When You're Sorely Tempted

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Genesis 39:8-9

A wit once said that the only way to get rid of temptation is to give in to it. He was wrong. There is another way.

This is a story about someone who was tempted – tempted, in fact, to bed another man’s wife. There’s nothing unusual about that, I suppose. People are subjected to such pressures every day. What is out of the ordinary, perhaps, is the question this young man raised in response: “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (v. 9).

A GREAT WICKEDNESS?

Does that sound old fashioned? In other ages, people were accustomed to that kind of language about adultery. Whatever the prevailing moral practice, it was agreed, in principle at least, that to cheat on one’s marriage partner or to take the spouse of another was indeed a “great wickedness” and a “sin against God.” At some times in some cultures, it has been viewed as the very worst of wrongs, the most scarlet, the most damnable of sins. Thus a certain mystique has built up around it, a certain forbidden intrigue. The guilty ones are roundly condemned but perhaps secretly envied. The not-guilty or the undetected congratulate themselves that they are in the clear. And often, this verdict against adultery is pronounced by society without express reasons. It’s just wrong, that’s all. But we won’t talk about why.

In reaction to that social taboo, it is argued by some in our time that extramarital liaisons are not really so bad. In a survey conducted among influential leaders in the mass media, it was found recently that 54 percent of those polled did not regard adultery as morally wrong. On a television talk show recently, the genial host and his featured guests discussed the fact that more and more married people are having sexual affairs with other partners. They viewed this trend with considerable humor and concluded that more people than ever these days were “having a good time.” Their cheeriness seemed hardly affected by the calls that began to come in from viewers who related some of the suffering and unhappiness that had come from such adventures. For these media molders of opinion, apparently, the old negative rules are out. Maybe an occasional affair is a good thing for married folk, they suggest. It might even liven up and improve things with the spouse back home. Surely, they imply, no one takes “running around” very seriously any more. It’s becoming almost an accepted part of life.

Where does the truth lie? Are there any abiding standards about sexual conduct? Are there reasons, in these days of “sexual liberation,” for resisting the pressures all around us? Is there a case for marital fidelity?

The young man in the story I referred to was Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, the patriarch. You may remember how his brothers, filled with envy, had sold him into slavery. He found himself in Egypt as a household servant of Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph’s gifts, his sense of responsibility and his evident strength of character rapidly won for him his master’s full confidence. Before many months had passed, Potiphar had made him administrator of the entire household. And as Joseph was strikingly handsome, his attractiveness did not escape the notice of Potiphar’s wife. At length, she tried to seduce him and he refused her. She would not be denied, however, and made repeated advances. Finally a crisis came. Her latest proposal spurned, she twisted the facts to make it appear that Joseph had tried to attack her. Potiphar, enraged, had him thrown in prison.

Surely the most significant feature of the whole narrative is this interchange between the woman and Joseph. When she cast her eyes upon him and said, “Lie with me,” this was his answer: “Lo, having me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand; he is not greater in this house than I am; nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife; how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:8,9)

Let’s reflect on that. In our culture, sexual indulgence is rarely seen as “great wickedness,” perhaps because sex itself is not viewed as a great mystery. Those who claim most loudly to exalt sex, to glamorize and glorify it, have actually done something quite different. They have trivialized it, robbed if of deep significance. Sex according to Playboy is merely a form of entertainment. It belongs in the category of recreation. “Don’t let it get mixed up,” we are warned, “with things like emotional involvement and long-term commitment. Don’t take it too seriously. Just let it be casual fun.”

But suppose that human life can’t be compartmentalized in that way. Suppose that sexuality has to do with the center of our personal being. That’s the view of the Bible. Sex is a mysterious, awesome gift. Our sexual nature makes possible the most intimate of human relationships, and the way we use it expresses the essence of our attitude toward other people. Whatever we do in this area has profound effects on our personhood and that of others. What you do with your sexuality is never a trifle.

For Joseph, to take his master’s wife would have been a “great wickedness” because of the element of trust involved. “Lo,” he says, “having me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand,” that is, “He has put complete confidence in me. He has made me, a household slave, his equal in authority. How can I betray that kind of trust?”

