Posts Tagged temptation


For some reason, I know quite a few people who have recently taken their own lives. I don’t know how much of it is because becoming a pastor a few years ago has circumstantially put me in closer contact with more personal tragedies than I would otherwise be aware of, or if it is because suicide is on the rise, or maybe if it is just bad luck. But what once was a rare horrible shock is starting to turn into more of a familiar, terrible, recurring pain.

I’ve read quite a bit on the natural and psychological causes of suicide. Suicide is usually linked to either mood disorders, personality disorders, or substance abuse. Also, along with the typical addiction, schizophrenia, depression, etc, there are often life circumstances that compound the situation. People who attempt to end their own lives often feel trapped, unable to escape, without hope, afraid. Often, they feel despair.

But despair can come from other causes, too. Not all despair is due to a chemical imbalance making it impossible for a person to have the right perspective to see that suicide is a permanent non-solution to a temporary problem. There is also spiritual despair.

Spiritual despair is when you are faced with the impossibility of your own redemption. When you look at your own dysfunctional behavior and at evil you discover in your own heart and cannot see any hope of change. Despair is often the final stage of the spiritual trials we call temptations. Spiritual despair causes you to feel like you’re drowning, like you’ve been punched in the gut, like you’re trapped under the ice, like you can’t draw a breath and soon will suffocate if you can’t manage to somehow escape the flood and suck in some air. In despair, things that once seemed certain–the existence of God, the love of friends, the value of life–fall to doubt and even rejection.

I’ve been there. I have been certain that life has no meaning. I’ve been convinced there’s no hope for my soul. I’ve never been suicidal. But I most certainly have despaired.

I’m not saying most suicides are connected to spiritual temptation alone. As I said earlier, suicide is heavily linked with mental illness. Usually it involves someone whose brain is not allowing them to see the full spectrum of possibilities in their lives. Depression is a natural ailment, but it imitates a spiritual one, and hell will use any tool it can get its hands on to destroy a person. So there is a spiritual component to suicide. Just not the one most traditionally expounded by western religions. The Christian idea of suicide as a special kind of sin comes from medieval theologians, not the Bible. Yes, suicide is horribly hurtful to all the people left behind; it is evil. But committing suicide doesn’t have any special go-directly-to-hell-do-not-pass-go rules associated with it. It is one more short-sighted, hurtful mistake among the thousands we humans often commit.

But despair is evil. It is not evil to despair, but to cause it. We are spiritual beings, surrounded by an unseen world that influences us nonetheless. There is a heaven and there is a hell, and hell doesn’t like you very much. Despair is a powerful tool for hell.

Despair can cause you not only to kill yourself physically, but to attempt spiritual suicide as well. To decide, “Well, I’m not the sort of person that belongs in a church.” To say to yourself, “What difference does it make what decision I make. It’s not like I’m ever going to heaven, anyway.” To declare, “There is no God, so it doesn’t matter which decision I make.” Despair sets you up for the next temptation, shatters your resolve so that you backslide into behaviors you had been trying to break free from. Like going on an eating binge just because you slipped once in your diet, despair can trigger a series of decisions that themselves lead to even more despair.

Don’t let despair get you. Spiritual despair tells you that you are no good. It’s a nasty trick, because it takes the very true idea that all goodness comes from the Lord, and turns it on its ear. The Lord said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Without me you can do nothing.” Despair says there is no God, so there is no good. Or if there is a God, he wouldn’t help you, because you are no good.”

That’s a lie. The Lord is forever flowing into ever person’s heart, inspiring in every person a desire to do good. You just have to accept it. You have to give it a place in your heart to land. True, you cannot overcome your spiritual temptations, but if you let Him, the Lord can.

When someone is drowning, they will instinctively act in ways that make it hard to save them. A drowning person is a dangerous thing. Ask a lifeguard. When you are in spiritual despair, your instincts are all wrong. Stop flailing. Surrender. Ask the Lord to save you from your despair, and then wait. He will save you, if you give Him permission. And He promises that after despair comes comfort. That after struggle comes rest. After combat, victory. Read the Psalms.

Moreover, when you are in despair, you are on the threshold of something good! Read Seth Godin’s The Dip. We often quit the wrong things at the wrong times. The great things in life only come after struggle.

Read through Secrets of Heaven. Over and over you will see references to spiritual rebirth as a result of spiritual struggle. And know that hell wouldn’t need to attack so fiercely if heaven wasn’t just around the corner.

My friend Jason killed himself a few days ago. I’m angry. Sad. Guilty. Irrational. Heartbroken. Full of “what if”. None of what I write here changes anything for him. It doesn’t give his family what they most want. It doesn’t undo the pain his friends are in.

