With the beginning of Lent, the people of God wander out into the wilderness with Jesus after his baptism, and we are reminded of temptation, our friend and adversary that is always with us. The wilderness is quiet enough that we can hear temptation walking alongside us, for temptation has a quiet way, whispering more than shouting. With such a reminder, I decided to write an obituary for temptation, as an act of repentance, putting the old behind and clinging to the new.
"Temptation lived until he was practically ageless, but has been laid to rest due to an act of repentance. Temptation was never alone, able to make friends with anyone. He was always there when people needed him. He was reliable, dependable, and committed. He was a traveler, a wanderer, and a jack-of-all-trades. He worked in every industry, but never held a formal position. He was active in politics, but never chose one party. He was refined and limitless, crossing the boundaries between the elite of society and people who were the salt of the earth. He was busy and tireless, active in churches as well as organizations throughout the cities where he traveled."
Temptation is loyal like a friend and threatening like an adversary. In walking through the wilderness, we realize that temptation is surely quiet, always there, but not always recognized. It is true that we will reap what we sow. We cannot bury our mistakes deep enough to keep them from reappearing, materializing in ways that disrupt and damage. The words of the book of Numbers resonate with us, "your sin will find you out."
Whereas that is true, for we cannot bury our mistakes deep enough to keep them from reappearing, it is not the complete truth. There are some temptations that remain hidden from us, not because we are hiding them from others, but because they are hiding from us.
After Jesus was baptized, he was led into the wilderness for forty days, where he faced temptation. In telling this significant story, though, the gospel of Mark is rather quiet. It simply says, he was "tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him." There is one sentence, and one sentence only. No list of overt or obvious temptations for us to avoid.
If we were to turn back to the gospel of Matthew, looking for more, which it does have more to say about this story, we still do not find a list of overt temptations. Instead we find a rather odd list. Jesus is tempted by turning stones into loaves of bread, by leaping off of the temple on a dare, and by accepting an offering of the kingdoms of the world. Every time I revisit this story in Matthew, I find new temptations and new understandings of old temptations, but there is no short-list of obvious shortfalls to avoid. We are more accustomed to obvious sins, and we can find those short-lists elsewhere in scripture, but not in this story.
There are those temptations and mistakes that are overt, that cannot be buried deep enough to keep them from reappearing, but there are also temptations that remain hidden from us, not because we are hiding them from others, but because they are hiding from us, as quiet stowaways. They can wear masks to stay unseen. They take good intentions and twist them into destructive outcomes. They even use slight-of-hand to stay out-of-eyesight, where greed hides within ambition, where fear is twisted into hate, where "telling the facts" conceals prejudice, where self-interest is masked by thin kindness, where efficiency better describes impatience, and where pride is disguised by false humility.
Lent is a time of self-reflection and self-examination, so we look beyond what we ordinarily see, where we may see temptation hiding from us. It is a time when we not only listen to God, but also listen to our own lives, not for self-loathing or to relish in guilt, but to affect change. Lent calls us to live an examined life. We are to listen closely and to look deeply. I think that is, at least, in part what Philippians means when it says, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."
There is fear and trembling in an examined life. We do not want to look for fear of what we may see. Examining our truest motivations and the quiet consequences of our actions is more than daunting; it borders on terrifying, but it is also Christian. It is Christian because as we listen closely, we find the grace of Christ. We look for what we do not want to see because as we journey to the cross of Good Friday, the darkness of that day becomes real, but as the darkness of that day becomes real, so does the light of Easter morning, so does the grace of God.
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