“You cannot keep birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair”
This proverb has been attributed to a number of sources, one being Martin Luther. It has often been tied to the temptations that we all experience.
Each year we enter the season of Lent with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Each of us have been enticed by money, recognition, or power. Enticed to take advantage of others, neglect our responsibilities, or treat ourselves or those we love with disregard and disrespect.
Jesus stands in a wilderness, alone, hungry and weary from fasting. Jesus endures profound isolation and hunger yet He clings to the word of God. ‘Man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In the moment of temptation we are always in the desert alone, like Jesus was, because it is my choice to do good or to do evil, no one else can take that responsibility. One thing to note carefully is the meaning of the word to “tempt”. In English “tempt” is consistently thought of as negative. It is always seen as an enticement to do wrong. But the Greek, we are brought to appreciate, has a quite a different element in its meaning. It means “to test” far more than it means “to tempt” in our sense of the word.
What we call temptation is not meant to make us sin; it is meant to enable us to conquer sin. It is not meant to make us evil; it is meant to make us virtuous. Temptation is not the handicap of being human, but the means to become fully human. It is the test which comes to a person whom God wishes to polish as his instrument.
Have we allowed lent to be both the place of insecurity and the place of God’s closeness? The desert is an invitation to choose, to believe in the promised land on the other side of this trial or to return to the slavery of Egypt. The test is important for our personal spiritual development. We are reminded that “We are never tested beyond our strength.” We cannot truly become holy without temptations to test and mature us. It is very important for us to hear that Jesus was led by the “Spirit” into the desert.
I found it interesting to discover that Satans in the history of the Persian Empire, which did extend into Palestine, were political agents who went around testing secretly the loyalty of the king’s subjects of the realm. In that understanding, Jesus is not so much being tempted to sin, but tested to see if he would be loyal or disloyal to who he is as the beloved son of the Father.
Battling temptation humanizes us, just as it did Jesus in the desert. And in the end, as Friedrich Nietzsche recognized, “What does not kill us makes us stronger.” What are the wild beasts? Anything that fills us with fear, makes us insecure and consumes our hope. We may face the desert experience of unemployment, illness, hurting relationships or failure. Our freedom necessitates the testing that reveals where the heart’s true treasure lies.
The desert is a tremendous symbol in scripture for the place of conversion.. the place of decision. It is a test of love, a moment of choice. It is a call to a new freedom and a promised land. The desert is a gift because it suspends us in a moment of time between our past and our future. Faith demands that I live not from what I have experienced but from what I have been promised. In these remaining weeks, we are invited to enter this desert experience and be enticed by the grace of God to choose life.
14 It was he who created humans in the beginning,
and he left them in the power of their own inclinations.
15 If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your choice.
16 He has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
17 Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given.
Book of Sirach
By Ken Forster, OMI