It is Not Whether We Will Face Temptation, But How

Each of the three synoptic Gospels record that at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus was tempted by Satan. Mark’s account is the shortest; he merely tells us that “[t]he Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.” Both Matthew (whose account we hear in today’s Gospel reading) and Luke give us a more extensive version, each detailing the three temptations put to Jesus by Satan.

So even before the start of his public ministry, Jesus is tempted by the devil. Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that “The powers of evil, of falling away from God, approach [Jesus] and try to bring him down at the very moment that he is assuming his role as Messiah.”

That tells us something about why temptation is an important subject for us to reflect on: if we take our discipleship seriously, it is not a question of whether we will face temptation, but how. If we model our lives on Christ, we will be tempted.

And note that Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. Bonhoeffer notes that “the temptation does not begin with the Father arming the Son with all powers and weapons, so that he can win the battle. No the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, into solitude, into forsakenness.”

It is when we make a conscious and an intentional decision to follow Christ that we are a threat to what St. Ignatius calls the evil spirit – and that spirit (whatever name we give him) will try to tempt us as he tempted Jesus. This is one of the areas where I think Ignatius’ battle imagery is very helpful – the evil spirit is like the enemy “casing the joint” so to speak, looking to see where the weak spot is – where we are most vulnerable – so that it can attack at the place most likely to succeed.

The things that tempt us vary. So we each need to know what our weak points so that we can be on guard. We can’t shore up our weak points unless we can identify them.


Temptation Come in Pleasing Disguises

Last week, I spoke in a couple of different venues about the temptation of Christ in the desert, an event recorded by each of the three synoptic Gospels.

One of the points I made is that, at least for those of us attempting to lead spiritual lives, temptation often comes in pleasing disguises. How much easier it would be to avoid temptation if the tempter appeared as a devil with pitchfork trying to persuade us to do some obviously evil act!

Subsequent to those talks, I came across an image of Titian’s painting of “The Temptation of Christ.” If you looked at the picture without knowing what it was, you might think it was a picture of Jesus blessing a child who offers him a gift. Instead, it is the sweet-looking child who is the tempter.

Here is the picture, a great visual reminder of our need to be vigilant in recognizing temptation when it comes:


Lent Retreat in Daily Living: In the Desert with Jesus – Week 2

Yesterday was the second gathering of participants in the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering this year at UST Law School on the theme In the Desert with Jesus.

During the past week, the participants prayed with the invitation extended to each of us to follow Jesus and with those things that prevent us from fully accepting that invitation. As we usually do, we began the session by giving participants a chance to share in small groups some of the fruits of that prayer.

I then offered a brief reflection on one of the episodes participants will pray with this week, as they focus on the early part of Jesus’ public ministry: the temptation in the desert. I shared some thoughts by Pope Benedict XVI, Rowan Williams and Henri Nouwen to help us think about how to understand the temptation Jesus faced in the desert and to reflect on what temptation looks like in our lives.

After I stopped recording, I spoke a little more about the other episodes participants will pray with and we continued a discussion about the temptations.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 15:36. You can find the daily prayer material for this week here.

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.

Glass Halo

For a college English major, I spend far too little time reading novels these days. Between my legal reading and reading relating to various retreats and other programs I’m preparing for, I find precious little time for reading anything else other than a newspaper. Happily, I responded positively when my friend Maria asked if I was interested in reviewing Colleen Smith’s first novel, Glass Halo. I was hooked from the first pages and started and finished the book while we were traveling this past weekend.

The two primary characters are both incredibly wounded people, one from an abusive spousal relationship that ended very badly and the other from alcoholism – the first a woman who is a lapsed Catholic and a stained-glass artist and the second a priest whose alcoholism has contributed to temptations that jeopardize his vows.

I always find it difficult to write a review of a novel, wanting and needing to say enough to encourage a reader to pick it up, but wanting to avoid saying so much as to destroy the pleasure of allowing a plot to unfold as one reads. So let me simply say several things about this well-written and compelling book.

First, the author does a wonderful job of conveying the raw emotions of her two main characters, whether it be fear, desperation, longing or love. And not just conveying, but inviting an empathy even when one might find something to criticize in the behavior of one or the other.

Second, Nora’s (the stained-glass artist) journey from sadness and solitary non-life to a place of peace and even happiness is beautifully and movingly told, as it Fr. Vin’s emergence from temptation and re-dedication to his priestly vocation.

Third, the book invites us to grapple with Nora with some hard questions about vocation and about sacrifice and encourages one to work through the important task of distinguishing what is from God vs. what is not from God (reminding us that doing so is much more complicated that determining whether something feels good).

Finally, and in a completely different vein, I have to add that I enjoyed learning so much about stained glass making and restoring. I was as drawn into the technical details of Nora’s work as I was into her spiritual and personal journey.

A beautiful story that I highly recommend.

Jesus in the Desert

My airplane reading on my return to Minneapolis from New York yesterday was a novel called Quarantine, by Jim Crace. The back cover of the book describes it as “an imaginative and powerful retelling of Christ’s fabled forty-day fast in the desert,” which is what prompted my husband to pick it up for me. I’ve enjoyed several fictional accounts of Bible stories, including Anita Diamont’s The Red Tent (the story of Dinah in the book of Genesis) and Elizabeth Berg’s The Handmaid and the Carpenter (about Mary and Joseph) and so he thought I might be interested in this one.

I’m not sure I found the book as “stunning” or “immensely impressive” as some of the writers whose comments grace the back cover of the book. But one of the things that did strike me quite powerfully was the description of Jesus during his 40-day fast. Unlike others who went on a “quarantine,” who broke their fast at sunset, Jesus refrains completely from food and drink for the duration.

