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Temptation: The struggle is real


James Tissot | Brooklyn Museum | Public Domain

Brother Silas Henderson, SDS - published on 03/04/17

Reflecting on Sunday's Gospel and God's desire that we surrender to his love and mercy

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At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.

The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.”

He said in reply, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
—Matthew 4:1-4

To read this Sunday’s Mass readings, click here.

In his novel Brighton Rock, Graham Greene wrote, “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Lent is the time when the Church pauses to reflect on the reality of that mercy. And, when weighed against human standards, God’s mercy is appallingly strange because it costs us so little: God asks only that we surrender to his love and mercy.

For most of us, this process of “surrender” is one that unfolds gradually over the course of a life of prayer, service, struggle, and even setbacks. However, the temptation to choose our own way and will over God’s is never far away. And we can see the results—the consequences—of these selfish or self-centered choices all around us. This lesson is at the heart of this Sunday’s First Reading, as we hear the story of Adam and Eve and their fall from God’s grace in the Garden of Eden.

The call to surrender to God’s mercy is at the core of the Christian life. And yet, at the same time, there is a struggle that takes place in every human heart: “Lent would indeed be a futile liturgical farce,” writes Edna Hong, “if the redeemed were henceforth sinless and if the tides of human nature were not always moving even the twice-born [i.e. the baptized], who have not shed their human nature, in the direction of complacency and taking it all for granted… As long as the conscience of the born-again are housed in human flesh and bone, they are prone to the sleep of death and need continual rescuing.”

Saint Matthew’s account of the temptations of Jesus (which we hear in this Sunday’s Gospel) reminds us that the life of a disciple includes contending with the mysterious tug of evil, which is both repellent and attractive. Just like Jesus, we are tempted to temporarily shift our focus—perhaps, just for a moment—from God’s promises in order to attend to our own wants or needs or priorities. When this happens, we risk losing our awareness of God’s presence and action in our lives, choosing to focus instead on more tangible realities, like food, possessions, pleasure, comfort, and reputation. But, the struggle is real. As Trappist writer Michael Casey has reflected, “We have been called to follow the one who was tempted in the desert, and we must expect that fidelity to our life of discipleship will involve us in substantial and sometimes earth-shuddering struggles.”

In the end, however, after being tempted to be self-sufficient and to use his power for his own glory, Jesus did not turn away from God—the will of the Father remained the priority of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ response to the temptations he faced sets the standard for us as we navigate the daily realities of our own spiritual journeys.

The Season of Lent ultimately reminds us that holiness is possible for us only when we enter into the struggle, remembering that whatever darkness we may encounter will not overtake us as long as we refuse to accept anything less than God’s love and mercy: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (Romans 10:9-10).

How do prayer and Scripture support you when you face temptation? How do you experience God’s love when you doubt?

When have you succeeded in your struggles against temptation? What or who helped you overcome temptation?  

Set aside time in the next few days to read Pope Francis’ Message for Lent (link given below). How do the Holy Father’s words encourage and challenge you to be more open to the gifts of others?

Words of Wisdom: “Lent is a new beginning, a path leading to the certain goal of Easter, Christ’s victory over death. This season urgently calls us to conversion. Christians are asked to return to God ‘with all their hearts’ (Joel 2:12), to refuse to settle for mediocrity and to grow in friendship with the Lord.”—Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2017

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