The Spiral Slide of Temptation

Imagine Peter, James, and John sitting in Gethsemane, waiting for Jesus to come back from praying…

It had been a long and significance-laden day, starting when Jesus sent a couple of disciples into town to find some man carrying a water jar. Random. But that man had a room available for Jesus and the disciples to observe Passover. Who still has a room unoccupied on the morning of the biggest celebration of the year? But there he was, and there it was. Mark 14:12-16

The Passover was weird too. Jesus said some unusual things, and He even got down on his hands and knees to wash all the disciples’ feet. There was a little…exchange with Peter, and there was also that moment when Judas got up and ran off. John 13

After they finished eating, Jesus started talking. He talked for a long time. Some of it was encouraging, but some was just plain confusing. He may have continued talking as they walked over to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus liked to go there in the evenings. Maybe it reminded him of the Garden of Eden. John 14-1

Mark 14:32-42.

The closer they got to Gethsemane, the more anxious Jesus must have become. He didn’t normally get anxious, so this must have been puzzling to the disciples as well. Once He had Peter, James, and John alone, He confessed, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34a). They still had no idea what was going on. Then Jesus asked them to stay back and pray while he went off by himself.

Stop to think: When I was in college, I had this one history class right after lunch. The professor always lectured using slides (Yes, I’m that old.) so the lights were off…for an hour and a half…on a full belly…after five or six hours of sleep the night before. You know what happened. There were multiple illegible lines in my notes every day because I fell asleep. Study groups met hoping everyone hadn’t fallen asleep at the same time so we could each fill in our gaps. I didn’t want to go to sleep. I did everything I could think of to stay awake! But nothing worked.

That’s the situation in which the disciples found themselves. It was super-late at night. They’d had a stressful, puzzling day followed by a traditional holiday feast (think turkey and dressing: tryptophan, people!). It was quiet in the garden, and Jesus? Well, He was gone for a long time.

Our three disciples fell asleep. Three times. Frankly, after that first scolding, I think I would have tried walking around, doing some jumping jacks, whistling…anything to prevent disappointing Jesus again. Jesus even called Peter “Simon”—ouch (Mark 14:37). But they fell asleep. Again.

I don’t want to make light of what happened that night, when Jesus struggled with His humanity (more on His prayer), when God’s ears must have ached with the pleas of His Trinitarian self even as the blood-sweat dripped from Jesus’ forehead, when Jesus resubmitted His will to the Father’s. At the same time, there’s a real lesson for us back there with the disciples, and it’s bigger than “Don’t fall asleep while you’re praying.”

Spiral of Temptation: Discounted Obedience

Jesus told the disciples, “Keep watch” (Mark 14:34b). But the disciples didn’t do that. Maybe they chose one person to be on guard, but from what? They didn’t know why a watch was needed, so they didn’t prioritize obedience. They sat down, and they weren’t paying attention. That’s when temptation loomed large.

An attitude of I-know-better is the
ladder to the spiral slide of temptation.

Because His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9), sometimes we can’t see the purpose in His commands. That makes it easy to discount them, to consider them unimportant. But an attitude of I-know-better is the ladder to the spiral slide of temptation. If you never go up, you never have to worry about going down.

Stop the spiral slide of temptation before it starts with a little attention to His voice. (click to tweet)

Spiral of Temptation: Inertia

When you start down the spiral
slide, it’s almost impossible
to stop on your own.

For the Christ-follower, as for the disciples, there usually isn’t a conscious decision to sin. Instead, inertia sets in. Peter, James, and John sat down when they should have stood up; they slumped when they should have walked around; they were silent when they could have prayed out loud. There was no sin in being sleepy, but it tempted them, and disobedience became virtually inevitable. When you start down the spiral slide, it’s almost impossible to stop without external intervention.

When Jesus returned the first time, He said, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). He knew how sleepiness was stalking them, drowsiness was dominating them. (Sorry, random moment of alliteration there. I was overcome by temptation. Haha.)

