On this First Sunday of Lent, I will confess a bit of relief and comfort in the reminder that Jesus was like us in all things but sin. That includes temptation; today’s Gospel is haunting and quite revealing in how we, too, can respond to temptation.
Can you imagine fasting in the desert for 40 days? I find it difficult to fast on the Church-mandated days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; somehow temptation swarms around me during that 24 hour period when I am depriving myself of peripheral forms of nourishment. It seems that everything I struggle with on a daily basis becomes magnified and exacerbated to the point of my acute awareness that I am rationalizing why a snack is a legitimate exception to the fast.
Of course, temptations extend far beyond the realm of food, but food is one temptation that truthfully strikes me quite hard – mentally, physically and spiritually. When I am consciously fasting, food always seems to be on the forefront of my mind; instead of “just eating” without consciously being aware of what and how much I am eating throughout the day, I am forced into a more mindful and conscientious or deliberate mindset in which food becomes more than simply enjoyment or even basic nourishment; I actually contemplate the place food has in my life – good food, not junk – and in so doing, I understand the spiritual implications of eating less and eating more deliberately – with appreciation, gusto, and gratitude to God. Even meal preparation can be a reason to pause and consider the gift of bounty, as well as to enter into prayer of thanksgiving. With this manner of putting food into perspective, one could even argue that it becomes more like a relationship with food – as we begin to understand our personal temptations or struggles, whatever they may be. Often food is a band-aid for pain or boredom, low self-esteem or body image. Food is so often taken for granted in our culture, yet when we use that mindful manner of asking ourselves why and what we are eating, food takes on an entirely new place and purpose in our lives.
All of this can emerge from one day of fasting! Imagine…
When we deprive ourselves temporarily of basic necessities as a form of prayer and/or penance, the results are quite striking and powerful. That is why Satan personally paid Jesus a visit in the desert, and we may notice that, as we deny our senses while simultaneously developing our interior lives, the devil may “up the ante” in our personal temptations, as well.
Many saints credibly claim that fasting combined with prayer can work miracles. I believe this to be true, especially when we consider how Jesus Himself was honestly enticed by what the devil offered Him in the desert. If that is so for God Himself, then naturally we will see profound results when we persevere in denying ourselves those small and simple or even greater pleasures and comforts in our daily living.
In the past several months, I have faced temptations I have never before experienced in my life, which often leave me with an abhorrent horror in my heart. Yet I realize that temptations are not the same as sin. God allows all of us to face various temptations in life, I think, for two reasons. One is to increase the virtue of humility in our souls; when we are faced with temptations from all categories of vice, we realize that truly all of us are capable of committing heinous acts – and yet we concurrently understand that we also have the potential to do great acts when we comply with God’s mercy and grace each day. The other reason God permits us to experience temptation, intense and frequent at times, is so that we are continually vigilant in our spiritual path toward Heaven; each time we choose not to sin, we are therefore choosing to love. And that is always most pleasing to God – when we freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully choose to reject what is evil and to instead choose to love.
So as we begin our Lenten journey, let us turn with grateful hearts to God when we experience the trials of heavy temptations. Let us ask for His grace to choose good and to thank Him when we, in fact, do choose to reject the temptation and instead choose to love. Temptations, though not often considered as such, are actually a gift from God, permitted to strengthen our resolve and increase virtue in our lives. Remember the image from Scripture about gold being tested in fire? Though we may feel burdened and confused when faced with temptation, God is actually pruning our souls, purifying them with His sanctifying grace.
Ponder: What are the specific temptations I face at this point in my life? What opposite virtue can I ask God to help me grow more fervently in applying when I am faced with temptation?
Pray: Heavenly Father, I thank you for the times in my life I have faced – and rejected – temptation, due to your mercy and grace. I ask that you forgive me for the times I have succumbed to temptation, and thus sinned, against you or others. Please grace me with the awareness to see myself honestly and to grow in the virtues necessary for my salvation, most specifically in humility. Amen.