A couple of weeks ago the youth of the Parish and I were reflecting on our human condition, and how divided our fallen human nature is. We talked about how sometimes we know exactly what the right thing to do is, but somehow end up doing quite the opposite. It is in these moments that we become acutely aware of the forces struggling within us: the call of what we desire and want, versus the call of what is true and good. Saint Paul described these same forces when he said, “For I do not the good that I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Rm 7:19).
Here’s a classic example: A man makes a New Year’s resolution to start a diet. He is slightly overweight, and he promises himself that this time is the charm, that he’ll lose at least thirty pounds. He does an online analysis of the most effective diets out there, and carefully selects one that best fits his needs. He does his grocery shopping, choosing only healthy and organic foods, and he even goes to the point of finding a new route to work, so as to avoid his favorite bakery. He begins strong, but after only two weeks he arrives at his workplace with a big sugar-coated coffee cake. His peers, half-smiling and chiding at him, ask, “Hey, what happened to the diet?” The man says, “Well, when I got in the car this morning I accidentally started driving down my old route. When I drove past the bakery I saw all these new coffee cakes in the window, and I was so tempted to try one, knowing I was still on a diet. So I said, ‘Lord, if it is your will for me to enjoy one of these coffee cakes, give me a parking spot.’ And, there it was!… After only nine trips around the block!”
How true it is that we constantly feel opposing forces within ourselves. We can have an abundance of willpower, and a strong desire to do what is good, but at the same time our passions, our laziness, our lust, and our pride are pulling us in the other direction. The thing about temptation, which the Holy Liturgy presents to us today in the readings, is that it evolves; It gets more complex the more we are in dialogue with it. We see this in the First Reading about Adam and Eve. God says, Do not eat of this one tree. Then the serpent comes along and asks, Is it true that God forbade you to eat of all the trees of the Garden? Already the truth is being distorted. Eve says, Oh no, we can eat of the trees. It is just from this one tree that we cannot eat, or even touch. Temptation distorts the truth, and twists our perception of reality. Temptation focuses on our experience alone; it wants to relativize truth to serve my convenience.
One of the dangers of temptation, is that we can begin to ‘feel’ that, if we’re feeling these opposing forces, these tensions and inner struggle, then ‘there must be something wrong with me.’ In fearing of being wrong or not good enough, or not strong enough, we end up fearing temptation itself. It has been said that “He who loves must face the fate of the one he loves.” Friends, if our Lord was tempted, Christ himself, then is it really so surprising that we too find ourselves regularly tempted and tested? Let us examine Jesus’ temptations for ways of dealing with our own temptations, especially regarding our life of faith.
The devil’s first temptation was, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread” (Mt 4:3), a beckoning to indulge the body and all it’s wants; Jesus had been fasting for forty days, and those loaves must have been a great temptation to his hungry body. However, this temptation runs deeper than sensuality, it also represents the temptation to see our faith as an amulet, something that conforms God’s will to my whim; the power and grace of God into a loaf of bread to fill my hunger, to turn faith into a problem-solving charm
The second temptation of the devil was, “If you are the son of God, you will throw yourself down from this tower and the angels will save you,” the temptation of vain glory. The devil wants to stir up Jesus’ insecurity of his mission: Is God really who He says He is? Does He really love me? Why doesn’t he manifest himself more evidently? It is the temptation to tempt God, to put him to the test, to try him—try his promises and his Word to see how ‘real’ he is; it is the temptation to reduce our faith—and God—to a lived experience, to a spectacle, to get hooked on the thrill and the emotions, and to believe that, if I don’t feel God, if there’s not something dramatic happening in my life, if he doesn’t heal my loved one, if he doesn’t take this burden from me, then God’s not for real.
