Friday, April 20, 2012

How to Overcome Temptation and Trials: Why the Sunday School Answers are not Enough

There is a misconception about the so-called Sunday school answers (prayer and scripture study and church attendance) that I wish to dispel:

The acts of prayer and scripture study and even church attendance, while vital components in our personal efforts to become more like Christ, do not of themselves confer upon anyone any kind of talismanic protection, be that from temptation, trial, or depredation.

Case in point:  it is common to hear people who are presented with a grievous spiritual challenge such as same gender attraction, or an addiction of some kind, etc.  who declare that they feel that if only they could pray even harder and be even more diligent in studying their scriptures then they might be able to "fix" themselves.  Their hope is that by being "more righteous than righteous" they can somehow demonstrate to God the sincerity of their desire to be rid of the "thorn in the flesh" which plagues them.  They are inevitably disappointed in this effort, which often leads to disillusionment and frustration on their part, and more often than not this leads them to give up on themselves and/or the church, or even God.

This is extremely unfortunate, and is made all the more unfortunate by the fact that they are laboring under a misconception from the beginning.  They apparently think that by invoking the total of their accumulated righteousness they can induce God to remove the particular trial or temptation which so plagues them.  This falsehood is promulgated every time someone gives "prayer, scripture study, go to church" as perfunctory answers to every question asked in Sunday school.  Whenever a dilemma is presented in Sunday School (be it spiritual or temporal), no matter how trying it may be, these three principles are inevitably presented by someone as the universal remedy and then simply left at that.  The problem with this isn't so much that the Sunday school answers aren't the right answers so much as they are not sufficient answers unless they are examined more closely. 

Now then, lest I be misunderstood, let me make it absolutely clear that constant prayer, consistent scripture study, and regularly and worthily attending church and partaking of the sacrament are essential to our spiritual well-being.  These three principles are so important that I have taken to referring to them as "The Three Pillars of Personal Testimony" and on occasion "The Three Pillars of Spiritual Worthiness".  A person who makes these things a basic habit in his life, even to the point that they become an aspect of his personality, will be enabled to reach a level of personal and spiritual development at which he is better able to recognize, avoid, or overcome temptations and trials.  And that is what these so-called "Sunday School answers" are actually for:  they are nothing more than righteous practices that, if adopted into our lives, will help us to change our habits, and eventually our thoughts.  As we begin to change ourselves, these practices will become habits, and if we are diligent in this they will become second nature.  As this happens we will have three more tools to help us to overcome the temptations and afflictions that we must face in mortality, because if we are using them correctly, they can help us to REPLACE our bad habits, and our evil thoughts, with better habits and better thoughts.

"If thou dost not overcome little and easy things, how wilt thou overcome harder things?  Resist thy inclination in the very beginning, and unlearn an evil habit, lest perhaps by little and little it draw thee into greater difficulty."  (Thomas of Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 18)

Yes, there are special blessings attached to each of these three pillars, but they have to do more with practical use than they do with some supposed mystical protection that the mere observance of them (no matter how fanatical) might grant.  These pillars are of more value if they are adopted early on, before we are deep in the throes of temptation.  By then it is too late to expect them to be effective.  It is true that many of those who declare that they tried to read the scriptures and to pray extra hard to no avail, declare this after they have given up and given in to temptation.  It is my suspicion that they started too late-these pillars are basic structural elements of our spiritual building.  It is too late to add columns to your building when you are in the middle of an earthquake.

"...We must be watchful, especially in the beginning of temptation; for the enemy is then more easily overcome, if he be not suffered in any wise to enter the door of our hearts, but be resisted without the gate at his first knock.  Wherefore one said, 'beginnings check, too late is physic sought'.  For first there cometh to the mind the bare thought of evil, then a strong imagination thereof, afterwards delight, and an evil motion, and then consent.  And so by little and little our wicked enemy getteth complete entrance, whilst he is not so resisted in the beginning.  And the longer a man is slow to resist, so much the weaker doth he become daily in himself, and the enemy stronger against him."  (Thomas of Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 21)

We must therefore build up a resistance from the beginning, and then maintain it constantly.  These three pillars are designed to be preventative medicine, not a last minute cure.  With this in mind, let's examine each of the three pillars in turn.

1)  Scripture Study:  Paul, in his instructions to Timothy (who was a new bishop in Ephesus), reminds him of the evil and corruption which sweeps the world both in his day as well as ours, and in the face of this onslaught, counsels him to turn to the scriptures, and then he tells him why:

2 Timothy 3: 14-17  But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

Scripture study in and of itself cannot, and was never designed to, give you salvation.  However, according to Paul, the scriptures "are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith".  In other words, the scriptures only have power to save you if you are wise and faithful enough to follow the counsel that is given in them, which basically amounts to "FOLLOW CHRIST!"

