THE SOURCES OF TEMPTATION AND SIN
This is the first Sunday of Lent. Today's scripture reading tells the parable of Jesus being tested, or tempted, by the Devil in the desert immediately after Jesus baptism by his cousin John. We are told that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights and after a time in the desert was tested and tempted by the Devil. We are called as Christians to live as Christ as we work towards becoming representatives of Christ. Therefore we fast during Lent in imitation of Jesus’ experience. Or, we "give up" some pleasures or consciously do extra acts of charity, or we commit to Lenten prayer practices.
Jesus was not just hungry during this period. Matthew and Luke both report three specific temptations that Jesus suffered at the hands of the Devil. He was hungry, and was tempted to turn stones into bread. He was probably feeling weak and lonely as he fasted in the hot desert wasteland and the Devil tempted him with great power and acclaim; and during those forty lonely days Jesus, human as well as divine, may have questioned who he was and the validity of his call, his mission. The Devil tempted him with doing away with himself to force God to prove that he was who he thought he was.
Jesus did not sin during these forty days. He was tempted, but resisted. To be tempted is very different from sinning. To sin is to give in to temptation. We pray every day to be led away from temptation, and to be protected from the powerful urges and tricks the Devil uses on us, as he did on Jesus.
Since this is Lent, we are in a penitent frame of mind, are we not? Aren’t we calling to mind the sins we have committed over the past year, and resolving to resist each temptation this year? If we aren’t there yet, let’s take a look at both the temptations we are likely to encounter during Lent - and during the rest of the year – and, let’s take a look at what the results are, the sins we will commit if we yield to these temptations.
Temptation and Sin. Between the Bible and modern psychology we understand there are three great temptations common to all humans, and seven deadly sins we commit if we yield to these three temptations. First the sins. We are all familiar with seven deadly sins, seven mortal sins, seven cardinal sins. Whatever name they are given, there is generally agreement on what they are, and that they poison our souls and hinder our spiritual development.
Here are the seven sins of yielding to temptation:
These are the sins, the fruits of temptation. But, what are the three temptations that lead to these sins? Jesus suffered three temptations at the hand of the Devil. Modern science has not improved on the Bible in identifying these three common and destructive temptations, but we are possibly more familiar with the modern vocabulary. The temptations are not evil in themselves. It's when we yield to the temptation that we sin.
The three great temptations are (1) excessive demand for physical safety and security, (2) excessive demand for power and control, and (3) excessive demand for pleasure, affection, belonging. It’s worth repeating: (1) excessive demand for physical safety and security, (2) excessive demand for power and control, and (3) excessive demand for pleasure, affection, belonging.
The three needs themselves are normal human needs, common to everyone. These needs are necessary, healthy - normal. But, when the needs are magnified to excess they are the temptation to sin. And that is the insidious nature of temptation. It is a distortion of the normal and necessary. We all need some degree of personal safety and security. We all need some measure of independence and freedom from oppression by others, and we all have reasonable needs for pleasant experiences and social acceptance. Too little of any of these, and we suffer – without attention to safety we can fall off a cliff. Without any pleasure in food or art, we can become sterile or barren. Without any love or esteem, we can become withdrawn or crabby hermits.
Too much of any of these and we sin. And that is the course we need to steer as spiritually growing humans. Too little security, love or independence and we suffer and wither and fail as humans; too much fearfulness, luxury-seeking or domination of others and we sin. Just the right amount and we are following the strait and narrow path Jesus described as the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let us look at the first. Jesus was hungry. He wanted to satisfy his sensate desire for the taste, fullness and blood sugar lift of food after his long fast. The Devil temped Jesus to satisfy this craving by using his divine powers for personal sensory satisfaction. Jesus response; Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. He armored himself against yielding to sensory temptation by reference to scripture.
Then too, Jesus was alone in the desert. The Devil tempted Jesus by showing him all the cities and kingdoms of the world spread out before him. He whispered to Jesus that all power over the world had been given him, the Devil, and he could give this power to whomever he chose. All Jesus had to do was agree to worship the Devil rather than God – and power, acclaim, honor, control would be his. No longer alone and vulnerable. Jesus response again was from scripture – You shall worship the Lord your God and him alone.
Finally, as Jesus was weakened from lack of food and drink, maybe approaching delirium, the Devil worked him over again. In the spirit he took Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem. “Are you really who you think you are? Are you really in God’s hands doing his work? Here’s how to really prove it to yourself. Throw yourself off this tower and he will send his angels to save you. “After all,” said the Devil, this time quoting Psalm 91, remember, the Devil knows scripture, too, For He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. They will lift you up in their hands so you will not strike your foot upon a stone. Jesus resisted that temptation by responding again from scripture – You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.
We’ve seen Jesus respond to these temptations by looking inside for the right scriptural answer. One of the fruits of Bible study are these ready responses to specific temptations – but, we also need the will to apply them. There is another tool to resist temptation. As you pray, the Spirit responds with what are called fruits of the Spirit. These are mentioned in several places in the New Testament. I want to just name a few of these fruits of the Spirit – just seven. For each of the seven deadly sins there is a corresponding grace-given virtue. These seven virtues are spiritual armor and the antidote to commission of the seven sins.
The sin of Pride is defeated by the virtue of Humility.
So folks, here we are at the beginning of Lent. Temptations will come. Whether or not we fast, one way or another temptations will come. We’ll be tempted by fears for our family’s security, health or well-being, we’ll be tempted by not feeling in control of events or our kids or parent’s behavior towards us, or our superiors at work making unreasonable demands, or we’ll be tempted by foods we shouldn’t eat, buying things we don’t need, overdoing, overindulging. Each of us knows where our weaknesses are. And be assured, the Devil knows that too – even better than we do. And especially during Lent, when we pay special attention to our need to turn our face in a better direction, to repent and focus on doing better. That is the moment the Devil is most afraid of losing his hold on us and will come to us in a beautiful, attractive disguise and whisper in our ear exactly what he knows we want to hear. That’s what he did to Jesus in the desert, and that’s what he does to us.