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The Blessings of Temptation

Lent is this season where we spend a lot of time talking about how we’re preparing for Easter. For many people, Lent has often been cast as a season of punishment, as though we’re clothing being beaten against the rocks to try and clean us up in time for the Paschal celebration.

It is true that Lent is a season of self-examination and reflection as ways to prepare. It is also true that these disciplines, if we’re honest about them, often reveal things about ourselves that we realize are in need of some attention, some repentance, and that oftentimes this is not easy or fun work. We are reminded of the times that we have been tempted in large and small ways. We are also reminded of the times that we have given in to the temptation and behaved in selfish, greedy, and hurtful ways.

This is hard work, but we are not called to reflect on these moments so that we might wallow in shame and fear of God’s wrath. We are called to reflect on these moments so that we might repair the harm we have done, such as we are able; that we might learn from them and not repeat our mistakes; and that we might learn the ways in which being tempted, strange as it sounds, is a blessing.

To be tempted, in simplest terms, means to be offered the opportunity to acquire or do something that we want. In English the term always carries with it a negative connotation. When we are tempted, we are being offered something that we might want, but know that we should not indulge in. Usually this is because seizing the opportunity will harm us or someone else. The harm might be small, as with an extra helping of an unhealthy dessert, or it might be great, such as building a fortune on the exploited labour of one’s neighbours.

When we hear the story of Jesus retreating from the clamour of his baptism into the silence of the wilderness and being met their by an adversary who tempts him, this is the way that we hear the story. Temptations to use his divine power in ways that might be immediately satisfying but ultimately harmful to his greater mission. However, it is worth knowing that in Greek the verb which is translated as “to tempt” might also be translated as “to test” or “to try”. We see this in Genesis when God “tempts” Abraham. God surely is not tempting the patriarch to things immoral and sinful. Rather, God is testing Abraham’s faith and resolve.

In this way, we might think of the temptation more like a test. Engineers test concrete and steel and all of the other parts of building to degrees of stress that they will never experience in their true applications. This ensures their durability and safety when used in construction. One could think of these stress tests ans tempting the materials to fail. To see how far they can go before losing their integrity. This is a more accurate, and possibly more helpful, way of thinking about Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness. Rather than being offered the divine, first century version of too much chocolate cake, it is Jesus’s faith and resolve for his mission which are being tested.

Jesus, led by the Spirit, has headed to the wilderness to reflect, plan, and settle himself before setting out on his earthly ministry leading toward the Cross. A major part of Jesus’s deliberation is how to attract, find, and recruit the right people to help him, to learn of God’s plan, and to carry on the work when Jesus’s time on earth is over. As ever, from those first moments with humanity in Eden, God seeks to work in cooperation with us.

A lone verdant green tree stands in the midst of an otherwise barren landscape.

Jesus’s time in the wilderness, including the moments of temptation, set a pattern for us to follow. Jesus is alone in the wilderness, but in the course of his meditation, prayer, and reflection, he becomes aware of opportunities that he has to use his gifts in particular ways. Ways that would benefit him greatly, but that would not be in the spirit of the gifts. Jesus wrestles mightily with these possibilities, these tests, these temptations. It would be so simple to do what is best for himself, selfishly, rather than what is best for everyone. We know, of course, that Jesus wrestles with three great temptations and emerges victorious, maintaining himself as fully human though without sin.

Of course, these moments in the wilderness are not the only time that Jesus faces temptation. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will be tempted by the voice of Peter, encouraging him to turn away from the Way of the Cross and preserve his own life. And, of course, in Gethsemane, the night before the Crucifixion, Jesus struggles deeply with the witness to which he is called.

We will always be tempted and tested through our gifts. The possibility of misusing that with which God has entrusted us. God’s gifts are always given in trust and with the intention that they be used for the benefit of all. The fact that they are gifts also makes them dangerous points of temptation. No adversary is going to tempt me with feats of great athleticism; my body is thoroughly broken and even before those incidents I was never going to be a great athlete. But, how many clergy—and all sorts of people given authority by their communities—have been tested, tempted, and fallen victim to the temptation that they could use that authority for their own gain rather than the good of all? It is in these temptations, heard most strongly as we wrestle with our gifts, that we may also realize that temptation can be a blessing.

