Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil. (Luke 4:1-2)
It’s Lent, and I really wish it wasn’t.
Lent has always been a time for reflection, for taking stock of my life and my relationship with God. It’s the time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
But after several years of pandemic, too many ups and down of daily life, the ongoing war in Ukraine, I’m not sure I can handle Lent. Almsgiving is easy, but that’s my limit. Haven’t I given up enough? How can I keep praying when prayers keep going unanswered?
Instead, I’m going to try to spend time reflecting on the Lenten scriptures, and I will force myself to write something each week. The fact that I have to force myself to write was my first clue that while I might not want it to be Lent, I certainly need it. I need to figure out how to recenter myself in the midst of the stress and anxiety that has reigned supreme in my life for too long.
Of the readings for the First Sunday of Lent, the Gospel reading of Jesus’ temptations in the desert spoke to me most clearly this week. It’s a familiar story, and at first, I thought I might just post a review of a favorite old book that explores the temptations, Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus. Nouwen uses Matthew’s account of the temptations to explore effective Christian leadership, and it’s well worth reading. But for the past week, my reflection on Luke’s version of the story has revolved around one question, “Who do you want to be?”
The question came up at the end of the Bible study I attended last week. My pastor shared how one teacher he knew could redirect her students’ unwanted behavior in the classroom by simply touching the student lightly on the shoulder and asking, “Is this who you want to be?”
This is really the perfect question to unlock the lessons of Jesus’ temptations in the desert. Henri Nouwen addresses possible answers with an eye to leaders in the Church. But when I read the temptations and attempt to answer the question for my own everyday life, suddenly I am challenged in ways big and small to be a more authentic and faithful follower of Christ.
The First Temptation: To Turn Stones into Bread
Jesus ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him,
“It is written, One does not live on bread alone.” (Luke 4:2-4)
Henri Nouwen calls this first part of the story the temptation to be relevant, arising in part from low self-esteem. If a Christian leader can accomplish things that meet the pressing needs of God’s people—thereby becoming “relevant”—praise and gratitude from those who have been served will build up the minister’s low self-esteem.
But seen from an everyday perspective, this temptation is to be the person who doesn’t have to rely on others (human or divine), the person who can take care of him or her self when needs arise. It’s the temptation to buy into the American myth of the self-made person, or perhaps it’s the same temptation Adam and Eve faced in the garden—the belief that we know more than God and can act as gods.
The fact is, we are not gods, and we were created in community so that we can rely on one another. Jesus would go on to work many miracles; he certainly could have taken care of his own hunger by changing stones into bread. But to do so, Jesus would have had to deny his own humanity. And he would have been setting himself up to be judged only by what he had done, not by who he was.
For me, this temptation is present whenever I lean into defining my self-worth according to what I’ve accomplished (or what I have failed to do). Now that I’ve retired, it often rears its head when I compare myself (unfavorably) to others who seem to be doing much more important things in the world.
But Jesus responds that there are more important things to base one’s life on. As Nouwen writes, “God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.”
The Second Temptation: To Be Powerful and In Control
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.’” (Luke 4: 5-8)
The temptation to be judged by our accomplishments leads too easily to the temptation to grasp at or cling to power because if you can’t meet your own pressing needs, you are vulnerable and forced to rely on others. If you are not in power, you may be forced to accept the wishes of others and be led where you do not want to go, as Nouwen points out in his analysis of this temptation. Underneath the desire for power is what I see as the key to the second temptation: the fear of being out of control.
For much of the past few years, I’ve desperately wanted control. But masks and social distancing didn’t really control the pandemic around me—it merely offered a slim measure of protection accompanied by great deprivation and the loss of a dear friend. Unexpected health concerns knocked me over without warning. And the appointment of one conservative priest destroyed the church community that had been the center of my life—more loss and deprivation. I would have given a lot to be powerful through all this, to make things turn out as I wished.
But rejecting the temptation to grasp for control and power can lead to blessings. I have found a new church home that truly welcomes and supports me. I have grown in empathy for others facing loss and deprivation. I have seen and felt God’s presence through all the trials. These graces have strengthened and comforted me.
The Third Temptation: To Claim the Spotlight
Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
‘ He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,
With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It also says,
‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’”
When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from him for a time. (Luke 4:9-13)
Henri Nouwen sees this temptation as the lure to be “spectacular,” the temptation for Jesus to do “something that could win him great applause.” Again, this is similar to the other temptations but this time, Jesus is not going to be judged by what he does or how he has power. Instead, he is going to be judged according to what God does for him. Is he important enough to protect no matter what foolish thing he does? Can he make himself the center of everyone’s attention and draw attention to the fact that he is God’s beloved son?
We may not be tempted to defy the rules of gravity to prove we are God’s beloved, but the temptation is still present for us whenever we seek the spotlight more than we seek to serve God. For me, this leads me back to the first temptation, to judge myself based on my accomplishments (or lack thereof). I have to remember that God loves me and that should be enough. I do not need the applause or notice of others.
So at the end of this first week of Lent, I find myself asking the question, “Who do you want to be?” Do I want to be totally self-reliant, in control and important in the eyes of the world? Or can I find peace and contentment within community, as one part of the whole? Can I accept my own lack of power and control? Can I enjoy the freedom that comes from living and acting out of the spotlight? May God help me to claim the peace that comes from resisting these temptations and embracing my place as one of God’s beloved.