Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Embracing Temptation" (Matthew 4:1-11)

Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. 40 days and 40 nights, alone, out in the desert, out in the wild, away from civilization.
I think a lot of people today have a hard time imagining what it would be like to spend 40 days and 40 nights alone in the wilderness. First, there’s the matter of how one would survive. Then, there is (in Jesus’ case) that whole temptation thing.

But I don’t think these are what scare us the most. I think that what scares us the most is boredom!

I mean, come on! What would you do for 40 days and 40 nights, alone, in the wilderness? Think of all the stuff with which you fill a typical day: meals, television, work, school, chores, homework, reading the newspaper, updating your facebook status, brushing your teeth, listening to music, going to the store, going to a medical appointment, paying your bills, checking your email, going to a meeting, exercising, and updating your facebook status (I know I said that twice; you don’t update just once a day, do you?).

But if you are out in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, what would you do? You’d go crazy, wouldn’t you? Many people today can’t imagine doing nothing for ten minutes. A lot of people, if they have ten minutes with nothing to do, cry out in anguish: “I’m sooo bored!”

That’s just ten minutes; imagine doing nothing for 40 days and 40 nights. And the younger you are, I think, the greater the chance that boredom is one of your greatest fears in life, although maybe that’s just a stereotype.

We try so hard to keep ourselves busy. Unfortunately, most of us are so successful at this that we’re not even aware of much of what is happening around us, or to us, or even within us. We’re too busy to notice. And if we’re not busy, then we seek to fill our empty time by turning on the TV or finding some other distraction to fill the time.

We’re so afraid of sitting in silence and doing nothing. Our worst fear about spending time in the wilderness isn’t that we might find something scary or threatening out there; our worst fear is that we won’t find anything at all.

And if we don’t find anything “out there,” then we’re left to look “in here,” within ourselves. And maybe it’s “in here” that the truly scary things dwell.

Jesus didn’t just give up eating food while he was in the wilderness. He gave up all the little distractions that are a part of everyday life. Our minds are so full of these distractions that we don’t even know what we’re doing half the time. Our thoughts are so distracted that we eat our meals absent-mindedly. When we’re done eating, we’re often surprised by how much we ate, because we don’t even remember tasting it. Our minds are elsewhere.

We are not mindful of what we are eating. We are distracted by so many things. Indeed, we welcome those distractions. We seek them out. Anything to avoid being left alone with our own thoughts.

Every once in a while I like to stop – just stop – and listen to the sounds around me. When I do, I usually discover that my world is filled with so many sounds that I’m not even aware of; sounds that my ears hear, but my mind pays no attention to. A few weeks ago, at home, I did this and heard the sound of a mourning dove cooing. I’m not sure why it’s called a mourning dove; its song sounds peaceful to me, not sad. It sounds beautiful. I could listen to that sound all day. But if I don’t take the time to stop and actually listen, I’d never hear it.

So every once in awhile I make sure I stop and listen for the sounds that are always there, but which I hardly ever pay attention to.

This is not just an exercise to satisfy my own curiosity. I think paying attention to what’s going on in the world and especially to what’s going on inside oneself is an important practice. I think of people whose unethical behavior has destroyed lives and businesses. If only they had stopped to listen to what was going on inside their own heart. I think very few people intentionally decide to defraud or embezzle. I think very few people intentionally decide to have an affair.

What happens a lot of the time, I think, is that people aren’t really paying attention to what’s happening. They aren’t listening to their own conscience. Maybe they move a couple of dollars from here to there – maybe they even did so unintentionally – but no one got hurt, and no one got caught. No big deal.

So they do it again. Just a couple of bucks. Just a tiny step toward really unethical behavior. They’re not taking a huge leap into big-time unethical behavior. They’re just going one tiny little step, possibly without even noticing what’s happening.

Or, say they start exchanging friendly phone calls or emails with a co-worker. They’re married, both of them, but it’s no big deal. It’s not like they’re having an affair, or even want an affair. This is just … well, it’s nothing, really. Really.

But then, without them realizing it, they start taking little tiny steps in that direction. Maybe a friendly lunch date, which, again, might not be that big of a deal; it could be totally innocent. On the other hand, if it causes one’s heart to start moving in an unhealthy direction, it could very well turn in to something that ends up causing a lot of suffering.

Unfortunately, if the person never takes the time to stop and listen to his or her heart, to notice and examine what’s going on within, they won’t realize what is happening until it’s too late.

I think that Jesus needed to spend 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness so that he could get away from all the distractions of life, and examine his own heart. He needed to spend some time with the temptations that dwelled within him. If he ignored those temptations, then they might grow in the darkness, and reveal themselves only after they had grown too strong.

The temptations start out small: one tiny little stone into a loaf of bread. Now, who is that going to bother, really? As if God would be concerned by such a trivial thing as that.

