Making temptation work for you

A few years ago a study was conducted amongst women who wanted to diet. The group was asked to name particular items of food that they found very tempting. Half of the group was also asked to form what psychologists call an implementation intention. An implementation intention, is more or less determining your goal and foreseeing particular obstacles to that goal. The particular obstacle or temptation acts as a reminder to stick to your plan of action, in this case, a diet.

After a week, the group was brought back together and the researchers assessed how everyone had got on. What they found backed up what previous research had suggested: those who had formed an implementation intention were most successful in sticking to their diet.

“If only dieting were so simple!” I can hear you say.

Of course, we know that dieting and many other goals we set ourselves aren’t as easy to attain as the above might suggest.

And when we come to our walk with God and the issues of spiritual warfare, life is never just as simple or straightforward as we would like it to be.

However, an awareness of the ways in which our enemy works to try and derail us can help us to stick to our commitment to Jesus, even when the pressure is on. Temptation can become more of a reminder of our calling and commitment rather than simply a threat. In short, we can make temptation work for us.

What sorts of obstacles and temptations are we going to meet?

Let me give you four based on the experience of the disciples on the night of the last supper.

Firstly, there is the pressure of undesired circumstances (Matthew 26.20-22)

Throughout his time with His disciples, Jesus had warned that He would be handed over to the Romans and killed. The disciples did not want to hear this. It just didn’t fit in with their understanding of Messiah.

Sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances that are undesirable. Satan can use those as an opportunity to attack us and cause us to question our trust in God.

Secondly, we are vulnerable to unacknowledged or unknown weakness (Matthew 26.33-35)

Peter, declared that he would go to prison or even die for the Lord. In the end he denied Him three times. It’s worth mentioning that the other disciples made the same kind of noises as Peter.

We all have unknown weakness. Sometimes it’s more a case of unacknowledged weakness. Being prepared to admit our weakness – even if we are not exactly sure what it is – puts us at a massive advantage in spiritual conflict.

Thirdly, unmet needs can become a landing ground for the enemy (Matthew 26.40-43)

The disciples were tired. That was understandable. It had been a demanding week, culminating with the last supper and all that Jesus had told them about His imminent death. They must have been emotionally as well as physically tired.

Tired bodies combined with emotional strain can cause us to lose focus. Sometimes the answer is “Rest”. Sometimes the answer is “Keep going”.

Fourthly, unpredictable events can throw us off course (Matthew 26.69-75)

Peter’s denial of the Lord happened at a time when no-one knew what was going to happen next. The whole scenario was pretty fluid. Peter found himself a lone disciple amongst a group of people who were unsympathetic to Jesus.

He was isolated. Unpredictable events can isolate us from the rest of the body of Christ as we try to work out in our own minds how to manage the developing situation and work out our next move. Satan scores big time when he isolates us. He isolated Thomas – and Thomas got severely discouraged. He isolated Peter – and he denied the Lord. He isolated Judas – and he committed suicide. Don’t allow yourself to get isolated!

No-one is immune to any or all of the above. But when we see these kinds of things unfold around us, we will at least be aware of what is happening. They remind us, as Jesus told His disciples, to watch and pray (Matthew 26.41). They remind us that we are in a real battle. They remind us to keep pressing on. Because they can become this sort of powerful reminder of our commitment to Jesus, we can say with some confidence that our temptations really can work for us.

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Building a reputation for God

So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. 16 When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God. Nehemiah 6.15

The Man Who Planted Trees  is the story of an old shepherd in France who did as the title says. Elzeard Bouffier, the central character of the tale, tended his sheep in the lower Alps. The landscape he works in is bleak and lifeless. So he decides to try to make a difference. Wherever he goes, he carries acorns and scatters them liberally. He does this for forty years, until he is no longer able to walk the hills and valleys. By that time trees are sprouting up everywhere. Elzeard, through his simple act of scattering acorns has changed the landscape.

It might be a work of fiction, but the tale has inspired tree planting all over the world! It is amazing what can happen when our imagination is captured, even by something that is just a story.

Sometimes, if we really believe that all of our lives are under the Lordship of Christ, all of the time, our actions have greater implications than at first it might seem.

When Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem rebuilt the walls of their city, their actions had far reaching consequences.

On one level, they were involved in a building project. They were just laying one brick on another. Every person assigned a part of the wall to build and protect. Restoring the damaged gates. Ensuring that the city was once again secure and that the shame of having broken down walls was lifted off its people.

However, their actions reverberated well beyond Jerusalem. Rebuilding the walls changed the way those nations that surrounded Jerusalem now viewed God’s people. Jerusalem and her people had been transformed into a force to be reckoned with, no longer were they an object of derision. Why? Not just because they had secure walls but because the other nations realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.

In rebuilding the walls of the city, the people had built a reputation for God.

As we put our hand to the tasks that God gives us, as we give ourselves to following Jesus, to living for Him, we build a reputation for God. Nehemiah had his opponents. He had his setbacks and disappointments and discouragements. But with God’s help he continued. And God in the end was glorified.

As you set out to live for Jesus this week, may you do so in the confidence that you are building a reputation for God.

Keep scattering those acorns.

