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‘Lead Us Not Into Temptation…’

November 23, 2010

This past Sunday, we held the third and final session of our Adult Ed series on “How Can We Gain Knowledge of God?” by discussing how we may avoid the temptation to worship death (as laid out by William Stringfellow in his book, Count It All Joy). Click below to read the complete Part 3 handout. Here’s my favorite bit, in which Stringfellow argues that being overly worried about “indulgences of the flesh” is, itself, a kind of “indulgence of the flesh.”

There is a distinction between temptation in its theological significance and temptation in its mundane and moralistic meaning… I have in mind pietism, which still flourishes in so many quarters in American Christendom: the “Bible belt” Baptists who regards dancing as consorting with the devil, the Methodist who condemns smoking categorically as a sin, some Presbyterians who regard abstinence in the use of liquor as a virtue, and a host of others from most any of the sects and denominations who think that something that human beings find pleasurable is lust and must be shunned lest the faithful be contaminated…

Some other forms of pietism have been cited here before. There is the all too familiar and peculiar pietism of which Norman Vincent Peale is the prosperous merchant. Here individualistic ambitions are besought and secured by hypnotic incantation, regardless of the costs or consequences to other human beings. There are the dogmatic pietists—seminary professors as well as “Sunday School” teachers are notorious among them—whose pietism consists of threatening damnation to those who conform not to what they say. There are many Anglicans, as well, no doubt, as Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Orthodox… who suppose that God’s relationship with God’s people is somehow jeopardized if the words are not invoked, or incense flung, or the candles not lit, or the gongs not rung at the prescribed times and in the ordained way…

“For Paul, the bondage to pietism is equivocation toward God’s grace. For him, all pietism is “indulgence in the flesh”… Indulgence in the flesh means the aggrandizement of human wants, ideas, pursuits, and enterprises despite the incapacity of any of them to substitute for the work of Christ for all people, including all people who vainly strive in these ways.

I also love this bit on Jesus’ and the Devil:

“Contrary to many ‘Sunday School’ recitations, the wilderness is not a period in which Jesus withdraws from the hurry and hurly-burly of the cares and affairs of the world in order to escape for awhile, practice asceticism, or meditate about the universe. Jesus Christ in the wilderness, so to speak, is not like Ronald Coleman in Shangri-La serenely pondering the ultimate. Nor is it… an occasion in which Jesus finally stops procrastinating about his own office and vocation. Jesus—in the wilderness any more than Gethsemane—doesn’t resemble, as it were, Adlai Stevenson agonizing about whether to accept a nomination…

“The wilderness interlude sums up the aggressiveness with which death pursues Jesus from his conception and anticipates death’s relentlessness toward him during his entire earthly ministry—in his exercise of authority over the demonic in healing, in his transcendence of time by renouncing the political ambitions that his disciples covet for him, in his rejection at the hands of his own people, in his confounding of the ecclesiastical and imperial rulers when they seize him and scourge him, in his submission to the last vengeance of death on the cross and in his victory over that humiliation. It is in that context—not as some yoga or mystic or magician, not as a novice about the character of temptation—that Jesus is visited and tempted by the power of death in the wilderness…

“Consider, for [another] example, the intercession of Christ for humanity in the first utterance of the Lord’s Prayer… The summation of the prayer is “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” that is “from the evil one,” which is the power of death. Evil does not, in the context of the Lord’s Prayer, mean moral evil in its conventional definition and usage but refers to that which is evil for every person and for the whole of creation and that which is in fact secreted in every thought or deed or wish or word called evil: the power of death or, if one renders the proper name, the Devil.

“I am aware how medieval it sounds to some contemporaries to speak of the Devil, though it is Biblical to do so… At the same time I am not, in using the term, thinking of some grotesque, supernatural, anthropomorphic being as such. I do not apprehend the Devil after the manner of those who conceive of God as a Santa Claus figure enthroned in the sky. Yet it does not offend my intellect or other sensibilities to invoke the name of the Devil to designate that power—distinguished only from God—which is present and militant in this world in all relationships, and to which all other powers are subjected. In a word it is the presumption of sovereignty over all of life that marks the power of death, and it is the notorious vindication of that presumption… that makes the employment of the name of the Devil… wholly apt and, so to speak, respectful of such an exceeding great power…

Temptation is, thus, nothing so mundane or transient or simplistic as choosing “wrong” instead of “right,” or surrendering to pleasure or pride, or being enticed by the ethics of self-interest: temptation refers rather to the incitement people suffer to repudiate the gift of life by succumbing to the idolatry of death.

