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If we find it hard to conform our lives to the ways of Christ, then at least we can console ourselves with the knowledge that we all have something in common with him – were all familiar with temptation! The difference is, of course, the way we deal with it.
These days when Lent has just started and any resolutions we might have made are still fresh in our minds, the kind of temptations that come to mind are probably something like: shall I just have that one chocolate? or surely just one glass of wine won’t hurt? or I could just watch that one episode of that soap opera I’ve given up! (and by the way – I didn’t!) Or maybe we’re thinking of the public confessions of Tiger Woods and how he has famously given in to temptation. However if we leave our understanding of what it means to be tempted at that level, then we are running the risk of trivialising the experience of Jesus in the desert wilderness.
Certainly, a bit of fasting is good for us during Lent, but whatever it is that we choose to do or not to do – it should be reminding us of what we should be fasting from in our lives in general. In other words, we cannot fast from temptation, but we can at least try to fast from giving in to it; which is where we turn to the Lord for his example.
Our starting point is the same. Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism; we share the same Spirit and to a greater or lesser extent, we are subject to the same temptations. And to a greater or lesser extent, we succumb to them, or to put it another way – to a greater or lesser extent, we are able to resist.
Of course our temptations are not player out on the dramatic stage which Luke creates for us in his Gospel, but rather, in the routine and even boredom of our everyday lives and relationships. But the very fact that they may be less obvious and spectacular can make them even more dangerous!
Jesus, led by the Spirit, set himself the task of fasting for forty days; he was tempted to break his fast in various ways – but this is not about breaking our modest attempts at fasting. The truth is that the same kind of temptations that troubled Jesus actually comes to visit us in various ways. There are three themes here:-
1. believing that we can survive on material goods alone
2. the misuse and abuse of power and God’s gifts
3. putting God to the test
This Lent it might be good for us to look at how we react to those temptations as they come to us in different guises.
We may joke about being tempted to each too much of our favourite food, but the point of fasting is not about denying ourselves the basics. Jesus quotes scripture as saying that we cannot live on bread alone – not that we should not have bread at all. The danger is that having the basics is never enough and we end up simply wanting more of everything, because we can. We know that too many people in the world struggle simply for enough bread; others have more than enough of everything and yet still want more – because they think that that is all there is. The first reading gives us a bit of a potted history of the People of Israel. They were led out of slavery in Egypt and yet they faced such harsh conditions in their desert wanderings, with little or nothing to eat – that for a time, the relative security of slavery seemed to be more attractive than the uncertainty and deprivations of freedom. For a while they had failed to see the bigger picture; the journey to the Promised Land was to mean so much more than simply having enough to eat.
As we gradually ease ourselves out of recession, it is unlikely that any of us will go hungry (thank God!), but we can still easily be preoccupied with our perceived material needs in our “must have” culture.
The temptation is to be spiritually myopic and to fail to see beyond what is material and measurable.
We have seen, with tragic consequences, what can happen when power is abused in the Church. All the bishops of Ireland were summoned to Rome last week, to basically get a dressing-down from the Pope. The evil of appalling abuse of children was compounded by the abuse and misuse of power in dealing with the issue. There is no doubt that when we build our own kingdoms based on personal satisfaction and safety; people get hurt along the way. When the Church becomes and end in itself and not a means to the Kingdom, then we have truly lost the plot. People then (rightly) lose faith in the Church and that can be one small step away from losing faith in God.
Temptation is there for all of us: to become powerful rather than responsible; to want to be master rather than servant and to prefer hierarchy to humility.
So the final temptation is perhaps, the one we fall for most often, because we think we can get away with it, because nobody gets hurt and probably nobody will even notice. This is putting God to the test. We do it all the time in little subtle (and not so subtle!) ways: the little deals we strike with God; striking bargains, holding God to ransom for our prayers; trading promises for favours. Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with “asking God” for what we need – there is a huge tradition of intercessory prayer in our faith – but our prayers of intercession should not be tied up with self-imposed conditions. The other side of all of this is “blaming” God for when things don’t work out as we would want. Even atheists seem to be able to do this – to criticise or blame the God they don’t believe in, for the latest catastrophe or disaster!
When we put God to the test, we drag God down to our level – even though he has chosen to meet us there – we begin to create God in our own image and likeness.
So the trials and temptations of Jesus are not that far removed from our own – because we are tempted by the same devil. But we are also strengthened by the same baptism and the same Holy Spirit.
It would be good to reflect on that during this Lent.