The Evolution of Temptation

We’re going to talk about temptation today.

Whenever I say that word, a part of me wants to say it like an old-timey southern gospel preacher: Temp-TAY-shun!

I could tell you stories…

I’ve been to southern revivals, after all.

I could go on about the wrath of God and the fires of hell for those who give in to temptation.  But I’m going to that to you.  I sat through enough of those sermons as a teenager to know that they don’t really work.  Those hellfire-and-brimstone sermons didn’t really make me and my friends into better Christians or better human beings.

In fact, they didn’t even help us to resist temptation.  All they did was scare us into thinking that God was an angry judge up in the sky who wants to throw people into hell for eternity.

Scientists have done studies on the effectiveness of those kinds of scare tactics for changing patterns of human behavior.  What they found out is that, while fear and guilt do yield some short-term results, they lack the power to effect long-term change in the way people live.  In order to do that, people need positive, stable communities where they know they will be accepted and encouraged to pursue worthy goals and common values.  Furthermore, they need to have a sense of meaning and purpose in their connection to the larger community.  Give people this and they will be more likely to develop healthy patterns of behavior that enable them to resist temptation.

So, you’re not going to get any fire and brimstone from me this morning.  That’s not what this church is about, anyway.  But we are going to talk about temptation.  We’re going to talk about it in a way that gets us away from the blame and shame game.

In order to do this, I’m going to use two, very common, almost stereotypical examples of the kinds of temptation that plague men and women in this society.

For men, the stereotypical temptation and potential source of shame has to do with sex.  The message we men receive is that we are animalistic Neanderthals who think of nothing but sex all day.  We hear messages like this: “You’re looking at that person?!  How could you?!  Don’t you love me?!  You men are all such filthy pigs!  You couldn’t keep your one-track minds out of the gutter if your lives depended on it!”  Sound familiar, guys?  Ladies, I want to let you in on a little secret this morning: you’re not the only ones saying these things to us.  We say it to ourselves.  We live in a society that trains us to be simultaneously obsessed with and ashamed of our sex drives.  With that kind of split thinking, even the best of us are bound to get confused on occasion.  What’s worse is that this same society has also trained us to think that real men don’t talk about their feelings (especially with each other), so we end up thinking that we have to bear the burden of this confusion alone, lest we admit it and look like wimps to our fellow men and perverts to the women in our lives (who have themselves been trained by society to believe that women aren’t supposed think about sex, which is also not true).  So, you can plainly see: there is a lot of shame and confusion going around about men and sex.

Now, let’s talk about women for a minute.  Think about this: you’re at Applebee’s and a commercial comes on with some bikini model selling Budweiser, and every heterosexual male head in the restaurant is turning toward the TV.  Now imagine this: the person sitting next to you at your table orders that double-sized piece of chocolate cake with the warm fudge topping flowing like lava down the slopes of a sweet, delicious volcano… am I provoking some kind of reaction with this mental image?  How about this one: you come home after a long, bad day at work.  Your significant other is away for the night, so you’re exhausted, on your own, and you happen to know that there is a mostly full container of rocky road ice cream in the freezer… do you see where I’m going with this?  Be honest: are you even going to bother getting a bowl or is that spoon going right into the carton?  I think you see my point: For women, the stereotypical temptation and source of shame has to do with food.

From an outsider’s perspective, this temptation might seem more benign or acceptable than sexual temptation.  After all, when was the last time you heard about a politician being impeached over a bucket of fried chicken?  But then there’s the pressure that society puts on women to conform to a particular body type.  Even if you have the most loving and supportive spouse or parents in the world, they cannot drown out the screaming chorus of voices shaming you because of the way you look.  And you’re told that it’s all because of your desire for food.  What most men don’t understand is that this critical voice, when it comes from inside your own head, gets you saying things to yourself like: “I’m disgusting!  What a pig!  I can’t believe I just ate that.  I’m going to look like beached whale!”  The men who love you would never let another person talk to you that way, but we don’t get that the voice of shame in your head talks to you that way on a daily basis.  And even though indulgence in food is more socially acceptable than indulgence in sex, the struggle between temptation and shame is just as real and just as damaging in its own way.

What I’d like to do today is explore some ways for dealing effectively with temptation that don’t involve launching people into these shame spirals that never lead anywhere positive.  And I’d like to do that by looking at Jesus’ struggle with temptation in Luke 4.

The story opens just after Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River.  During that ritual, Jesus has a vision of a dove landing on him and a voice from heaven telling him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  The truth of who he is as the Son of God has just hit home with him.  He needs to process this new information, so he heads out, away from civilization, to fast and pray in the desert.

While he’s out there, he is tested by the devil, who tempts him to misuse the gift he’s been given.  The devil tempts Jesus to do three things: to turn stones in to bread, to bow down and worship him, and to throw himself from the top of the temple.

