Temptation. All of us face it daily – but how to we deal with it well? Let’s look at our Scriptures for that answer.
First, did you notice the odd first sentence in the Gospel: “The Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted”? Why would the Holy Spirit want Jesus to be tempted? For that matter, why did God create the serpent in the first place, knowing that it would cause Adam and Eve to sin?
Because love requires the possibility to not-love. God could have created a race of robots, who loved Him because they had no other choice, no freedom. But that would not give Him glory. He wanted to be loved for His sake, but that meant leaving open the choice to reject Him. This freedom was a terrible risk – a risk that has doomed humanity throughout the centuries – but God wants to be loved so much that He is willing to take that risk.
When we were kids, most of us had that Aunt Mildred who, at family gatherings, our parents would force us to hug. “Go give Aunt Mildred a hug, now!” And we would do it, out of obedience to our parents. But how much more would it mean to give her a hug freely! That is the kind of love God desires – free, strong, holy. So the first thing we learn about temptation from the readings is that God allows it so that we can grow in love for Him.
Secondly, each temptation started with an attack on our identity and God’s identity. The devil starts by challenging Jesus, “If You are the Son of God…” Eve is tempted by Satan questioning God’s goodness: “Did God really tell you not to eat of the fruit?” Then Satan goes on to attack her identity by saying, in essence, “If you eat the fruit you will become like God, because now you’re not!”, even though she was already created in God’s likeness!
This happens with us as well. Temptations often start with lies about us or God. Lies such as, “God’s not really going to help you” or “You’re worthless” or “It’s not worth it to follow the Lord.” We’ve got to recognize these lies for what they are!
St. Leo the Great said,
“Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition.”
Who are you? You are a child of God, an heir to Heaven, one of Christ’s redeemed! Remember who you are – and who you belong to – and you can destroy temptation immediately.
Third, we see that temptation needs to be shut down immediately. This is the big difference between Eve and Jesus is that Eve engages the devil. The devil tempts, and she begins to sway. She looks at the fruit, sees how delicious it looks, begins to salivate and desire it. But Jesus doesn’t. The temptation presents itself, and bam! He shuts it down. He doesn’t ask the devil, “What kind of bread? Whole wheat? Raisin bread?” No, He shuts it down immediately.
So often we play games with the temptation to see how close we can get before we fall into sin. But that is utterly foolish. Did you know that, on average, 41 people die each year taking selfies? They try to get closer, closer, closer to the edge of the cliff or the oncoming train, until they’ve passed the point of no return. And we are often like that with sin – “Oh, I’ll just have two drinks at the party,” “Oh, it’s fine if we hang out alone in her bedroom,” “Oh, I can read those atheistic books, they won’t harm my faith.” How many sins would be avoided if we just stopped the temptation at the outset?
A fourth thing to learn from the readings is that we must stand on the Scriptures and the Teachings of the Church. How did Jesus respond to the temptations? He knew what God desired, and why – and He shot it back into the devil’s face. Many times in my temptations, I have just needed to quote Scripture for the temptation to leave me alone. For example, if you are tempted to anger, read Scripture quotes about forgiveness. If you are tempted to lust, learn about the Church teachings on purity.
Finally, we learn that temptations will not last forever. There is a great story from the life of St. Anthony the Abbot, a desert monk in the late fourth century. We read in his biography written by St. Athanasius that one day he sought to spend several days in prayer, so he went into an empty tomb to pray. As soon as he started, he was attacked with awful demons – lust, fear, terror, the burning desire to leave and return to his former life. Some of the demons took on the form of hideous animals who physically attacked him. After several days of fighting off all these temptations, exhausted and weak he cried out to God, “Where were you, Lord? Why did you not stop this suffering earlier?” God answered him, “Anthony, I was present at your side. But I waited, observing your fight. And since you have resisted so bravely, I will now always be at your side.”
No temptation ever lasts forever. And how sweet it is when the angels come to minister to us after we have successfully overcome the temptation!
So this is what our Scriptures teach us today about temptation. First, God allows it to make us holy, so we can choose to love Him despite many options to the contrary. Second, temptations usually make us question God or our relationship to Him, so we must stand fast on our identity as disciples. Third, we must never give way a bit – do not head down the road of temptation that ends in destruction! Fourth, we must stand on Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. Finally, we must have hope that no temptation will last forever.
Eve was tempted, but did everything wrong – and the consequences were devastating for the human race. Jesus was tempted, and showed us how to deal with the temptations that every person faces. Let us follow His example, that this Lent may be a time of true repentance and victory over sin!