John 5:39-40, 38  Search the scriptures; for in them ye THINK ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.  And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.  And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not.

The scriptures can help you to recognize and repair those mistakes and personality defects that are holding you back in your life, as well as help you to recognize and improve and accentuate those positive aspects of your life and personality that will help move you in the direction of salvation, but only insofar as your study of the scripture leads you to Christ.  Even the scriptures cannot grant you eternal life, or even protection from temptation, unless they lead you to have "his word abiding in you", or as it is expressed in another place, to write his words in your heart.  (See also Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 8:10, Ezekiel 36:25-27, and Isaiah 51:7.)

"Write My words in your heart and meditate on them earnestly, for in time of temptation they will be very necessary."  (Thomas of Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 87)

That is what Paul meant when he said that inspired scripture is profitable "for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness".  If we approach the scriptures in a spirit of humility and righteousness, if we allow the Lord through the spirit to write His word in our minds and in our hearts, then the scriptures can "thoroughly furnish us" with everything we need to overcome temptation and to follow Christ to salvation.  It is important to point out that you are never too wicked to benefit from studying the scriptures (or praying, or attending church), as long as you approach the scriptures in that spirit of humble repentance.  My point in all of this is that any benefit to be derived from the scriptures depends a great deal upon your diligent application of your own agency in opening your heart to the Lord (as facilitated by the Holy Ghost-more on him later).

2)  Regular Church attendance:  I have dealt extensively with this subject elsewhere (and also here), but suffice it to say that Church attendance on its own cannot bestow any righteousness or mystical power upon us.

Nevertheless Church attendance is vital for our spiritual well-being because without it we would be unable to partake of the sacrament.

John 6:54, 56  Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.  He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.

D&C 20:77  O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them.  Amen.

If we regularly and worthily partake of the sacrament we receive the Lord's promise that we can have His Spirit to be with us.  It is through the power of this Spirit, which comes to us from the Father in the name of and by the gift and sacrifice of Christ, that we can be enabled to overcome those trials, temptations, and sicknesses that afflict us.  Note that I said "enabled".  I chose this word to highlight the fact that while each of these "three pillars" have no intrinsic mystical power in and of themselves they are each designed to be unique tools to empower and enable us to better exercise our own agency by assisting us to develop a closer relationship with the Holy Spirit and ultimately with Christ.

2 Nephi 32:5  For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.

John 14:26  But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

The Holy Ghost can help us to be more successful disciples of Christ by aiding us in recognizing good and evil by teaching us the truth and reminding us of those things which we have learned.  With his help we have the power to make better choices in our lives.  This process can only be improved by constant prayer, consistent scripture study, and regularly and worthily partaking of the sacrament.  The Holy Ghost will not do our thinking for us though, and he will not make our choices for us, and he won't do our work for us.  We are better off with the Spirit than without, but if we do not humbly exercise faith unto repentance and righteousness (taking the sacrament is the symbol of our commitment to do this in remembrance of Christ) then the Spirit will leave, and we will once again be left to our own devices, which will always be unequal to the task.

"For when the grace of God cometh unto a man, then he is made able for all things.  And when it goeth away, then shall he be poor and weak, and, as it were,  left only for the scourge."  (Thomas of Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 67)

D&C 130:23  A man may receive the Holy Ghost, and it may descend upon him and not tarry with him.

2 Nephi 26:11  For the Spirit of the Lord will not always strive with man.  And when the Spirit ceaseth to strive with man then cometh speedy destruction, and this grieveth my soul.

3)  Prayer:  2 Nephi 32:9  But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul.

"This it is which most of all hindereth heavenly consolation, that thou art too slow in turning thyself unto prayer"  (Thomas of Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 140)

"As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are his children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part (Matt. 7:7–11).  Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship.  Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other.  The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them.  Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them"  (Bible Dictionary, Prayer, 752)

There is great power in prayer, but the power is not in the act itself but rather in the act of submitting our own will to that of the Father.  As I am often heard to say, God is not a wishing well.  He is under no obligation to solve all of our problems for us based solely on the fact that we wish it, or even that we asked for it.  That isn't to say that he won't intervene on our behalf, but the divine aid and protection that we often pray for, more often than not, comes to us in a form that encourages us to comprehend what is actually God's will for us, and what it is that God wishes us to learn.

