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Persevering despite the temptations of pleasure or pain

Walter Mischel

Walter Mischel conducted an experiment with four-year-olds in the 1970s. He left a four-year-old alone in a room with a marshmallow and a bell. If the child rings the bell, Walter returns immediately, and the child eats the marshmallow. If the little one can wait for Walter to come back of his own choice, he or she will get an extra sweet.

In videos from the experiment, you can see the kids wriggle, squirm, swing their legs, close their eyes, and sit on their hands. They are desperate to apply restraint. They usually really want to wait to get two sweets. Their actions differed greatly. Some could not hold out and rang the bell within a minute. Others could hold out for up to 15 minutes.

The children’s further development was followed by the researcher. Those who could wait longer scored higher points at school. They gained access to better educational institutions and accomplish more as adults. The children who rang the bell the soonest were prone to a higher percentage of bullying. Ten years later, they were rated poorer by parents and teachers, and by age 32 were more likely to have drug-related problems.

Walter Mischel’s conclusion was that children should learn that it is better to work, prepare and sacrifice for the future, rather than living for immediate satisfaction of needs. The future is more important than one might realize in the heat of the moment.

This is also true of spiritual life as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13.

I would like us to listen to Paul’s take on temptations. And to learn from him how waiting for God’s promise provide the way of escape from temptations. That is the only sure way to persevere in faith.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10: 1-13 about temptations. He wants to help the congregation stand firm. He does this in two ways.

  • He explains to them what temptations are by referring to examples from the past.
  • And he encourages them with the promise of God’s outcome. They have to wait for it – almost as in the example of Walter Mischl’s experiment.

Our fathers squandered their spiritual blessings

Let’s read it with my commentary.

10 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

Paul reminds the congregation of their ancestors. And remember, the believers of the Gentiles in Corinth, share in the privilege that these Jewish ancestors are theirs as well. Because they have become believers and are part of the true people of God.

Paul recounts some of the wonderful experiences the people of God experienced in the old dispensation:

  • They all experienced the wonderful presence of God in the cloud that accompanied them.
  • They all experienced the wonder of the Reed Sea.
  • They were, as it were, baptized by the cloud and the sea to become part of the new people of God.
  • They ate the same spiritual food, manna, and drank the same spiritual drink, a clear connection of baptism and holy communion with the experiences of the ancestors in the desert.
  • In fact, the wonder of the water in the wilderness is connected to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself who was continually with them in the wilderness, probably in the figure of the Angel of the Lord.

But Paul is clear about the problems in persevering they had. They simply did not value the miracles of God, and were tempted to lust after evil things, which led to their death. They squandered their spiritual blessings.

The temptations of pleasure

Some of these temptations had to do with pleasure, things that enticed them to sin.

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.

There are three stories behind these three verses.

Verse 6: “evil desires”

Paul reminds them of the story in the wilderness where the people were punished at Kibrot-Taäwa for their insatiable lust for meat that caused them to revolt against the Lord. The Lord did send them quails, but punishes them for their greed, which was a violation of the tenth commandment (Nm 11:4–35).

Verse 7: “idolatry”

Paul reminds them of the well-known story of the golden calf where the people worshiped the golden calf “as a god”, which was a transgression of the first two commandments. They sat down to eat and drink and then rose up to play, which brought the wrath of God on them. Only Moses’ intervention prevented the entire nation from being wiped out (Ex 32).

Verse 8: “sexual immorality”

Paul reminds them of the story of the Israelite men who had sex with Moabite and Midianite women in Sittim as part of the sacrifices to Baal-Peor and were punished by the Lord because of their transgression of the seventh commandment (Nm 25). By the way, Moab was one of the children of Lot with his daughters. This story would also remind them of the dangers of incest, as Paul touched upon earlier in this letter, 1 Corinthians 5 (Gen 19:37).

One can summarize these temptations as being enticed by the pleasures of life. This is at the heart of these first three temptations. Based on these three stories from the OT.

  • It is the pleasure of evil desires at Kibrot-Taäwa;
  • the pleasure of an own religion with the golden calf (the excitement of a self-conceived, self-made religion, where you create your own God image, independent of God’s revelation);
  • the pleasure of sexual immorality at Sittim (sex as and when you want it).

The temptations of pain

Other temptations had to do with pain, those things that went wrong, in their view, and tempted them to oppose God and his way for them.

We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.

This time there are a further two stories behind these two verses.

Verse 9: “put Christ to the test”

Paul here reminds the Corinthians of their ancestors’ provocation of God. It is the story of the people’s impatience towards the Lord as they passed by mount Hor, and blamed God for all they endured with the Exodus. The Lord’s reaction was to send poisonous snakes to punish them, although there was salvation through the brass serpent that Moses made (Nm 21: 4–9).

