A young college student went to confession to begin the Season of Lent. He shared with the priest that he had been experiencing many temptations over the past months. The old priest asked, “well my son, have you been entertaining these temptations?” “Oh, no, Father,” replied the young man, “but they sure have entertained me!”
Over recent years, the expectations for Lent seem to have changed. In years gone by, a focus was on giving something(s) up: for many people this might mean cold drinks, alcohol, sweets, a favorite t.v. show, even meat …. then there was an emphasis on doing something positive …. for example, reading scripture, volunteering at a soup kitchen, being patient with those we find difficult. Both approaches require discipline and focus — both approaches can lead to a change of heart.
Regardless of the approach we take, the FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT traditionally calls us to face the subject of temptation, the reality of temptation.
In the brief Gospel selection for this weekend (Mark 1:12-15), we hear that Jesus was driven out into the desert — where he remained for 40 days — and where he was tempted by Satan. He was among the wild beasts — and the angels ministered to him.
Now, there may be a few rugged folks among us who camp in remote areas of the world where they might be among wild beasts. For most of us, the closest we get to wild beasts is the Discovery Channel on t.v. or a visit to the zoo. More than likely, Jesus really did have to live and sleep with wild beasts around him … he had to be wise enough to stay away from these creatures looking for a good meal. AT THE SAME TIME, the image of the wild beasts also symbolically represents the savagery of temptations … and the death they could cause.
Entertaining temptations can be like playing with fire — entertaining temptations can be like INVITING the wild beasts into our homes where we live, eat, and sleep. However, facing temptations can ALSO BE A SPIRITUAL OPPORTUNITY — a place to encounter God and to feel the power of the “angels” ministering to us.
First and foremost: temptation is not sin. To be tempted is not sinful. Jesus was tempted … all of us have been tempted, we are being tempted, and we will be tempted.
Let’s go back a moment … I said that in our temptations we have a chance to encounter God. What do I mean? Well, when we face our temptation(s) honestly and directly, God reveals to us who we are at that moment. When we name our temptation — when we see what we are tempted to do — or not do — when are seeing ourselves in a mirror — we see ourselves as God sees us at that moment. Our temptation(s) tell us a lot about what is going on in our life at the moment.
In his book The Good Book, Peter Gomes tells us how we might deal with our temptations without incurring sin or the guilt of sin. He offers four steps — (1) NAME THE TEMPTATION …Dealing with temptation in general is one thing; dealing with the temptation to steal or to lie — dealing with the temptation of computer porn — dealing with the temptation to goof off at work — is a totally different issue. If we really want to move beyond where we are, then we must first name the temptation that we face. Be utterly honest with ourself. (2) We must name the tempter — which keeps us from rationalizing. “The reason I had to lie to my wife is because she would not understand,” is very different from I am afraid to tell the truth,” or “deep down I know I am wrong but I want to do it anyway.” (3) Number three, we must practice some form of resistance. If tv is a problem for us, then do not turn it on. I am sure you have heard the old joke about the man who had real trouble with donuts. Once he started, he could not stop at one or two. Before he finished he would eat six or 8. So, he decided he would change is route to work so as to avoid the bakery. Then one day, he walked into the office with sugar all over his face and his co-workers asked what happened. He said, he was not paying attention as he drove and all of a sudden, he was back on his usual route and the bakery was in the next block. He said a quick prayer to God: if you do not want me to stop at the bakery, make sure there is no parking place in front. His co-workers asked what happened? Well, the man said, on the ninth trip around the block, lo and behold, there was a parking spot. Those in a 12 step program know, that to keep from taking the second step, they must not take the first step. Resistance is key. Finally, (4) when we are battling temptations, we may need the help, the support of others —- through prayer, through mass during the week, by asking the advice of someone who has already dealt with this issue, asking others to pray for us and to challenge us ….just as God sent the angels to minister to Jesus, God will provide the help we need, if we ask for it, and we are open to it.
Many of us would run if we saw a mouse running around our house. Some people screech at the sight of a roach. We would never allow a hungry wolf to sleep by the side of our bed. But, not facing temptation is like allowing the wolf into our sacred, safe place. It is impossible to train a temptation ….
Let’s not beat ourselves up about the temptations we face … temptations are not sins. Temptations need not cause us great guilt. Giving into a temptation can lead us to a place we really do not want to be.
As we continue on our Lenten Journey, let’s take a good look at our hearts, our minds, our mouths, and our actions. Are we ignoring temptations in our midst?
Take heart and be courageous — God remains with us in the deserts of our lives.