Matthew 4:1 "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil."
|From Pasolini's "The Gospel According to |
St. Matthew" - 1964
Temptation is everywhere. It takes on countless forms and it meets us every hour. From the trivial to the momentous, it surrounds our lives. Even the non-believer must grapple with temptation, and every person must find their ethical balance on a daily basis. But for the believer there is a special strength that comes from knowing that even Christ himself was tempted, seriously so, and yet conquered. If he can do it, then we can do it also.
In the fourth century a man we now know as Saint Antony went into the desert to find God, to find himself, and to find his strength in God. We know about him because a great church leader, Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote the story of Antony's life. Antony was basically the first monk. But he was more than that. He was a champion, of sorts, who went up against the devil in hand-to-hand combat. And he won.
During the lonely nights in the North African wilderness, demons tempted and terrorized Antony with impunity. He lived out a horror movie in his daily life, beleaguered by apparitions, physically abused by the devil's minions. Yet he found that his faith would always save him, and that the simple mention of Jesus' name was often enough to make these visions melt. But he knew that all of us, no matter our level of maturity and no matter our walk of life, encounter persecution and temptation, and this was his advice:
The demons, therefore, if they see all Christians, and monks especially, labouring cheerfully and advancing, first make an attack by temptation and place hindrances to hamper our way, to wit, evil thoughts. But we need not fear their suggestions, for by prayer, fasting, and faith in the Lord their attack immediately fails. But even when it does they cease not, but knavishly by subtlety come on again. For when they cannot deceive the heart openly with foul pleasures they approach in different guise, and thenceforth shaping displays they attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers. But not even then need ye fear their deceitful displays. For they are nothing and quickly disappear, especially if a man fortify himself beforehand with faith and the sign of the cross.The temptation to sin, the temptation to fear, the temptation to doubt -- all of these are external forces caused by our enemy. God does not tempt. He allows temptation to occur, but He does not create it. Instead, he carries us through it.
God also knows that sometimes we lose sight of him and fail. Sometimes we sink into the water; sometimes we forget that He is more powerful than our enemy. When those moments come, when we fail to live up to the standard of Jesus in the desert, God is there to remind us that He still understands, and still forgives.
In Romans 7, Paul explains his struggle with temptation:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (15-25a)In the Nazarene church I have heard it argued that this portion of scripture applies to those who were living under the Law, not to Christians. Yet others interpret it as a reflection of Paul's lifelong struggle with temptation, just as we all struggle with our earthly, imperfect bodies and minds in this world. Either way, I remember my relief, and my hope, when I first encountered these words, and realized through them that even when we fall short of the mark, Jesus' grace is still sufficient to let us start again, to stand up with dignity and move ahead. His grace blots out our sins and our mistakes. We face temptation every day. Sometimes, we stumble. But He who did not stumble loves us anyway, and is there to set us right again, time after time.