We have to break out of the inertia that propels us toward sin. When you’re going down the slide, you really don’t do anything. Everything happens to you. On our figurative slide, however, we have to put our feet down, sneakers squeaking on the plastic slide, hands gripping the shallow rails, until we win the fight over gravity and come to a stop mid-slide.

But what if we don’t stop on the way down?

Spiral of Temptation: When Your Butt Hits the Dirt at the Bottom

The disciples didn’t
stop themselves…

The disciples didn’t access the power available to them. They didn’t stop themselves on the spiral slide of temptation. (In their defense, they didn’t have the Holy Spirit like we do.) As a result, Judas and a crowd of weaponized temple representatives came upon Jesus without warning. Had Peter, James, and John been watching, I think they would have warned Jesus a few minutes earlier, and everyone could have taken a deep breath before the kissing, the ear-cutting, and the fleeing.

Their attention wouldn’t have changed the final outcome (Jesus’ inevitable crucifixion), but it might have changed their perspective, their sense that everything was going wrong.

Spiral of Temptation: Jesus Pulls Us Out

Like a parent swoops in to lift
a frightened child off the playground
slide, our God separates us from the
temptation.

If we can recognize that inertia, or the slide, or the compulsion (whatever you want to call it), we can break out of the spiral before we actually arrive at sin. We can stop ourselves. Then, like a parent swoops in to lift a frightened child off the playground slide, our God either separates us from the temptation or coaches us through it to a successful dismount.

Consider verses like these…

That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand… -Ephesians 1:19

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. -1 Corinthians 10:13

So there is a way out, even if you can’t see it. Those twists in the slide sometimes obscure the exit.

That powerful pull on the spiral slide of temptation? It can be thwarted. (click to tweet)

Just so you know, I have nothing against slides. I like them, as long as they aren’t metal on a sunny summer day when I’m wearing shorts. I like tall slides and spiral slides and water slides…especially water slides. We once went down the highest water slide in the southern hemisphere just because we could (no pictures, unfortunately!).  I always loved “catching” my children at the bottom of the playground slide when they stretched their arms out to me and I did nothing but slow them down a little. So I hope I haven’t ruined your playground or water park experience with this comparison.

Also, my apologies to my college history professor. It wasn’t that she was boring…

So. The spiral slide of temptation…ever had to dust your pants off at the bottom? Want to share what you could have done differently? Want to add your own analogy for temptation? I’d love to hear from you!

The Error in the ‘I’

Jesus and the disciples had just finished their final Passover meal. The next twelve hours would be the most dramatic in all of history. According to John’s gospel, Jesus still has a lot to say before Judas plants that (temporarily) fatal kiss on his cheek. He wants the disciples to be prepared for the coming day (which we, ironically, call Good Friday) but He never tells them straight-up what will happen. I think maybe that’s because they would have overreacted, refused to step aside, gathered more swords. Instead, He repeats how they can’t go with Him into this next thing.

John 13:36-38.

Peter won’t leave it alone. I’m not surprised; he’s the impulsive, brash, head-strong disciple. Probably the oldest, he often serves as spokesperson for the group…and often that open mouth finds his own foot stuck in it. (See Matthew 16:23, for example.) He presses Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” (13:36a) but Jesus sticks with the same statement about how they can’t follow.

Of course, I don’t know what tone of voice either Jesus or Peter had in this exchange, but I wonder if there was a bit of…petulance, let’s say…in Peter’s response. Here’s the line. Try it with different emphases, and you’ll see how it sounds.

Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you. –John 13:37

Maybe he was remembering the Mount of Transfiguration, where only he and two others accompanied Jesus up the mountain (Matthew 17:1-13). Maybe he recalled how only he walked out onto the water to meet Jesus that one night (Matthew 14:22-33). Regardless, Peter has turned the attention toward himself, like the kid who bounces in her seat with hand raised, her whole body begging the teacher to call on her. (I was that kid, by the way, so I’m casting no stones here.)

“Look at me, Lord. I’m special.”