Because Jesus took the time to clear his mind of all distractions, he recognized this temptation for what it was: one tiny little step in the wrong direction. Maybe it’s not even a step that crosses the line, but it does get one closer to that line that should not be crossed. It doesn’t cross the line, but it is a step in the wrong direction, and so Jesus wanted nothing to do with it.

Only by spending time in the wilderness, with his mind free from all distractions including even the concern for what he would eat, was he able to identify this temptation. Only by experiencing what we might consider absolute boredom was he able to listen to what was going on in his own heart.

Of course, there were even bigger temptations there, including the temptation to have all the kingdoms of the world bow before him. Jesus’ purpose in life was nothing less than the complete transformation of the world, and with the power of God at his disposal, there was a very easy way to achieve that transformation. The kingdom of God could be fully realized on earth in an instant, if he would but bow before Satan, if he would but give in to the temptation that was within him. It would be so easy; but because Jesus was able to spend some time with his temptation, to embrace the temptation, to acknowledge it and bring it into the light, he was able to recognize it for what it was, and commit himself to a better way.

Perhaps it sounds strange to say that Jesus embraced his temptation, but that’s what he did. He didn’t run away from it; he didn’t ignore it; he went out to the wilderness in order to meet it, in order to meet and greet and even embrace his temptation.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that we should not fight the evil that is within us. He talks about a young man who needs to vent his anger, so he goes into the woods alone and yells and screams and curses, in order to get it out of his system; or, he finds a punching bag and takes out his anger on the punching bag. Doing this, he says – fighting the evil within us in such a way – does little more than teach us to fight. It teaches us to fight with ourselves. It teaches us to fight with others.

Instead, he says, it is better to acknowledge the evil that is within. Acknowledge the temptation. Acknowledge the anger. Embrace it. Cradle it like a mother would cradle her infant child. This, he says, is mindfulness. This is becoming aware of the temptation. This is becoming aware of the evil within.

Isn’t that what Jesus went out to the wilderness to do?

When you find the evil within – when you discover temptation – don’t fight it. It’s a part of you; fighting it is fighting with yourself. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Remember: you want to cradle it like an infant child. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “imagine a mother getting angry with her baby and hitting him when he cries. That mother does not know that she and her baby are one.”

Instead, with that temptation in your arms, transform it by the power of love. Ask God to help you transform that temptation into something good.

Remember, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said not to resist evil. Likewise, the apostle Paul says “do not repay evil for evil; overcome evil with good.” We usually think of these teachings in terms of evil that acts upon us from outside of ourselves, but they also apply to the evil that comes from within.

Do not resist it; do not fight it. Instead, become aware of it and embrace it. Nurture and love it, so that it may be transformed into something good.

If you fight what is within you, you are fighting yourself. Learn instead to treat yourself with compassion. Don’t beat yourself up because you have negative thoughts and emotions. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “if you don’t know how to treat yourself with compassion, how can you treat another person with compassion?”

This is what Jesus was doing those 40 days in the wilderness. Was he bored? Maybe. But that boredom was simply opening his heart and mind so that he could really listen and take notice of what was going on within him. This is why the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to face temptation. This is why Jesus removed himself from all distractions, even the distraction of eating. He needed to spend some time alone with his thoughts. He needed to be aware of exactly what was going on within him. He needed to acknowledge his own temptations, so that those temptations could not grow in the darkness, unseen, and overpower him at some later date.

From ancient times, fasting, prayer, and meditation have been recognized as important disciplines of a spiritual life. The church calendar even reflects this: the 40 days of Lent are meant to reflect the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness.

But in our busy culture, we find it so hard to spend even ten minutes alone with our thoughts, free from all distractions. We’re always searching for something to fill the empty time: we pick up a magazine, turn on the TV, check our email … anything to avoid having to do nothing.

But it is in that time of nothing that things like temptation are revealed. It is in that time of silence and stillness that we become acquainted with our dark side. It’s in the times of nothing, the times when our minds are silent, that that we become aware of the negative thoughts and emotions within us.

Naturally, this can make us uncomfortable. No wonder we do everything we can to fill those empty moments!

However, filling those empty moments won’t make the negative thoughts and emotions go away. Those negative thoughts and emotions will still be there; we just won’t be aware of them. They will continue to lurk in our minds. We can ignore them – we can ignore temptation, we can ignore the darkness within – but that won’t make them go away.

Better to take those ten or fifteen minutes and learn to become aware of what is going on within. Become aware of temptation. Acknowledge it, greet it, embrace it, smile at it, and nurture it with love so that it may be transformed into something good and positive.

A lot of people give up something for Lent. Let me suggest that you give up something that is, for you, a distraction. Giving up TV would be good, if not for all of Lent, at least for one day a week. Or maybe give up the internet one day a week, or every day after 5pm.

Some people give up meat or chocolate, and if that helps you become more mindful, more aware, then go for it.

Above all, remember to treat yourself with compassion, because that’s how God – whose very nature is compassion – treats you. Embrace whatever you find within you with love, just as God embraces you with love; and let that love transform what is evil into what is good

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