Stop, Look, Listen: The Anatomy of Temptation and Idolatry

Stop, Look, Listen: The Anatomy of Temptation and Idolatry

Written by: Pete McClanathan

I had intended to use this article to work on identifying idols in our own lives, using some of the examples presented earlier. But as I was preparing, it became clear that there is one more foundational subject to discuss: the process of temptation and idolatry as revealed in scripture. We will land there for a short while.

The problem of idolatry in the Bible is neither confined to the Old Testament worship of pagan gods, nor is it limited to objects made of wood and stone, or pagan rituals such as child sacrifice and temple prostitutes.  

An idol, we’re learning, is any form of false god, anything we’ve come to believe has some power to provide or protect. We’ll find that the decision to accept idols into our hearts and lives is itself the fruit of negotiating with sin.

Idolatry establishes itself early in the biblical narrative as the core sin of mankind. We find it revealed as far back as the dialogue between Eve and the serpent, recorded in the third chapter of Genesis. We would do well to dissect that encounter, for in it are found all of the elements of idolatry and temptation. I see them as follows:

1. God has acted and spoken.

“You may surely eat of any tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2:16-17)

Genesis 2 reveals the nature of God’s involvement with man:

  • It is generously abundant. “And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” (Gen. 2:9). We can only imagine the treasures (physical and spiritual) of life in the garden.
  • It is given freely. The phrase, “the Lord God,” appears as the actor in every event of creation. No human or other activity is involved.
  • It is protective. God clearly has control of the events and understands the dangers. There is something about that tree that will be harmful to man. The warning of Gen. 2:17 is to protect, not to deny.

2. The first arrow of temptation is always directed at God's Word.

“He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” (Gen. 3:1).

Note carefully the strategy of deception: To rattle the foundation. To create questions where there is no question (God has spoken). To suggest uncertainty and speculation.

It would be wise to pause here and reflect on this point as it applies in our lives. We are frail, easily troubled or confused, and burdened with many things. We absolutely must learn the habit of recognizing this strategy. 

It can be all too appealing to relax and negotiate with ourselves and the voices of temptation when sin is offered as the attractive choice. What do I really believe about the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God in this place, at this moment, and for this situation? Does God really care? Will He really mind a transgression that appears to offer peace and satisfaction?  

3. We are drawn to negotiate.

What does the Bible really mean here? Maybe it’s not as clear as we’ve been told. Could a strict reading possibly be relevant in today’s culture of pain, struggle, and confusion? Would I not be excused for seeking some relief for myself?

Eve’s first response to the serpent illustrates well the dangers of negotiating:

“And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but  God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Gen. 3: 3).

Eve is already on the road to defeat. She has surrendered her high ground of protection and has engaged in a dialog she never was created to manage, and one she can never win from the place she now finds herself. 

And her confusion is apparent. In attempting to argue with a superior foe, she adds a burden to her account of God’s instruction. “Neither shall you touch it” was never part of God’s command. Was she trying to make a point about the severity of God’s rules? Was she seeking to convince herself of God’s authority rather than simply to trust the command as it was given?  

Can we learn something from this? Perhaps that requiring understanding of God’s Word before submitting to it does not go well?

4. Doubt is created about the wisdom and motives of God.

“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’’’ (Gen. 3:4-5).

There is no truth anywhere in this statement. Sin always has and will continue to lead to death. God knows no such thing otherwise. The promise of eyes opened did not come from God, and it fundamentally distorts the reality that opening the human experience to disobedience will lead to death on many fronts. Man was not created to be like God. He never can be so, nor should he aspire to that fantasy.

We have Jesus’ own words to confirm this:

“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44).

Scripture does not tell us whether Eve was aware of the character and power of her adversary in the garden. It would appear not, though the text does not preclude it. But all of us have no such excuse. Many biblical accounts and warnings, together with simply observing the chaos, death and destruction that abound in the world, prove the truth of Jesus’ description. 

But do we take that truthfully to heart? Do we realize that the subtleties of temptation, its promises of pleasure or comfort, its outright direction to disbelieve and disobey God, are all lies? And lies by their nature will not deliver as promised. Even those that seem to provide pleasure for a time will become revealed as the deceptions that they are. (Heb. 11:25)

Yet our frailty beckons for relief from our pain and burdens. And the temptation of relief is packaged in things that appear to make sense, appear to be harmless, and appear to offer fulfillment. Things we come to believe we need or deserve. 

At times it can even feel as if we invite temptation and its promises in order to justify pursuing our cravings and numbing our pain. As with Eve, the truth of God’s character and His commands can fade into the distant parts of our minds where excuses, doubt, and compromise reside.

5. Negotiating with sin is a losing game. Count on it.

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food,  and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” (Gen. 3:6)

Should this be at all surprising? Eve already has pushed through every protective boundary along the way. She engaged the discussion when the instructions of God were clear and well known.  She negotiated with temptation (and with herself), trying to find some common ground from which she could sample what was offered.

She surrendered to confusion, having stepped away from the certainty she once knew and believing it just might be possible that God had been holding out on them by commanding restrictions which no longer made sense to her. She found herself believing the lie that treasure awaited, and that God would not mind.  

And we know and live with the tragic consequences. We’ll pick up right there in the next article.

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