Two of the young Brothers I live with are preparing for ordination. As part of that preparation they are learning how to celebrate the sacraments: how to preside at Mass, how to officiate at a wedding. They are also learning how to be good confessors. The professor is having them practice hearing confessions with their classmates. When I ask what these practice confessions consist of they reported, “Mostly sexual sins.” I guess when people think of temptation that is what comes to mind. But when we look at the story of Jesus in the desert, his temptations were of a different sort altogether. The devil tempted Jesus to satisfy himself (“command this stone to become bread”), to take charge and run things (“I shall give to you all this power”), and to become a celebrity, a superstar (“he made him stand on the parapet of the temple.”) These are not the kinds of things we ordinarily think of as temptations. In my forty-some-odd years of hearing confessions no one has ever confessed being tempted to become a star. “Reverend Father I wish to confess to wanting to be a superstar.” What is going on here? To understand the temptations of Jesus you have to go back to the Garden of Eden. Do you remember how the snake tempted Adam and Eve? “You will be like God.” It wasn’t the apple that tempted them. It was the possibility of being like God, of being the ones who were running the show. So with Jesus – did you notice how the devil introduced those temptations: “if you are the Son of God…” If you are the Son of God act like it, take charge, show off, walk across my swimming pool. That tells us something about our temptations. The gravest temptation is not to violate this, that, or the other commandment. The most serious temptation we face is the one the devil dangled in front of Eve and in front of Jesus – to want to be like God.
I can imagine you are thinking, “Whew, at least I don’t have that temptation. I have a hard enough time just being myself.” But when you think about it the behaviors that get us in trouble are the ones where we put ourselves at the center instead of placing God at the center. We decide that we need this person in our life, this degree of comfort, this personal satisfaction instead of trusting that what God wants for us is better than what we want for ourselves. That is how the devil works. We try to control the events and the people who are in our life because our plan, our idea of how things should go is what’s best. That is how the devil works. We want to be noticed, appreciated, honored by others instead of being content with who God made us to be. That is how the devil works. Most of the particular sins we commit are a symptom of the more basic temptation of the devil – to count on ourselves instead of on God.
All of which serves as an introduction to the season of Lent. For the next six weeks we are being given the opportunity to change, to conversion, to a new life in God. The story of the temptations of Jesus is told on the first Sunday of Lent every year because this season is about getting down to basics: satisfying oneself or letting God satisfy you, doing what you think best or doing what God thinks best, relying on oneself or relying on God. That explains the traditional practices of Lent being fasting, prayer and almsgiving. When we fast we demonstrate our willingness to let God fill us up. By doing without – doing without the food we would like, doing without watching TV, doing without alcohol – we are acting as individuals who don’t need to satisfy ourselves and thereby create an empty spot that God can occupy. When we pray we open ourselves up to listening to the divine will. The dialogue that is prayer provides the occasion for us to be attentive to the One who is greater than I am. Prayer makes us conscious of the will of God in our lives. In prayer we discover the divine plan which is better than ours. When we give alms we are acting as people who don’t need to cling to what we have or who they are but rather are so blessed we can share. It might be the alms of caring for the poor, the alms of time in visiting the sick, the alms of our talent in tutoring a child. Whatever we give is testimony that it’s not about me getting what I don’t have. It’s about giving because of how God has already blessed us. The purpose of fasting, almsgiving and prayer, the purpose of whatever practice we have during Lent, is to shift the focus off of ourselves and onto God. We’ve gotten the Lenten Spirit when we say, “It’s not about me. It’s about God.”
How is the devil going to tempt us this Lent? The really dangerous temptations are not to break a particular law or commandment but rather temptations to look out for number one. For example, we might be tempted to straighten our spouse out instead of sharing in mutual communication. Or we might be tempted to buy something we really don’t need simply to show it off to the neighbors. Or we might be tempted to vegetate in front of the TV or computer instead of doing something which will help another. In and of themselves not terrible things to do but as symptoms of the devil shifting focus off of God and onto ourselves they can be deadly. Get thee behind, Satan, when you tempt me to satisfying myself instead of caring for others. Get thee behind, Satan, when you tempt me to be in control to such an extent that it’s my way or the highway. Get thee behind, Satan, when you tempt me to place my needs, my desires take precedence over God’s desire for me. Get thee behind, Satan, when you tempt me to doubt that God is at work in all things and through all things. Get thee behind, Satan, when you tempt me to be anything less than who God made me.