A wonderful example of this principle is the Apostle Paul himself, who had his own share of trials and temptations to deal with:

2 Corinthians 13:7-9  And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.  For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.  And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.  Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

This is the perfect illustration because Paul prayed fervently to the Lord multiple times that his "thorn in the flesh" might depart from him, but instead of granting Paul's sincere wish and desire and removing his burden from him, the Lord reminds him that he has already given him an altogether greater and more difficult gift:  His grace.  The Lord gave to Paul, who (like us) was too weak and infirm to bear up under the burden or trial and temptation, His grace and His strength.  Once Paul recognizes his own weakness and infirmity before God, then and only then can the power of Christ rest upon him.  The gift of God's grace is simultaneously greater and more difficult because while the Lord in his grace has given us the power to overcome our temptations, trials, and afflictions, he leaves us with the responsibility to exercise our own agency in choosing to overcome those obstacles.  While His is the only power that can truly enable us to overcome the trials and temptations and suffering incidental to this life, it also requires us, of our own accord,  to sacrifice our sins and our pride and our inflated sense of our own strength and of our own accomplishments, as well as our own inadequate attempts to overcome them.

Ether 12:27  And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.  I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

Why does the Lord want us to be humble?  Why must we have to suffer weakness, temptation and trial in order to learn humility?

Job 5:17-21, 24, 27  Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty:  For he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole.  He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee.  In famine he shall redeem thee from death: and in war from the power of the sword.  Thou shalt be hid from the scourge of the tongue: neither shalt thou be afraid of destruction when it cometh.  And thou shalt know that thy tabernacle shall be in peace; and thou shalt visit thy habitation, and shalt not sin.  Lo this, we have searched it, so it is; hear it, and know thou it for thy good.

"When a man of goodwill is afflicted, tempted, or troubled with evil thoughts; then he understandeth better the great need he hath of God, without whom he perceiveth he can do nothing that is good....It is good that we sometimes endure contradictions....These things help often to humility and defend us from vain glory: for then we the more seek God for our inward witness, when outwardly we are condemned by men, and when no good is believed of us....We ought not therefore to despair when we are tempted but so much the more fervently to implore God, that He will vouchsafe to help us in every tribulation; who surely, according to the word of S. Paul, will give with the temptation such issue, that we may be able to bear it."  (Thomas of Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 19, 21-22)

1 Corinthians 10:13  There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

"Humble we therefore our souls under the hand of God in all temptation and tribulation, for He will save and exalt the humble in spirit.  Some are guarded from great temptations, and in little daily ones are often overcome; to the end that being humbled, they may never presume on themselves in great matters, who are made weak in so small things."  (Thomas of Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 22)

James 4:6-8,10  But he giveth more grace.  Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.  Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.  Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.  Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.

1 Peter 5:6-10  Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.  Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.  But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.

This brings me to the central problem of those who labor under the mistaken impression that by performing these tasks, by virtue of their performance alone, they of themselves can somehow work out their own salvation.  They are attempting to overcome their problems (be it temptations like addiction, same-gender attraction, or trials like life threatening disease, or even mental illness) on their own and by their own strength, even though they may think that they are attempting a spiritual solution.  This is a result of pride, and worse it is pride that is easily mistaken for piety.  Trying to bear under these burdens by our own power instead of humbly submitting to the will and commandments of the Lord will only lead to failure and frustration and disillusionment.  We have to stop trying to work by ourselves, for ourselves, because it doesn't work.  Fortunately, the Savior has provided "a more excellent way" of faith.

Matthew 11:29-30  Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

I wish to make it clear that I am not accusing anyone of not being faithful "enough", humble "enough", or righteous "enough".  Only God knows men's hearts, and only God can decide what is "enough".  But I declare that the only power that will ever truly be "enough" is the power of Christ's atonement.  No effort on our own part, no matter how noble, sincere, and righteous our intentions, can ever be "enough".  That isn't to say that effort is not required, but rather that the Lord requires that we work with Him instead of for ourselves.

2 Nephi 25:23  For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do

Ephesians 2:8-10  For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

As I quoted earlier in Matthew, the Lord didn't say "kick off your shoes and relax, all ye that labour and are heavy laden".  He said to "take MY yoke upon you".  He said, "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me."  He called upon each of us to lose ourselves in His service:  "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it."  (See Mark 8:34-36.)  In other words we have to stop getting in the way.  We need to overcome ourselves as much as we need to overcome our trials and temptations.  We have to set down our pride, and lay aside our sins, and then take up our cross and work for Him, and so allow Christ to save us through His grace.

