How to Resist Temptation
March 9, 2003
Mark 1:12 –15
A young couple was going through financial problems, and they were both working hard to keep their heads above the water. They put in extra hours of overtime, saving everything that they could just to make ends meet. One Saturday morning the wife said to her husband, “I am going to go to the mall today. I know that we don’t have any money to spend, but it’s been so long since I’ve been shopping and I really just need a break.”
And so she went. An hour and a half later she came back with a red dress that cost $250. Her husband couldn’t believe it. “Honey” he said, “we can’t afford a purchase like this.” “I know,” she said, “but it all happened so easily. I was walking through the women’s department and there was this dress, this red dress, out on display. Then I heard a voice which said, ‘You would look terrific in that dress.’ Now I knew at once it was the devil. And so I tried to resist. But the voice continued, ‘I know you don’t have the money for this dress, but you need not buy it. Just try it on to see how it looks. What harm could there be in that?’ So I put it on and went to the mirror. It did look great. The devil said, ‘You look fantastic! It looks like you have lost ten pounds. It’s amazing what this one dress does for you!’”
The husband shook his head and said, “Honey you knew it was the devil, I don’t understand why didn’t you just say no? Why didn’t you say what Jesus says in the gospels, ‘Get behind me Satan’?” The woman responded, “I did say that. I used those very words. I said, ‘Get behind me Satan!’” “And?” her husband said. “And then,” the woman continued, “the devil said, ‘you look mighty fine from back here too.’”
Since we are human, we will be tempted. We will be lured to make decisions that are not the best choices for ourselves or for others. We do not need to be embarrassed about temptation. Everyone experiences it. Jesus himself was tempted, as is made clear in today’s gospel. It is, however, important to know how to deal with temptation — how to make choices that will truly benefit us rather than hurt us.
Temptation is really about freedom, having the freedom to say no to those things that will harm us and the freedom to say yes to those things that will help us. This is why it is important to cultivate the right orientation towards temptation.
You see often we approach temptation and the season of Lent which begins this week by placing too much emphasis on what is negative. We center too much on sin. What Lent is about is not so much saying no to sin, as saying yes to the Kingdom of God. The freedom that we are looking for is not freedom from our faults, but rather freedom for God’s purposes in our lives. The more we can understand what freedom is for, the easier it will be to avoid temptation in our lives. As long as the woman in the story concentrated on the dress and how good she looked in it and how much she wanted it, it was difficult to say no to the temptation. But if she could have instead realized that her saying no was in fact an act of love towards her family, an act of cooperation with her husband to solve the financial difficulty in their household, she would have found more power to resist.
In a similar way as you and I approach this Lenten season, our emphasis should not be simply on what we seek to avoid, but rather on the goodness that will result if we can in fact resist it. We might decide to avoid over-eating, drinking or smoking. However, we will find more power and energy if instead of simply saying these things are bad for us, we can realize that saying no to them will make us a healthier person. A healthier person will have more life and energy, energy that can be used in doing good for others. We might try to reduce the time that we vegetate before the television or the computer screen. However, we will find more power if instead of simply trying to avoid wasting time we realize how the time we save can be applied to the things that really matter. We can use the time we save to spend with our family and our friends, to help those in need. As we try to resist the temptation to criticize, to judge, to be jealous, we will find more energy and power if instead of simply seeing these things as faults to avoid, we can realize that by resisting them we can build a life that is more thankful, more positive, more joyful.
If we seek to avoid temptation, we must emphasize that which is most positive and most powerful. Power comes from the goodness that our actions generate. The freedom that really moves us is not the freedom from sin, but the freedom for God’s Kingdom. Let us keep this freedom in mind as we proceed into this Lenten season. In this holy time we should ask ourselves not “how can I say no to sin,” but “how can I say yes to God?”
Who Is Responsible: God or Us?
March 5, 2006
Mark 1: 12 – 15
One of my favorite religious sayings comes from St. Ignatius of Loyola. You have heard this before, but here it is again. Ignatius says, “We must work as if everything depends on us, but we must pray as if everything depends on God.”