I think when we listen to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ time in the desert, we picture Jesus emerging from the desert after 40-days looking much the same as he did when he walked in. Matthew tells us that Jesus “fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry,” a description that does little to conjure up a realistic image of what that time must have been like for Jesus.

Here is Crace’s description of Jesus after he had been in the desert for thirty of those days:

[H]e found the strength to drag himself – as good as saved, as good as dead – out of the cave, on to the entrance rock [of the cave in which he was staying]. He clung to it, his body naked to the wind. Already bones had pierced his skin. His chest had folded in on him. Sores on his legs and mouth no longer even tried to heal. His teeth and gums stuck out like balconies across his face. He could not shift the pain behind his eyes, though he wsa almost blind. He did not feel the cold. In fact, he hardly registered the wind now that he was wrapped in it. he could not separate the wind from all the rushing in hsi ears. He was as numb as wood. They could have driven nails into his feet. He’d not have felt a thing. His heart was too weak now to send his blood as far as that.

Jesus, in his humanity, experienced exactly what any human being would experience. He didn’t sit placidly in a desert for 40 days, emerging clean and healthy looking. His suffering was real. Descriptions like this, while fictionalized accounts, are a good reminder of what Jesus having been “fully human” means.

The Temptation of Jesus in the Desert

Today’s Gospel is St. Luke’s account of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. Satan puts before Jesus three temptation, asking him to turn stone to bread, offering him all of the kingdoms of the world, and asking him to throw himself from a tower to prove God’s angels will protect him.

There are different ways of interpreting the three temptations faced by Jesus. I just read a reflection from Henri Nouwen that gave me a different and helpful way of thinking about them. He writes

The “Tempter” came to [Jesus] asking him to prove that he was worth being loved. The “Temptor” said to him: “Do something useful, like turning stones into bread. Do something sensational, like throwing yourself down from a high tower. Do something that brings you power, like paying me homage.

The three temptations were three ways to seduce Jesus into becoming a competitor for love. The world of the “Tempter” is precisely that world in which people compete for love through doing useful, sensational, and powerful things…that gain them affection and admiration.

Jesus, resists the temptation, secure in his knowledge that He is already the Beloved of God, knowing that He doesn’t have to do anything to earn that love.

The obvious question is: Do we have the same security as Jesus that we are God’s beloved? That we don’t have to do anything useful or sensational or powerful to secure God’s love? If we don’t, then we are vulnerable to the temptation to compete for love. So we pray for the grace to know that we are unconditionally and boundlessly and everlastingly loved by our God. To know that we need to nothing in order to earn that love and that nothing we do can ever cause us to lose that love.

The Temptations of Jesus

In today’s Gospel, we hear St. Mark’s version of the temptation of Jesus. Much shorter than the accounts in Matthew or Luke’s gospels, which detail three temptations put to Jesus by Satan, Mark merely tells us that

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.

I was reminded while reflecting on Marks’ passage of Pope Bendict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth, which has a powerful chapter discussing the temptations of Jesus.  Early in the chapter, Benedict explains the importance of this episode in Jesus’ life:

It is a descent into the perils besetting mankind, for there is no other way to lift up fallen humanity. Jesus has to enter into the drama of human existence, for that belongs to the core of his mission; he has to penetrate it completely, down to its uttermost depths, in order to find the “lost sheep,” to bear it on his shoulders and to bring it home….The Letter to the Hebrews is particularly eloquent in stressing that Jesus’ mission, the solidarity with all of us that he manifested beforehand in his Baptism, includes exposure to the risks and perils of human existence. “…For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.”

Benedict goes on to say that the temptations are intimately connected with Jesus’ baptism, through which he entered into “solidarity with sinners.” Jesus’ temptations are thus a core part of his messianic mission.

However, Benedict explains that the temptations are about more than Jesus’ particular mission. Rather, they “address the question as to what truly matters in human life.” He helpfully and simply encapsulates what all temptation boils down to.

At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives. Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation; refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion – that is the temptation that threatens us in many forms.

The particulars vary; we will each be tempted in different ways. But at the root, all temptations share a common core. Equally importantly, Benedict reminds us that, at least for those of us attempting to lead spiritual lives, temptation often comes in pleasing disguises.

Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil – no, that would be far to blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place. It claims, moreover, to speak for true realism: What’s real is what is right there in front of us – power and bread. By comparison, the things of God fade into unreality, into a secondary world that no one really needs.

There is a lot of meditate on in these words as we reflect on what this episode in Jesus’ life has to say to each of us.


King Herod and Doing What We Know is not Right

Today’s Gospel passage is one I have written about before – St. Mark’s account of the beheading of John the Baptist.  Coincidentally, this passage came up in discussion earlier this week during the group session of a program I’m giving at an Episcopal church, since this passage was one the participants had prayed with. 

Several people commented at how disturbed they were at the passage, a disturbance I experience whenever I pray with this passage.  Herod “liked to listen” to John and he feared him, “knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.”  Nonetheless Herod was conscious of his position as King and Herod loved the attention, adulation and respect of the people around him.  The prospect of looking bad in front of them was not an appealing one to Herod.  And so, having promised Herodias’ daughter that he would give her anything she asked for as a reward for her having pleased him and his guests with her dancing, when she asks for he head of John the Baptist on a platter,  “he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back the head.”

Doubtless none of us have beheaded another person, knowing it was the wrong thing to do.  But, as one person commented during our discussion, the passage causes us to reflect on the fact that we are capable of doing what we know is not right, that there are temptations and influences of various kinds that can cause us to act against our better judgment.  There are times when we can all say, as Paul does in Romans, “What I do, I do not understand.  For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” 

As we grow in our relationship with God, we become strengthened in our ability to meet those tempations and influences.  Herod is a sober reminder of how strong those influences can be…and how great is our need for God.