It would be easy for Jesus to justify his actions if he had taken any of the adversary’s suggestions. It would be entirely justifiable for Jesus to turn some of the many rocks in the wilderness into bread using his divine power to do so. It would satisfy his own hunger, but he could also use the food to feed hungry people. Surely that is a good, noble, and godly act. And it is an act that would attract followers to his cause. Surely this would be justified.

But God sent Jesus to heal. To restore people and communities to wholeness. Jesus was not sent to only treat symptoms. Feeding hungry people is good and holy work—this parish know this truth well. But we must also address the cause of the hunger and work to right the perversion of God’s abundance that creates hunger in the first place. Both of these must happen for our work to be truly aligned with God’s will, and Jesus knows this. Jesus knows that simply turning rocks to bread treats only the symptom, not the heart of the disease.

In Lent, as we reflect and pray about our own lives, we may be tempted to treat symptoms and pat ourselves on the back. We are called, of course, to do the harder, deeper work and follow the symptom to its root and work at true healing in our lives. Bread is important but, as Jesus says, it is not bread alone by which we have life. This realization and the opportunity for true healing is the first blessing of temptation.

Then there is the temptation posed to Jesus of falling without injury. Surely this miraculous act will attract attention and followers to Jesus’s cause. This is justifiable for it demonstrates the power and glory of God and leaves no doubt that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Yes, surely this one can be justified.

Unfortunately, those who come to Jesus attracted only by signs, wonders, and miracles suffer from a kind of addiction. Last month’s miracle becomes today’s commonplace and we need something newer, grander, and more exciting to continue persuading us of the value of the miracle-worker. We see this every day. In my own life I have gone from being amazed at the possibility of a very slowly loading live weather feed from the University of Manitoba to being perpetually irritated by the deluge of information arriving every second on the phone in my pocket. Last month’s miracle is today’s commonplace and too much even of a good thing becomes unhelpful and unpleasant.

When we are greedy for signs and wonders and we base our faith on constant proofs from God, demanding that God satisfy our Greed, we have missed the point. We are called to trust that God will provide, not to put God to the test. There are plenty of moments in every single day for God to demonstrate the divine faithfulness and steadfastness. We do not need to become the tempters, demanding God work miracles to satisfy our curiosity and ennui. Recognizing that we can trust God and place all of our faith in God’s promises without demanding constant proof is the second blessing of temptation.

Finally, in this portion of the Gospel, we hear the temptation to side with the tempter. Jesus is offered all of the people and every kingdom in the world if he will just side with his adversary. Wink at evil and cross his fingers behind his back when making a few promises. Just a little compromise on God’s plan. Surely all of those people coming to the aid of Jesus’s mission would be worth the compromise, wouldn’t it?

It might be a quick and simple avenue, but the people who would come to Jesus in this way wouldn’t be there because of him, his mission, his witness, or the kingdom he reveals. They would be there because they, too, were tempted by the adversary. These followers would be coming with their own unhealthy compromises and chasing the glittering images placed before them, not because of the truth of the Way of the Cross that leads to eternal life. They’d be signing up for an incomplete, skewed, flawed representation of what Jesus was really about. Imagine making weddings vows with your fingers crossed; this is what the tempter is proposing to Jesus here.

Of course, Jesus rejects this and, in so doing, reveals to us the third blessing of temptation: a reminder of where one stands and the opportunity to reinforce one’s relationship to God. Rejecting the temptation to compromise and make a deal that does an end run around God restores and strengthens the holiness of our relationship with our maker. As we journey through Lent and examine our lives, we are called to look for places where we may have bent a bit, compromised on our ethics. When we find them, we are called to work to restore those places to their intended reflections of what is beautiful, good, and true, becoming windows through which others might catch a glimpse of God.

For the example set for us by Jesus and for a loving God who desires always our health and an ever-closer communion with us, thanks be to God.

Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash

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