This is the second in a series of weekly reflections through the season of Lent, written by Bobby Gross, who contributed the reflections for this past Advent Season. The first appeared on Ash Wednesday.
We are all subject to temptation. The slippery tendency to think selfishly or perversely. The quick impulse to speak hurtfully or deceptively. The ready inclination to act unkindly if not unjustly. The craven or just plain apathetic inertia that leaves the right things undone. The instinctive choice to privilege ourselves and satisfy our desires at the expense of others. The self-centered thirst for attention and clamor for recognition. The undertow of wanting and seeking power, whether through petty antics or profound ambitions.
As Scripture—and experience–makes clear, temptations arise from within our sin-infected selves, surround us in the morally broken world, and assail us through the malicious influence of the Evil One who is opposed to God and all his purposes. Temptation entangles us in a perverse web of malevolent influence.
British writer and cultural critic Francis Spufford takes up the matter of sin in his rollicking, acerbic, and incisive book Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense. After debunking the insipid popular notions of sin as “basically meaning ‘indulgence’ or ‘enjoyable naughtiness,’” he goes on to saltily explain that for us Christians the reality is more stark, that the word refers to “something much more like the human tendency to f— things up.” He elaborates: “Its our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s” but also, I might add, communities, cultures, and countries.[i]
On the collective front, think Ukraine.
On the personal front, it falls to you to fill in the blank.
The season of Lent bids us to pay attention to the ways we are susceptible to temptation and the places where we most need to be resistant and repentant. Moral inventory. Prayerful humility. Spiritual housecleaning. Where are we most vulnerable to “messing” up?
Many biblical texts can hold up a mirror for this interior work: the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5), the penitential psalms (e.g. Ps. 6, 38, 51, 101, 130, 139, 143), the Prophets (e.g. Is. 58, Micah 6), the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) or an epistle like James. One useful place to start is the account of Jesus facing temptation (Luke 4 or Mt. 4).
In his humanity, Jesus was in no way immune or impervious to temptation. We don’t know the contours of his spiritual experience over the first decades of his life, but we are given a dramatic glimpse into the intense testing of body and soul at the outset of his public ministry. During a Spirit-induced forty-day sojourn in the wilderness, fasting in solitude, he wrestled with both the Father and the Devil over his sense of identity, his understanding of his mission, and his willingness to suffer in obedience. The affirmation of God’s Voice at the river baptism is put to the test in the silent desert—most intensely when he is most famished.
The shape of his temptations should warn us about the deep pitfalls before each of us.
The tempter attempts to dissuade him from a posture and path of self-denial, humility, and dependence, both for his own personal life and for his good work in the world:
“Why suffer? Turn these stones into bread and satisfy yourself. In the same way, you could feed the hungry poor.”
“Why stay hidden? Leap from this temple and promote yourself, for surely the angels will save you. You could prove your divine favor and win over the people.”
“Why renounce wealth and power? Bow to me in this moment and exalt yourself. As ruler of the world, you could bring liberty and justice for all.”[ii]
How do such beguiling questions seep into our experience? How much hold does our desire for physical comfort or public affirmation or political influence in our given spheres have over us? What are the particular and prodding shapes these temptations assume for you: in how you spend your time and money, in how you relate to your colleagues and Facebook friends, in how you wield your influence or negotiate your social location? What idol in disguise are you being asked to bow before, to align with, to embrace as a means of gaining what you desire?
Drawing on scripture and, presumably, leaning into the Spirit for discernment, Jesus resists and says No. And this was no “one and done” ordeal; the devil kept coming at Jesus in various guises over the next few years: people clamoring in adulation for him to stay in their town, religious leaders accusing him of law-breaking and blasphemy, family members declaring him crazy, Pharisees asking for public signs, crowds wanting to make him king, and his most promising disciple trying to dissuade him from his path as if channeling the voice of Satan. Yielding to these temptations would have diverted him from the way God had called him to live and the costly but right path marked out for him.
Jesus: As my leader and exemplar, in the quiet and solitary places of this Lenten season, as I forgo good things for a time so that I can better examine myself and listen to you, please show me where I am being tempted and please give me the fortitude to keep saying No to the tempter and Yes to you. Amen.
[i] (Faber & Faber, 2012), p. 27.
[ii] Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year (IVP, 2009), p. 132.