Marriage itself is a remarkable expression of trust, of commitment. That impresses me afresh every time I conduct a wedding ceremony or witness one. Here are two people, face to face, promising in the presence of God and of “significant others” in their lives to be true to one another. “I take you to be my wedded wife . . . my wedded husband . . . and I do promise and covenant before God and these witnesses to be your loving and faithful husband . . . your loving and faithful wife . . . in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow as long as we both shall live.” And when you say words like those, someone else believes you, takes you at your word, and commits his or her life and happiness, possessions and person, to you. Is there any other situation in life where someone trusts you that profoundly? It’s well to ask when any temptation threatens the exclusiveness of that bond, “How can I do this great wickedness?” Someone has placed in me the most complete trust. How can I betray that?

Again, there are those to whom commitments seem insignificant. “Promises, like rules,” they say, “are meant to be broken.” They act as though no one should take their infidelity seriously, as though they can act unfaithfully and remain themselves unchanged. But that isn’t so. To betray a trust is not only a grievous injury to another. It is also a deadly blow to one’s own sense of self-worth. We human beings are the only creatures on this planet who make promises; we can pledge ourselves; we can commit ourselves. We become genuine persons in that kind of decision and covenant-making. Part of our unique glory and dignity as human beings lies in this faithfulness to those promises. We compromise something at the depths of our being when we break a significant pledge. It’s hard then to feel good about ourselves.

To cheat in a marriage is to choose failure in what was meant to be life’s closest, richest human relationship. It hastens and complicates that very failure. And the more we go back on our word, the harder and harder it becomes to maintain self-respect. Searching questions threaten us: “Is there any integrity about my life? Is there any point at which I can be depended on? Can anyone safely trust me?” The question of Joseph springs from a healthy self-esteem. “How can I do this great wickedness?”

But for Joseph, there is a deeper issue. “How can I do this great wickedness,” he asks, “and sin against God?” To be false to another person is to break faith with God. To be untrue to yourself is to dishonor him. In every part of our lives, we have to do ultimately with God. It’s his command that stands unchanged amid all the ups and downs of human opinion: “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14). And there’s nothing arbitrary about such a law. It doesn’t represent a groundless whim on God’s part. That commandment, like all the others, is for our good always. Cheating in marriage is destructive to persons. If I engage in it, it damages me. It hurts others, possibly many others. It threatens to destroy a relationship. That’s why God hates it. God is on the side of love, on the side of people. Whatever damages love and devastates people, God hates.

GREAT FAITHFULNESS

The God of the Bible, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, is the God of promise. Covenant is his idea. Faithfulness is what he pledges supremely to his people and what he asks of them in response. Fidelity may not be a high value in our society, but it is indescribably dear to God. Listen to his Word:

Let not loyalty and faithfulness forsake you. Bind them about your neck. Write them on the tablet of your heart.

Proverbs 3:3

Here’s something, in other words, to be held onto, to be cherished, to be internalized.

God speaks in another of the Proverbs (20:6), “Most men will proclaim everyone his own goodness, but a faithful man who can find?” There’s almost a wistfulness in that – the yearning search of God for trustworthiness in his people. Those who believe in him are called to be a people for his praise, to be those in whom his revealed character comes to expression. And nowhere is that likeness more fully shown than in covenant faithfulness, in loyal love.

Now it may be that you, listening to me right now, have come into the power of this temptation. You’ve been caught up in the spirit of this age and you’ve misused God’s best gifts. Perhaps you have betrayed a trust and brought on the agony of a broken marriage. What does the Christian gospel say to you? It says – oh believe this! – that you can be forgiven. However grievously you have failed, God is ready and willing to receive you through his Son. Jesus Christ has died for all our sins. He can pardon; he can cleanse us. He can even restore our damaged personhood.

But more that that, where relationships have broken down, where coldness and distance have developed, he can bring warmth and closeness again. I heard a man say not long ago that all the marriages he knew of were sick and falling apart. I listened to a young person who said much the same thing, adding that she never wanted to be married. But I know this: there is a transforming power in the gospel of Jesus Christ that can make marriages healthy.

That doesn’t mean that all our marriages need is a little religion, as people say, and a few Bible verses. There may be deep and complex problems. There are often painful adjustments needed, help and insight to be gained, struggles and setbacks aplenty. But I know this: marriages can be built in which adultery doesn’t occur, in which two persons make each other truly happy, in which they learn covenant faithfulness. Here’s the key: Trust Jesus Christ with your whole life. Then, friends, in the face of every temptation, you can remember who you are and whose you are. You can ask Joseph’s great question, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” And you can join with it a heartfelt prayer, “Lord, teach me instead what it really means to love.”