Some movies portray this scene in a very dramatic fashion.  The devil is portrayed as a talking snake or a man in a business suit with slicked back hair who wants to make a deal with Jesus.  Personally, I like to imagine Jesus hearing that voice as if it was coming from inside his own head.

It seems that Jesus was wrestling with his own sense of identity and purpose.  In light of what he had just seen and heard at his baptism, Jesus had to work out for himself what it all meant.  Should he use his status as God’s Son to offer quick fixes to the world’s problems, like ending global hunger?  Should he opt for the way of power over the way of suffering?  Should he make a spectacle of himself to gather followers and build a movement powerful enough to challenge the Roman Empire?  In the end, Jesus said no to all of the above.  Those ideas weren’t consistent with who he was and what he was meant to do in life.  He came back from his time in the wilderness with a much deeper level of self-understanding and self-acceptance.

I think this story has some important implications for us as well.  I think it gives us a paradigm for dealing with temptation in ways that don’t buy in to that old shame and blame game.  Like Jesus, we too are on a journey to understand ourselves as beloved children of God.  Those parts of ourselves that we wrestle with are divinely-given parts of who we are.  We don’t need to despise them as dirty in order to keep them from throwing our lives out of balance.

We can even look at those parts of our lives from a more scientifically informed perspective that, if properly understood, can help us understand and accept ourselves better.

Let’s look at the sex-drive again.  We already covered the confusion and shame that surrounds this subject for most men.  We think of ourselves as bad or dirty because we have these impulses we can’t shake.

But let’s think for a minute about the purposes those impulses served for our ancestors.  The first is obvious: making sure that our genes are passed on to future generations.  But that’s not all.  Sex is also a social bonding ritual.  We feel instinctively drawn toward one another in ways that go far beyond mere reproduction.  We form families to pool our skills and resources.  This capacity gave our ancestors the advantage they needed to survive in a world full of predators that were faster and stronger than them.  Without that basic attraction toward each other, our species never would have survived.  Sexual desire was the first impulse that made family and civilization possible.  It’s a good thing.  We need it.  Human society wouldn’t be here without it.  We should seek to understand and honor its presence within us before we pass judgment on it.

Let’s look at our impulse for food as well.

(By the way, I’m borrowing most of what I’m about to say from Michael Dowd’s book Thank God for Evolution, which our Monday night Vespers group is currently studying.)

The three so-called “bad” foods that we tend to crave most often are sugars, fats, and salts.  Whenever we get the urge to indulge our palette, it’s usually an urge for foods in one or more of the above categories.  Have you ever wondered why we so many cravings for those particular flavors?

Well, as it turns out, sugars, fats, and salts were pretty hard to come by in prehistoric times.  Our foraging ancestors had to eat all they could find in order to stay alive in the jungle.  Their craving for these foods gave them an evolutionary advantage over others.  The folks who ate more sugars, fats, and salts were more likely to stay alive and healthy for their next meal.  When we feel those cravings within us, we’re tapping into a part of our biology that has a noble and triumphant heritage.  Our very existence is proof that our ancestors did well in eating all the sugars, fats, and salts they could get their hands on.  We should be grateful for those cravings before we pass judgment on them.

So, those are the evolutionary explanations for our sex drive and food cravings.  They are a part of who we are as human beings.  We wouldn’t even be here without them.  We should honor their presence and function in our lives.  We should call them good because that’s exactly what they are.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s always a good thing to indulge such impulses.  Sugars, fats, and salts were rare for our ancestors in the jungle, but we’re surrounded by them in our current setting.  Likewise, acting on every sexual impulse is more likely to break up a family than build one.  We shouldn’t forget that nature gave us brains as well and expects us to use them for making good decisions.  Accepting yourself and understanding yourself do not necessarily mean indulging yourself.

What self-acceptance and self-understanding do mean is that we can finally give ourselves permission to call a time-out on the blame and shame game.  Just like Jesus did in the desert, you and I are coming to grips with who we really are.  Our desires are part of that.  Temptation is really just one of our natural survival instincts acting out of context and out of proportion.  That, hopefully, is where our higher-level brains can kick in and override the software that would otherwise lead us to unfavorable consequences.

There’s no need to be ashamed.  There’s no need to beat yourself up.  Simply say Thank You to your temptations and honor the place those impulses hold in our species’ evolutionary past.

“God don’t make no junk.”  That includes you and every natural thing about you.  It’s all good.  It’s all sacred.  It’s all blessed.  Remember that the next time you’re facing temptation, and maybe you too will hear that voice from heaven, saying to you, “You are my Son/Daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

One thought on “The Evolution of Temptation

  1. Jenny Boteler

    This is that sermon/blog I mentioned last night where he tlaks about men’s temptation and shame is wrapped around sex; food for women. I like what he does to set it up; not sure he really goes anywhere helpful with it, but at least he puts it out on the table in a new and more accepting way.

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