And sin, hence, does not mean that people are bad, or that people have proclivity for wickedness, or that they are proud or selfish, but, instead, sin is the possession of people by the power of death, the bondage and servitude of people to death, the usurpation of God’s office by the arrogance of death. Saying that people sin does not mean that people are pernicious, it means that they are nihilists.

How Can We Gain Knowledge of God, Part 3: Avoiding the Temptation to Worship Death
All excerpts from Count It All Joy, by William Stringfellow

On Wisdom as Knowledge of God, Given by God—Not Acquired by Humanity

“If any of you lacks wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously…” – James 1:5

“All forms of religion [including those under the heading, ‘Christianity’] hold a common methodology… All consider religion as the human quest for God… It is exactly at this point… that the Gospel is radically distinguished from all religions. The theme of the Gospel from the first moment of the Fall is God in search of humanity… What people may know of God is only that which God discloses for people to know… What is audacious in the Gospel is the enjoyment of God’s presence here and now, whatever the circumstances; what is radical about the Gospel is the news that religion [the human quest for God] can be now discarded, by virtue of God’s grace.” (25-30)

On Doubt, and the Gift of Faith as God’s Transcendence of the Power of Death

“But let him ask in faith…” – James 1:6

“To ask God in faith for the knowledge of God… is to enter upon an estate of utter helplessness. Utter helplessness… It is a condition in which, as it were, a person stands totally alone in the world—naked, bereft, transparent, immobile, absolutely vulnerable in each and every facet of one’s person… It is the existential realization of fallenness. It is the time in the wilderness. It is the crisis of that unqualified helplessness which is death.

“In the Gospel, faith is about the evident reign of the power of death in this world and the possibility of the transcendence of death in this life… Death, both biblically and empirically, denominates the moral reality in this world that is greater than any other reality to which people attach significance for their existence, leaving God aside. Death not only outlasts money, virtue, fame, sex, religion or the other idols but death is the idol of the other idols. Death is the obvious meaning of existence, if God is ignored… Death is so great, so aggressive, so pervasive and so militant a power that the only fitting way to speak of death is similar to the way one speaks of God. Death is the living power and presence in this world which feigns to be God…

Faith is a charismatic gift. Faith is that most peculiar gift of God acting in this world which is offered to every human being and is the synonym of life itself. No person may receive that gift who supposes it is, in any sense, deserved, and who, therefore, doubts that it is a gift in the first instance… No person is established in faith (and thus renewed in life) who has not descended into that utter helplessness in which only God can render help… (47-52)

On Temptation

“Blessed is the one who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love God. Let no one say, when tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil and God tempts no one; but each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire, when it is conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.” – James 1:12-15

On What Temptation Is Not: “Pietism”

“In the context of James, there is a distinction between temptation in its theological significance and temptation in its mundane and moralistic meaning… I have in mind pietism, which still flourishes in so many quarters in American Christendom: the “Bible belt” Baptists who regards dancing as consorting with the devil, the Methodist who condemns smoking categorically as a sin, some Presbyterians who regard abstinence in the use of liquor as a virtue, and a host of others from most any of the sects and denominations who think that something that human beings find pleasurable is lust and must be shunned lest the faithful be contaminated…

Some other forms of pietism have been cited here before. There is the all too familiar and peculiar pietism of which Norman Vincent Peale is the prosperous merchant. Here individualistic ambitions are besought and secured by hypnotic incantation, regardless of the costs or consequences to other human beings. There are the dogmatic pietists—seminary professors as well as “Sunday School” teachers are notorious among them—whose pietism consists of threatening damnation to those who conform not to what they say. There are many Anglicans, as well, no doubt, as Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Orthodox… who suppose that God’s relationship with God’s people is somehow jeopardized if the words are not invoked, or incense flung, or the candles not lit, or the gongs not rung at the prescribed times and in the ordained way…

“For Paul, the bondage to pietism is equivocation toward God’s grace. For him, all pietism is “indulgence in the flesh”… Indulgence in the flesh means the aggrandizement of human wants, ideas, pursuits, and enterprises despite the incapacity of any of them to substitute for the work of Christ for all people, including all people who vainly strive in these ways.

