The simple-minded design for my first battery of Basin Bible Church sermons was just to go through the sayings of Jesus in chronological order. Since my whole life is one long string of synchronistic surprises, it was no surprise to read that one of Jesus's first sentences was, "Get thee behind me, Satan."
It was no surprise because I have been thinking a lot about sin lately. As an Aspie, my mode of thinking is extremely linear, black and white, and I swear to you, until recently, I was convinced that I was fairly sinless. I manner, doesn't everybody want to think of themselves as sinless? Don't we need this to feel good about ourselves? When Paul says we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God, isn't he talking about someone else? I mean I live an upright life, I do what I say I'm going to do, I'm fair, nay generous, in my business dealings, I don't cause anyone any particular pain, I make a positive difference in the world--all the outward signs of virtue are to be seen in me--I'm a pretty cool dude. But, quite recently, I was taking stock of my inner life, and I came to the shocking realization that I have a mental sewer running down in there--that I need every calorie of spiritual power with which grace can empower me to keep my mind even remotely clean. Let's come back to that.
In the following discussion, we will touch on the nature of temptation in its various guises, and hopefully suggest a protective strategy for dealing with its magnetic attraction.
The Temptations of Jesus in the desert represent the ideal model for dealing with our own spiritual trials. It is significant that the story of Jesus's ministry begins here; it is as though He must first learn to deal with the demonic attacks of Satan before He is fit to bring humanity His words of enlightenment. His mind and will must be tested and tempered before the words of His mouth can become acceptable to the Father. If this is so for Him, how much moreso must it be for us? Even when we acknowledge that Satan and his minions are at the root of every wrong thought and deed, how can we escape the penetration of his powerful intellect and protect ourselves from his almost invisible, invasive aggression? How many of our thoughts are corrupted by Satan's skillful infiltrations before we realize we have been duped again? How much crap do we allow to come out of our mouths every day, before our tongues have been cleansed by Graceful intervention? How can we know, and how can we stop it?
Here are the three accounts of Jesus's temptation in the desert taken from the first three, so-called, synoptic gospels:
1Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.
2And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.
3And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.
4But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
5Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,
6And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
7Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
8Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;
9And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.
10Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
11Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
Mark 1:13 is the shortest statement:
13And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.
Luke 4:1-14 is practically word for word the account in Matthew:
1And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,
2Being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered.
the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread.
4And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.
5And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.
6And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.
7If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.
8And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
9And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence:
10For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee:
11And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
12And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
13And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season.
14And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about.
In researching this episode I found that several commentators mention a progression of magnitude in Satan's temptations: the devil begins with little temptations, "Hey, buddy, just have a little bread, you must be starving after 40 days! A little bread, a little wine, a little marinara sauce, let's kick back, party--you know, celebrate a successful fast! How bout some GARLIC bread, ooh, yum!"
Let's celebrate a successful fast by breaking the fast--isn't that clever. Indeed this is one of the main categories of temptation, and one of the hardest to notice, because it is not always crystal clear when enough is enough. C.S. Lewis mentions this in the Screwtape Letters:
"Whatever men expect, they soon come to think they have a right to: the sense of disappointment can, with very little skill on our part, be turned into a sense of injury. It is after men have given in to the irremediable, after they have despaired of relief and ceased to think even a half hour ahead, that the dangers of humbled and gentle weariness begin. To produce the best results from the patient's fatigue, therefore, you must feed him with false hopes. Put into his mind plausible reasons for believing that the air raid will not be repeated. Keep him comforting himself with the thought of how much he will enjoy his bed next night. Exaggerate the weariness by making him think it will soon be over; for men usually feel that a strain could have been endured no longer at the moment when it is ending, or when they think it is ending. In this, as in the problem of cowardice. the thing to avoid is the total commitment. Whatever he says, let his inner resolution be not to bear whatever comes to him, but to bear it "for a reasonable period"--and let the reasonable period be shorter than the trial is likely to last. It need not be much shorter: in attacks on patience, chastity, and fortitude, the fun is to make the man yield just when (had he but known it) relief was almost in sight."
