If you abandoned a young tadpole, a young snake and a human infant at the edge of a pond, the tadpole would enter the water immediately and swim away, the snake would find a hole in which to curl up – and the human infant would die. The human baby’s potential far outstrips the tadpole’s and the snake’s, but because the spectrum of its maturity is greater, its period of immaturity and dependence is greater, too. This principle is ingrained within nature: the greater the potential of a creature, the longer its period of development. Maturity cannot be rushed. It takes far longer to gestate a whale than a fruit fly. Theologically, this principle finds expression in the fact that our soul and our character, that most complex of realities, requires an entire lifetime to be fully formed – perhaps even longer. Human character cannot be rushed into completeness. This is true for every human creature. It was even true even for our Lord Jesus, who certainly came into the world a perfectly attuned spiritual creature, and yet he, too, needed time to develop his character fully so the Presence of his heavenly Father could shine through him perfectly. If that is true of our Lord, how much truer it must be for us!
Our Lord was actually tested even before he was officially tempted. He had been baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan. The Holy Spirit alighted on him, coming down from heaven like a dove. The very voice of this heavenly Father intoned, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” What a baptismal moment! What a royal send-off! What an ordination! And yet, notice what our Lord does not do: he does not rush from the baptismal waters and straightway enter the fray of ministry. He sensed that he might be ripe for celebrity, but he is not yet ready for divinity. So he yielded to the invitation of the Spirit to be drawn into the wilderness and accepted a solitary refuge, practicing the discipline of passivity before God, practicing receptivity to the Spirit of his heavenly Father, engaging in a period of reflection and spiritual rumination. In accepting this isolated discipline our Lord’s character was tested.
There is something vitally important to recognize about our Lord’s encounter with the Tempter. True, the temptations are offered him by the Tempter, but these temptations must also come from inside the heart of our Lord. Temptations must be a temptation in order to be a temptation. If the voice of God came to me tonight and said, “Dr. Kremer, I don’t want you spending any more money in fabric stores,” I could easily say, “Lord, thy will be done.” If I heard God command, “Don’t spend any more money buying beets or Brussel sprouts,” I could easily answer, “Lord, thy servant is more than willing.” A temptation has to be a temptation to be a temptation! If these urges didn’t swell up from within the breast of our Lord, then this scene would be a sham. The Tempter tempts Jesus with dark inclinations that have swelled up from within his own soul. If that were not true, there would be no true theological tension to this encounter.
The Tempter comes unto Jesus and says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” On the surface, there seems nothing unreasonable with this request. After all, our Lord has engaged in a long fast; he is hungry. There is nothing wrong with eating bread. But Jesus’ spiritual antennae are activated by that subtle little word, “If.” “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” That little word “if” has been a wicked little crowbar to open the door to so much destruction. ‘If you are my friend, you will help me do something you know is wrong.’ ‘If you are a loyal employee, you will turn a blind eye to our company’s illegality.’ ‘If you really love me, you won’t try to prevent me from engaging in the destructive behavior that I desire.’ If is that little word that probes our insecurities and plays upon our desire to please and to “go along.” “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” Jesus knows that this request comes from one who is inherently evil. This command does not come from his heavenly Father. So he refuses to use his power for his own aggrandizement. Whatever gifts he has been given, he will use them for his Father’s glory, not for his own. So, too, as we are trying to shape our character positively, we need to remember that what gifts we have been given have been given to us that we might glorify God and not ourselves.
Rarely does one calamitous mistake lead to the warping of a character. A character is usually shaped for ill by a series of calamitous decisions. Conversely, we shape our character positively by a long series of subtle, spiritually attuned choices. Our Lord voices to the Tempter a spiritual principle that expresses the foundational orientation of his life: “I intend to live my life governed by the words that come out of the mouth of my heavenly Father.” So, too, if you and I resolve to live our lives governed by the words that come out of the mouth of God, that foundational orientation will spawn an entire series of positive decisions that will help us shape our character for the best.
I use that phrase, “shape our character” intentionally. The very word “character” comes from a Greek verb meaning “to engrave.” In fact, the Latin word “character,” meant an engraving tool. Years ago, teachers even used the word “character” as a synonym for a letter of the alphabet. To shape a character is to engrave it; is to give it a definite form. Every decision leaves a stamp upon our character and “engraves” who we are. The relevance of this point becomes clear when we ponder the question, ‘What is the core of our Lord’s spiritual greatness?’ Is it his miracle-working power, his piercing intelligence, his incisive grasp of human behavior, his electric charisma? No. All of these estimable talents could have been used for ill just as easily as for good. What shapes his character is his foundational decision to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The Tempter tries to get Jesus to alter his basic orientation around God’s will by suggesting, “Throw yourself off of the pinnacle of the Temple. Your heavenly Father will have to come and rescue you.” The Tempter is saying in essence, ‘Give people the kind of God they want, a God of miracle, a God who insulates them from pain and heartache. People don’t want a crucified Christ. They don’t want a creatively suffering God. Give them a God who will preserve them from vulnerability and they will gladly worship you.’
