practicing temptation

We began Lent with the classic story of Jesus and the devil facing off in the desert. This year we considered how we’re tempted to think we can do it all ourselves, and how Lent might be a time to lean on God a little bit more. Thoughts after the jump.

Before we get to the meat of the story, let’s get one thing out of the way first. To take this story seriously, you do not have to believe in a literal devil, in some sort of supernatural creature that embodies evil and roams this earth. That’s missing the point. 

Maybe there’s a devil. Maybe there’s not. That’s not really the point. The point for us to wrestle with today is that temptation is real. 

There are forces, powers, tendencies, inclinations—call them what you will—in ourselves and in the world, that lead us toward death rather than life. Temptation is real and powerful—that’s what all this talk of a devil is trying to get at. 

Our story today sheds light on temptation and invites us to get real about it, to be honest with ourselves and with God about how we find ourselves to be tempted and how we can resist. 

One thing we see in our story and particularly clearly in the way George, Gene, Carolyn, and Pat told the story, is that when we are tempted, whatever we are tempted to do or not do, seems reasonable, efficient, even compassionate or wise. That’s how it was for Jesus.

Hungry, Jesus? How about making some bread? Ready to be Lord of Lords and King of Kings? I can help you with that. Want everyone to know that you’re the real deal? How about a snazzy demonstration of power? 

That way you can get right to the good stuff—the food, the power, the glory—without any of the unpleasant stuff that might otherwise spoil the ride—the hunger, the work, the pain. It makes all the sense in the world. 

This is how temptation most often presents itself in our lives—as a reasonable, efficient, even compassionate choice. 

When we make mistakes, when we hurt others or mess up our lives, the choices that led to that often seemed to make all of the sense in the world at the time—or at least, didn’t seem like choices that would bear such bad fruit.

Think back to the last bad choice you made, a choice that ended up hurting someone or betraying values you hold dear. Think back. What was it that led you to make that choice? It probably seemed to make sense at the time—seemed reasonable, maybe even compassionate. This is how temptation works. It’s tricky. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be temptation.  

And here’s the thing: everyone faces it. All of us. Sometimes it can seem that if we were somehow better, if we were really good, then we wouldn’t be tempted. This story suggests that is fundamentally not true. Who among us is going to manage to be better than Jesus? He was just following the lead of the Holy Spirit, and all this broke loose. This tells us that temptation is going to be part of our lives—especially if we try to be faithful. When we find ourselves facing temptation, it’s not a sign that we’ve gone horribly off track. It’s just a sign that we’re human. 

So if temptation is so tricky and so real, how do we live with it? How do we live in such a way that we make faithful choices more often than unfaithful choices? Is that even possible? Should we just throw up our hands and give up? 

I think that actually might be the first step—to throw up our hands and admit that being faithful is a struggle, that we can’t do it alone, that we are dependent, that we need help.

There’s a lot that can be said about each of the three temptations Jesus faced. The one thing that jumps out at me this year is that in each he is tempted to trust his own power rather than God’s. He is tempted to feed himself, to make his own way to glory, to prove himself, rather than rely on God to provide and lead him to life. Each time Jesus has to choose to lean not on his own power, but on God’s. 

Learning to do this, to trust God, to lean on God, to admit that we are dependent and in need of help—this is the lifelong task of faith. 

Lent is a time each year to pause and take stock, to be honest about ourselves, about how we’re tempted, and how we can be more faithful. It’s not about beating ourselves up for our failures or feeling really guilty. Lent is just about getting real about what has power over us, and how we’re called to be faithful in spite of that.  

There are three classic practices for Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Each of these in some way invites us to practice being dependent on God. It can take all sorts of forms.

Prayer can be spoken or silent, alone or with others, in the mornings before anyone rises, during your commute, late at night before you sleep. We can use our own words, or the words of the psalms, or no words at all. For centuries, Christians have rededicated themselves to regular, daily prayer each year during Lent. The practice of daily prayer invites us to depend on God for our sanity, our hope, our daily needs.

Fasting may be a little more foreign. Fasting is going without food for a period of time. Traditional fasting during lent has taken several forms—forgoing all rich foods and eating simply for forty days, or abstaining entirely from food for a day or two each week. The point is to have a physical, bodily reminder that we are dependent creatures. As we feel hunger, we are reminded that our souls are hungry for God. We are also reminded of the billions around the world who are hungry. At its heart, this practice is about dependence on God, and coming to terms with our own nature as finite, frail creatures.

And almsgiving—traditionally this is the practice of giving money to those who have less. It also could take almost countless forms—perhaps you give away a larger portion of your income during Lent, perhaps you try tithing—giving 10% for this six weeks, perhaps you give to every person who asks for money during this time. Whatever form it takes, it is a reminder that Jesus was never far from the company of the poor, that our resources are not ultimately our own, and that we are dependent on God and on others for our material well-being.

All three of these practices, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, have a common foundation—they lead us to rely on God. They lead us to know—heart, body, and soul, that we are not self-sufficient, that we can’t do it all ourselves, that we need God’s help if we’re going to make it. 

Perhaps this Lent you will feel drawn to take up these three ancient practices. Perhaps there is another way that God is calling you to practice being dependent during this season. No matter the outer form, these six weeks are a time to be honest about our own humanity, our frailty and limits. It is a time to wander in the desert, to recognize how hungry we are, and to lean not on our own power, and our own understanding, but on the grace of God.

And here is the good news—God is faithful. God meets us in the wilderness, tends to us, sends us companions for the journey, gives us strength to meet the challenges of the day, feeds us with the bread of heaven, and offers us the waters of life. God is, ultimately, for us. So we need not fear—though we face temptation and trial, we are not alone, and it is not all up to us. We need only trust in the one who made us and who sustains us and who longs to give us life. 

by Sarah W. Wiles
February 17, 2013
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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One Response to practicing temptation

  1. Bob Braxton says:

    forty days
    forty nights
    in dessert

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