Is Temptation Too Strong?

imagesMany people accept the notion of free will. They recognize that while not completely unlimited, each of us as the capacity to make choices about the actions we take. Yes, there are temptations which tug incessantly upon us, and there are things, by contrast, that we would never consider doing, but in the middle, we realize that there are countless moral choices that we are free to make – and do make – each and every day.

Sometimes this leads to a question about God’s plan in designing us this way. As one questioner put it:

“If God creates the sandbox we all play in, with the 4 walls (and a couple trees ha!) why not make it more restrictive (less likely/harder to give in to temptation) yet still have free will?”

This is a very good question, one with which I too have struggled. For example, if people did not get intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, there would be much less crime and sin. God could have made us with brains that are incapable of intoxication; perhaps we would just get sick. Yet he made us in a way that seems to increase the potential for sin. Sexual sin is another example. Why must it be so intensely pleasurable? Why do we strive so hard for power and fame? From earliest toddler-hood, we seem impelled to try to control our environment and the people around us? In short, it does seem that we have certain “settings” which make us exceptionally vulnerable to the tug of temptation.

My answer to this puzzle is incomplete; the “dark glass” through which we see is often quite difficult to fully penetrate. But perhaps the beginning of an answer can be glimpsed if we consider the teachings of St. Augustine in the area of sin and evil. He concluded that sin is not a “thing,” and therefore not something that God created. It is instead a deprivation of the good. Like the hole in the middle of the donut, evil is the thing that is missing. When we think of “temptation” of the kinds spoken of above – sex, drugs, alcohol, power – we are not thinking of things which compete for our attention. It is not as if we are offered “product A” or “product B,” competing and alternative things. No, what we are confronted with are positive goods that God created for us – feelings of pleasure, intimacy with other human beings, the thrill of action, and the satisfaction of accomplishment. And we are faced with the question of how we will achieve these goals – God’s way or ours. When we don’t follow God’s way, we pervert the good and evil results.

For far too many today – Christians and non-believers alike – we have mistaken the journey for the destination. No longer content to live out our lives with eyes and hearts directed to God, we instead seek pleasure now. Instant gratification is our goal. But we weren’t built for that. And so we cheat. Alcohol and drugs stimulate that part of the brain that allows for pleasure, flooding our system with “good feeling” that is transitory at best, and destructive in the end. These substances take effect instantaneously; there’s no need to sacrifice, to plan, to work, to achieve. The things from which we normally derive pleasure – enjoying the company of a friend, soaking in the beauty of nature, thrilling at the joy of a hard-fought victory, basking in the glow of a well-earned accomplishment – take time to achieve, time that we are, in increasing numbers, not willing to spend. Yes, drugs and alcohol work on our brains for the simple reason that God made us capable of pleasure. Without the “dark side” to pleasure, there would be no free will; we would be automatons or pets, programmed to act a certain way and not able to do otherwise.

We “cheat” with sex as well. Not content to channel and control our passions, not willing to spend the time and emotional energy to achieve true intimacy, we instead fool ourselves into thinking that the act is the end in itself, rather than simply a part of a particular type of relationship. We insist that we can separate the act from its natural purpose, desiring all of the pleasure of the flesh without first doing the work that will make that pleasure last. And what of the quest for money and power? Are these not also mistaking byproducts for ends? We need money to live, of course, and a certain amount of power to influence our environment. But these things are byproducts of goal oriented behavior. We cheat when we seek to have these things right now – by gambling rather than working, by lying or cutting corners rather than doing it right, by engaging in criminal behavior instead of thinking of the good of the other.

The point of the question is that God should have been “more fair” to us by making the temptations less. But he couldn’t; at least, he could not if he truly intended to create free will beings. We are not animals that respond to instinct. And we are not computers, processing data without feeling. We are a most marvelous creation – we can think and plan and imagine, and we were built for relationship – first with others and ultimately with our creator. God does not want “pets” that respond simply to training or instinct. And so there is a process of development within us. We were meant to move from self-centered infants to grown-ups capable of sharing love with others. It is only through this process – probably best expressed in the selflessness and giving required for marriage and child-raising to work – that God begins to move us away from ourselves and into community with others, to shift us from inward looking to outward looking. In so doing, he prepares us for eventual union with him. But he does not compel it; the choice remains ours.

If we want this end, we must do it God’s way. As a perfect being, and as the creator of life, it stands to reason that he would have a better way, and the power and right to insist that we follow it. Temptation will always be with us. It is the flip side of the coin of free will. The good news is that we need not go it alone. In the end, Jesus does all the work; we need only assent to the gift.

The Apostle Paul admonished us to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our minds, that by testing we can discern what is the will of God and what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12. The first step remains with us. We can undergo the transformation required to put the things of God first, or we can continue to cheat, cheating ourselves most of all in the end.

We can blame God for making us susceptible to temptation, or we can realize that he is preparing us for many good things and expects us to choose wisely.

It is up to us which direction we go.

Posted by Al Serrato

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