On Friday night, my daughter went to a sleep-over birthday party at a friend’s house, and so my wife and I went out for dinner and a movie. In the car on the way downtown the subject of possibly enjoying some ice cream later came up, but we decided against it, after a brief discussion, in which the observance of Lent was a deciding factor. We got to the cinema, purchased our tickets, and, as we were going in we saw, by where the ticket taker stood, a little placard advertising a particularly delicious brand of locally-made ice cream on sale at the concession stand. And Meg turned to me and said, “Temptation is everywhere.”
Temptation is everywhere. That’s also the thesis of the prayer that began the scripture readings in this morning’s service, the Collect of the Day: “Come quickly to help us,” we prayed, “who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.”
Now it’s hard to see how that prayer applies to the kind of temptation we met at the cinema. Unless we have some kind of life-threatening disease, seeing a sign for ice cream, is not that big a deal. It might cause our self-control to waver for a moment if we’ve sworn off sugar for Lent. But it’s hardly a situation that calls for God to intervene in might. Is our salvation really at stake in choices like this? Isn’t the worst that could happen that we’d have to admit our willpower is not what we’d like it to be? We’d take a little hit to our pride, but that might even be a good thing. Pride, after all, is our greatest source of temptation.
I don’t mean pride like “Gay Pride” or “Black Pride,” an antidote to a long history of suffocating under a blanket of shame. I’m not talking about a healthy sense of self-esteem. Pride, in the classic terminology of Christian moral thought is actually the opposite of that—it’s a kind of inflated sense of oneself that masks a crippling insecurity. Out of fear of what we truly are, pride hoards the God-given energy of love. It turns it backward toward a false image of the person we like to think we are. Cut off from the ever-circulating flow, love grows cold. Afraid to break and take new shape pride hardens the personality into a rigid form. The virtues we admire most in ourselves become distorted counterfeits of the original gifts. And the places where we are most open to healing connection, our weaknesses, are where we build the strongest defenses against knowing the truth of ourselves, of others and of God.
Whether or not we eat ice cream during Lent doesn’t really make a whole lot of difference to God, or to us, one way or the other. But the Christian tradition understands that all our temptations taken together, small and large, yours and mine, are the multifarious devices of a single great tempter. And the purpose of this enemy is to flatter, distract, entice, bewitch, seduce, threaten, madden, frighten, and cajole us—whatever it takes—into denying who we really are as children of God. And how we respond to this assault over time, through our thoughts and actions, does make a difference. Because these temptations really do have the power to destroy us, in the sense of turning us away from the very source of our lives, and their true purpose. They can lead us away from the path of life that really is life, to a place of desolation, where we are helpless in the face of the stark and inexorable power of death.
The Bible considers the temptation to pride a serious danger, not only to us as individuals, but also to societies. We moderns like to tout the amazing advances of technological and industrial civilization, whose medical science has prolonged our life-expectancies well beyond the traditional three score years and ten. We point with pride to the cornucopia of goods and services, pleasures and therapies, entertainments and comforts, that are available to us as never before. We can enjoy ripe summer fruits airlifted from Argentina in the dead of winter. We can watch live TV in the back seat of the car on a device the size of a checkbook.
It scarcely troubles our self-satisfaction that the system that provides us with these delights still fails to meet even the most basic needs of the great mass of the world’s poor. We take what we have and seek to have more, as ours by right of superiority—the blessings of our ingenuity, industry, and thrift. The desperation of the shantytowns and migrant camps of the poor is a sad commentary on them, but has nothing to do with us.
But the poor know something that is still mostly hidden from the fortunate few—that the consumer society, whose production of endless novelty and momentary gratification seems to us so innocent, convenient, and fun, is destroying the earth. As this truth impresses itself upon us more and more, casting a strange and somber light on all our harmless little temptations; it pulls back the veil on the pride of the human race.
We call ourselves homo sapiens, the undisputed masters of the species of the earth, entitled to take what we want without regard for the “lower forms of life.” And yet we are at precisely that moment in history when we are waking from our dream of domination, to see that our own survival and flourishing is inseparable from that of the larger earth community. We are indeed a unique and extraordinary species, which can be a temptation to despoil, or a sacred trust of wise and loving care.
The late Thomas Berry, the thinker who achieved the deepest integration to date of the scientific story of earth evolution with the Gospel, described the urgent task of this moment as the “reinvention of the human at the level of the species.” And this reinvention is the work of Jesus Christ. He is the human person who masters the tempter through perfect obedience and loving acceptance of his rightful place in the order of things. Jesus is not caught in between a death-trap world of temptations and a heaven he can aspire to but cannot reach. In his story Satan is no one to fear, and temptation loses its menacing power. The Gospel reveals that it is no more than the necessary process of purification, the tempering of character and will that prepares the human heart for the high calling of God.
We are accustomed to thinking of temptation from within a dismal view of human nature. The belief that we are basically rotten, that the image of God in us is lost, gives us a very modest notion of what overcoming temptation can achieve. By the grace of God, one might manage, through great effort, not to be so terribly bad after all. But at his Baptism Jesus discovers something else entirely. “You are my Son, the beloved,” says the voice from heaven, “with you I am well-pleased.” And the Holy Spirit comes upon him, and gives him a mission. It sends him to Galilee and beyond, in truth and power, bearing the good news of God’s favor and love towards us all. But first the Spirit takes him out to meet the tempter, to perfect his patience and humility. There, in the place of hunger and thirst, of fear, and loneliness, Jesus finds paradise. He accepts the fellowship of the wild beasts, and his dependence on the ministrations of heaven. And so he restores the peace of the original human nature, before we succumbed to the tempter who played upon our pride.
This is the work of Jesus Christ, and it continues when his forty days in the desert are done. It is the way he follows all the way to Jerusalem, where he deals the tempter a mortal wound in his death and resurrection. It is the same way we, who are baptized into that victory, are now privileged to follow. In Christ we have the hope of being like Noah and his family, of one day emerging from the waters of the flood, of standing again on the ground, in the company of all God’s creatures. In Christ we can imagine a day when we no longer war against each other or against the the earth, but have mastered ourselves and accepted our rightful place upon it, as witnesses and guardians of God’s covenant with all life.