First Sunday of Lent (C)

Sometime last year there was a kerfuffle about possibly updating the translation of the Lord’s Prayer to change the petition to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Some suggested that it was wrong to think that God would ever lead us into temptation. But our gospel reading this Sunday tells a different story.

Jesus himself is led into temptation by the Holy Spirit. After he was baptized by John, we read that “Jesus… was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil” (Lk 4:1).

This is not saying that God the Holy Spirit was trying to lead God the Son into sin! That is an impossibility. Temptation is not the same as sin, though it may lead to sin if we yield to it. The Catechism defines temptation as “an attraction, either from outside oneself or from within, to act contrary to right reason and the commandments of God.”

With Jesus, the attraction would not have come from within, as his human will is perfectly aligned with the divine will. The attraction came from outside, from Satan himself. By resisting temptation, Christ demonstrates his mastery of Satan, showing him that his reign is coming to an end.

Strategies of the Devil

The temptations which arise from within ourselves are due to our own disordered desires and undisciplined passions. We all have these, as a result of the fall. The temptations that arise from without, come from the world (other people) and the devil (and his evil spirits). The spiritual disciplines of self-denial, prayer, and charitable works that we undertake during Lent are meant to help strengthen us against temptations, whatever their origins.

While not all temptation comes directly from the devil, he can use the temptations of the world and the flesh against us. Satan is clever, and the account of Christ’s temptation in the desert shows us how the devil often works.

Notice that the devil does not tempt Christ with anything objectively evil. He’s not that direct. He tempts us with things that are good because we are naturally attracted to the good. When we sin, it’s not because we desire something evil, but because we desire something good in the wrong way. There is an aspect of good in every sin that we find attractive, and Satan will use that to pull us away from God.

This is how he tempted Adam and Eve. He promised that if they ate the forbidden fruit, they would gain knowledge and be like God. Isn’t knowledge good? Yes! Isn’t being like God good? Yes! But the knowledge they gained by eating the fruit was knowledge of evil, which made them less like God, who is all good. Satan is the Prince of Lies.

The devil is very specific in how he tempts us, because he knows (better than we do) our heart’s desire. He knows where we are weakest. While Jesus does not have weaknesses as such, Satan nevertheless tempts him in very targeted ways.

Command this stone to become bread. Jesus was hungry! He had been fasting for forty days. Eating bread is good, but Satan tempts Christ to pursue this good in the wrong way. Jesus is fasting from food in order to prepare himself for the spiritual trials of his ministry. Jesus resists temptation by choosing the greater good of his spiritual discipline over the lesser good of a full belly.

Satan next tempts Jesus with power over the kingdoms of the world. After failing to tempt Jesus with an appeal to his human passions, the devil tempts Christ by appealing to his divine mission. Christ came to proclaim God’s kingdom. He wants to establish his reign in the heart of every man. So Satan tempts Jesus with the illusion of a kingdom. He promises to give Christ all the kingdoms of the world but only “if you worship me,” he says. Jesus resists, because he knows that he must reign in men’s hearts according to God’s plan, not Satan’s.

Finally, Satan tempts Jesus by taking him to the highest parapet of the temple and suggesting that he throw himself off of it, so that God’s angels might save him. Satan’s last resort is to tempt Christ by appealing to his very trust in God. He knows that Jesus relies on God for all things. If you trust God so much, jump off this tower and let God save you. People would say the same thing when Jesus hung on the cross for us. “He trust in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to” (Mt 27:43).

Trust is a virtue, but presumption is a sin. We can trust that God will forgive us whenever we repent from sin. But it is wrong to presume God will forgive us without our repentance, because by doing so we use God’s mercy as an excuse to indulge in sin. So again Jesus says no. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Lead us not into temptation

Each of us faces temptation on a daily basis, in our own unique ways according to our situation and our personality. The knowledge that even Jesus was tempted should give us comfort that our Lord does not ask us to endure anything for him that he is not willing to also endure for us.

Jesus knows what it is like to face temptation. As much as the devil wants to take advantage of our weaknesses (and we all have them), Christ wants to transform those weaknesses into strengths. St. Paul says, “when I am weak, I am very strong,” (2 Cor 12:10) because it is through our weakness that God’s glory most clearly shines through.

If we only resist Satan where we are strong, we might think it is because of our own strength. But if we resist Satan where we are weak, we know it is by the strength that God provides. And God always provides us with the strength needed to overcome whatever temptations we may face (1 Cor 10:13).

This Lent, let us ask God to come into the specific areas of our heart where we are weak. Let us identify the vices we struggle with the most and be intentional about fostering the opposite virtues. If we struggle with pride, let us strive this Lent to be more humble. If we struggle with lust, let us work to become more chaste. If we struggle with gluttony, let’s increase our efforts to be temperate.

The devil uses strategy against us, so let’s be strategic in fighting back, taking comfort above all that Christ our Lord has already achieved victory for us.