Peter had so much confidence in himself. He was sure he could handle it. Check out the other gospels:

Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you. –Matthew 26:35, Mark 14:31

Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death. –Luke 22:33

Jesus looks at Peter, seeing into his heart. I think he saw love, dedication, passion, and zeal. But he also saw foolishness, misplaced confidence, and ignorance. When Jesus told Peter about those three impending denials (John 13:38), they must have been difficult words for Him to say…and painful for Peter to hear.

Jesus was right. Peter’s denials came before the sun rose. (Want to read more about that?)

How many declarations of undying loyalty have I made to Jesus over the years only to turn in the following days and fail Him even more profoundly than usual…often in the exact area to which I had committed? I can think of a few that are too painful to tell you.

Peter’s declaration suggested that
he was in control, rather than Jesus.

This was Peter’s error: the I. His declaration suggested that he was in control, rather than Jesus. “I will never disown You.” “I will lay down my life for you.” Peter was leaning on his own strength and determination. He spoke from his heart, but as Jeremiah told us (17:9), “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

Was it God’s will that Peter lay down his life. Actually, it was, but not this night. This night was for Jesus’ sacrifice. Peter needed to stay strong and faithful, but he didn’t need to follow Jesus all the way to death just yet.

Dare I suggest a different statement for Peter? I will, but only because I’m sure he, too, looked back on this night and considered what he should have said differently. Peter needed to keep Jesus as the subject. Perhaps he could have said, “What is your will for us tonight, Lord?” or “You just tell us what to do, Jesus.”

We’re called to keep
our focus on God.

Because we’re naturally selfish, it’s incredibly easy for us to blink ourselves into the spotlight. Such thinking puts us in the subject line. Regardless of circumstances, however, we’re called to keep our focus on God. You’ll find this principle throughout the Bible: Habakkuk 3:16-18, Psalm 59:16-17, Psalm 121:1-2, Philippians 4:12-13. You can probably add a few more examples.

Peter finally learned his lesson. Check out what he said later in life:

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. –1 Peter 1:13

Strength comes when we shift the focus from I to Thy, as in “Thy will be done.” (click to tweet)

Missional Women

Treading Water or Treading On Water

Oh, the difference a preposition makes.

I learned to tread water in swim lessons when I was a little girl (pool water cold so early in the morning, parents watching from outside the chain-link fence). They said it was easy, but I never thought so. Treading water means constantly kicking your feet and constantly sweeping your arms back and forth in order to keep your head above the water. Floating, on the other hand…floating was the way to go. But you don’t get anywhere floating, at least not anywhere you want to go. Treading water isn’t very mobile either, but at least you can see what’s around you.

Of course I’ve never walked on water. Apart from the fact that it takes a miracle, seems like it would be easy: no rocks on which to stub your toe, no holes in which to turn your ankle. Yes, treading on water would be way easier than treading water. That’s the difference a preposition makes.

Peter found that out the hard way.

Matthew 14:25-33. It was windy, and the rolling waves made the boat rock roughly back and forth. No big deal for Peter, though. He was a fisherman, and he’d surely seen worse than this. The waves and wind weren’t what frightened Peter and the other disciples. It was the “ghost” coming toward them on top of the water. Still too far away to recognize, Jesus knew their fear, and his voice carried across the wind (or maybe it was a miracle), “Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).

Walking on water was
Peter’s idea, not Jesus’.

Rather than “Rock” (for which Petros is the Greek), Jesus should have named Simon Peter whatever the Greek word is for “Impulsive!” Peter decided to go meet Jesus out there on the water. He was not afraid to jump out of the boat and into the water (see also John 21:7). But walking on water was Peter’s idea, not Jesus’.

Treading on Water

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be like Jesus. I wish I were as kind and patient as Jesus. I wish I had the authority with which He spoke to crowds. I wish I could do a miracle or two, just to get people’s attention. All these, however, are external aspects of Jesus’ identity, and I think this is where Peter found his motivation. Peter wanted so much to be close to Jesus, to be like Jesus, that he longed to do what Jesus did. In this case, to tread on water. These external things, however, are not the essence of Jesus’ character. The central characteristic of Jesus was (and still is) is His relationship with the Father. That relationship constitutes the source of everything tangible that Peter tried to emulate. Jesus’ actions were just the by-product of His essence.

