Temptation. What does this word mean? For many of us it means things like avoiding the temptation to look at our phones compulsively, or to stay away from snacks. It might mean the feeling of wanting to buy something new, when we have a perfectly good whatever-it-is at home, but we want a new one. There are many sentences that begin with “I was so tempted to…” and end with something that does not seem very harmful. We pray, “lead us not into temptation,” but what do we mean when we say those words?
A long time ago, I was speaking to someone who was practicing the 12 Steps of AA. He said that rationalizing the dismantling of small boundaries was the road to ruin for him. Often he would be tempted to put himself in a situation that might not seem to be so bad, but one that he knew might be a trigger. And he might even do OK in that situation, not yielding to the magnetic force of his addiction. Then he would shift into an even more challenging situation, one that he was drawn to, and one that he knew might be more problematic. Perhaps he would do fine there and begin to think that he was fine. And then a few more dismantled small boundaries would send him straight into the heart of his addiction once again.
That’s the problem with temptation, for most of us it seems so darned innocent. One more glance at the phone, one more piece of candy or another chip, one more pair of shoes. Many of us were brought up to believe that one inhalation of marijuana would plummet us straight into the depths of heroin addiction, which is a fallacy. So how can one more of something take us down? It is no big deal, right?
The point I’m getting at here, and in a more verbose manner than I meant to (I’m always tempted to use too many words!) is that we see Jesus in today’s Gospel from Matthew, and we think of the BIG TEMPTATIONS. Some of us sigh, grateful that we never have face those same temptations. In fact we are tempted to believe that could never be us out there in the scorching Judean desert, pondering the offer to turn stones into bread after a 40 day fast. Thank God Jesus took care of that!
In Daily Reflections for Lent, Not By Bread Alone by Robert F. Morneau, (the book is sold out, but the eBook still available at that link) today’s reflection reorients us with a reference from Karl Rahner’s The Need and Blessing of Prayer. Rahner talks about “his [man’s] hunger for good fortune, his sadness and the melancholy of life that lusts for an anesthetic, his trust in the concrete, his mistrust of the future hereafter, his amazing and uncanny facility for moral counterfeiting which can make good evil and evil good.”
Yes, I’m thinking of one more piece of candy, and one more pair of shoes, along with one more glance at the phone right now. But isn’t there a deeper place to go? After reading Rahner; I’m thinking of the endless barrage of cultural messages and advertising that remind us of the need to have enough investments, to eat certain foods, to buy more insurance, to believe that the purchase of that next phone or tablet or gadget will bring happiness. We are led to believe that gaining more money, thereby gaining more power, will give us the “American dream.” After that, a whiff of moral counterfeiting in my own life sends me reeling.
Now I’m not here to wag my finger at you, or to point to my moral superiority. I have none! When I walk the dog, I am constantly tempted to fret about our as-yet-unrenovated-1977 kitchen, as I see the pile of old cabinets on a neighbor’s lawn. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s granite countertop!
As for the security of retirement… Don’t get me started. And I look at my phone way too much, and I can always rationalize just one more small boundary with the saying “I never met a potato chip that I didn’t like.”
No – we are not all called to be ascetics in the desert, free from iPhones, iPads, and IRAs. We who are Catholic are called to be so, directly in the world. Catholic = universal, fleeing is not an option for most of us. We all encounter temptation every single day, and our faith, along with God and one another, are what help us navigate temptation.
That is temptation. It is not a problem to be solved and “being saved” is not a one stop destination. What we might want to reorient ourselves to is the salvific power of our lives in Christ, found in relationship with God, and with one another. We pray not to be led into temptation, but perhaps we also need to think about praying our way through temptation.
That is a Lenten practice that appeals to me as I confront the many forms of evil, great and small in my life. Most of them are frankly very small, but those small boundaries that I destroy as I rationalize my way through them are my problem.
Let us pray for one another this Lent, that we find our way through things great and small- the phone and the potato chip, the longing for power and financial security that goes beyond reason. And for the many things in between that step between us and our Lord.