The Gift of Temptation

You can find Psalm 139 here...

I remember this one time I went dancing… I was 19 years old, a student at Boston College, and one night, my friends and I all went out to a club called Lipstick. And once I got out on the dance floor, I never came back. I danced, without a break, from 9 PM until nearly 1 AM. One of my college friends told me she still remembers me dancing all by myself, all blissed out.

Why did I dance? I like the romantic story: the one about youth, and limitless energy, and the joy of being in your body at the peak of its health and vitality. There is another story, though, one about experiencing feelings I wasn’t comfortable with—and on that particular evening, dancing for all I was worth was pretty much my only option for working through those feelings. I was dancing it out.

Then, there was this other time I went dancing—about six weeks ago, at Triennium, our every-three-years Youth Conference at Purdue University. It was at night, on a lawn populated by a lot of glow-sticks and about 5,400 other Presbyterians (though most of them were considerably younger than I). At the end of worship, after we had listened to the Word and broken bread together, the band started playing “Johnny B Goode,” and then moved on to “Twist and Shout,” before playing their their way through decades of terrific dance numbers.

Why did I dance? Who wouldn’t dance at a moment like that? This time, I think I can honestly claim my dancing was about joy, and great music, and maybe a little about hankering for some of that energy that the young have in abundance. But you know, I noticed something. In the aftermath of that evening of dancing, I noticed that I am no longer 19 years old. I’ll dance again—I’m sure of it. But I am more aware than ever of the significance of the years that have unfolded since that long ago night of dancing.

What is the connection between that college student and this middle-aged woman? How are we related? Are we even the same person? Even though the younger me probably never for a moment imagined, for example, what the 2016 me would be doing for my life’s work, or where the 2016 me would be living? Looking back, I can say, of course I’m the same person, even though, from that spot, looking forward, I might not have recognized myself. What is the process through which the unformed substance becomes a life?

In some important ways, this ties in with the theme of our psalm this morning.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

  you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down,

  and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

  O Lord, you know it completely.    ~Psalm 139:1-4

This psalm describes God’s relationship with humans as one of deep, almost unimaginable intimacy. God searches us out. God knows us. God sees us. God is familiar with all our ways—even, our intemperate dancing ways, even, the feelings we may try to outrun and hide from, even the stories we will tell, much later. The psalm tells us, God knows it all.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

  all the days that were formed for me,

  when none of them as yet existed.  ~ Psalm 139:16

This intimacy is deeper than logic can account for. God knows all of it, knew all of it, even before any of us existed. We were written in God’s book of life, even before we were the proverbial twinkle in our parents’ eyes. God’s knowledge of us transcends time.

Historically, Presbyterians have embraced this mystery of God’s knowing us through a doctrine we call “predestination.” Great, great, great Presbyterian Grandpa John Calvin describes it this way:

When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things always were, and perpetually remain, under [God’s] eyes, so that to his knowledge there is nothing future or past, but all things are present.[i]

The psalm tells us that God is familiar with all our ways, and this is all connected with God’s loving creation of us. But do you notice what happens when the psalm starts to really focus on this deep knowledge that God has of us?

Where can I go from your spirit?

  Or where can I flee from your presence?

 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

  if I make my bed in Sheol (that is, ‘go down to the grave’), you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

  and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

  and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

  and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

  the night is as bright as the day,

  for darkness is as light to you.         ~ Psalm 139: 7-12

When the reality of God’s deep knowing of us really, really dawns, we want to run away. We are tempted to hide. And the book from which I’ve been taking my inspiration lately, Gifts from the Dark Wood, has an unexpected twist on temptation. Because, if you thought this sermon was going to be about the Seven Deadly Sins and how they call to us, there’s a surprise in store for you. It’s not about the temptation to do evil. It’s about the temptation to do good. The author, Eric Elnes, explains.