Actions are the
by-product of essence.

Copying the actions without the essence is like putting on a mask. It doesn’t change who you are. Yes, “emulation is the highest form of flattery,” but Jesus wasn’t looking for flatterers. He wanted followers.  He wanted people who knew Him intimately and obeyed Him unceasingly.

So why didn’t Jesus tell Peter “No”? Instead, Jesus tells him, “Come” (14:29). Knowing he would falter, why did Jesus let him do it? I don’t really know, but perhaps…

  • Peter needed to learn the limits of his budding faith (14:31).
  • The other disciples needed a passive (i.e. safe) push to their own faith (14:33).
  • Jesus knew how important this story would be down through the centuries, and so He permitted Peter’s embarrassment for our benefit. (How many sermons, lessons, even songs have you heard from this passage? I loose count. Thanks, Peter!)

Treading Water

When Peter “came to his senses,” we might say, fear set in. He was like me, during that same set of swimming lessons, when I strolled onto the high dive like it wasn’t a big deal only to freeze in terror there at the end, with the diving board bouncing and the chill bumps spreading over my body. Maybe his legs locked up, or maybe Peter kept striding forward, thinking, “I can do this. I can do this.” Even as the water covered his ankles, his calves, his knees….

You see, because Peter’s desire was his own, not Jesus’, Peter operated in the strength of his own faith. That was no shabby faith. Doubtless, he walked further than most of us would walk today. But when Peter reached the limits of his faith, when he began to compare his strength to that of the waves and wind, he sank. Then he just hung there, treading water where he had been treading on water.

Faith and Power

Our faith is not the fuel for
obedience. His power is.

As Christ-followers, we cannot live according to what we think is a good idea or what we think Jesus wants. We cannot depend on our faith to fulfill His will. Don’t misunderstand me here. We need faith, and our faith increases as we grow in Him, but our faith is not the fuel for obedience. It’s His power that gives us everything we need for a godly life (2 Peter 1:3). It’s His power, which raised Jesus from the dead, that works in us (Ephesians 1:19). It’s His power that makes us witnesses (Acts 1:8). It’s His power that will finish what He has started in us (Philippians 1:6).

We can’t dig into Peter’s mind that windy evening when he so rashly jumped out of the boat. It’s safe to say, however, that “his mouth was writing checks his faith couldn’t cash.” It’s quite possible that he was operating in his own strength, depending on his own faith. (Compare Acts 3:12.) Be careful not to put too much faith in your faith. It’s limited and its power is derivative.

Do you know whose faith is limitless and whose power is unmatched? Jesus’.

 

Who’s Humble Now?

Rethinking Peter’s Foot-Washing:  Sometimes I think John took special delight in recording Peter’s unique interactions with Jesus.  He gives us so many singular moments that the Holy Spirit now uses to teach us.  It certainly happens here in John 13:1-10.  Let’s take a look . . . 

I’ve heard people point to Peter in the upper room as an example of humility, and on the surface it appears that way.  As Jesus makes his way around the room, Peter tucks his feet up under his robe and denies Jesus:  “No.   I don’t want you to wash my feet.  This is wrong!  I should be washing your feet.”  But who is Peter (and who are we) to tell Jesus what He should and shouldn’t do?  It may seem humble, but in reality, Peter is trying to boss Jesus around!

Back up a few verses so we can get the full picture.  In John 13:3-4, we read, Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  Then he started kneeling in front of each disciple and washing each foot.  Do you see what I see here?  Jesus knew Who He was, so He could act freely, with nothing to prove and without losing anything.  Jesus grasped and practiced true humility.  That’s why He could stoop down and serve (like here), but He could also stand up and roar (like when He cleared the temple in Luke 19:45-46).