Verse 10: “grumble”

Paul reminds them of their ancestors’ resistance to authority, which always is a resistance to God Himself.  Korah, Dathan and Abiram rebelled against Moses and Aaron and their authority as leaders, but they actually oppose the Lord and his choices. The Lord reacted with their extermination by letting the earth swallow them up (Nm 16). Their sons were spared because they actively opposed their fathers’ madness and stood to one side in allegiance to the Lord (Nm 26:11).

These things are the temptations of pain. It can be things that tests your patience with what God provides or tempt you to oppose God’s authority and the guidance He gives. One can summarize such temptations as the pain of life.

Temptations are therefore anything that can pull you away from God, from his will for your life, from his guidance, from his path for you. It tempts you either by the pleasure of the moment or by the pain you have to endure.

All temptations, however, would tempt us to break or question God’s will.

That is why temptations are tests at the same time. After all, the same Greek word, peirasmos, can be translated both as temptation and test. What all temptations try to do is to make you unfaithful to God. All temptations test you whether you will stand fast and remain true to God.

God promises to provide the way of escape

But that is not all.

11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Paul challenges the Corinthians to resist temptation with the promise of God. He reminds them that no temptation has overtaken them that is not common to man. They will be able to resist with the way of escape God provides.

What does God promise?

God promises that He is faithful in temptation. He will provide the way of escape. He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability. With the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

What escape does God provide?

I give you two Biblical examples out of the OT to help you summarize the way of escape. And touch on the way Paul exemplifies both in the NT.

1. God, on the one hand, gives an escape IN the situation so that you can tolerate it.

The OT example I want to give you is Job. He lost his children, possessions, and health. He was tempted by pain, a lot of pain. He was tempted to curse God for all his troubles. But he did not. He stayed devoted to God, although he demanded an answer from Him. An answer Job got in the end, as well as a much better ending than his already illustrious beginning.

His way of escape was to stay in the problem until God resolved it Himself.

And remember, in terms of our recent series, God will always put restrictions on Satan in the Divine Council beyond which he will never be able to go.

No temptation or test is beyond your ability. God takes care of that. He will not allow you to be tempted beyond your ability.

This is how Paul talks about his own calling in his conversation with Timothy, an example in the NT:

“Therefore, I endure all things for the elect’s sake, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim 2:10).

He is writing this letter in prison where he endured tribulation like an evildoer! But he endured the shame, the mockery, the humiliation. He endured the pain with the grace God gave him, so that he could be of use to the believers in Ephesus, as well as to his young prodigy, Timothy.

His way of escape was to stay in the situation so that the gospel might be served to all.

That means, in some situations you are not saved from the temptation or testing. You are not saved out of the situation but given an outcome IN the situation so that you can remain faithful and obedient to God.

2. God, on the other hand, sometimes gives an outcome FROM the situation so that you can tolerate it.

The one OT example you can use to understand this, is Joseph. He was tempted by Potiphar’s wife to sleep with her. Time and time again. His way of escape from this temptation of pleasure in the end was to flee for his life.

That was also the way of escape that God provided. He obviously was also tested by pain, the pain of prison. But, remember that the prison he ended up in was also the gateway to the fulfilment of his calling. The Lord could do great things with Joseph in prison as that was the place from where he not only helped a fellow prisoner with his dreams, but in the end also the pharaoh with his dreams. Pharaoh became Joseph’s gateway out of prison, an escape God provided, to fully realize the calling of God on his life. Joseph eventually became the leader of Egypt and could thwart the famine to sustain not only his family but the whole world.

So, likewise in the NT, Paul talks to Timothy about what happened to him on his first missionary journey. He talks about the:

“Persecution and hardship, as it happened unto me, in Antioch, Iconium, and Listra.” (2 Tim 3: 11a – cf. Acts 13-14).

He summarizes his experiences there and says:

“What persecution did I not endure?” (2 Tim 3:11b)

  • In Antioch in Pisidia, they were persecuted and driven out of the region. He escaped but also had the consolation that he left behind a strong congregation.
  • In Iconium however there was an uproar and the people wanted to assault and stone Paul, and they had to leave. That was their escape. The gospel was served, although they had to leave.
  • There was also a great believing response in Listra, but also a lot of Jews who chased him out of the city and stoned him. But, ironically, that was his escape. He did rise from the dead, so to speak, when some of the believers stood around him outside the city. And he could continue with his work for a further ten years or so.

“But the Lord saved me out of all,” says Paul (2 Tim 3:11c).

He was taken out of these situations so that he could continue with the work of the gospel that had to go throughout the world.

The great distinction in dedication

And with that Paul introduces Timothy into the deeper truths of the gospel.

There is a great distinction between people who are dedicated to God and those who are not. And that distinction is evident in their steadfastness and attachment to the Word of God.

Those who remain faithful to the Word are being persecuted. Those who are unfaithful to the Word of God become the persecutors.

12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3: 12-17)

That is also the goal of all temptations and tribulations:

“that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”.

For that goal to be realized God promises to always provide the escape so that you may be able to endure it.

That you can persevere despite the temptations of pleasure of pain.

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