… [C]onsider the last time you were seriously tempted to do something overtly sinister or evil… [O]f course, no one is immune to fantasies of doing great evil, such as throwing your boss out the window after being turned down for a promotion. Yet, if you haven’t actually thrown your boss out a window lately, or done more than entertain brief fantasies of such things, then doing great evil is probably not a significant temptation… (More likely) you have succumbed to the temptation of doing good somewhere along the way. In itself, doing good is not the problem. Doing the wrong good, however, is entirely the problem. By the wrong good, I mean any good work that is not yours to do. It may be someone else’s good to do, but not your own.[ii]

Let’s put it this way: God created us, God knows us, and is acquainted with all our ways. If we believe that, then there’s almost nothing more important for each of us than figuring out what path it is God wants us to travel in this life, which way will help us most authentically to be the person God created us to be. The problem is that many of us settle for something that falls short of that. And we can do that in lots of ways. One example from book was a man who worked at a nonprofit that did wonderful and important work, work that helped people. But he was unhappy all the time, he found his work frustrating and exhausting. And he had always, in his heart of hearts, wanted to be a poet. Finally, after a lot of reflection and many conversations with people he trusted, he stepped away from that good work—work that someone needs to do, just not him—and he stepped into the good work that he needs to do, because it’s what God created him to do. He became a poet.

I’m not saying God doesn’t want us to do good. I am saying that sometimes we are tempted to do things—maybe good things—that we are really not meant to do, someone else’s work. And we need to listen, because God is usually whispering to us, right along, guiding us to the work that we are really called to do. Sometimes it’s hard to notice that whisper. Sometimes it’s easy to notice, like thunder and lightning.

Elnes suggests that we watch, listen, feel around for what he calls our “sweet spots.” This sanctuary has several acoustical sweet spots: places where you don’t have to strain to be heard, but where your natural speaking voice is amplified and carried perfectly and beautifully throughout the entire space. Our personal sweet spots are a little like that. They are the things we do or experience that make us feel most authentically like ourselves. They are the moments when we feel like we’re “in the flow,” and our creativity or ability to solve problems just pours out of us. They are the things that make us feel most alive, most joyful, as if someone were whispering in our ear, “This. This is what you were made for.” In the film “Chariots of Fire” the runner Eric Liddell—who sees his ultimate calling as being a missionary—nevertheless also feels that running is a true calling, because it is connected with how God made him. He tells his skeptical sister, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

In the film, Liddell also displays something else that is a sure sign of being in a sweet spot of his calling: He is utterly committed to it, without hesitation. Elnes writes,

Finding your distinctive path in life involves more than applying reason, logic, and strategy. It requires instinct and imagination. Instinct because the surest sign that you’re on your path is not reason alone, but wholeheartedness. Imagination because your true place in this world tends to be found just beyond the edges of your immediate awareness. It’s a bit like walking in the dark. In a very real sense, you do not find your path. Your path finds you. More precisely, the path that fits you best is revealed to you.[iii]

I think this is what the psalmist is talking about.

Where can I go from your spirit?

  Or where can I flee from your presence?

The temptation to run from what God has in mind for us can be strong. We find we are having feelings we may try to outrun and hide from The temptation to settle for what’s “good” can overwhelm the “right good” for us. We can respond to the first glimmers of it with a hearty, “I can’t do that.” Or “What would my parents say?” (Side Bar: As many of you know, I’ve written an essay about what my mother said, which was, “Couldn’t you wait until I’m dead?”) So, yes, absolutely, the people we love the most have opinions—often, strong opinions—about what we should do for our life’s work. Sometimes, it just so happens, they know and love us so well, their opinions line up nicely with God’s. And sometimes, our inner journey unfolds over time in a way that surprises us all.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

We have nothing to fear from God’s deep and intimate knowing of us, because it is matched by Gods even deeper love for us. One of the historic documents of our faith tells us that humanity’s chief purpose is to glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.[iv] God has hard-wired us to respond with joy to the things most essential to our being. And through that joy, God leads us on the not-always-brightly lit path, through the all days that are written for us. God leads us in the way that is everlasting.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960) W. L. Jenkins, ed., III, xxi, 5, 926.

[ii] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers) (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 104.

[iii] Ibid., 106.

[iv] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1.