“Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written” ‘ Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
A thief stopped a man and said, “Give me all of your money!” As the man opened his overcoat to get his wallet the thief saw that he was wearing a priest’s collar. “Oh, you are a priest, never mind, you can go,” the thief said. “Wait, take this,” said the priest as he handed the thief a candy bar. “No thanks,” the thief said, “I gave up candy for Lent.”
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. I don’t know if you have given up anything as an exercise in discipline during these 40 days before Easter, but if you have, good for you. If you have not, maybe today you can begin a Lenten practice. Lent began this past Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday so there is still time to begin.
In the early church Lent served as a training period for new converts to Christianity, but later it evolved as a time for the members to renew their commitment to God in preparation for the holiest day of the year, Easter. People observe Lent by bringing discipline into their lives. Some people deny themselves something such as red meat, candy, dessert, or wine, while others add a practice of worship, devotional prayer, study, exercise, or self improvement to their lives. The idea behind Lent is that after forty days of renewal and introspection, your life is more grounded and a new level of spiritual awareness has blossomed.
Major religions set aside a time for self reflection of this nature. The Jewish Yom Kippur is in October, and the Islamic Ramadan is in August. Christians may have an advantage- the timing of Spring’s physical changes during Lent may coincide with spiritual changes within ourselves. Lent is the time to answer the questions: Is my life going in the right direction? What parts of my life need to be fine tuned a bit? What parts of life need a major overhaul?
During Lent we may realize the necessity to give up more in life. Since the time of our birth, we take hold, we grasp, we don’t want to let go of what is in our reach. Have you ever put your finger into the hand of a baby? The baby will instinctively grip your finger, and we seem to perfect that as we grow older. Changing a habit, denying ourselves something with which we have grown accustomed, or following a discipline may open new avenues for self realization. We need to stop and take account of our lives, examining what we need to release, what needs to be changed, or what needs to begin so that we can return to the self that God created us to be.
During Lent we should redraw the borders of life and then fight temptations to cross. If we look at ourselves and draw a blank as to where to start, we could always consider that classic “seven deadly
sins,” listed by John Cassian (360-435 AD) and made “official” by Pope Gregory the Great about two hundred years later. They are: pride, feeling superior to others and lost in self-centeredness; envy, wanting what someone else has; gluttony, an overindulgent lifestyle; lust, objectifying another person and demeaning God’s gift of love; anger, the wrath, fury, and vengeance that overflows from within; greed, making idols of possessions; and sloth, being full of apathy with the “I don’t care” attitude.
Each of these seven deadly sins allows temptations that can lead the most stable life toward destruction. But if we can stop at the point of temptation, we do not have to follow their road. “Temptation is a fork in the road. It is an opportunity for rising as well as for falling,” said Reverend George Buttrick when he preached at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.
How do we battle temptations? A temptation is an impulse to do something that we have not planned on doing. Whatever the impulse is, we can battle it by putting it into the larger context of our lives. We lose to temptations when we separate a moment from the rest of our lives and we succumb “just this once.” We give in to a choice that does not fit our life goals, and we have headed down the wrong path.
Goals, goals, goals…they are the secret protection against temptations! The article, “Leading Us Not Into Temptation: Momentary Allurements Elicit Overriding Goal Activation,” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, postulates that people are able to deny momentary temptations due to focusing on high priority goals with which the temptations may interfere. When we clarify our goals we know who we are and where we are going. What kind of husband or wife do I want to be? What kind of worker of integrity do I want to be? When the temptation comes along, we momentarily step outside of our goals. When we remind ourselves that this is not who we are, we secure ourselves from falling into temptation’s trap.
Who are we? And how are we tempted? Let us look to our scripture lesson for those answers. There are many ways to categorize and analyze the temptations that Jesus faced in the desert. My favorite is that he was tempted through fear, fantasy, and frustration. We really can identify with what he faced if we use those three terms. Who are we? A spouse that is afraid we are not living up to our partner’s expectations….a worker afraid the boss is not recognizing our effort…..a parent afraid our child is not all right….Out of these identity related fears grow weeds of temptations. When we react out of fear we step outside of our goals to be the kind of person we are supposed to be. In the same way, when we want to step into fantasy we step out of bounds. Wouldn’t just one momentary pleasure be all right? And out of frustration we are led to do things that would not be considered a normal reaction. We are frustrated with life and fed up, tempted to set aside our genuine selves and for a moment we are tempted to react in a way that is really not who we are.
When we see ourselves in light of our broader future goals, we are less likely to deviate from those goals.
A recent study by Benjamin Converse at the University of Chicago has termed this as viewing a reaction with “width” because the reaction is in relation to the future:
“We suggest that viewing an action opportunity with width—that is, in relation to future opportunities—
facilitates conflict identification. Framing a single opportunity to act in isolation may not cue the
presence of a conflict, whereas framing the opportunity in relation to other opportunities is more
likely to cue conflict. The person who says “one jelly donut won’t kill me,” perceives the
temptation in isolation, notes that there are trivial costs associated with eating it, and likely does
not experience a conflict between this breakfast and his more important health goals. The person
who is planning a new morning routine, however, may be more likely to perceive today’s choice
of a donut in relation to many future breakfast choices, and may be more likely to identify a self-control
Actually, discovering that we have a self control conflict is probably not our biggest challenge. Comedian Sam Levinson used to say, “Lord, lead us not into temptation, don’t even tell us where it is. We are quite capable of finding it on our own.” It is walking away from the wrong decision that we struggle with.
Studies show that our goals are so interconnected that we may remind ourselves to stay on track when we are goal oriented. For instance, if we remember our goal of eating healthy food we are more likely to eat unhealthy snacks. Converse and his researchers set up a food stand on the Chicago campus with a “wide” goal type sign and a “narrow” sign to study whether students would take healthy or unhealthy snacks. “The stand featured an assortment of carrots and chocolates, and a large sign invited passersby to help themselves, “in celebration of the lighter and warmer times ahead.” In the wide-frame condition, the sign indicated this was the “Spring Food Stand,” whereas in the narrow-frame condition, the sign indicated it was the “April 12th Food Stand.” Accordingly, participants consumed fewer chocolates and more carrots when the sign implied wide versus narrow framing.” When the students saw the Spring sign, they somehow associated Spring with health and took more carrots and less chocolates. This study would not have worked with my children who associate Spring with Easter chocolate and goodies.
Our challenge is to keep our big picture always in mind. Have you heard this prayer? “So far today, God, I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been grumpy, nasty, or selfish. I’m really glad about that, but, God, in a few minutes I’m going to get out of bed and from then on I’m going to need a lot of help.”
We need help! Some believe that we can train ourselves to resist temptation by negative reinforcement, such as addictions expert, Doug Weiss, who believes that snapping a rubber band around your wrist whenever you are tempted will help. Others may find help with more advanced technology as the website www.stickk.com, which offers reminders to keep goals in focus. But Jesus showed us that the power to resist temptation comes from within. Jesus showed us that we do not live by bread alone, but by the Spirit – that is positive reinforcement! Jesus remembered who he was, God’s son, and we can resist by remembering that we are children of God with strong spiritual natures. God created each of us with a destiny and many times we sell ourselves short. We tend to give up and give in because of fear, fantasy, or frustration. If we stay focused on our goals in life and remember that being in the presence of God is our ultimate goal, we can gain new power to resist the greatest temptations. And if you have fallen to temptation, God is there to forgive, welcoming all to a new start in life. May the season of Lent be a time of self discipline, and a time of joyful celebration. May this Lent nurture our bodies away from temptations toward our spirit’s true selves. Amen.