I was going out on a date with a girl a long time ago, and I picked her up at her parents' house. Before we could go, she had some chores to do, like cleaning up the kitchen, etc. I pitched in to help, and was just plowing into the last little pile of dishes when she said, "Let's go." I pointed out that there were still a few minor tasks to be completed, that we were almost done. She said. "Almost done has always been good enough for me." Oh the clang of doom I heard resonating over THAT relationship!
Back to Jesus: declining to break His ritual fast, Jesus then has to endure insults to his power; the order in Matthew and Luke is switched, but the order in Matthew (apparently the model for Luke's account) makes the most sense: first the devil dares him to jump off the top of a minaret, ["C'mon, if you're so hot you can do THAT--it's not so far, c'mon, it'll be fun!"], then (as is often the case with demons), his temptations crescendo to a climax, "Look at ALL THIS REAL ESTATE! I can give you all this if you just sign on the dotted line. No, right here, see? Right here! Just put your X down on that baby! How about a thumb print?"
Jesus just says no. Is it that simple? Just say no? Maybe for Him, not for us. Martin Luther had to throw a Bible at Satan taunting him in the corner. The words, "Get behind me, Satan," are significant--they imply an actual physical TURNING AWAY FROM THE DARK TOWARD THE LIGHT. But sometimes we don't know which way the light is. We don't KNOW which way the light is--it's the KNOWING that is the problem. Let's come back to that.
At the end of the episode the devil leaves Jesus alone and the Christ is attended by angels. One wonders if the devil ever tried again--one wonders if the angels put up a permanent protective barrier around Jesus when he passed that first grueling test, or whether, like gnats in summer, they continued to buzz around him, looking for a loophole. Let's come back to that.
I know that Jesus protects me from serious demonic assaults as a matter of policy (I passed my test about 25 years ago); my ambitions have been humbled to an acceptance of my tiny niche in the vast scheme of things--I don't have to worry about being taken by major demonic possession, I am not tempted to commit bank robbery, rape, arson, murder (you know, the big stuff)-- but I still have to endure subtle temptations like that bread thing all the time--it's the tiny temptations, given in to like tiny slips down a hill that eat away at your character, and it's like an untaxing calisthenic spiritual exercise to condition yourself to "Just say NO." BUT YOU HAVE TO PAY ATTENTION AND REMEMBER TO SAY NO.
As I mentioned above, until recently I was very unconscious of all the temptation that was going on in my mind until I started thinking about it; that is to say, I was conscious of my thoughts, since they were all quite reasonable of course, but I could see no sin in them. It was a humbling shock to have to admit that I am constantly assailed by petty thoughts, condemning thoughts, judgmental thoughts, uncharitable thoughts. Not reasonable at all, a lot of them not even sane. And the joke is that, so often, we mistake these ego-centric thoughts for truth; we need to SAY what we know, but the devil so easily perverts what we know into lies by twisting the words into misdirections that end up meaning the opposite of their original intention; what started out as an icon of truth turns into a weapon of destruction. I realize now that Satan's minions are tireless in seeking out our personal weaknesses and dragging us down by our own falsely articulated ideas of virtue. And of course the IDEAS of virtue inevitably lead to ACTS of virtue like telling some miserable sinner, in the grocery store, the error of his ways, or exploding a bomb in an airport in the name of Allah.
It is somewhat fun to trace back the logic behind these so-called acts of virtue. Here's a good example: when I lived in the ghetto in L.A. there was a guy named Ed who would never get the front door shut when he went out. We begged him to be careful because we were a house of white guys living in the middle of a hostile black neighborhood, and the house had been broken into more than once. My brother had a talent for psychology, and got inside Ed's head to get at why he kept performing this dangerous antisocial act. His reasoning was as follows:
They want me to close the door so the house will be safe.
But to close the door you have to slam it a little bit.
If we keep slamming the door, it will fall off the hinges.
