Has there ever been a society so full of temptations and so well-designed to help us slip into them? Judging from the current debt load in Canada, we can see how consumerism has tempted us. Walk down any street, and there’s the temptation to buy something – and easy credit to buy it now and figure out how to pay later. We are easily tempted to work longer, to worry more about the wrong things. It feels as if at every step, temptations are thrown in our paths. Some temptations we recognize; some we fall prey to without even knowing it.
For the last two weeks, our gospel lessons have been all about temptation, cast in literal form as Satan, the devil on our shoulder. Last week, we had a brief reference to the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, to which Satan pays a visit. Today, we have Jesus himself invoking Satan, when Peter objects to his describing the journey to the Cross as inevitable.
These are two very different kinds of temptation; the first is self-serving; the second is an act of love. But both are really about the inward questions we all ask ourselves.
Up until this point, the people making life tricky for Jesus were earthly ones – religious leaders, questioning disciples. He did pretty well with them. The criticisms of the religious leaders he turned back upon themselves. The questions from the disciples became teaching moments for his ministry.
But those were external forces. In the wilderness, he was battling with himself. We can imagine it as a literal confrontation with Satan, who, if you recall, promises him wealth, and, when that fails, demands Jesus prove his own greatness. But ultimately, those really sound like internal questions: Do I deserve more? Am I doing the right thing? Can I handle this responsibility? Those are very human questions, questions posed by someone wrestling with inner temptations.
It is the same with Peter. Jesus responds so sternly – calling one of his closest disciples by the name Satan – that it suggests we should look for the subtext. Jesus, facing a difficult choice, could not handle any doubters, lest his own doubts creep in. Peter was trying to show his support for Jesus, but he did it in a way that only gave voice to the temptations Jesus was dealing with, the ones beckoning to him to give up. Who hasn’t had a loved one, truly well-meaning, do the same?
This is the potential power of our own 40-day journey through Lent. We, too, are called to wrestle with those questions – to identify our own temptations, to determine a plan to resist them, and to define who we are with a better response to them. And we are tasked with seeing the times when, however good our intentions, we have been like Peter, unsupportively supporting, giving them an excuse when they didn’t want to take the easy way out.
Now, I would not presume to know what your temptations are. I do know my own. And that’s probably the easy step in the Lenten journey. Because I bet pretty much of all us can name, with just a little thought, the parts of ourselves that are so easily tempted to leap off the gospel’s path. Maybe you’re a critic when you should be a cheerleader. Maybe you make promises and don’t keep them – even when you know you should. Maybe you give up on people too easily. Maybe you give up on yourself too easily. This part is important: we have to be able to name it to fix it. We all have to do our own time in the wilderness. So take some time, take a hard look, and don’t flinch.
In the end, though, for many of us, I image the most painful temptation is going to be the voice we have been hearing all our lives, the one that says you aren’t pretty enough, you aren’t smart enough, you aren’t good enough. Ultimately that’s the voice Satan falls back on with Jesus, raising doubt about his character, his true value. Satan basically asks Jesus, are you really worth all this fuss? And Peter, in his own moment of panic, was like that same internal voice, questioning the value of the choice facing Jesus. That internal voice – our own creation – is often not very kind to us.
So what do we do with it? What is next for the rest of the time in our Lenten wilderness, after our temptations have been laid out to taunt us, our weaknesses outlined in front of us? Well, it wouldn’t be long before we all felt pretty lousy; there’s nothing more depressing – and more dysfunctional – than stewing in our own imperfections and failings, whether true or not.
So our next step, then, is to enter into the conversation: we have to be like Jesus in the wilderness. He didn’t ignore the questions posed by Satan. He answered them. And each time he did, he learned a truth about himself. But the framing of his answers is important. When Satan, if you recall, offered a partnership, Jesus defined himself by the relationship to God that he already had. When Satan challenged him to prove his power, he said, God knows what I can do already; I have nothing to prove. When Satan promised him riches, he said, actually, I need more than money to live well.
One of the best forms of counseling that we learn about in seminary is the one that moves past ruminating about all the stuff that goes wrong and focuses on changing the conversation, finding an answer when that voice shouts at us about being unworthy. Just this week, I read about a researcher suggesting that the best way to change a bad habit was to focus on overlapping it with a good habit. If you want to stop eating chocolate cake, create the good habit of eating more vegetables.
In our house, when we focused on what we would do for the next 40 days, it became clear that the best goals were the “I will try to,” or “I will do more of.” Those were the goals that added something to our lives, rather than focusing on dodging temptation.
Jesus shows us how to deal with temptation. We do not need to waste time focusing on what we are already getting wrong. We are invited to create a better plan, to drown out that voice with something positive. And be that voice for others. Amen.