Jesus and Acceptance of the Real World

On the plane to and from New York, I was reading Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another, which had been recommended to me some time ago by a friend (and which I had started reading last month and got distracted from). It is a wonderful book that shares with us the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers.

In talking about the importance of stability in practice, Williams recounts advice once given by a nameless elder giving advice to a brother struggling with temptation. He told him, “Go. Sit in your cell and give your body in pledge to the walls.” Explaining the meaning of he advice, Williams offers that one has to promise oneself one’s actual environment as if one were settling a marriage proposal. “You have to ‘espouse’ reality rather than unreality, the actual limits of where and who you are rather than the world in which anything can happen if you want it to.

Williams offers this as a way of understanding the temptation of Jesus to worship Satan in exchange for all of the kingdoms of the world. It is a different take on the temptations that I think is worth reflecting on. He writes:

It’s not as though Satan owns the kingdoms of the real world so as to be able to dispose of them. All the temptations of Jesus seem to be about resorting to magic instead of working with the fabric of the real world. Jesus performs miracles in his ministry, of course, but never as a substitute for the hard material work of changing how people see God and never as a substitute for the bodily cost of love, which reaches its climax on the cross. Satan wants Jesus to join him in the world where cause and effect don’t matter, the world of magic. And Jesus refuses, determined to stay in the desert with its hunger and boredom, to stay in the human world with its conflict and risk. He refuses to compel and manipulate people into faith, because it can only be the act of a person, and persons do not live in the magic world.

Satan preferred an unreal world. Jesus chose the real one. It is out choice which one to accept for ourselves.

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