"When a man beginneth to grow lukewarm, then he is afraid of a small labour, and willingly receiveth outward comfort.  But when he once beginneth to overcome himself perfectly, and to walk manfully in the way of God; then he esteemeth less those things, which before he felt grievous unto him."  (Thomas of Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 59)

"For they shall have great grace, who shall have willingly subjected themselves to Thy most holy service.  They shall find the sweetest consolation of the Holy Ghost, who for Thy love have renounced all carnal delight.  They shall attain great freedom of mind, who for Thy Name's sake enter into the narrow way, and have left off all worldly care.  O sweet and delightful service of God, by which a man is made truly free and holy!"  (Thomas of Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 104)

It is tempting to attribute talismanic power to the bare external ritual of reading scripture, praying, and attending church (or frankly in the observing of any external commandment).  Unfortunately this leads to a dangerous sense of entitlement on our part.  We begin to feel betrayed when, in the face of our accumulated "righteousness" or "good deeds", we continue to face trials, temptations, and afflictions, even the same ones we faced before.  This is why it is so easy for such a person to become disillusioned, and even angry at the Lord because they cannot understand how their "righteousness" seems to have no appreciable effect on their situation.  "Why am I still addicted?"  "Why have you not taken away my same-gender attraction?"  "Why haven't you cured my cancer?"  I have done everything that I am supposed to do-haven't I?!"  In our pride we begin to suppose that God has abandoned us, or even that there is no God.

There is power that can come as we live the gospel, but the power comes from Christ.   We cannot expect to gain the power to overcome all things through our own efforts. We can only obtain that power from and through the Lord.  It is only through faith in Him that we can receive His grace and his strength which will allow and enable us to overcome all things through him by taking our efforts (which are still required) and consecrating them, in effect exalting them and making them sacred by adding His power to our efforts. This principle is just as true in the small, day-to-day struggles and afflictions that we must face as it is in the eternities.  When we are faced with temptations, trials, and afflictions, it may be tempting to think: "If I can just read my scriptures and pray more, this problem will go away".  This is a tempting idea because it appeals to our ego and gives us the illusion that we control everything, but at it's heart is Satan telling us that we don't need God.  But we do need God, in fact we can't make it without him.  We just have to humble ourselves enough to let him into our lives.

Revelation 3:20-21  Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.  To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.

D&C 50:34-35  He that receiveth of God, let him account it of God; and let him rejoice that he is accounted of God worthy to receive.  And by giving heed and doing these things which ye have received, and which ye shall hereafter receive—and the kingdom is given you of the Father, and power to overcome all things which are not ordained of him—

D&C 75:16  And he who is faithful shall overcome all things, and shall be lifted up at the last day.

Through Christ we can overcome trials and temptations and afflictions, but that does not always mean that they will be taken away.  Everyone has a different burden to bear.

"Some suffer heavier temptations in the beginning of their religious life, others in the end.  Others again are much troubled almost through the whole time of their life.  Some are very lightly tempted, according to the wisdom and equity of the Divine appointment, which weigheth the states and deserts of men, and ordaineth all things for the welfare of His own chosen ones."  (Thomas of Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 22)

An addict may suffer the same temptations throughout his life.  A person who suffers from same-gender attraction may never be rid of those feelings in mortality.  We can take comfort however in Paul’s reminder to the Corinthians that "there hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man".  Nobody is excepted from this affliction.

"There was never a Saint so high caught up and illuminated, who first or last was not tempted.  For he is not worthy of the high contemplation of God, who hath not been exercised with some tribulation for God's sake....If great Saints were so dealt with, we that are weak and poor ought not to despair..."  (Thomas of Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 70, 69)

Even Christ Himself suffered temptations.

Hebrews 4:14-17  Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.  For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.

Paul's prayers to be rid of the thorn in his flesh, the buffeting of Satan, were not granted directly.  What Paul received, and what each of us can obtain through the gospel and the atonement of Jesus Christ is His grace.  His strength.  His power.  His mercy.  His comfort.

"Whereupon then can I hope, or wherein ought I to trust, save in the great mercy of God alone, and in the hope alone of heavenly grace?...For unto those that are proved by temptations, heavenly comfort is promised.  He that shall overcome, saith He, I will give him to eat of the Tree of life.  But divine consolation is given, that a man may be bolder to bear adversities." (Thomas of Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 69-70)

Through Christ an addict can overcome his addiction, and the temptations that accompany it.  Through Christ he can be more powerful than the temptation, even if it never leaves him.  The same holds true for those with mental illness, chronic disease, or same-gender attraction.  These things may never leave you in this life, but through Christ you can have the power to transcend your circumstances and become, like him, exalted and perfect.

Philippians 4:13  I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.

Moroni 10:32-33  Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.  And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.

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