Tempting thoughts


tempting_thoughtsWhere in your life do you find yourself tempted?

Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies cookies?

Peanut Butter Cup blizzards?

Or maybe it’s a certain kind of car, your favorite brand of shoes, or that place you’ve always wanted to go on vacation.

Temptation is a common experience for all of us. Anyone who has ever set a New Year’s resolution or tried to stick to a diet knows that there is some kind of strange, inexplicable force—inside our own minds—that pushes back when we try to control the inner impulse that says “I want.”

Most of the temptations we struggle with are relatively harmless enough—they are about whether to give in to the urge to eat the cookies, for example—but some temptations are bigger and riskier, like the temptation to see the world as a dangerous place, to draw away from others because we don’t feel safe, to isolate ourselves in a world that needs our light. Difficult and stressful times tempt us to believe that things are getting worse and worse. That’s a temptation that can lead us toward despair.

The dangerous thing about temptations large and small is that if we give in to them, we start believing things—about ourselves, about others, about our world—that just aren’t true, if God is in the mix. If I give in to the temptation to eat enough cookies—I’m sure you know this drill—soon I’m beating up on myself for having no will power. Inside, I’m chastising myself for my inability to resist a treat or stick to what I’d said I’d do, and I’m telling myself some story that most likely plays on the variation that I’m weak, or self-indulgent, or worse.

Even Paul told the Romans he dealt with this same kind of inner struggle, writing in chapter 7, verse 15: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do.” I think this struggle is a universal human condition and it is also part of what helps us move forward in our lives to make better choices. But it is also where the tempting thought arises that we shouldn’t even try, that we are what we are, that it doesn’t matter anyway, and we should just give up.

So temptations—and Adam and Eve could tell you this first-hand—are potentially a serious thing. Tara Brach, my favorite mindfulness teacher, gave a lecture a few weeks ago in which she took a look at the fall in the Garden of Eden. She was quoting a theologian when she said that it wasn’t choosing the apple that got Adam and Eve evicted from the garden—it was the fact that they hid from God. They knew they’d given in to temptation, but they didn’t trust God enough to be honest about it. That began the separation that put us on the outside of paradise. And if that’s so, then honesty—self-honesty, honesty with God—will help get us back in.

In our New Testament story today, when Satan appeared to Jesus during his time in the wilderness, he used all kinds of wily tricks to derail Jesus from his goal—to hear and know with unflappable certainty God’s presence in his life. Each of the temptations come at Jesus from a different direction.

First Jesus was tempted to take matters into his own hands and provide some food for himself. After fasting for a month, Jesus was famished, the scripture says. The devil pokes at him—“then eat something!” he says. “Turn these stones into bread!”

On some level that idea may have had some appeal. As the son of God, Jesus knew he had the power to do that. I think it’s interesting here that Jesus didn’t deny the fact that he was hungry—that was his reality. In answer to the tempting thought he was offered—he doesn’t say, “I’m fine, Satan, I’m not hungry. In fact I wouldn’t eat a biscuit if you gave it to me.” Instead, Jesus’ response wasn’t about himself—he turned his thoughts toward God. “Man doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” he said.

Bread wasn’t keeping him alive, God was. Bread wasn’t the reason he was fasting in the desert—God was. He wanted to see what God saw, think what God thought, look out at the world through divine eyes. This time was crucial for the rest of his ministry, stretching even into today—Jesus needed to know he would turn his thoughts to God, to wait on God’s direction, God’s clarity, God’s purpose—even in the most dire, difficult circumstances, when temptations were the strongest. This is something he would need to know without a sliver of a doubt as his ministry unfolded.

The next time he was tempted, it came from a new angle. Jesus was no doubt weary from being alone and vulnerable in the wilderness all that time. If I spent 40 days alone in the reasonably tame woods behind my house, I’m sure I’d be consumed with worries about coyotes and opossums and the family of five raccoons that comes to raid my birdfeeders after dark. Not to mention the creepy crawly things like spiders and ticks. It makes me shudder just to think about it.

But Jesus kept his composure, steadied his mind, and kept his prayers going. The devil urged him to use his spiritual power to call on God’s angels to save him. “After all,” the devil said, quoting Psalm 91, “he will command his angels concerning you…so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” It might have sounded tempting to Jesus to do something that would prove God’s care for him, to prove to himself once and for all that he was safely in God’s hand. But instead of thinking of himself and his fears and vulnerabilities, he turned his thoughts again to God, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16 as his response: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

I think Jesus’ final temptation had something to do with his mission, the reach and impact his presence in the world would have. The devil took him to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. “All this I will give you,” the devil said, “If you will fall down and worship me.” I wonder if at that point Jesus’ eyes were opened and he realized what was happening, because his answer has a lot of energy in it: “Away with you, Satan!” he says, calling the devil by name for the first time.

There’s a Native American proverb that says when you use the name of something you claim your power over it. It’s possible that Jesus thought those first two temptations—to feed his hunger and secure his protection—were just struggles inside his own head, the kind Paul talked about when he said he didn’t understand why he did what he did. But when Jesus heard clearly what was behind the temptations—that self-gain wanted to be worshipped instead of God–Jesus could see and name the tempting thought clearly, and send it away. And away it went.

This week, I listened to a podcast that offered a fascinating idea about the time of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The speaker said that in this story, the only power the devil had was to try to influence Jesus’ thought—he couldn’t physically push him off the pinnacle or cause the roof to break. All he could do was try to influence what Jesus was thinking, tempting him to take his eyes off of God.

This is a powerful idea. Each of Jesus temptations—and each of our own, whether they are small cookie-sized temptations or big ones, like carrying the seeds of war in our hearts—are just thoughts. Thoughts! When we give in to a temptation, there is a moment when we berate ourselves for doing something we didn’t want to do. But guess what—that is only a thought. Is what we’re thinking really true about us? How does that square with the idea that “there is that of God in everyone”? Would God tell us—who are made in God’s own image and likeness, remember—that we have no will power, that we give in too easily, that we can’t stick to a goal? If we let ourselves be seen by God—if we invite God into our struggle—I think we will hear something entirely different. Mercy. Encouragement. Peace. Acceptance. Understanding. The good news is that no matter what we’re struggling with, temptation is only a thought, and a thought can be changed, if we will remember God.

The important thing here is that we don’t make the same mistake Adam and Eve made. Let’s not hide from God, no matter what the temptation may be. Instead of continuing to struggle, we can take a deep breath and admit to God that we’re having trouble with something. We can ask God how to see it, what to do. We can wait for peace, knowing that God is always faithful to bring the light we need.

I like the way the Psalmist says this in Psalm 121 (NIV):

I lift up my eyes to the mountains- where does my help come from? 2My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. 3He will not let your foot slip- he who watches over you will not slumber; 4indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 5The LORD watches over you- the LORD is your shade at your right hand; 6the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. 7The LORD will keep you from all harm- he will watch over your life; 8the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

Each ache, each tightness, each fear and sadness is a part of our human experience—as are moments of joy, light, laughter, and love. God is in it all, loving us, protecting us, giving us hope and a future.

When our inner or outer circumstances tempt us to forget to turn toward God for help, it only takes a moment to choose a new thought and find ourselves once again comforted and embraced by the Light.


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