On What Temptation Is: “The Idolatry of Death”

“That the only temptation at all, for any person, at any time, is to succumb to the idolatry of death is disclosed and enacted decisively in the episode of Jesus in the wilderness. Contrary to many ‘Sunday School’ recitations, the wilderness is not a period in which Jesus withdraws from the hurry and hurly-burly of the cares and affairs of the world in order to escape for awhile, practice asceticism, or meditate about the universe. Jesus Christ in the wilderness, so to speak, is not like Ronald Coleman in Shangri-La serenely pondering the ultimate. Nor is it… an occasion in which Jesus finally stops procrastinating about his own office and vocation. Jesus—in the wilderness any more than Gethsemane—doesn’t resemble, as it were, Adlai Stevenson agonizing about whether to accept a nomination…

“The wilderness interlude sums up the aggressiveness with which death pursues Jesus from his conception and anticipates death’s relentlessness toward him during his entire earthly ministry—in his exercise of authority over the demonic in healing, in his transcendence of time by renouncing the political ambitions that his disciples covet for him, in his rejection at the hands of his own people, in his confounding of the ecclesiastical and imperial rulers when they seize him and scourge him, in his submission to the last vengeance of death on the cross and in his victory over that humiliation. It is in that context—not as some yoga or mystic or magician, not as a novice about the character of temptation—that Jesus is visited and tempted by the power of death in the wilderness…

“In every instance in the wilderness episode, the confrontation is between the Devil and Jesus; in each it is exposed that the issue lies between the power of death and the Word of God—which means life in the sense of people and God reconciled and, hence, the reconciliation of people within themselves, among one another, and to all things…

“Consider, for [another] example, the intercession of Christ for humanity in the first utterance of the Lord’s Prayer… The summation of the prayer is “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” that is “from the evil one,” which is the power of death. Evil does not, in the context of the Lord’s Prayer, mean moral evil in its conventional definition and usage but refers to that which is evil for every person and for the whole of creation and that which is in fact secreted in every thought or deed or wish or word called evil: the power of death or, if one renders the proper name, the Devil.

“I am aware how medieval it sounds to some contemporaries to speak of the Devil, though it is Biblical to do so… At the same time I am not, in using the term, thinking of some grotesque, supernatural, anthropomorphic being as such. I do not apprehend the Devil after the manner of those who conceive of God as a Santa Claus figure enthroned in the sky. Yet it does not offend my intellect or other sensibilities to invoke the name of the Devil to designate that power—distinguished only from God—which is present and militant in this world in all relationships, and to which all other powers are subjected. In a word it is the presumption of sovereignty over all of life that marks the power of death, and it is the notorious vindication of that presumption… that makes the employment of the name of the Devil… wholly apt and, so to speak, respectful of such an exceeding great power…

Temptation is, thus, nothing so mundane or transient or simplistic as choosing “wrong” instead of “right,” or surrendering to pleasure or pride, or being enticed by the ethics of self-interest: temptation refers rather to the incitement people suffer to repudiate the gift of life by succumbing to the idolatry of death.

And sin, hence, does not mean that people are bad, or that people have proclivity for wickedness, or that they are proud or selfish, but, instead, sin is the possession of people by the power of death, the bondage and servitude of people to death, the usurpation of God’s office by the arrogance of death. Saying that people sin does not mean that people are pernicious, it means that they are nihilists.

“It is upon such a scene that God’s faithfulness to humanity is manifested as not only the gift which it is in itself… but also as a gift that is justifying, a gift that surpasses and preempts each and all of death’s temptations… The work of Christ, exemplified in the very prayers of which he is author, and for which he is authority, and as it is embodied in the cross and the emancipation of Christ from the tomb, is an intervention by God for every person in her or his particular suffering of the feigned, but ruthless sovereignty of death over life.

On What Humanity Is To Do: “Count It All Joy”

“The absolution from pietism is that there is no way at all to please God, no way to strike a bargain with God, no necessity to meet God half-way, no way to detract from God’s sole office as Judge of all, no way in which God’s godliness can be diluted in dependency upon human enterprise… All that is given to humanity to do is to live now in God’s triumph over death. What is given to humanity to do is to become and be, in the midst of the wiles and temptations of the Devil, the immediate beneficiary of the Resurrection. What God has bestowed upon humanity is, indeed, as James puts it, ‘the crown of life.’ That crown of life—that maturity of personhood in Christ—that fulfillment of life which is accredited exclusively to God’s virtue—is not some far off destination, not some remote prize, not a reward for good talk or good works or good thoughts, but is a goal already reached, a victory long since won, a gift freely offered.

“The vocation of humanity is to enjoy their emancipation from the power of death wrought by God’s vitality in this world. The crown of life is the freedom to live now, for all the strife and ambiguity and travail, in the imminent transcendence of death, and all of death’s threats and temptations. That is the gift of God to humanity in Christ’s Resurrection. People of this vocation count all trails as joys (to use James’ formulation), for, though every trial be an assault of the power of death, in every trail is God’s defeat of death verified and manifested.” (81-93)

 

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