What this quotation is trying to straddle is the difficult issue of how God’s action and our action connect. It is asking the question: how much of our life is in our hands and how much of our life is in God’s hands? What I love about this quotation is that does not give the most logical or common sense answer to the question. The logical answer would say: part of my life I must keep in my hands and part of my life I must place in God’s hands. There are some things I should do for myself and other things which I must entrust to God. This common sense approach divides our life into parts, and however you do the numbers (whether they are 50/50 or 90/10) part of our life is our responsibility and the other part is God’s responsibility.
Contrary to this logical, common sense way of approaching the question, Ignatius says that we must take full responsibility for our life. We must ask what must I do to be a good parent, spouse or friend. How must I learn to listen or compromise? What do I need to do to be effective in my work? What new systems or approaches do I need to put in place? What steps do I need to take to reconcile a broken relationship? What things can I do to assist someone in need? We must always use our intellect, draw from our experiences and make our best decisions in order to determine how we should live and what we should do. It is not acceptable to say “This is too much for me. I will just put this in God’s hands”. It is not appropriate for us to say, “I think I’ll just say a prayer and let things fall out as they may.” No, Ignatius says we must work as if everything depends on us. But—and this is an important—at the very same time, we must realize that everything depends on God. We must realize that our ultimate success as a parent or a spouse or a friend is totally dependent on God’s will. We must understand that if our work is really going to be successful and bear fruit it depends upon God’s guidance and strength. We must realize that God alone is the one who can reconcile us in our broken relationships and allow our good deeds truly to help others.
Therefore, according to Ignatius, we cannot divide our life into parts: this much is my responsibility and this much is God’s responsibility. Instead, we are 100% responsible for our life and the same time God is 100% responsible. We must always use all of our resources to determine the way we should live and at the same time realize that our life is totally in God’s hands.
This brings us to today’s gospel on this first Sunday of Lent. On the first Sunday of Lent every year we hear a version of Jesus’ temptation. Today the passage is from Mark. This is the one version that never tells us the content of Jesus’ temptation. It says simply, “Jesus was tempted by Satan.” This lack of information allows us to generalize the temptation and realize that Jesus experienced the same temptations in life which we experience. Certainly one of the most fundamental temptations is the issue we have been discussing: how to find the right connection between our actions and God’s actions.
In finding that connection, there is a temptation for us to reduce either our responsibility or God’s responsibility. Which way we move depends on the people we are. Some of us are tempted to reduce our own responsibility. Because it is too difficult to deal with a particular person or problem, I will let God take care of it. I will say a prayer and drop it into God’s hands. If that is the temptation for you, then Lent asks you to claim full responsibility for your life, to realize you are responsible. You must think, decide, and act. Other people may be tempted to reduce God’s responsibility, to say there is an area of life which I can accomplish on my own. There is no need to ask for God’s help, because in this area I am self-sufficient. If you are tempted to see a part of your life where prayer is unnecessary and where you can survive on your own wits and talents, Lent reminds you that God has 100% responsibility for your life. Any success occurs only because God is supporting you. God’s rule over your life is complete.
So take any part of you life, take any problem, any project, any dream. Ask yourself whether you have the connection right? Do you realize that you are completely responsible and at the same time God is completely responsible. If you feel the temptation to reduce that responsibility on either side of the connection, then this season of Lent calls you to refocus, to adjust, to recover the basic Christian vision: We must work as if everything depends on us, but we must pray as if everything depends on God.
Surviving in the Desert
March 1, 2009
On the first Sunday of every Lent we find Jesus in the wilderness. He is in the desert without food, without shelter. He is tempted by Satan. We have three accounts in the gospels of Jesus’ temptation. The one in Mark, which we have just read, is the shortest—only two verses. But its brevity does not reduce its meaning.
I think the most important detail about this gospel is that if Jesus is in the desert, he did not choose to go there. Mark says that immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drove him out into the desert. Being in the wilderness was not a part of Jesus’ plan, but nevertheless he found himself there in barrenness and isolation. This detail invites us to ask whether we can locate deserts in our own lives. Are there barren circumstances in which we find ourselves and into which we have not chosen to come?