The Day of Small Things

Who [with reason] despises the day of small things? Zechariah 4.10 (AMP)

“Don’t despise the day of small things!” is simultaneously a piece of encouraging advice and a warning rooted in the conviction that greatness often starts out small. The nuclear physicist was once learning simple addition and subtraction as a four year old. The builder who built the stadium or the thousand foot high tower one day had to lay the first brick. Noah began building the ark when he chopped down a tree and turned it into a piece of timber. Everyone has to start somewhere and everyone usually has to start small.

However, it is easy to despise the day of small things because the basic arithmetic, the first brick or the first piece of timber seem so distant from the finished product. It is even easier to despise the day of small things when the day of small things is at a time in your life when you thought you would be doing greater things!

That might well have been the case in the time of Zechariah and his contemporaries, Zerubbabel and Joshua. They had returned from exile in 538 B.C. with the intention of rebuilding the temple. Twenty years later, they had only got as far as laying the foundations. Through a mixture of opposition and political upheaval in the Persian empire, the building project had ground to a halt. In addition, the people, perhaps because of the slowness of the progress had begun, according to the prophet Haggai, to focus on building their own houses, neglecting God’s house in the process.

At some point God sent along the prophet Zechariah to stir up the people again, in particular their leaders, Zerubbabel and Joshua. To hear a word about despising the day of small things must have cut to their hearts emotionally. Years of discouragement. The added disappointment that the return from exile was not as glorious as they had expected. And on top of all that, the nation had been reduced to a province of Persia and renamed Judea. No longer was Jerusalem the glorious city of David’s day and it must have seemed light years away from the prophesied future glory.

It certainly was the day of small things. In such an environment, Zerubbabel and Joshua were called to start building again. Emotionally, that must have been difficult.

To help them, God gave them two powerful reasons to restart the work.

Firstly, they were anointed to do it (Zechariah 4.1-3, 11-4). Secondly, the Spirit of God was their real power source (Zechariah 4.6).

Perhaps the amplified translation brings out best the flavour of the exhortation about despising the day of small things:

Who [with reason] despises the day of small things? Zechariah 4.10 (AMP)

When we find ourselves having to take very small, very basic steps to begin to fulfil our vision, it can be emotionally difficult to see the connection with any intended greatness. If the call is to restart a project which we have abandoned  – or would would like to abandon!- it can be very hard at an emotional level to get back to work.

But when we recognise God’s anointing and that His Spirit is with us we have no good reason to despise the day of small things. Our feelings might cause us to despise the day of small things, but we have no good reason to despise the day of small things.

I’ll leave you with The Message translation:

Does anyone dare despise this day of small beginnings? They’ll change their tune when they see Zerubbabel setting the last stone in place!”

Small beginnings, but a great and glorious ending.

Happy Epiphany

New year is traditionally a time when people make resolutions. Apparently within six months of making new year’s resolutions, most people have completely abandoned them!

New year, specifically January 6th, is also epiphany in the church calendar.

Epiphany isn’t a feast that receives much attention outside of the more traditional churches. It’s a feast that celebrates a number of the events of Jesus’ earliest years, including and, perhaps most prominently, the visit of the Magi from the east. The word epiphany means shining forth, the shining forth of Jesus.

This particular aspect of the Christmas story is covered in Matthew’s gospel alone (Matthew 2.1-12). The Magi follow a star, stop off at Herod’s palace to see if the new King is there, and then, with Herod’s apparent encouragement, continue their journey and end up in Bethlehem. Here they meet Jesus and their lives are changed. They give their gifts and their worship and then, warned in a dream, return home by another route.

An article about new year’s resolutions a few years ago in Psychology Today, commented that the problem we have with new year’s resolutions is that we’re after change and we don’t realise that we have a lot of baggage we need to ditch if we are going to achieve that change. Believe it or not, one of the things that the author said was that, if we are to be successful in making and achieving our resolutions, we need an epiphany that brings us to a conviction that we can’t continue down the same old paths any longer.

Whatever the author meant by those words and whatever his spiritual background, true change only comes when we have an encounter with God, when we have a Magi-like kind of epiphany.

Their encounter with Jesus redefined their understanding of God: He was not to be found in the palace of the power-crazed Herod, but lived with humble people in humble surroundings.

Sometimes our greatest need is to have our vision and understanding of God altered. People have often been sold a lie as to who God really is and what He is like.

The Magi’s encounter with Jesus brought new direction into their lives. They had come a long way from the east following a star. They were now warned in a dream to take a different route home.

Sometimes we need redirection or new direction. Perhaps it’s because the old paths are no longer relevant. Perhaps it is to avert danger that we can’t presently see. It might just be that we prepare ourselves to take unfamiliar paths because that is the way God is calling us.

Most importantly of all, however, they were overwhelmed in the presence of the Christ child and brought their gifts and their worship.

A fresh appreciation of Jesus, a new encounter with Him is beyond question the greatest new year blessing we could have.

So as we begin a new year, don’t let me stop you making your resolutions: they have their place. However, let me encourage you to seek a fresh revelation of Jesus with the deep and lasting change that such an encounter brings.

Happy (belated) epiphany.