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Confronting the mysterious tug of evil to find … the appalling strangeness of God’s mercy



Brother Silas Henderson, SDS - published on 03/09/19

The Father of Lies is never far off, but all God asks of us is to let ourselves be loved.
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. He 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” …When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time. —Luke 4:1-4, 13

The Gospels’ accounts of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness are among the most challenging narratives we have of Jesus’ life. After all, if he was without sin, why was he even tempted? Why was this experience of temptation so important at the beginning of his ministry?

The lesson offered by the temptations of Jesus is an invitation to do the work of Lent and to look at our own preferences for self-sufficiency, ambition, and comfort in the light of God’s mercy. And here, I think of the Catholic novelist Graham Greene, who wrote in his novel Brighton Rock, “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.

That 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 [the baptized], who have not shed their human nature, in the direction of complacency and taking it all for granted … As long as the consciences of the born-again are housed in human flesh and bone, they are prone to the sleep of death and need continual rescuing.”

St. Luke’s account of the temptations of Jesus reminds us that the life of a disciple includes contending with the mysterious tug of evil, which is simultaneously repellent and attractive. Just as Jesus was, 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.

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 Father’s will remained the priority of his life. The 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.”

The season of Lent reminds us that holiness is possible for us only when we enter into the desert—the place where we meet God—to struggle, understanding 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).

In these Lenten Days how have you made time to reflect upon and celebrate the gift of mercy?What do you do when you experience temptation? What resources does our faith tradition provide that could help you to persevere in the life of discipleship?When have you judged others who struggle with temptation and sin? How can you extend God’s love and mercy to them? How might they be sign of mercy for you?    

Words of Wisdom: “Lent is a time of conversion, of daily experiencing in our lives how this dream is continually threatened by the Father of Lies — and we hear in the Gospel how he acted towards Jesus — by the one who tries to separate us, making a divided and confrontational family; a society which is divided and at loggerheads, a society of the few, and for the few. How often we experience in our own lives, or in our own families, among our friends or neighbors, the pain which arises when the dignity we carry within is not recognized. How many times have we had to cry and regret on realizing that we have not acknowledged this dignity in others. How often — and it pains me to say it — have we been blind and impervious in failing to recognize our own and others’ dignity.

“Lent is a time for reconsidering our feelings, for letting our eyes be opened to the frequent injustices which stand in direct opposition to the dream and the plan of God.”—Pope Francis

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