Perhaps these barren places are caused by the financial situation in which many of us find ourselves: fearing for our jobs, dealing with reduced income, worrying about our future. We didn’t choose this situation, but here we are, and there doesn’t seem all that much we can do about it. Perhaps there is a barren place in our life caused by sickness, either physical or emotional. We find ourselves coping with disease either in our own lives or in the lives of someone that we love. We didn’t choose to have this evil in our lives. But here it is, and we have to face it. Maybe we are dealing with a desert experience because of a failure in a relationship: a fiancé who rejected us, a marriage that came to an end, the loss of a friend. We didn’t choose that these relationships fall apart. But they have, and now we find ourselves in barrenness and loss.
The gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus, just like us, had to experience periods of barrenness and desolation in his life. The gospel also shows us how to deal with those deserts. In just a few words, it describes Jesus’ desert experience, “He was with the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.” What are the deserts of our lives like? They are places in which we find both wild beasts and angels. Both of them are true.
The deserts of our life are populated by wild beasts. Beasts can bite. The evils of our lives are real. They are not illusions. They have teeth. It is a real loss when we find ourselves no longer available to afford the college that a son or daughter wants to attend, or when we have to rethink the viability of retirement. It is painful when someone rejects us in a relationship. There is justified fear when we have to deal with a sickness that will cause us to alter our life significantly and perhaps even brings it prematurely to an end. Our faith does not insure us that we will avoid suffering and pain. The beasts in our desert are real. It is understandable how they frighten us as they circle around us. There is no guarantee that they will not pounce upon us.
But if the beasts in our desert are real, so are the angels. If there is evil in our life, there are also blessings. In the darkest moments there are nevertheless rays of light. In our driest deserts there are moments of grace. And often that grace is more clearly seen when it comes to us in the desert. When we have to deal with financial concerns, they often provide us an opportunity to recognize more deeply the importance of family. When we have to cope with hardships, those hardships give us the opportunity to express love and sacrifice to one another in deeper ways. When some people reject us, it provides the opportunity of us appreciating more deeply the people who still stand with us. When we must depend upon others in our sickness, we can perhaps for the first time realize how deeply we are loved.
Deserts are dangerous places. That is why none of us choose to go there. But when we find ourselves in the wilderness, it is important that we accept the full truth of our circumstances. If there is fear and suffering and pain, there are also God’s blessings. We must both recognize those blessings and embrace them. It is only by accepting our blessings that we will survive.
After forty days Jesus came out of the desert. We believe that we too in time will be able to come out of the deserts of our lives. But as long as we have to remain in those waste places, it is important to recognize the complexity of our situation. There is not only evil, there is also grace. There is not only fear, there is also blessing. God is with us in the wilderness and we must never forget that. Even as we cope with the fear of the wild beasts, we must not ignore the angels. We must find them and let them minister to us.
When Do the Angels Come?
February 26, 2012
Three of our gospels tell us that at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he spent forty days in the wilderness. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that during that time in the wilderness he was tempted by the devil. Although three gospels report this event, there are interesting differences in the way that they present the story. Matthew and Mark both tell us that angels ministered to Jesus in the desert. But, they disagree about when the angels come. In Matthew’s account Jesus goes into the desert, fasts for forty days, is hungry, Satan comes, they debate with one another, Jesus tells Satan to leave, and then the angels come and minister to him. But, in Mark’s account, we are simply told that Jesus was in the desert with the devil and angels ministered to him. In Matthew’s account, the angels come after Satan leaves. In Mark’s account the angels are with Jesus all during the temptation.
So, which account is right? I would suggest to you that both are, but in different ways. Each of these gospels captures a specific aspect of our relationship to Christ. Angels, of course, are God’s presence and comfort to us. These two gospels tell us that God is certainly present to us after the temptation ends, but they also assure us that God is with us even as the testing unfolds.
