Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from chapter two of Russell Moore's tempted and tried: temptation and the triumph of christ (Crossway).
There was something rhythmic, almost soothing about the soft clatter of it all. The soothing repetition sounded kind of like a summer thunderstorm coming up from the coast or a rickety old midnight train off in the distance. I had no idea that what I was listening to was the rhythm of cattle marching to a slaughterhouse. It turns out what I'd happened upon, kind of randomly driving in my car, was a public radio program about factory farming. The broadcast was about how to kill cows, but with kindness.1
Actually, it wasn't really about the cows. They were just sort of the backdrop. The segment instead profiled a highly functioning autistic scientist who had learned through years of research how to register which stimuli produce which animal sounds and how to track what scares or stresses livestock. It turns out that the beef industry was willing to pay for this information, and not entirely due to their humanitarian goals. High stress levels in animals can release hormones that could downgrade the quality of the meat.
Some of the largest corporations in the world hired this scientist to visit their meat plants with a checklist. She said her secret was the insight that novelty distresses cows. A slaughterhouse, then, in order to keep the cattle relaxed, should remove anything from the sight of the animals that isn't completely familiar. The real problem is novelty. "If dairy cattle are used to seeing bright yellow raincoats slung over gates every day when they enter the milking parlor, there'd be no problem," she counsels. "It's the animal who's seeing a bright yellow raincoat slung over a gate for the first time at a slaughter plant or feedlot who's going to balk."2
Workers shouldn't yell at the cows, she said, and they should never ever use cattle prods, because they are counterproductive and unneeded. If you just keep the cows contented and comfortable, they'll go wherever they're led. Don't surprise them, don't unnerve them, and above all, don't hurt them (well, at least until you slit their throats at the end).
Along the way, this scientist devised a new technology that has revolutionized the ways of the big slaughter operations. In this system the cows aren't prodded off the truck but are led, in silence, onto a ramp. They go through a "squeeze chute," a gentle pressure device that mimics a mother's nuzzling touch. The cattle continue down the ramp onto a smoothly curving path. There are no sudden turns. The cows experience the sensation of going home, the same kind of way they've traveled so many times before.
As they mosey along the path, they don't even notice when their hooves are no longer touching the ground. A conveyor belt slowly lifts them gently upward, and then, in the twinkling of an eye, a blunt instrument levels a surgical strike right between their eyes. They're transitioned from livestock to meat, and they're never aware enough to be alarmed by any of it. The pioneer of this technology commends it to the slaughterhouses and affectionately gives it a nickname. She calls it "the stairway to heaven."
Jesus knew, long before the meat industry, that livestock are better led by voice than by prod (John 10:3). And Jesus knew that the leading voice must be familiar, not novel; gentle, not yelling. Alarmed livestock run (John 10:5). Jesus also knew these principles don't apply just to farmed animals but to human beings as well. This is why, picking up on the prophets before him, he used the imagery of humanity in general and Israel in particular as sheep, a flock needing feeding and protection and direction. Jesus likewise warned there would be those who would "shepherd" in a way that leads to death.
Here's what this has to do with your temptation. Sometimes the Bible uses the language of predator and prey to describe the relationship between tempter and tempted, but often the Scripture also speaks of temptation in the language of rancher and livestock. You are not just being tracked down—you are also being cultivated (e.g.,Ezekiel 34; Zechariah 11; John 10). Those headed toward judgment are spoken of as lambs led to the slaughter (e.g.,Psalms 44:22; Jeremiah 5:26; Jeremiah 50:17).
Perhaps the most striking biblical use of this imagery is found in the book of Proverbs. A father describes for his son the slow progression of a sexual tryst. The reader is given an almost aerial view of the scene, as the son wanders closer and closer to the edge of temptation (Proverbs 7:6-21). The father says this is like a bird being trapped or an ox being led to the slaughter (Proverbs 7:22-23). Later the book pleads with the wise to rescue those who are "stumbling to the slaughter" (Proverbs 24:11). The path of temptation is gradual and intelligent, not as sudden and random as it seems.
Jesus' brother James knew the language of the slaughterhouse. A Christian bishop in Jerusalem soon after the dawn of the church, James warned the rich and contented of his day that living in "luxury and in self-indulgence" couldn't rescue them. "You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter," he thundered (James 5:5). James knew this partly from personal experience. He hadn't always been a holy man. As a kid he'd probably laughed at his brother—just like the rest of his kin and neighbors—as a delusional egotist at best, a demon-possessed cultist at worst. But he came to see his brother as something very different—as the express image of God and as the rightful ruler of the universe.
James knew what it was like to live in an illusion, and what it was like to wake from it. He warned the little Christian assemblies dotting the landscape in the generation after Jesus' resurrection that they would need a supernatural kind of spiritual wisdom in order to see where temptation lurks and to recognize the path it takes (James 1:5). The awful truth is that we are fallen creatures, and as such are in constant danger of being "lured" (James 1:14). Temptation—for the entire human race, for the people of Israel, and for each of us personally—starts with a question of identity, moves to a confusion of the desires, and ultimately heads to a contest of futures. In short, there's a reason you want what you don't want to want. Temptation is embryonic, personality specific, and purpose directed.
Something is afoot out there that's deeper and older and scarier than we can contemplate. The Christian Scriptures propose an answer to the question, What's wrong with me? Before you wrestle with the temptation in your own life, you'll need to see the horror of what it really is, as well as the glory of how Jesus triumphs over it. Jesus walked through the cycle of temptation for us, and does so with us. Like "a lamb that is led to the slaughter" (Isaiah 53:7), he walked out into the wilderness and onto the stairway to hell.
1. "Killing with Kindness," Driveway Moments: Radio Stories That Won't Let You Go (National Public Radio, 2003), track 2.
2. Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, Animals in Transition: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (Orlando: Harcourt, 2005), 44-45.