Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Devil in Our Desert

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days He was tempted by the devil. (Luke 4.1-2)

No Arguments, No Equivocation

I’d always been “the skinny kid” until middle age kicked me in the gut. And it was some kick. The men on both sides of my family bear their excess weight around the middle. So that’s where mine collected. Gradually, my 30-inch waist rounded up to 36. A six-inch expansion over two decades may not seem like much to a lot of folks. But it was shameful to me, as it signified lack of discipline. I wasn’t fighting temptation’s power over me. Worse yet, when I considered the only alternative—diet and exercise—I consciously surrendered to temptation. Even though I knew my behavior wasn’t healthy, I had all kinds of rationale for attitudes and behaviors that masked unwillingness to resist temptation as defiance.

First, there was the notion that monitoring my diet and working out wasn’t “me.” I’d never had to do either one. How dare changes in body chemistry force me to change! Second, I abhorred the gay stereotype of the calorie-counting gym rat. I’ve always viewed that as an indicator of vanity in some, insecurity in others. Yet it grew increasingly obvious that “defiance” of the aging process and cultural stereotypes was harming me. My corkscrew logic didn’t work. I knew that. And I had to stop pretending I didn’t.

In January, Walt announced, “We’re getting you back in shape.” Because I know he loves me—will always love me—regardless of my physique, I knew his motives were pure. What’s more, he sealed the deal by saying, “We’re going to do this together.” Now Walt has never battled his weight. So volunteering to take this journey with me moved me to act. He threw out all the junk food and assumed the onerous task of ensuring we get to the gym every day. Then we had a long talk about my behavior when he’s not around—when I’m traveling, for instance, and he’s not there to monitor what I do. “You have to commit to making right choices on your own,” he said. “When that little voice tells you it’s okay because I’m not there, you have to shut it down. No arguments. No equivocation. Just, ‘No!’” So far, things are going well. It’s not always easy or pleasant. But now that I’ve fixed my attitude, I’ve discovered overcoming temptation is its own act of defiance—the kind of defiance that chooses health over harm, strength of mind over weakness of body. If all goes well, in a few months’ time, I should be back to my old self again. Except for one big difference: getting the “real me” back will require the “current me” to change. That’s what I’m learning with each new day.

Right Choices
When we open Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 4.1-13) to read of Jesus’s wilderness temptation, we take stock of what’s actually happening. He’s just left the Jordan, where God has audibly claimed Him as God’s chosen Son. He’s never been more sure of Who He is. The stories of His miraculous conception and birth, His adolescent curiosity about godly things—all of it suddenly makes sense. And when the Spirit steers Him into the desert, He brings more than certainty of Self with Him. Based on His future encounters with the Pharisees, we know Jesus is deeply suspicious of religious stereotypes. Before He begins His ministry, He will need to reconcile the singularity of His calling with the context of His culture. It is essential that He present the “real” Jesus to the world, rather than merely defy the appearance and trappings of religious norms.

Jesus knows that God loves Him without measure. He knows God will stay with Him during this struggle. (If He doubts any of this, why go into the desert at all?) Yet, as the story advances, it’s obvious that Jesus is led into the wilderness to test His ability to make the right choices on His own. In the temptations put before Him one hears the tempter say, “You’re out here by Yourself. No one need ever know You’ve had a few momentary lapses. Why put Yourself through this?” The devil is very crafty in designing specific challenges for Jesus—three in all, each targeting a potential weakness: confidence of Self that suggests He can eat anything He pleases; the promise of commanding worldly respect by defying stereotype; and the opportunity to prove His faith in God by forcing God to rescue Him. The nature of these temptations may not reflect those we normally face. But they’re transparent in their attempts to destroy Jesus. He sees through the scam. He knows what’s promised can never be delivered. Once the devil is convinced Jesus’s faith is secure, he leaves—although Luke ends story on an ominous note, saying the struggle will resume at a more “opportune time.”

Our Responsibility

What does this story say about our lives, the tests we undergo, and the Lenten journey we undertake? First, there will be times when the Spirit leads into wildernesses where we’re tempted, intentionally to teach us the importance of making right choices. God goes with us, but leaves the decisions solely to us. Simply knowing we’re God’s beloved children doesn’t exempt us from tests. And when we’re tested, we’re wise not to dismiss it lightly. Because we’ve been immune to temptation’s harms in the past doesn’t guarantee immunity. Because we’ve never had problems with certain attitudes and behaviors doesn’t mean they will never be problematic. And we must be very conscious that we’re every bit as vulnerable as anyone else to vanities and insecurities we want to defy. We have to make right choices. It doesn’t matter who is or isn’t watching. Every decision carries real consequences that can reshape us into people we were never meant to be.

The devil in our desert knows us all too well. It knows the games we play to justify unhealthy thoughts and actions. It knows that God’s protection stops short of preventing us from harming ourselves. That’s our responsibility. Yet while decisions we make are ours alone, we are not alone. We combat the diabolical voice that says, “It’s okay—nobody’s looking,” with our Maker’s voice. Not only during Lent, but always, we hear God say, “Let’s get you into shape.” When we’re tested, we follow Jesus’s example. No arguments. No equivocation. Just, ‘No!’” Too often yielding to temptation masks itself as a better choice than doing the hard of work of self-denial and spiritual exercise. But in the end, it’s a lousy decision and we eventually discover that getting back to the “real us” will require the “current us” to change. We choose health over harm, strength of mind over weakness of body. It’s a lesson we learn and relearn with each new day.

The devil in our desert knows us all too well and targets our potential weaknesses. What we do in response to temptation is a choice we must make on our own.


Sherry Peyton said...

Ahh, such wise words Tim. We have so many ways of avoiding facing up to who we are and what we need do. It's so easy to persuade ourselves that we can shirk our responsibilities. Henri Nouwen spoke of these temptations and the one I remember most is the third--teling Jesus to jump and let God save him. He reflected that it was our human desire to show off that was our stumbling block oftimes. We naturally like to be noticed by others and applauded for our talents. Humility comes from recognizing that we are nothing without God and acknowledging that all the good we do is His doing, not ours. We are merely the hands, feet and mouth that does the grunt work. Our best work is usually done without fanfair and without anyone even knowing. Thank you for reminding me of this important lesson. Blessings.

Tim said...

Sherry, I think you tap into a major reason why we so often fail to overcome temptation--this need to prove something about ourselves. Either it's "I can handle it," or, "The rules don't apply to me," or "God will save me." It all boils down to the proverb, "Pride goes before a fall."

It is, as you say, in humility that we rise above temptation.

Thanks so much for this thought. It adds much clarity to the post!