When all else has failed, finally, the devil pulls out his best card, I will give you all of these kingdoms, he says, If you adore me right now. I can just picture Jesus at that moment, looking out at all the kingdoms of the earth, past, present and future, and with them all the souls of all humanity, including yours, thinking of you, thinking of me. Then the devil says I will give you all of these souls. You can save them all, if you just kneel down in front of me. What struggle must have taken place inside Jesus at that moment? My goodness, I could save all souls with this one simple act. I wouldn’t have to suffer. I wouldn’t have to die. No cross. Just redemption. Jesus’ greatest temptation is also our greatest temptation: the temptation to skip the cross. It is the temptation to choose the decaffeinated, low-carb, low-calorie path of faith, and to skip straight to resurrection while bypassing the suffering and struggle of the cross, “to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the gentiles foolishness,” 1 Cor 1:23.
Jesus recognizes all these temptations, these opposing inner forces, for what they are: gimmickry and sleight of hand intended to have him choose what is proximate and superficial, in lieu of what is eternal and true. Like Jesus, we too can grow our capacity to see these temptations for what they really are, and to use them as an opportunity for growth and learning.
Some scholars say that these temptations probably didn’t happen in a physical, external way; the devil may not have literally appeared to Jesus or moved him through space and time, but more likely this was an internal experience that Jesus had, an inner crisis and struggle as opposing forces within him struggled for power. Saint Teresa says it in the following words,
His will is for us to desire truth, whereas we desire falsehood; His will is for us to desire the eternal, whereas we prefer that which passes away; His will is for us to desire great and sublime things, whereas we desire the base things of earth; He would have us desire only what is certain, whereas here on earth we love what is doubtful.
Temptation represents the distortion of reality, a ‘hidden desire’ to shortchange our dignity. When we are tempted, we have two paths we can choose to take. On the one hand, we can foster fear, My goodness, I see these forces in me, what am to do? What if I’m too weak? What if I can’t handle this? What if I’m not strong enough? We end up fearing fear itself, which is itself a kind of giving into temptation. Following the temptations of Jesus in the desert, this would be a misguided way of dealing with temptation, because God is not on the opposite side of this struggle, he is not the prize to be won. He is also not the cause of temptation, as though being a trickster, toying with us to see how far we can make it, or if we can overcome a certain obstacle. God isn’t thinking, Let’s see if he can jump through these hoops! I’ll throw him a curveball here just to see what happens… This vision of God is incompatible with our understanding of God as a loving Father. Unfortunately, this first path, the path of fear, is the one we most commonly take (would it be fair to say that eighty percent of temptation is fear?).
We can choose see temptation in a different way. If the Son of God himself was tempted, then God walks and struggles with us in temptation. Temptation can be an opportunity for us to grow in our trust and confidence with Our Father. If eighty percent of temptation is fear, then eighty percent of temptation is also an opportunity to deepen our trust in the Father in the weakness of our human nature. Could it be possibly grow in love without struggle? Can we better ourselves, and foster conversion and grace, if we are not reminded that we are weak and He is strong? It is in Him that we are victorious, not in ourselves, and temptation can be a blessing and a constant reminder of this truth. We could fall and fail one thousand times, but if we keep our struggle in Christ and our gaze on the Father, our love will continue to grow.
Lent is also about following Christ, even in the desert, even through temptation. But this requires us to make a deliberate choice. Pope Benedict says,
The purpose of Lent is to keep alive in our consciousness and our life the fact that being a Christian can only take the form of becoming a Christian ever anew; that it is not an event now over and done with but a process requiring constant practice.
If we believe that we are following Jesus Christ just because we are baptized and come to mass, then we are sadly mistaken. In order to truly follow Jesus we need to constantly respond to his call to Come and follow me; Come and be tempted with me; Come and take up the cross with me; Come and die with me; Come and resurrect with me. It is only when we respond to this call from the profundity of our own personal freedom, that we experience the true depth and beauty of salvation.
So, it is important we don’t fear temptation; they are opportunities for growth, in our faith, in our hope, and in our charity to our Heavenly Father. If temptation is an opportunity to place out trust in the Father, then Mary, she who placed her entire confidence in Him, can show us how to begin and continue this Lenten journey, placing our strength and hope in the Father.
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