The opening lines of today’s gospel set the stage for the whole Season of Lent. “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward was hungry.” In Lent the Holy Spirit leads us into a “desert experience” for a sacred period of forty days and forty nights. As we fast and pray, we face the difficult challenge of overcoming temptations, and we learn how to defeat the one who proposes them, the devil.
Our study of temptation begins with a reflection on the experience of our first parents in the Garden of Eden. Today’s reading from Genesis tells of the first temptation, which reveals the basic pattern of every temptation. In the story, the devil is represented by the serpent, “the most cunning of all the animals.” The account is told in a symbolic way, but the devil is not a symbol. He is a real, cunning, powerful spirit-being who hates us. The devil, or Satan, the same creature who tempted Adam and Eve, and who tempted Jesus in the desert, tempts us every day.
The devil typically begins his attack subtly, so that we will not even realize that we are being tempted. He proposes a question: “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” It is a cunning way of engaging us in a seemingly casual conversation, while at the same time introducing a seed of doubt: maybe, just maybe, God is holding something good back from me. Why does he prohibit things that seem good? Would I be better off taking charge of my own life? Satan knows that we are only attracted to goodness, truth and beauty, so in his malice he hides what is evil, false and ugly under some appealing disguise. He says, in effect, God is not telling you the whole story; let me help you gain something even better for yourself.
Once he has planted a doubt in our hearts, the devil takes a bolder step, the planting of a lie. Satan is “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). At the core of every temptation is a lie. In the Garden, the lie is “You certainly will not die! … You will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” The lie of temptation is always that the sinful action will bring us some benefit, a benefit that God is unjustly keeping from us. Satan is the master of false advertising; he wants us to think that we are missing something we really need, something we deserve. We need only to think back on our experience of sin in our past to realize that sin never satisfies us; it never lives up to the grand promises of happiness that Satan uses to promote it.
Temptation in itself is not a sin; it is an invitation to sin. What Satan really wants is for us to make a decision based on the temptation, a sinful decision to look at, take, try and taste what is forbidden. He wants us to claim for ourselves the power to determine what is good and what is evil. This is what Adam and Eve did, with disastrous consequences: “by the offense of the one man all died.”
St. Paul explains to the Romans that the disaster of sin has been more than overcome by the grace. The disobedience and fall of the first Adam is more than reversed by the obedience and gift of the new Adam, Jesus Christ. In fact, it is because of Christ that we can understand the mystery of original sin and its impact on the whole human family. As the Catechism explains, “We must know Christ as the source of grace in order to know Adam as the source of sin” (CCC 388).
Jesus’ ultimate victory over sin and death is the fruit of his death and resurrection. But he shows his power over Satan throughout his public ministry. At the beginning he deliberately goes into the desert to face our enemy head-on and to defeat him – and to show us how we too can overcome temptation and share in his victory. Because of Jesus’ decisive victory, every “desert” can become a garden where God dwells. In the barren desert of this world, in the desert of our own hearts, we have sure hope for the victory of grace and life.
We learn from Jesus’ example that it is vital that we do not even begin to listen to Satan’s lies or allow him to plant doubts in our imagination. If the devil finds us listening to him, he simply intensifies his efforts. One of the best ways to defeat temptation is to reject it quickly.
In addition, Jesus teaches us to rely on the word of God in the battle. He shows that the truth of scripture is an effective weapon against lies. When we find ourselves hungering for worldly things, for comfort, glory or power, we can find strength in calling to mind God’s word – “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This is a way of calling on the power of God himself. We need spiritual weapons if we are going to overcome spiritual enemies. St. Paul knew this very well: “Although we are in the flesh, we do not battle according to the flesh, for the weapons of our battle are not of flesh but are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses. We destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (2 Cor 10:3-5).
As we begin the Season of Lent, then, we are given priceless wisdom and great power. The wisdom is: Do not give in to temptation; do not entertain the liar. The power is that of Jesus himself. Though in ourselves we are very weak, we do need to fear Satan, for Jesus is far more powerful than he is. Full of faith we call upon the One who has already won the victory for us: “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”
What are my greatest temptations? When do I claim for myself the power to determine what is good and what is evil? Do I fully trust in the Lord’s power over Satan?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.