The First Sunday of Lent
We tend to think of temptation in terms of will-power. For Lent, we resolve to do or give up something, to take on some practice that aligns with our ideas about what might be spiritually good for us…
If we’re disinclined to stay with it at some point, we stir ourselves up to push through or berate ourselves if we fall. To “prepare ourselves for trials” means to work ourselves up into a froth of effort and spiritual ambition. But this doesn’t really have much to do with the gospel.
In fact in a passage concerning the need to follow the Spirit rather than our own arbitrary plans, that great classic of the spiritual life, Abandonment to Divine Providence states simply: “Conscious effort is directly contrary to inspired action: this only comes through peace and serenity.”
When we are aligned with the Spirit the right action arises with a sense of inevitability. It may then require strenuous work but there’s no real question of doing otherwise.
The heart of the gospel is trust. Jesus preaches about trust more than any other subject, and demonstrates the deepest possible trust in going to the cross, when he says like Job, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”
The heart of the gospel is trust because the heart of the passions and so the root of temptation is fear. Fear that we are not really children of God, fear that we’ll be abandoned.
Satan challenges Jesus: “IF you are the Son of God…” he sows doubt, demands proof, and invites presumption.
Jesus is hungry and alone in the wilderness. Satan touches the fear that Jesus is not the son, that God will not provide. His extreme physical hunger adds urgency to the temptation to provide for himself instead of waiting on God.
Instead Jesus “overaccepts” the challenge, as though to say, “Yes, I am a weak creature and very hungry, but I am a human being and have a still deeper hunger for the bread of God’s word. And I already have this bread in abundance, it is on my lips and in my heart…”
From tempting him to not trust the devil shifts to enticing Jesus to reckless presumption: “Throw yourself down!” But Jesus leaves God free and will not put him to the test. On the cross, he will embrace death and be raised up but in God’s time and way, when his mission has reached its ripeness. Jesus waits on God and refuses to run ahead in an attempt to assuage his own fear.
In the third temptation, Satan again changes tactics. He reveals to Jesus the extent of his influence: how all the kingdoms of the earth are within his power. Jesus must trust that God is still God, despite his seeming absence in the face of evil.
“Conscious effort is directly contrary to inspired action: this only comes through peace and serenity.” Jesus goes into the desert not because he thinks he ought to do a little spiritual weight-lifting but because he is driven by the Spirit. His responses to temptation are “inspired action” and flow from trust, waiting, and acceptance, not will-power.
On Tuesday we read the beautiful text from Sirach, “When you come to serve the Lord…prepare yourself for trials.” At its root, the trial concerns whether we trust God or give into fear.
Sirach invites us to the kind of radical equanimity Jesus models: “incline your ear and receive the word of understanding, undisturbed in time of adversity…Wait on God; accept whatever befalls you and be patient; trust God and God will help you…trust in him and he will direct your way.”
It’s not that God doesn’t help us if we fail to trust but the more we trust the more we open ourselves to receive and savor his peace and guidance.
So this Lent instead of focusing on giving up or taking on this or that we could really listen for the voice of the Lord day by day. That’s the reason after all that we step into the desert, reduce the distraction and stimulation in our everyday lives. Not as an end in itself, but to better hear and respond to his voice.
If we really simplify our lives and move into the desert, then before long our fears will surface. In God’s time and way, we’ll be stretched and challenged to grow in trust.
We’re not alone in this desert struggle. In the eucharist this morning Jesus shares with us his own spirit of trust and gives us courage to face whatever temptations await us this Lent.