I suppose the disciples were accustomed to Jesus’ strange behavior.  But still, what did they think when they saw Jesus get up from the table and start taking off his clothes?  Did any of the others try to stop him?  Did anyone approach him, reach for the bowl and say, “Here Jesus, let me do that.  You shouldn’t have to worry about something so menial”?  Apparently not.

Jesus finally arrives in front of Peter (v. 6).  Surely, Peter wasn’t intentionally contradicting Jesus.  I tend to think that his attitude was more of, “Jesus doesn’t really realize what He’s doing.  We need to protect and correct Him because He walks around with His head in the clouds most of the time.”  It wasn’t Peter’s first time to think something like this.  Once, when Jesus was talking about His death, Peter pulled him away from the crowd, saying, This shall never happen to you!  That’s where Jesus utters the often-miscontextualized line, Get behind me, Satan! (Matthew 16:21-23).

On this occasion, Jesus isn’t quite so harsh.  I imagine that he sits back on his heels, hands dripping, and looks up at Peter’s face.  He sighs.  It’s always something with Simon Peter.  “This is what has to happen,” He says matter-of-factly.  Jesus’ act of servant-hood foreshadows his death.  Humbling Himself in this small way was nothing compared to giving His whole life (Philippians 2:8).  In His profound yet simple way, Jesus said, “Accept this from me, then later, accept my actual sacrifice on your behalf.”  We (meaning believers today, and every day since then) have to understand that on the cross, Jesus did something completely humiliating and torturous . . . something too awful to comprehend . . . and He did it for us.  There’s an aspect of Jesus’ death that honors us, that says, “Here, let me take care of this for you.  I don’t want you to experience it.”  It’s an awkward thing to consider, but He must wash us in His blood (morbid and outdated terminology, I know).  While we can wash our own feet, we can’t wash the sinfulness out of ourselves.  He willingly went to the cross, scorning its shame (Hebrews 12:2).  There’s a clear correlation between what He does here in the upper room and what He will do the next day on Golgotha.

On to verse 9.  What does Peter want—a sponge bath?  Peter thinks he’s saying something good:  “I want to go ‘all in’!  Wash all of me; let me be completely with you!”  But Jesus tells him that he doesn’t need all that.  He needs to accept Jesus’ actions as sufficient and correct (perfect)—no more, no less.  You see, Peter thought He knew what He needed better than Jesus knew it, so he can’t just accept what happens; he can’t just watch and learn.

A few minutes later (v. 16), I think Jesus was looking at Peter when He said, “No servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.”  Peter was the servant.  Jesus was the master.  Peter was the messenger.  Jesus was the sender.  Thus, Jesus acted with the confidence that comes from perfect humility.

For us, the lesson is two-fold.  So many of us will willingly accept the humble or humiliating, but we struggle with accepting the good things He wants to give us.  Is anonymity your calling or does He want to raise you to a position of influence?  Is that dead-end job where He wants you to stay or is He moving you up on the depth chart?

Or perhaps the Father has called you to something that seems way “out of your league”—the kind of thing where you (on your own) are very likely to fail.  Have you been telling the Holy Spirit that you can’t do it, that He has made a mistake, or that He needs to find someone else?

Regardless, there is no humility in telling Jesus what He can or cannot do in your life.  Humility says, “Yes, Lord.”  Period.  (I wrote about that  previously *here* and *here*.)

He wants to put you down?  Let Him.  He wants to exalt you for His glory?  Let Him.  He wants you to risk incredible failure?  Do it.  Reader, it’s His call.

Rethinking Peter’s Denial

All we have in Scripture are the facts: Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny Him three times. Peter did it. Jesus looked at Peter. So . . . usually, when we read this or hear it preached, Peter is portrayed as the bad guy, and we come away a little disappointed in him, maybe even a little offended. How could he possibly deny Jesus like that after spending all that time with Him?!? If I was Peter, I would have been proud to stand with Jesus. Peter was WRONG!! How could he have made such a BAD choice?

