Every year, the gospel reading on the First Sunday of Lent is about the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Allow me just to share a few random thoughts on temptation.
Temptation is part of life. It is a given. It is not meant to pull us down; on the contrary, it is meant to propel us higher. St. Augustine once said, “Someone who is not tempted is not tested; someone who is not tested cannot progress.”
This is exactly how our educational system works. Before the students move to the next level or grade, they undergo an examination or a series of tests. The same is true in work application, career pursuit, even priestly formation.
In last month’s CBCP plenary assembly, the bishops discussed the need to revise the English version of the Our Father. No less than Pope Francis himself pointed out that the present rendition of the last part of the Lord’s Prayer, “and lead us not into temptation,” can be confusing. God does not tempt anyone. As St. James tells us in his letter, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” (Jm 1:13) The original Greek, “lead us not” means both “do not allow us to enter…” and “do not let us yield to…”.
Temptation is a reality that is absolutely terrifying. What power do we have against the devil? We know that on our own, we are totally helpless. The good news is that in Jesus we do not have a kind of saviour,“ who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.” (Hb 4:15) If we allow him into our lives, we can overcome every temptation with his power.
Our temptations in daily life are not always big. They are often small and petty. But if we are not careful, little temptations can lead us to bigger ones. Children who start with cheating during quizzes eventually turn into corrupt leaders in business and government. Remember, how David’s indecent curiosity gradually led him to covetousness, adultery, lying and finally murder? Fortunately, God’s infinite mercy is ever ready to take a repentant sinner back to grace.
During lent, the Church presents the three traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as ideal acts of penance. They lead the sinner to conversion and facilitate his return to God. These classic penitential practices are also the best antidote for temptation.
According to spiritual writers, the sources of temptation are the world, the flesh and the devil. To win against the devil one needs the power of God himself, which is accessible only in prayer.
The flesh refers to our own inner weakness. Because of original sin, we are all born with concupiscence, a kind of built-in inclination towards evil. To counteract this negative inclination, we need to strengthen and discipline our will by acts of self-denial. This is what fasting is all about.
The world is the third source of temptation since it promotes avarice for wealth, power, fame and pleasure. Such greed generates an unending and insatiable movement towards the self which can never fill or satisfy. This movement can only be stopped by the opposite movement of self-emptying and detachment. The outward movement from self to others is the movement of love. Hence, the best antidote for worldly temptation is charity which is typified by almsgiving.
Mark ends his short account of the temptation of Jesus by saying that “the angels ministered to him.” Every temptation, however formidable, when faced together with Jesus ends with angels ministering to us.
In her autobiography, “The Long Loneliness,” Dorothy Day tells of her long and painful desert experience when she converted to Catholicism. She had just given birth to her child, broken up with the man she deeply loved, lost all support (financial, moral, social…) from her former circle of acquaintances. In desperation, she went to Washington and spent the day at the National Shrine of Our Lady, pouring her heart out, “Lord, I have left everything, and I have nothing left but you. Do something for I can’t hold it any much longer.”
That night, as she returned home, she met a man at her apartment, Peter Maurin, a former Christian Brother. Together, they would found the Catholic Worker newspaper which would initiate a great movement of welcoming homes and farming communes.
Biblically speaking, Dorothy was in the desert, alone and helpless, with no support but her trust in God. And as God did with Jesus in the desert, he “sent angels to minister to her.”*