeremiah’s words, had I heard them? His life, had I seen it? What about Jesus’ life? Would I have followed him? Many, many religious people rejected him, even ones who studied their Bibles and gave themselves to the “house of the LORD.” (Jer 7:1–11; 11:18-23; 12:1-4; 15:10–21; 17:12–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–18)
Per the standards of their day, the Christians at Corinth lived prosperous, joyful, and easy lives; however, Paul said their thoughts and actions were wrong, because their foundation was wrong. They measured success differently than Christ. Paul also noted that this was nothing new and cautioned, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” The book of Hebrews has five similar warnings, albeit to ones whose lives conversely involved persecution, deprivation, and hardship. (1 Cor 10:13; Heb 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 6:4–8; 10:26–31; 12:25–29)
LORD, with Paul, whether we live in plenty or in need, may we do everything “through Christ who strengthens us” (Phil 4:13). May whatever we decide glorify you (1 Cor 10:31). This day, not tomorrow, may we decide to pursue a godly future.
Our choices matter. The attitudes, habits, relationships, and living conditions that undergird these choices matter! For both our past little, consistent choices and our big decisions have brought us to our present place.