By Father Joseph Breighner
I recall the story of a newly married couple who got into financial difficulty very quickly. They sat down and hammered out a very tight budget, and agreed to spend nothing extra.
The next day, the young wife stopped by the mall to get something, and passed a store window with a sign: “80 percent off!” She made a right hand turn into the store, and came home with a gorgeous outfit, that she couldn’t have afforded otherwise in a million years. Her husband, however, was not amused: “Didn’t we just sit down and hammer out a real tight budget last night?” he asked. His wife replied: “Honey, the devil made me do it!” Not easily persuaded, he replied: “Well, why didn’t you do what Jesus did in the desert and say: ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ The young woman replied: “I did do that and the devil said: ‘The outfit looks great from the back too!”
Temptation is something we all face. Even Jesus faced it! No more riveting description of the temptations of Jesus than that dramatized by Jesus facing down Satan in the desert. Let’s set the stage.
The Gospel says that Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights, and added that he was hungry. Isn’t that a bit of an understatement? I’m hungry about every four hours, much less 40 days. That always struck me as peculiar: Why weaken yourself in order to do battle? Why deplete your physical self to take on the greatest challenge of your life – facing evil incarnate!
The answer, of course, was right in front of me. Jesus was modeling that we don’t conquer evil, don’t face down temptation with our own human resources. The alcoholic can’t stop drinking. The food-aholic can’t stop binging or purging. The compulsive worker can’t stop working. The criticizer can’t stop criticizing! The angry person can’t stop being angry. The judger can’t stop judging people. None of us can stop anything with our own will power. That’s the illusion of the ego – the ultimate lie of our mind-body connection. We can only stop destructive behavior, and practice good behaviors with a higher power. The mind and body fighting with the mind and body just keeps us stressing ourselves, and always losing. The ego, the mind and body, that surrenders to a higher power can do all things. That’s why Jesus let go of physical nourishment in order to be filled with the Spirit of God. We feed our ego when we give ourselves credit. We feed our spirit when we give God credit – our Higher Power.
And psychologists and spiritual teachers tell us that all human behavior is motivated by one of three wants: wanting approval, wanting control, or wanting to be safe. And notice the three temptations of Christ were all about those three things:
The devil’s first temptation was: “Command this stone to turn into bread.” You’ll be safe if you have something to eat. And Jesus replied that “One does not live on bread alone.”
The second temptation was about control: The devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant and said: “I shall give you all this power and glory”. You’ll control the world. Just worship me, worship the control I’ll give you. And Jesus responded: “You shall worship and serve God alone.”
The final temptation was about throwing himself off the temple to impress the crowds. Be a showman. Get the approval of the crowds by working miracles, rather than performing miracles because you love people. Love won’t get you anywhere.
And Jesus replied: “You shall not put your God to the test!” It’s not about human approval. It’s about God’s approval.
Scholars debate that this dramatization in the desert really represents the temptations Jesus struggled with for all his life. He was tempted constantly to use his divine power to make his life easier. To work miracles to be popular. To use his power to control even his enemies. To use his power to keep himself safe.
Instead Christ surrendered his mind and body – his human ego – into the hands of his heavenly Father – His higher power.
You and I know the illusion of human approval, human control, human safety. We know every human kingdom rises, and every human kingdom eventually falls. Every human being is born, and every human being dies. Every human mind and body experiences approval, and control, and safety for a little while, but eventually we will lose human approval, human control, and human safety.
That awareness can lead us to despair, or that awareness can lead us to Christ. Let’s again choose Christ! And we dare to believe that if we surrender to Christ, we will experience eternal approval, eternal control, eternal safety. We will, if we surrender to Christ, experience God’s own life, and God’s own love. And that’s all we need for life and eternal life.
To read more of Father Breighner’s columns, click here.
Copyright (c) March 1, 2013 CatholicReview.org