But maybe some day you will be in despair, too. And maybe some tiny spark hidden deep within you will latch on to some small part of what I’ve said today. And it will give you the strength to get your head above the flood one more time, for one more breath. And you will be able to hold out, to buy time, to do whatever you need to do to get through your spiritual struggle so you can return to a place where hope again shines.

God Himself has felt it. He knows what we go through. He’s been there. And He’s defeated it. And if you let Him, He’ll defeat it for you, too. In Secrets of Heaven it says this:

All temptation is attended with some appearance of despair; otherwise it is not temptation… They who are being tempted are brought into anxieties, which induce a state of despair concerning the end: the very combat of temptation is nothing else… As the Lord endured the most direful and cruel of temptations of all, He, also, could not but be driven into despairs, which He dispelled and overcame by His Own Power.

Faith saves. But faith isn’t saying a certain prayer, or making a certain statement. Faith is living as if you trust that the Lord will save you. And to be able to honestly have that trust, you need to make an effort. Fight on a little longer. Do something for someone else no matter how you feel about yourself. Take another breath. Trust in the Lord, and He will keep His promises.

I could say, “Don’t despair.” But despair happens without our choosing. Rather, when you despair, hope anyway.

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Two Hearts

Angel and Devil on Homer's ShoulderMost of the time, we’re unaware of having two wills, because our good and evil selves often agree on what to do, each for its own reasons.

This is not directly taught in the Word (as far as I know), but it’s a logical inference from other teachings. For instance, True Christian Religion 596 (among other places in the doctrines) describes spiritual temptation as combat between our two wills:

…[A] struggle ensues between the internal and the external man, and the victor then controls the other.

The reason why a struggle then ensues is that the internal man is reformed by means of truths, which enable him to see what is evil and false; and these truths are still in his external or natural man. First, therefore, there is dissension between the new will, which is above, and the old will, which is below. Since it is dissension between wills, it is between the pleasures of either, for it is well known that the flesh opposes the spirit, and the spirit the flesh, and the flesh with its lusts must be tamed, before the spirit can act and the person can become a new man. Following this dissension of the wills, a struggle, known as spiritual temptation, takes place.

And New Jerusalem 193 (among other places) says that these days few people experience much spiritual temptation at all:

Since to-day faith is rare because of the absence of charity, the church being at its end, few people nowadays experience any degree of spiritual temptation. As a result it is hardly known what spiritual temptations are and what purpose they serve.

So putting the two together, it seems that many people very rarely experience a conflict between their higher and lower selves. No conflict must mean agreement. And this is actually a good thing, I think. Imagine if every minute decision of every day of your life caused spiritual warfare to break out in your mind! There would be little break at all from spiritual suffering. So here’s an example: this morning I got in my car and drove to the pastor’s office. Why? Well, I think my selfish will (kickin’ it old-school, I might even say my “proprium”!) figured my reputation and wealth might take a hit if I just stopped showing up for work. Besides, my evil will likes it when people think I’m doing a good job. At the same time, I believe, the new will that the Lord is growing within me, based off of my conscience, wanted to drive to work this morning because it loves serving the Lord and other people as a pastor and preacher. It was excited to get to work on things like my proposal for Austin and the next Living Courageously sermon. Now, if the two wills disagreed, then I would have to have duked it out inside myself. Some mornings, that does, indeed, happen, when my evil self decides it can blow off work because it’d rather play video games and eat stromboli all day. But today, I happily got up, got dressed, and drove off to the office without a tinge of internal struggle. This week’s task for people doing the “Living Courageously” program is to regularly ask “Why did I do that?” This is in observance of the fact that the Lord mercifully works with us through these mixed motives of ours. E.g., see Secrets of Heaven 4063:

When people are being spiritually remade (“regenerated”) the Lord keeps them in an intermediate kind of good, a good which serves to introduce genuine goods and truths. But once those [genuine] goods and truths have been introduced, the intermediate good is separated from them. The spiritually reborn person has an affection for spiritual and heavenly matters since these give one feelings of delight and blessedness, whereas the affections of the person who is not spiritually reborn are for worldly and earthly things, and these things give him feelings of delight and pleasure.

…Since therefore our states of life have to be changed so drastically we are inevitably kept for a long time in an intermediate kind of good which partakes both of worldly affections and of heavenly ones. And unless we are maintained in that intermediate good we will no way let heavenly goods and truths enter us.

By the way, if you haven’t, yet, you should check out the Living Courageously program.

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