Jesus says, “No. I am not going to do something foolish to test my heavenly Father.” There are no small number of Christians today who need to hear that advice. Don’t do something foolish to test the goodness and will of your heavenly Father! Jesus stamps his character by his willingness to be shaped by God’s will. The Tempter was asking Jesus to act in such a manner as to define his Father in his own way. Jesus opts instead to let his Father define his Son in his way. Here is another lesson we can learn. Often we want God to conform to our expectations, as opposed to resolving that we will conform to God’s expectations.
The Tempter sets Jesus atop a high mountain and lets him view a parade of the world’s earthly kingdoms. “All of this glory I can give you, if you will but fall and worship me,” says the Tempter. But Jesus, having perceived the ephemeral grandeur of all earthly endeavors, responds, “No.” Sometimes the most decisive word we can say in shaping our character for good is that little word, “No.” Sometimes we can save ourselves a truckload of trouble at the outset of temptation by simply saying, “No. No, I won’t do that.” Yet, as important as saying “No,” is, it is not enough. “No,” Jesus says to the Tempter, “I won’t fall down and worship you.” But he also says, “Yes, I know that the Lord is God and Him only shall I serve.” It is not enough for us to say No to bad decisions. We must fill the vacuum of our lives with something, and we must fill it by saying, “Yes, Lord, you are the true God, and I will spend my life serving you.” Such a positive assertion stamps and engraves our character for good!
Think about all of the images that bombard us during this season. These images pattern for us a certain view of how we are supposed to live, trying to define how we should view success, joy, fun, and achievement. How many of those images offer us false idols to which we are called to give our ultimate allegiance? How many people who have been blessed with amazing talents, who have extraordinary spiritual potential, have become beguiled by images that purport to be worthy of our attention and energy, but actually represent disfiguring gods? Jesus sets forth a bedrock spiritual principle for shaping our character positively: recognize that only the Lord is God, only the Lord’s Kingdom is eternal, and only this God is worthy of our ultimate allegiance and service. Only orienting our lives around the true God will bring about the shaping of our character in such a way that it shines forth with the reality of the divine.
Anytime I preach on the subject of character, the image from a great movie comes to mind. It is a movie from about twenty years ago, Scent of a Woman, starring the great actor Al Pacino. Pacino plays a prominent ex-army officer named Frank Slade, who at this point in his life is a bitter, blind, guilt-ridden, alcoholic. He has resolved to end his life. But he happens to have his life intersected by a young high school student named Charlie Simms, who has been hired to take care of Frank during a holiday weekend, and when Charlie learns of Frank’s plan, he tries to dissuade him, and succeeds, mainly by the force of his character and personality. But Charlie has his own problems. He has witnessed school mates committing an act of vandalism that has enraged his headmaster at his elite private school, where he is a scholarshipped student. The headmaster has ordered Charlie to reveal the perpetrators of the deed and has gone so far as to offer him a bribe. He offers Charlie, a poor kid, a full scholarship to Harvard University, if he will provide the names. The truth is, Charlie doesn’t even like the guys who did the deed, but he will not tattle on them. So he is brought before the entire school for a disciplinary hearing. As Charlie is on the verge of expulsion, in walks the ex-Army officer Frank Slade whose life Charlie has touched with the power of his compassion. The ex-officer speaks on Charlie’s behalf. I offer you just a fraction of Frank’s speech:
“What kind of a show are you guys putting on here today? I mean the only class in this act is sitting next to me, and I’m here to tell you that this boy’s soul is intact, it is non-negotiable. You know how I know? Someone here, and I’m not going to say who, offered to buy it, only Charlie here wasn’t selling. . . . I don’t know if Charlie’s silence here today is right or wrong. I’m not a judge or jury. But I can tell you this: he won’t sell anybody out to buy his future! And that, my friends, is called INTEGRITY! That’s called COURAGE! Now that’s the stuff leaders should be made of. Now I have come to the crossroads of my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too [dang] hard. Now here’s Charlie. He has come to the crossroads. And he has chosen a path. It is the right path. It is a path made of principle that leads to character. . . .”
How many of us truly engrave our character around Jesus’ two bedrock spiritual principles? Let us truly resolve to say, “I will live by the words that come out of the mouth of God. And I will recognize that the Lord is God – only the Lord is God! — and Him only shall I serve.” Then we will truly walk along a pathway that leads to character. But such a journey is not easy. I am reminded of the great American writer Stephen Crane and his little poem “Temptation”:
perceiving the pathway to truth
was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
‘Ha,’ he said, ‘I see no one has passed here in a long time.’
Later he saw that each weed was a singular knife.
‘Well,’ he mumbled at last.
‘Doubtless there are other roads.’ ”
Yes, there are other roads than the ones to which our Lord calls us. There are other gods that would summon us to pour our lives out in their service. But the bedrock principles of our Lord, living by the words that come from the mouth of God, and recognizing that only the Lord is God and Him only shall we serve, these principles of Christ forever engrave our character with the mark of the Divine.