The penitential season of Lent is upon us, when every year we ask ourselves what we will give up. Because we almost always choose something that gives us pleasure, we may spend the next forty days looking forward to when we can take it back. This is not a very fruitful exercise, and so I think we need to find some better way to think of Lent. The gospel for the first Sunday in Lent (Matthew 4:1-11) provides a better way: It introduces the subject of temptation, which helps us understand why we find it difficult to give things up. The gospel shows us “Jesus [being] led by the Spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil.”
Now, the word “temptation” has a different meaning in our language than it has in the language of the Bible. For us, to be “tempted” means to be attracted to a choice that is against our better judgment. Sometimes, we use the word to describe an attraction to something that isn’t seriously wrong, but that we would do better to resist: a second helping of dessert, for example, or a nap when we are meant to be working. More properly, we use the word to describe an attraction to something we know to be wrong: to steal, for example, or to tell a lie, neglect an obligation, or deliberately harm someone. Either way, a temptation is an attraction that opposes our better judgment or our conscience. It is an attraction that sets up a conflict in our soul.
In the language of the Bible, though, when Jesus was “tempted,” the word means that he was subjected to a trial, an ordeal in which his will was tested. The word does not imply a conflict in the soul of Jesus caused by an attraction that opposed his better judgment or his conscience. There were no disordered passions in the soul of Jesus, so in the story of our Lord’s temptations, there is no indication that he was inclined to accept what the devil was proposing to him. What the gospel tells us is that Jesus began his public ministry by confronting the world’s evil at its source, in the person of the Evil One (the devil, or Satan), who tries to bend Jesus’ will away from his Father’s will; and of course, the devil fails.
From that point on, the gospel shows us Jesus constantly confronting evil in the form of its effects on human beings who are under the Evil One’s power. Jesus casts out demons; he heals diseases; he reconciles sinners; he proclaims the coming of his Father’s kingdom to displace the devil’s kingdom. At the conclusion of his public ministry, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is again subjected to a trial; but this time it is something that his heavenly Father is asking him to do and to endure: Will he take the cup of suffering that his Father is giving him to drink?
Here, there is resistance in the human soul of Jesus, which is voiced in his prayer, “Father, let this cup pass from me.” But it isn’t the devil who is testing Jesus here; it is his human weakness, which he shares with all of us, though, unlike us, he is without sin. No doubt, Satan was there in the background watching, hoping that Jesus, whom he could not defeat by tempting him to do something wrong, could be defeated by his human weakness. But no: The devil is again disappointed as our Lord goes on to pray, “Father, not my will but yours be done.”
We are all put to the test by human weakness. In our case, it is complicated by the fact that so much in our human makeup is disordered: We are tempted by fear and anger, cravings and jealousies, vanity and pride. Satan gets his initial grip on us through these disordered passions, which attract and tempt us to do things that we know to be wrong. But in all these struggles, if we have a conscience, if we know that what attracts us would be wrong to pursue, we are really contending with our human weakness, rather than these false attractions.
It is when we have given in to our weaknesses repeatedly and fallen into sin that Satan enters in, and we confront the Evil One directly. At this point the suggestion comes, insinuated by the Evil One, that we are really hopeless cases, unworthy to be called God’s children and not worth saving. That is our real temptation, our trial, in the biblical meaning of the word. There is nothing attractive about the temptation to despair, but it can come to us as the result of losing countless battles with our human weakness. And if we give in to this temptation, if we conclude that we are really hopeless, then we will have abandoned our faith, and abandoned ourselves to a life and death in sin. Satan will have won his victory, and claimed us as his own.
Now, all of this accords very well with what the name “Satan” means in Hebrew: “the accuser,” literally the prosecuting attorney in the court of divine judgment. Against this “accuser,” though, we have the Spirit of the Lord (in Greek, the “Paraclete,” which means “defense attorney”). The Spirit, speaking to us through the Gospel, and within us through his presence in our souls, stands up to Satan, saying in the court of judgment, “No—this is God’s beloved child; no matter how much he gives in to his human weaknesses, no matter how unworthy he feels to be called God’s child, there is hope for him; he is worth saving.”
Our faith is that Jesus has defeated Satan once and for all; and, having shared our human weakness, Jesus assures us that this weakness is no barrier against his saving grace. He shows us how to bear our human weakness, as he bore his when he prayed in Gethsemane, when he fell under the weight of the cross, and finally, when he died on the cross. Jesus shows us how to overcome the temptations that come from human weakness with his simple prayer, “Father, your will be done.”
The Father’s will is to redeem us from the dominion of the Evil One, whose power Jesus broke by offering his human life for us upon the cross. We obey Jesus’ will when we accept his gift of the forgiveness of our sins, and share that gift with those who have offended us. Evil has no power over us. We may still be left with our human weakness in this present life, the temptations that come from our disordered passions may continue to afflict us, but by the grace of God they need not overcome us.
Some people, I know, are ashamed of the fact that their confessions sound like broken records—they confess the same things every time they come. I tell them, “So do I!” But as long as our sorrow is sincere; as long as we keep coming to be reconciled, and don’t give up—either on ourselves or on the grace of God—no matter how little progress we seem to be making, we are on the way of healing and salvation. The hold of our human weakness is being gradually loosened; the presence of the Spirit in our souls is growing; we are doing what God’s children do, coming to our Father often, with indomitable confidence; and our salvation is assured.