I did well for my O level exams. Had distinctions in all my subjects except Chemistry, my bogey subject. Got a credit for that. Everyone expected me to do well for my A levels. Instead I passed my A levels with very average results. What happened? I underestimated the difficulty of the A level exams.
I had gotten good results in my O levels with minimum effort. For a few of the subjects I had bought revision books two weeks before the exams and still managed to get distinctions. I knew the A levels would be tougher than the O levels. I still thought I could get away with last minute work. But the A levels weren’t a little tougher than the O levels. They were in a different league all together.
This wasn’t the last time I would fail because I underestimated the difficulty of an undertaking. It is of little consolation that I am not alone in making this mistake. Average results in an exam are not the end of the world. Falling into sin however is much more serious.
A few days ago I was told that a key Christian leader had fallen into sexual sin. He was respected by many. He had a genuine heart for God and for people. And he had fallen. Maybe I am getting too old or too cynical, or I have seen the blackness in my own soul, but such reports do not shock me any more. (There is no need to speculate about who it is. The names change. But the stories are sadly too similar.) And as often is the case, the fall came at a time of transition in this person’s life.
We may appear to be very rooted in the Lord, unlikely to fall. But we may just be shored up by the familiar. Transitions remove the cocoon of familiarity. Transition times are when we are most vulnerable. And Satan knows it. As Richard Lamb points out, this was definitely true in Jesus’ life:
Satan shows up at at key transitions in Jesus’ life: the beginning of his public ministry . . . Satan tempts him to define himself as a popular powerful messiah and to use his power to advance his own purposes . . . In the garden Satan’s temptation is to resist death, so Jesus repeatedly prays for his Father to sustain him through it.
Satan knows that his targets are the most vulnerable to temptation at transition times. This is one of Satan’s vital strategies. When we have set patterns of faithfulness and growth, it is easier to resist temptation. When we are in new situations or experiencing dramatic change in our lives, we are most susceptible to Satan’s ploys. (Following Jesus in the Real World, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995, 45.)
For those of us who have grown up in evangelical churches, we have been comforted by the constant reminder that we have been saved by grace through faith. While this is true, it may also have the unwanted result of making us careless where temptation is concerned. We end up underestimating Satan and his schemes and we wonder why we fall.
As we head towards Maundy Thursday and again join Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, let us learn afresh from our Lord how He bested Satan’s temptation and remained true to God’s will.
First, He never underestimated the challenge before Him. He was fully awake to the danger facing Him and He wanted His chosen companions to be awake as well.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and became anguished and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, even to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:36-38 NET)
Next, He prayed till God’s will prevailed in His heart. In prayer he received the moral and spiritual strength He needed to say no to temptation. He prescribed the same prophylactic against sin to His companions.
Stay awake and pray that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41 NET)
Unfortunately they were weak, they did not pray, and they fell away. The disciples were not the first to discover that good intentions are not enough. (Compare Matthew 26:35 and 26:56.) And perhaps it is only when we have fallen flat on our faces in failure that we begin to really learn this lesson.
Third, Jesus understood the need for community. Even Jesus, who had perfect communion with the Father, understood the need for human companionship in times of testing. That is why He chose to face His sternest test with three of His closest companions. He shared with them honestly the struggle He was going through and His need for their support.
Then he said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, even to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26: 38 NET)
The fact that His companions fell asleep on the job does not take away from the fact that Jesus wanted to face His temptation with their support.
These then are three lessons from Jesus as to how we can overcome temptation:
- Be awake to the immensity of the struggle.
- Pray for Abba Father’s strength.
- Do not face temptations alone.
No wonder so many of us fall. So many of us live prayer less, lonely lives, dulled to the spiritual dangers we face. Thank God for Holy Week! We are reminded that Jesus has won us the victory on the Cross! And we now live in the power of the resurrection! But let us also remember the lessons of Gethsemane.