My usual way with temptation is to succumb and then repent. I once devoured, in one frenzied gulp, the remaining torso of my son's solid chocolate bunny, so that it would stop tempting me from its green fiberfill nest on the kitchen counter. Immediately there was much relief, and not a little guilt. A Pyrrhic victory.
All this is a workable enough arrangement much of the time-you know: my tireless sin, God's tireless grace. But every now and then (notably on the occasions that I am the bitten rather than the biter) I get discouraged and cynical about the reality of this thing we call the Christian life. Has the emperor any clothes?
We believe in forgiveness-until there's someone to forgive. We subscribe to the unity of the saints-until the least little thing ruffles it. We possess faith-until some garden variety challenge calls for it. We extol patience-but woe to the person who crosses us twice. We have basically two settings in relationship: flattery or disdain, hardly any middle ground. We do a hundred "good deeds," then refuse the one that goes against our natural inclination. We keep a tight rein on our tongues-until the first feeble tug of gossip pries it loose.
What opportunity is lost when I fail to avail myself of the one thing that temptation is good for! For in God's way of alchemizing Satan's curses to our blessing, is not temptation the crucible in which suffering undergoes the heat and calcination that yields that rare and precious commodity, courage? Is that not what Hobbit discovered in the bowels of the Mountain:
"It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the danger that lay in wait." The evidences of courage may be public, but the substance of it is always forged in loneliness.
Luke 4 was the bedtime passage one night, and when I asked my kids what temptations had assailed them that day, I was given to learn, upon their brief reflection, that they had had none. This was indeed interesting since I had personal knowledge of a few internecine squabbles, turf wars, and down-and-dirty physical altercations between them just within the last few hours.
Could it be, I suggested gingerly to them, that in order to be aware that you've been tempted, you must have had to struggle with the temptation for at least a minute and a half before giving in to it? Impulses capitulated to right away may well leave no memorable imprint on the brain.
To Jesus' temptations in the wilderness the kids cried, "No fair! It was easy for Him, He was the Son of God!" (The human nature of Christ may well be the harder of the two to grasp!-which is why the first three centuries of church history were taken up fighting about it.)
But children, I rebutted (remembering Hobbit): Picture temptation like a cave, with an opening and then a tunnel that stretches out into darkness for who knows what distance. You and I often trip and fall at the very gate of the passageway. (These are the cases where even memory of temptation is erased.) Some, men of valor, might breach the forbidding portal and venture in a few yards with "fear and trembling." They might wrestle the "strong man," fight the good fight, and die every step of the way-perhaps succumbing, perhaps prevailing in the end.
But only Jesus has ever been down that cave the whole distance and wrestled temptation to the ground. Only He knows what unspeakable terrors lurk that far into the hellish maze, where a man will sweat blood. No other son of Adam knows, for none has traversed that terrain.
Shall we not try to follow Him deep into the cave, and face whatever terrors there be (I said, preaching more to myself than to my sleepy captive audience)? Shall we not find His help even there, since He promises, "Where shall I go from Your Spirit? ... If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there!" (Psalm 139:7-8)? Shall we not renounce sloppy living and go for the "silver and gold" rather than settling for "wood, hay, and straw" (1 Corinthians 3:12)? Shall we not-must we not-follow the one we received not only as Savior but as Lord, the one of whom Tolkien wrote in figure, "He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone"? Let us pursue courage, little children. By His grace, to be sure. But by a grace that wasn't cheap.