As I read John’s account this week, however, I began to think about Peter a bit differently . . . and I confess that I began to identify with him.

Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:15-18, 25-27.

Here’s the story (mostly from John’s point-of-view): Peter and John follow the crowd to Caiaphas’ house. Since John knows the family, he waltzes right in, but Peter has to stay outside. John leaves him out in the dark–literally and figuratively. It’s the middle of the night. It’s cold. Peter can’t see what is happening to Jesus and maybe the news he gets from inside is slanted or unreliable.

When John realizes that Peter is still outside, he drifts over to the servant girl who is guarding the door. After a hushed conversation, she agrees to let Peter come in. As he passes, she asks him, “You’re not one of Jesus’ followers, are you?” Obviously, she expects a negative answer. Maybe she had been instructed not to let in any of Jesus’ followers, but John convinced her otherwise. Maybe she spoke with disdain. After all, Peter was an uneducated fisherman from Galilee–not exactly commiserate with the family of the high priest. She probably smelled him as he passed. Maybe she was just curious. At any rate, she puts Peter ‘on the spot’, so he gives her the answer she expects.

The end justifies the means, right?

It seems like such a harmless thing. John went to some effort to get Peter inside; it would be rude to get himself kicked out just because of a lowly servant girl. He doesn’t want to reject or offend John. Plus, this way, he could actually see what was happening and give Jesus the moral support He must surely need. The end justifies the means, right? Plus, there’s a fire in that courtyard, so Peter is thinking that he will be much more comfortable inside. Nothing but positive conclusions. No big deal. It was said and done before Peter could give it a second thought.

Surely Jesus wants Peter nearby,
even if it means a ‘small’ sin.

Then someone around the fire asks Peter again, and he finds himself in that awkward position where he can either confess that he told a ‘white lie’ the first time, or he can lie again and maintain the status quo: warming himself by the fire, able to see Jesus, and ‘in the know’ regarding everything that’s happening. This is better, isn’t it? Jesus can see him and know that Peter is supporting Him. Surely Jesus wants him nearby, even if it means a ‘small’ sin. Right? Then another servant of the high priest (a relative of the man whose ear Peter cut off, by the way) challenges Peter. The question is a little different this time, but Peter is in too deep. He knows this isn’t a friendly crowd. If he says ‘yes’ this time, they may think he’s planning a jailbreak or a revolt. Deep in enemy territory, surrounded by people who don’t like Jesus, he probably feels trapped. His answer could land him in prison right beside Jesus. That can’t be right. That can’t be Jesus’ plan. (Can’t you just see those thoughts rolling through his head?) What choice does he have but to continue the farce?

A moment later, the rooster crows. Luke says that Jesus looks over at Peter. I know that hollow, sick feeling Peter immediately got deep in his gut—that mental nausea when he suddenly realizes he can’t do a ‘take back’ on this one…that he has wounded Jesus and damaged the Cause. Immediately, he understands that his carelessness, his casual approach to the commandments, isn’t acceptable, even when it seems justified. The other gospels say that Peter immediately went outside and wept bitterly.

I am SO much like this: able to logically justify my actions, able to make exceptions when it ‘seems’ to be for the greater good. In the spiritual world, things are rarely what they seem. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12). That’s all stuff we can’t see, stuff that doesn’t seem important or influential. Oswald Chambers (My Utmost For His Highest, Aug 9) wrote, “Common sense is a gift that God gave to our human nature–but common sense is not the gift of His Son.” Peter used common sense and probably tried to mentally justify his words/actions.  It was very logical for him to get inside, to try and show Jesus how much he cared. I can imagine him thinking, “Jesus is going to be so happy to see me here. Because of this, He will know how much I love Him.” But one simple look from Jesus revealed what Peter actually already knew: Common sense is for the common man. Jesus holds us to a higher standard.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. 
-Isaiah 55:8

Common sense is for the common man. Jesus called Peter-and calls us-to a higher standard…to uncommon sense. (click to tweet)