When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time (Lk 4:13). Technically, the translation should be that Satan departed from Jesus for a more “favorable time.” In other words, it was not a one-and-that’s-it temptation for Jesus. Satan was coming back for another try. And if Satan was coming back to tempt Jesus, there is no reason to think that our life will be free of temptation.
The historian Shelby Foote tells of a soldier who was wounded at the battle of Shiloh during the American Civil War and was ordered to go to the rear. The fighting was fierce and within minutes he returned to his commanding officer. “Captain, give me a gun!” he shouted. “This fight ain’t got any rear!” The encounter with temptation is no different.
Pray as we might, “Lord, remove this temptation from my life” – that it not the way it all seems to work; we are surrounded by temptation. And maybe that it what St. Paul discovers when he cries out to God to “remove this thorn from my side” – the thorn of temptation perhaps. The response he receives is simply, “my grace is sufficient for you.”
Yes indeed, it seems we will have a lifelong battle with temptation. Sometimes the battle will be frontal assaults such as the not-so-subtle ways Satan tempts Jesus in the desert. The stories of the saints are filled with such descriptions. And maybe that is the way it is for the big fish of spiritual warfare – or maybe Satan has learned a thing or two in the millennium since and as opted for more understated and deft means of persuasion. It seems to me in the battle against temptation, there are no front lines; “this fight ain’t got any rear.” It is a war of attrition with lots of misdirection and psychological warfare.
Kinda’ like some types of advertising (my apologies in advance to my friends in advertising). Temptation is not sin, but is like advertising for sin. Some advertising seeks to influence us by persuading us that we will be more happy if buy their product, their service. Temptation’s power is the prospect that this thing, this action, this whatever will make us happy, will ease our pain, our discomfort, or simply make us forget for a while.
But not all temptation is “be happy” advertising for sin. Satan has always understood what advertisers came to know. We are prideful people. How many automobile advertisements position their cars in the market place as “buy this car because you have arrived – you’ve earned it” or “only the hip people are brave enough to drive this car – how about you?” (For the record one of the kids in the parish calls my car the “mcburglar-mobile” because of she thinks this is the car McBurglar should be driving; I am not thinking that is a moniker for “you have arrived”).
It doesn’t stop after we have bought their product. So advertising congratulates us for being insightful and wise enough to have purchased their product. The Apple Store floor staff, if they see you leaving the store with a new iMac, iPad, or iPhone, would never say something so pedestrian as “Thanks for shopping with us.” They say “Congratulations” – a none-too-subtle way of saying “Yeah, you are one of the smart ones, you bought an Apple product.”
And that is just pride. There are six other deadly sins to consider: wrath, greed, sloth, lust, envy, and gluttony. But perhaps there is another one we should add to the list: treason. And I am not just speaking about the time when we become the one who delivers temptation into the lives of other, but that quiet moment in private when we turn on ourselves. That moment, before sin, when in the face of temptation’s onslaught, we begin to add our own voice to the cacophony of sin’s persuasive lure. You know the voice: just once won’t hurt, this is no big deal, no one will know, it doesn’t matter anyway – or whatever words we use to convince ourselves that God’s grace is not sufficient for us in this moment – that we need something or someone more than God.
Temptation’s lure brings us to a moment in time – not just the moment when we sin or turn away from sin – the moment when treason is in the wind. The moment when we add words to the cacophony of temptation’s lure. The moment when we have been bitterly replaying an old conversation; or remembering old wounds, rejections, and injustices. The moment we bemoan “This isn’t fair!” “How dare he say that!” “How can she do that, after all I did for her!” “Why do I always get cheated?” – and slowly, slowly we choose and utter treasonous words.
Pray as we might, “Lord, remove this temptation from my life,” temptation is not going away. We are in a lifelong battle that has no clear front lines. It has only those small moment of time when we choose our words. And for my part, not moments when we want to rely on creativity. And so my words are “old school” and brought quickly to the fore: “Our Father, who art in heaven….” Good words. Reliable words. Grace filled words. In that moment I am reminded that I live in Christ and so I live to fight another day.
And when I fall to temptation’s lure there are other words to draw from: “Forgive me father, for I have sinned…” Words spoken in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or words spoken in the privacy of prayer. I am reminded that I live in Christ and am renewed, forgiven, and live to fight another day.
Temptation is often a war of words silent and spoken, advertising sin. But our words are our own – before or after sin. Let all your words lead you to God – no matter what road you have taken. Temptation is not going away.
And neither is God….and that is the Good News!