Whenever we experience some difficulty in our life, whenever there is a trial that we have to face, it makes perfect sense for us to look forward to that day when the trial is over. When the forty days are done, we can celebrate our survival and give glory to God. These are the angels to which Matthew points, the angels that come to us after a successful trial has been completed. When these angels arrive, we are able to claim God’s love and presence with us in thankfulness. Mark points to different angels. His angels are with us in the very midst of trial. Mark’s gospel tells us that God does not wait to come to us until Satan leaves, but is with us as we face the difficulties of life. Now, of course, Mark’s angels are more difficult to recognize. It is easy to recognize God’s presence with us once the trial is over, once we end a period of pain. But, it takes real faith for us to see the angels who are with us even as we suffer, even as we struggle.
When we have to face a difficult task, studying for exams in school, or working on some big project at work, it makes perfect sense to look forward to that time when that work has been successfully completed and we can kick back and resume life as usual. When we reach that point, it is easy to thank God for being with us. But, it is also important for us to remember that God is with us as we study for those exams, as we do the work that is necessary, as we struggle through the research that is required to pull our project together. God is with us even as we go through that difficult effort.
When we have to face a difficult medical treatment, it makes perfect sense to look forward to that time when that treatment has been successfully completed. Then we can declare that we are cancer free and give praise to God. But it is even more important that we recognize that God is with us in the midst of the treatment, in the support and care of family and friends, in the courage that allows us to face each day and to take another step forward.
When we have to face difficulty or turmoil in our family or important relationships, we obviously look forward to that day when those relationships will be clarified, when things will be set straight, when our relationship with the people we love will be placed on a new and better footing. But it is crucial for us to remember that God is also with us in the midst of the turmoil and doubt, giving us the patience and wisdom to keep moving forward until our relationships are healed.
No one likes to face the devil. So it makes perfect sense that we look forward to that day when we can leave the desert, when our trial will be over. But today’s gospel tells us that God does not wait to come to us until the devil leaves. From the minute we enter into the desert trials of our lives, God sends angels to walk the sands with us.
Alone with the Devil
February 22, 2015
On this first Sunday of Lent, we find Jesus in the desert with the devil. The devil, of course, is attempting to tempt Jesus to sin. On first reading of this gospel, it appears that Jesus and the devil are not alone. The story tells us that Jesus was with wild beasts and the angels ministered to him. But that is only one way of reading this text. It is also possible to see the presence of the wild beasts and the angels not as additional characters but as descriptions of the ways in which Satan comes to test Jesus. If we adopt this perspective, it is easy to understand how Satan would come to Jesus as a wild beast. The scriptures themselves describe Satan as a roaring lion, prowling about seeking someone to devour. But can we imagine Satan approaching as an angel?
We can. In fact, it is a clever technique of the devil to approach under the guise of something good. On the sidewall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, there is a fresco of today’s gospel, painted by the Italian painter, Botticelli. But when you first approach the picture, you have no idea that its topic is the temptation of Christ. The painting presents Jesus in conversation with a holy man, with a man dressed as a monk in a religious habit and holding a rosary in his hand. It is only when you look at the painting more closely that you see that under the hem of the monk’s habit are two clawed feet. Then you notice that on the back of the monk (out of the sight of Jesus) there are two small black wings. Botticelli understood that the devil does not usually come to us as a wild beast but often approaches dressed in something that is holy and good.
This is an important lesson for us during the season of Lent. During this time we try to turn away from evil. So we should understand that evil seldom comes to us in its true form. Peace is a genuine good. To live in harmony with the people around us, to get along with the people that we know and love is a blessing. But when the desire to keep the peace leads us to be dishonest with our spouse, when the desire to go along with the group prevents us from telling our friends that they are wrong to abuse drugs or alcohol, peace becomes merely a garb to cover something harmful. The devil is pleased to use peace so that we might enable others to fall. That is why we should not be taken in by his deception.