If the door falls off the hinges, we won't have any door at all.
No door will not be safe.
So what they really want me to do is leave the door open a little bit. OK
Etc. There is the old 19th century European drinking song popular with German university students that works the same perverted way:
The more you study the more you know,
The more you know the more you forget,
The more you forget the less you know,
So why study?
I have to admit it, I like myself. Shame at who I am has NEVER been an ingredient in my ego make-up. I admit that, for most of my life, CONFUSION was a big part, as I suffered that particular brand of rejection and misunderstanding that is the Aspie's stock in trade, but I never felt shame--I was always too innocent, too clueless, to feel shame. I thought there was something really wrong with me, but I never felt it was my fault, I felt that I was made different, and it was other peoples' loss that they couldn't get me. But as I grew in the spirit, and began to realize that none of my accomplishments were my own, that everything about me I was proud of came from God, I began to question my most intimately ingrained attitudes about myself.
Wikipedia defines the word "temptation" like this:
"A temptation is an act that looks appealing to an individual. It is usually used to describe acts with negative connotations and as such, tends to lead a person to regret such actions, for various reasons: legal, social, psychological (including feeling guilt), health, economic, etc. Temptation also describes the coaxing or inducing a person into committing such an act, by manipulation or otherwise of curiosity, desire or fear of loss."
Thus, a temptation is something that seems to offer us the possibility of ENHANCING positive feelings about ourselves, but which ends up generating NEGATIVE feelings about ourselves. Also, there is an element missing from the Wikipedia definition: temptation always includes the undertone that what we are doing is really wrong, JUST NOT WRONG ENOUGH; if our ego virtue can be retained by verbal gymnastics, then we can have our cake and eat it too. How wish I could have my cake and eat it too! (Can you hear Satan laughing when I say that?) How wish I could have my cake and eat it too!
Many of the negative thoughts I battle with all the time have to do with people in my musical organization: I have to manage a number of people (the number is getting bigger--including my Anchorage contingent, I have upwards of 60 musicians in my organization, now)--anyway, I have to get all these people to pull together to make beautiful things happen, and the effort involved in getting them to co-operate sometimes seems so overwhelming that I could just scream. Whenever some plan goes wrong, my first response is to fret and accuse, and feel bad about myself because I have failed to make them want it as much as I want it; thus, what is supposed to be a self-affirming experience turns into a self-nullifying experience. Music is a self-affirming act, and all involved are blessed! Why do I have to struggle and fret to make them see that?
The key is embedded in the true nature of self-affirmation: one successful temptation technique, that Satan uses on us time and time again, is getting us confused about what is truly self-affirming; he leads us to think that certain feelings are born of true righteousness, but these convictions so often turn out to be merely vain self-righteousness, which, in its obsession with ego, turns out not to be righteous at all. All of our "righteousnesses" are filthy rags. Thus, we sin and condemn ourselves with the best of all possible intentions. And the whole syndrome of self-aggrandizement involves a level of ego resolution which most easily allows our thoughts to be assaulted by petty ego stuff, and the petty ego whispers lies and more lies in our hungry ears. Through all these mental machinations the ego retains enough power to say that "I" am proving my holiness; in actuality, we have nothing to prove, comparisons are irrelevant. I realize, now, that the temptation involved in thinking bad thoughts is that those thoughts which are supposed to make me feel superior really just drag me down. In searching for the truth in literal definitions, I lose sight of the heart of my thought; and when the heart's final authority is lost, so is all truth, all virtue lost as well.
Surrender is the only empowering strategy--give ego over to the personal aspect of God and let Him decide what is true and what is false. Until one goes beyond experience to find God, one's identity is wrapped up in a cycle of desires that lead to action. Every action leaves an articulate impression and new impressions give rise to new desires. Desire leads to action, leads to articulation, leads to false truth; consequently we become victims of mistaken identity. We spend our time projecting versions of reality onto the proscenium of our mind's eye, including versions of God that are inadequate.
