What comes to mind when you think about temptation? What tempts you? What is your greatest temptation today?
I ask those questions because I think what we often call a temptation isn’t really a temptation. We often think about temptations as a struggle between ourselves and some other thing or person. We’re tempted to have another glass of wine or a second dessert. We’re tempted to give him or her a piece of our mind. We’re tempted to cheat on our taxes or tell a lie. We’re tempted by an attractive woman or man.
Those might be bad decisions, and we should probably say no, but I’m not sure they are temptations. I’ve begun to realize that my temptations aren’t a struggle between me and some other thing or person. They are a struggle between me and me.
It’s the struggle between the divisions and contradictions within myself. It’s the struggle to clarify who I am and the values that orient and drive my life. It’s the struggle to face the realities of my life and to take responsibility for myself and my life. It’s the struggle to show up to my life day after day, and not run away.
What if that struggle with ourselves is a necessary part of our waking up and growing up? What if the Spirit of God is leading us into that struggle? Isn’t that what happens in today’s gospel (Luke 4:1-13)?
St. Luke tells us that Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” The Spirit that leads Jesus to be tempted is:
- The same Spirit that descended upon him at his baptism (Luke 3:22);
- The same Spirit with which Jesus baptizes others (Luke 3:16);
- The same Spirit that guided Simeon to the temple and revealed that he would see the Lord’s Messiah (Luke 2:26-27);
- The same Spirit that filled Elizabeth and Zechariah so that they might bless and prophecy (Luke 1:41, 67);
- The same Spirit that came upon Mary so that she might conceive the Son of God (Luke 1:35); and
- The same Spirit that, in the beginning, swept over the face of the waters when God first said, “Let there be” (Genesis 1:1-3).
It seems that wherever life and creation are happening the Spirit is present. What if that’s true about our temptations as well? What if the Spirit of God knows we each have a necessity to struggle with ourselves? What if that struggle isn’t about proving ourselves good or bad, right or wrong, but about discovering ourselves, becoming more fully alive, and giving expression to the life that only we can give expression to? And what if that’s the temptation into which the Spirit leads us?
Isn’t that what happened with Jesus? Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness to be tempted for forty days, and after that he knew and declared himself to be anointed by the Spirit of God “to bring good news to the poor, … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
His temptations and struggles in the wilderness were about clarifying and deepening his life. What if that’s how we approached our temptations? What if that’s how we spent the next forty days?
Lent is intended to be a time of self-reflection and examination; looking at who we are becoming, how we are living, where our life is headed. But as long as I make my temptations about some other thing or person I never face or deal with myself. I suspect that’s how we often treat these forty days.
We make Lent about some other thing or person. So we give up dessert or Facebook, we commit to read the Bible more, we express our gratitudes daily. There’s nothing wrong with any of that but I wonder if it’s all just a distraction and a way to avoid our greatest temptation. I wonder if we are settling for the husks of our life rather than the kernel that is our life.
I don’t think our greatest temptation is food, sex, money, or power. I think our greatest temptation is to turn away from ourselves and to flee our own life, to settle for a shallow and superficial life, to not show up to our own life, to sleepwalk our way through this world.
Is that really the life you want? Is that what you want to teach your children and grandchildren? Is that the legacy you want to leave this world? Are you content to skim the surface of life or do you want to go deep?
If we want to go deep, if we want a life of meaning, if we want to begin healing our hurts and living wholeheartedly, then we have to face our temptation to avoid, deny, and run from ourselves and our life.
God does not save us from our temptations, God saves us through our temptations. That’s why St. Anthony said, “Without temptations no one can be saved” (Anthony, 5).
What parts of yourself or your life are you avoiding, denying, or running from today? What is it about yourself you just don’t want to face or deal with?
Maybe it’s embarrassment, shame, or guilt; fear, wounds, or pain; self-doubt, disappointment, or unmet expectations; grief, loss, or betrayal; a need for recognition, praise, or perfection; despair, anger, obsession, or addictions. Maybe it’s the dreams and thoughts that keep showing up and asking something of you.
It’s not just the negative parts of ourselves that we avoid. Sometime we avoid the very best of ourselves. Maybe it’s your own goodness and beauty, gifts and abilities, or a deep longing and desire. Maybe it’s a calling, a dream, or a life you never thought possible and gave up on years ago.
And why is it that no matter how far or fast we run we can never get away from ourselves or our life? What if that’s the persistence and faithfulness of the Spirit leading us again and again in the wilderness to be tempted, to face ourselves, to deepen and clarify our lives? What if that struggle with ourselves is the struggle to more fully become ourselves?
Every time we succumb to our temptation and turn away from ourselves, we betray and violate ourselves. And that’s exactly what Jesus will not do. Jesus doesn’t overcome his temptations, he uses them to clarify and deepen his life. They are less a choice about what he will or will not do and more a choice about who he will be.
It would be tempting to say, “Well he’s Jesus, and I’m me. He’s got an advantage I don’t have.” That is just another avoidance of and turning away from ourselves.
Jesus doesn’t say no because he’s smarter, better, or more holy than us. He says no because he refuses to violate or betray himself. He will not turn away from himself or run from his life. He makes a choice about who he wants to be, what matters most to him, and how he wants to live.
That same choice is before each of us today.