Service is at the heart of the gospel. To give of ourselves, to sacrifice our desires for the sake of another, is following the very example of Christ. But when others use our generosity to manipulate us, when our giving is used to abuse or hurt us, it is no longer a good. The devil rejoices to use our desire to give as a way to enslave us. That is why we must draw boundaries to protect ourselves. That is why we should not accept the sham that the devil presents to us.
Love is Jesus’ greatest commandment. The love of our family and friends is a profound good. But love of the people close to us can be used to diminish those who are different from us. The devil delights in using the love of our family and friends or the love of our country to lessen and denigrate others. That is why we should not fall for his tricks.
If the devil were to come to you as a wild beast, you would run away. But when an angel approaches, you pay attention. Today’s gospel warns you to examine the words of any angel and to look carefully under the hem of his garment. If you see clawed feet there, do not listen. Flee at once.
The Battle With Satan
February 18, 2018
Mark 1: 12-15
Two friends run across one another on the street. “Bob,” one calls out, “It’s been too long. How are you doing? Hey, are you still dating Louise?” “No,” Bob said, “I broke up with her”. “Wow,” said his friend, “The two of you were together for a long time. Wasn’t Louise the one that insisted you quit smoking?” “Yes she was,” said Bob. “And didn’t you stop drinking because Louise asked you to?” “Yes, I did,” said Bob. “And didn’t you give up swearing because you knew it would make her happy?” “Sure did!” said Bob. “And I can be wrong on this, but didn’t you stop gambling because you knew how much it upset her?” “That was one of the best decisions I ever made,” said Bob. “Well, Bob, I don’t get it. You did all of these things to please Louise. Why did you break up with her?” “Well,” Bob said, “When I saw how much improvement I made in myself, I figured I could do better.”
There is nothing wrong with self-improvement, but that is not what Lent is about. Lent is a season of forty days in which we try to follow the command of Jesus in today’s passage from Mark. He says, “Repent. Believe in the gospel.” But what does it mean to believe in the gospel? What is the gospel? What is the good news? There’s many ways to say this, but here are a few. The good news is our belief that God is destroying the evil of this world through Jesus Christ. The gospel is our conviction that God is establishing the Kingdom of God. The gospel is our faith that God is working through Christ to bring about a new creation. The gospel insists that the structures of this world are being rearranged and reformed in order to make them in conformity with God’s will. So, the gospel asserts that things are changing. The kingdom is coming in and evil is going out. And evil, which the scriptures personify in the character of Satan, that evil will be destroyed.
This is why on the first Sunday of Lent, every year, our gospel is one of three versions of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Even though we call these scenes “the temptation” of Jesus, the word that Mark uses is better translated, “test” or “struggle.” So, Jesus goes into the desert to fight with Satan and to defeat him. He does this because this is Jesus’ mission: to defeat Satan and to destroy the evil of our world.
This is the gospel. This is what we are called to believe: God is destroying the evil of this world and establishing the kingdom. But when you look at the evil that surrounds us, this is not an easy belief to accept. When you look at the violence that is still part of our society, recently shown in the shootings in Florida, when you see the dysfunction of our government, when you see how many people in business and in authority seem to be motivated by greed and self-interest, it is hard to believe that evil is on the way out. But this is what we are asked to believe. The gospel insists that the battle with Satan has been engaged, that Jesus will win, and that we are called to join in that battle on Jesus’s side.
So there is nothing wrong with deciding to lose a few pounds during Lent. But it would be more central to the gospel to ask, “Who am I estranged from? Who has hurt me? And can I take any steps to reconcile?” because that would be moving the world closer to the peace of God’s kingdom. There is nothing wrong with giving up cigarettes or alcohol for Lent. But it would be better to ask, “What influence could I exert on the structures of our government to protect the unborn, the immigrants, and the poor?” There is nothing wrong with praying more during Lent. But it is more fundamental to the gospel that we ask, “Where do I see injustice? In my family, at my job, among my friends? And how can I take steps to oppose it?”
Lent is not about self-improvement. Lent places us in the desert with Jesus, facing off against Satan. So this Lenten season, let us believe in the gospel—the gospel that tells us that the battle has begun and that we are called to do our part to undo the evil of our world.