We began our annual Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday and, as ashes were imposed on our heads, each of us personally heard the admonition: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” Two things are asked: to turn away from sin and to be faithful to gospel. This Sunday’s readings focus on the first of those: the importance of turning away from sin. It means that as disciples of the Lord, we need to consciously make the right choices. Key to making the right choices is avoiding the traps and pitfalls of the many temptations that come our way each day.
Every year on the First Sunday of Lent, we hear one of the gospel accounts about the temptations of Jesus. We are reminded that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, but he never sinned. He never yielded to temptation.
The story of the temptation of Jesus that the Church gives us this year is from the Gospel of Mark. This version of the temptations is the shortest and most concise. The gospels of Matthew and Luke offer more details. Yet the point is the same: Jesus faced temptation and conquered it.
What exactly is a temptation? If we go to the dictionary, a temptation is defined as “being enticed to do wrong by promise of pleasure or gain.” It is “a feeling that you want to do something even though you know it is wrong.”
We all experience temptation. There are so many examples from our daily lives. The student might be tempted to cheat on an exam or copy someone else’s homework. People are tempted to take what doesn’t belong to them. We may feel the urge to say or do hurtful things to others. Some people have experienced a temptation to engaged in sexual activity with someone other than a spouse. We have all experienced the temptation to lie about someone or something. Those of us in positions of authority may be tempted to abuse power that we have. And there are many others things we know are wrong but feel the urge to do. That is the key to a temptation: we know that something is wrong and we still feel the urge to do it.
A temptation may also be an enticement to not doing something we know we should do. For example, we might be tempted to walk by a person in need. We might be tempted to not to make time to pray or participate in Sunday Mass. We can be tempted to think only of ourselves and not of the needs of others, or not to share some of my time, money and talents with others. We might even be tempted to stop trusting in God.
Temptations are not sins. We need to be clear about this. A temptation is what happens before we sin. Sin is giving in to the temptation. Sin is a choice we make. Temptations might be strong, but we always have a choice. Sin is yielding to temptation. And we are responsible for our choices.
For example, we might be in a situation where it would be convenient to lie. If we tell the truth, we would be in trouble. In that kind of situation, it is tempting to lie to save our own skin. Can we resist that kind of temptation? Of course we can! Not only by our own efforts, but with God’s help we can.
Consider another example. You receive a very generous gift of some money from your Lola. You think of all kinds of things you can buy with this money. You also know that a cousin is struggling to pay his tuition bill. You also think about a shelter for abused that children that you recently visited. You have to decide if you will share some of the money or keep it all for yourself. The choice of using it only for your needs is selfish. That is a temptation. Once again, you can consult God and other people to help you decide what to do, but the choice is yours.
In every case, temptation is the lure to make the wrong choice. It usually means thinking only about our own pleasure. For most of us, it means ignoring what we know is the right choice. In a real sense, we have to push God aside. We ignore the values and beliefs we have learned in our religion. We reject God’s ways and choose our own selfish ways.
Jesus was a human being just like us. He experienced joy and sadness, satisfaction and disappointment. He experienced all the emotions we do. In today’s gospel we are told he also experienced temptation. It was real. He was not pretending. His temptations were real. In fact, they were much bigger than the temptations you and I experience. But he too had to make a choice.
Where did Jesus get the strength to make the right choice? How did he say no to temptation? If we turn to longer version of the story in the gospels of Matthew or Luke, it is more obvious.
First, these two gospels tell us that during these 40 days in the desert Jesus was praying. Jesus had a close relationship with his Father in heaven. He drew strength from this relationship. If we also have a close relationship with God, it will be easier for us to make the right choices too. That is why prayer can also help us resist temptation.
Second, in each instance Jesus turned to the Word of God in the Bible. Jesus uses a verse from the Bible to challenge each of the three temptations the devil poses to Jesus. We too can draw strength from God’s Word in the Bible. If we are familiar with God’s Word, if we take time to read the Bible, it will also be a source of strength for us. We will know what is right and wrong. We will be more familiar with God’s commandments, especially the command to love God and one another.
Finally, in each of the three temptations, Jesus rebuffs the devil. He pushes him away. He doesn’t linger or remain near the evil one. We too need to remove ourselves from temptations. They will be a part of our lives, but we should not dwell on them. We need to push them aside and move on. We can divert our attention to other things.
God will help you resist temptation, but we also have to do our part. Every time we pray the Our Father, we say: “Lead us not unto temptation...Do not bring us to the test.” In other words, do not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength.
That is what St. Paul tells us:
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
God will always be there to help us in times of temptation. He will give us the grace we need. We just have to take the grace God offers and use it to make good choices.