I say, "Let the language of the HEART be the index of truth." For me, the highest form of self-affirmation is giving God the glory; affirming God in me is the only lasting ego boost I can get. In my studio, I have a little home-made bumper sticker on the wall; it says: "Anybody who looks down on somebody else is hanging upside down." It would be good if I could consistently take my own advice.
Oh if we could only love ourselves in the innocent open-hearted way that children cherish their simple accomplishments, and not need the so-easily twisted language of words! Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" opens with these guileless lines:
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
If we could enjoy ourselves in the uncomplicated way of children, unspoiled by ego, our thoughts would not betray us with their dark judgmental resonance, and we would indeed be delivered from temptation.
The Last Temptation of Christ, by Nikos Kazantzakis is a reverent thought provoking novel, that attempts to get inside Jesus's head, and explore His humanity, just as we have been doing here for the past few weeks.
Wikipedia summarizes the book like this:
"The Last Temptation of Christ (or The Last Temptation) is a novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis, first published in 1960. It follows the life of Jesus Christ from his perspective. The novel has been the subject of a great deal of controversy due to its subject matter, and appears regularly on lists of banned books. The central thesis of the book is that Jesus, while free from sin, was still subject to every form of temptation that humans face, including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust. Kazantzakis argues in the novel's preface that by facing and conquering all of man's weaknesses, Jesus struggled to do God's will, without ever giving in to the temptations of the flesh."
[In light of our previous discussions of Jesus's humanity, this is a concept that is not hard to buy into.]
The novel was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese in 1988. Throughout the movie, Jesus is plagued by doubts that he is the Messiah; how could one so corrupted by human faults possibly be the son of God? The scene in the desert includes the following dialogue; in this scene Satan assaults Jesus's weakness by suggesting that His humanity is virtuous, and he should be satisfied with common human pleasures, a wife, a family. Satan appears as a serpent:
"Jesus: You're here to trick me.
The Cobra/Satan: Trick you? To love and care for a woman, to have a family? This is a trick? Why are you trying to save the world? Aren't your own sins enough for you? What arrogance to think you can save the world. The world doesn't have to be saved: save yourself. Find love
Jesus: I have love. "
"I have love." In this sentence Jesus affirms the only ego worth affirming--the identity of God in Human form. God is love. I have love. I have myself.
At the end of the movie, as Jesus hangs on the cross, Satan appears as a little girl. The girl tells Jesus he has passed the test, and He can come down from the cross now and have a normal human life. Satan spins an illusion over the eyes of Jesus and He enters into a fantasy. "Almost done has always been good enough for me." Finally Jesus comes to His senses and realizes He has been duped by Satan's wily guiles. At first, Satan thinks he has succeeded in corrupting Jesus, and the devil speaks this speech:
"I told you we would meet again.
If you die this way, you die like a man.
You turned against God, your Father.
There's no sacrifice. There's no salvation.
There's nothing you can do.
You lived this life.
You accepted it.
It's over now.
You just finish it and die.
Die like a man."
When Jesus realizes the truth, he returns to the cross, and, suffering, says this:
Will you listen to me?
Are you still there?
Will you listen to a selfish, unfaithful son?
I fought you when you called. I resisted.
I thought I knew more. I didn't want
to be your son. Can you forgive me?
I didn't fight hard enough.
...give me your hand.
I want to bring salvation!
Father, take me back!
Make a feast! Welcome me home!
I want to be your son!
I want to pay the price!
I want to be crucified and rise again!
I want to be the Messiah!
It is accomplished!"
I know that many people think that putting fictitious words in Jesus's mouth is blasphemy, but I don't see this scene as pretending to express any sort of divine knowledge, any more than any other work of art depicting the Christ must be said to be blasphemous. I hear these final words of Jesus as my own words, declaring my own reluctance to commit to the selfless spiritual life without reservation, and I shout a huge hooray when I finally say NO to the tempter's lies, and find my own personal sacred truth, and guided by Grace, and take up MY cross.
May 8, 2011