Resisting Temptation: The Work of Lent

As we journey through Lent I’ve been pondering the nature of temptation.

When we read of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, perhaps we picture the devil appearing to Him and the two of them engaging in dialogue. But I doubt that’s how it happened. I think the dialogue was all in Jesus’ mind. I think that one day, being famished, He was looking at some stones and He thought, Why not just turn those into bread? The nearest Tim Horton’s was miles—and centuries—away, but why should that stop Him? Probably He’d done some miracles before this. He was aware of His powers—how else could He have been tempted by them? Here in the wilderness, why not try out His wings? Especially when it came to the practical matter of feeding Himself … 

The Stone of Temptation in the Monastery of Quarantal, where Jesus is said to have sat to pray during His forty days in the wilderness.

You see, I imagine the devil coming to Jesus not in visible form, nor in any other obvious manner, but rather taking the form of the Lord’s own thoughts, insinuating himself into Christ’s mind in just the way he normally does with us, indeed in the very manner of the Holy Spirit. When the Lord speaks to us we do not usually see Him, nor perceive His presence in any objective fashion, but rather we ‘hear His voice’ speaking through our own thoughts, yet with a difference from our own thoughts, a difference that can only be described as a sense of tenderness, or light, or surprise, or the peace that passes understanding. However we characterize it, there is something distinctive about the Lord’s voice—just as with any voice—a quality we can learn to detect, to listen to, and to respond to with love and obedience. 

And so it is with the devil, who, like God, is a spirit. Rather than showing his hand, he insinuates himself into the imagination of our hearts and minds, which are all to ready to respond to his suggestions, being naturally full of pride, self-will, lust, resentment, and every other sin. Moreover we are replete with good intentions, having a strong desire to do good in the world, yet not always the sort of good we are called and gifted by the Lord to do, rather all kinds of other ‘good’ inspired by the devil himself and by our own hunger for self-aggrandizement. Such temptations take the form of internal thoughts, and like the thoughts of the Holy Spirit, these too have a voice, a voice that might be described as anxious, angry, distracted, grandiose, willful, and so on. 

Did Jesus really stand upon the highest pinnacle of the Temple? Perhaps. Perhaps He was taken there in vision, or even in fact. But it may also have been in imagination, which is just as powerful—indeed even more powerful for the way it masquerades as our own thoughts, or even as the Holy Spirit Himself. Like all of us, Jesus would have been sorely tempted by thoughts of what He might do with His powers. 

Do you know the difference between the Lord’s voice and that of your own self-will, or of the devil? Of course you do. “My sheep hear My voice” (Jn 10:27). You know very well the difference between peace and agitation, between light and murk. The only question is: Do you pay attention? Do you listen? Have you learned not only to distinguish these voices but to act on what you hear—indeed to form your entire life around the voice of the Lord and not that of the enemy?

This is the work of Lent, and this is the principle work of prayer. The business of prayer is to train oneself to distinguish the voices in the mind and to follow only that of the Lord. Even in prayers of supplication we should ask: Is this something the Lord truly wants, or is it just my own good idea? 

This is the work Jesus went into the wilderness to do, and this is how we must follow him. We shall all be tempted, and the temptations will be exceedingly strong. Nevertheless, there is no real strength in temptation. The strength is all with us, it is all in our ability to perceive and respond to the pure, sweet voice of the Lord and to resist the corrupt voice of the devil. 

Get away from me, Satan! Man does not live by bread alone, nor by riches nor power, but rather by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. 

Next Post:  Three Poems for Lent

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