(Joel 2:12-18; 2Cor.5:20-6:2; Mt.6:1-6, 16-18)
Temptation. What is it? It’s the desire to do something that’s either unwise or simply wrong. It comes in many different forms.
In North America, for example, there’s a freshwater turtle called the alligator snapping turtle. These creatures eat almost anything, especially fish, and they grow very big. They also use a very clever trick to catch fish.
These turtles lie still on the floor of a river or lake, with their mouths wide open. At the back of their tongues, they have a small, pink appendage that looks like a worm. They wiggle it to get a fish’s attention, and as the fish approaches the turtle snaps its mouth shut. The fish is trapped. [i]
This is how temptation works. Something enticing is placed before us, and it’s hard to resist. Temptations like greed, lust and the desire for attention and power are always dressed up as something good, but they only lead to trouble.
In Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus has just been baptised and he goes into the desert for forty days to pray, fast and reflect. He knows it’s time to begin his public ministry, and he needs to prepare himself.
But there in the desert, the devil tries to unsettle and confuse Jesus. He challenges him with three temptations that we all commonly face.
The first is the temptation of the flesh, which is symbolised by bread. Jesus is hungry, and the devil says, ‘If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.’ But Jesus replies, ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’
In other words, there’s much more to life than the pleasures of the flesh.
Next, the devil tempts Jesus with pride. He takes him to the top of the Temple and challenges him to throw himself down, for surely God will protect him. But Jesus replies: ‘don’t put God to the test.’
And finally, the devil tempts Jesus with power and glory. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says: ‘All these will be yours if you worship me!’ But Jesus replies, ‘Be off, Satan! …for you must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone.’
These are temptations we all face – the temptations of the flesh, of pride, of power and glory. Jesus faced them, too, but he always managed to resist. For too many of us, however, our temptations have become bad habits. What can we do about them?
St Aelred of Rievaulx, the wise abbot of a Yorkshire monastery, identified five things we can do.
Firstly, he says we must call our vices by their real names, instead of denying and rationalising them. Many of us try to soothe our consciences by renaming our shameful vices. But gluttony is gluttony; it’s not ‘enjoying God’s gifts’. Greed is greed; it’s not ‘being prudent for the future’. And lust is lust; it’s not ‘just being natural and human’. Clever names and rationalisations change nothing; they simply lead us deeper into difficulty.
Secondly, we need to be honest about our vices, at least to ourselves. We must take responsibility not only for what we do, but also for what we don’t do, since these are too easily overlooked. And we need to acknowledge the evils our sin has caused.
Thirdly, we need to keep reminding ourselves why this bad behaviour must stop. For example, in my younger days I smoked. When I began to quit smoking, I identified 38 reasons why this was important. Reminding myself was very helpful.
Next, we need to listen to those who are telling us where we’re going wrong. Negative feedback can be good for us. Indeed, it may even be a message from God, meant not to hurt or humiliate us, but to encourage us to change.
And finally, we need to seek God’s mercy. Many of us struggle to control ourselves, and we need to ask God for his help. God does answer our prayers, but not always in the way we’d like him to. [ii]
Temptation, then, is the desire to satisfy a short-term urge, but it comes with long-term risks, particularly when it leads to destructive behaviours.
But there is something we can do about these destructive behaviours: it’s St Aelred’s five-step solution:
To call our bad habits by their real names. To be honest about our vices and the evils they have caused. To confront ourselves with the reasons why we must change. To listen to the voices of wisdom around us.
And finally, to ask God for his mercy. God is always there to help us.
[ii] Michael Casey, Grace: On the Journey to God, Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, 2018 e-Book.