The Gospel Train Reaches Temptation Station – Stay on Board, Children! A Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

There’s an old gospel song tradition that speaks of the Christian life as a ride on the “gospel train.” The gospel train is not always an easy ride with perfect scenery, but you’ve gotta get your ticket and stay on board.

Mysteriously, the train sometimes passes through difficult terrain, but just stay on board! On His way to glory, Jesus faced trials, hatred, and even temptation (yet without sinning).

Today the gospel train pulls into “Temptation Station” and we are asked to consider some of life’s temptations. The three temptations faced by Jesus are surely on wide display in our own times. What are these temptations and how do we resist them?

In this desert scene, the Lord Jesus faces down three fundamental areas of temptation, all of which have one thing in common: they seek to substitute a couch for the cross.

In a way, the devil has one argument: “Why the cross?” His question is a rhetorical one. He wants you to blame God for the cross, and in your anger, to reject Him as some sort of despot.

Well, pay attention, Church! The cross comes from the fact that you and I, ratifying Adam and Eve’s choice, have rejected the tree of life in favor of the tree that brought death. We, along with the devil, may wish to wince at the cross and scornfully blame God for it, but in the end the cross was our choice.

If you think that you have never chosen the tree of death and that God is “unfair,” then prove to me that you have never sinned. Only if you can do that will I accept that you have never chosen the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil over the Tree of Life and that you deserve something better than the cross. Only then will I accept that you have never insisted on “knowing” evil as well as good.

If you can’t, then you’ve made the same self-destructive, absurd choice that the rest of us have. It is not God that is cruel but we who are wicked and are to blame for the presence of the cross. The cross comes not from God but from us. We ought to stop blaming God for evil, suffering, and the cross, and instead look in the mirror. The glory of this gospel is that the Lord Jesus came into this twisted world of our making and endured its full absurdity for our sake. If there is evil in this world, it is our choice, not God’s.

Have we finished blaming God? Are we ready to focus on our own issues? If so then let’s look at some areas of temptation that the devil can exploit because we indulge them. Let’s also see the answer that the Lord Jesus has for these temptations; for He, though tempted, never yielded.

Pleasures and Passions – The devil encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread. After such a long fast, the thought of bread is surely a strong temptation. In effect, the devil tells Jesus to “scratch where it itches,” to indulge His desire, to give in to what His body craves.

We, too, have many desires and are told by the devil in many ways to “scratch where it itches.” Perhaps no generation before has faced such strong temptation. We live in a consumer culture that is highly skilled at eliciting and then satisfying our every desire. All day long, we are bombarded with advertisements that arouse desire and then advise us that we simply must fulfill those desires. If something is out of stock or unavailable in exactly the way we want at the instant we want it, we are indignant. Why should I have to wait? Why can’t I have it in that color? The advertiser’s basic message is that you can have it all. This is a lie, of course, but it is told so frequently that we feel entitled to just about everything.

Some of our biggest cultural problems are ones stemming from overindulgence. We are a culture that struggles with obesity, addiction, sexual misconduct, and greed. We experience overstimulation that robs us of a reasonable attention span; boredom is a significant issue for many who are too used to the frantic pace of video games and action movies. We have done well in turning stones into bread.

Jesus rebukes the devil, saying, Man does not live on bread alone. In other words, there are things that are just more important than bread and circuses, than creature comforts and indulgence. Elsewhere Jesus says, A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Lk 12:15). I have written further on this in another post: The Most Important Things in Life Aren’t Things.

Popularity and Power – Taking Jesus up a high mountain, the devil shows Him all the nations and people of the earth and promises them to Him if Jesus will but bow down and worship him. This is a temptation to both power and popularity; the devil promises Jesus not only sovereignty but glory.

Because most of us are not likely to become sovereigns and because temptation is only strong in those matters that seem remotely possible for us, I will focus instead on popularity—something we deal with regularly in this life. One of the deeper wounds in our soul is the extreme need that most of us have to be liked, to be popular, to be respected, and to fit in. We dread being laughed at, scorned, or ridiculed. We cannot stand the thought of feeling minimized in any way.

For many people the desire for popularity is so strong that they’ll do almost anything to attain it. It usually starts in youth, when peer pressure “causes” young people to do many foolish things. They may join gangs, get tattoos, pierce their bodies, and/or wear outlandish clothes. Many a young lady, desperate to have a boyfriend (and thus feel loved and/or impress her friends), will sleep with boys or do other inappropriate things in order to gain that “love.” As we get older, we might be tempted to bear false witness, to make “compromises” to advance our career, to lie to impress others, to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t really need, and/or to try to impress people whom we don’t even like. Likewise, we may be tempted to be silent when we should speak out for what is right.

All of this is a way of bowing before the devil, because it demonstrates that we are willing to sin in order to fit in, to advance, or to be popular. Jesus says, You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.

The real solution to this terrible temptation of popularity is to fear the Lord. When we fear God, we need fear no one else. If I can kneel before God I can stand before any man. If God is the only one we need to please, then we don’t have to expend effort trying to please anyone else. I have written more on this matter elsewhere: What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord?.

Presumption and Pride – Finally (for now) the devil encourages Jesus to test God’s love for Him by casting Himself off the highest wall of the Temple Mount. Does not Scripture say that God will rescue Him? The devil quotes Psalm 91: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone. In our time the sin of presumption is epidemic.

Many people think that they can go one behaving sinfully, recklessly, and wantonly and that they will never face punishment. “God is love,” they boldly say. “He would never send people to Hell or punish them!” In saying this, they reject literally thousands of verses of Scripture that say otherwise; they have refashioned God and worship a man-made idol. “God doesn’t care whether I go to Church,” they claim. “He doesn’t mind if I live with my girlfriend.” The list of things God “doesn’t mind” continues to grow.

The attitude seems to be that no matter what I do, God will save me. It is presumptuous to speak or think like this. Hell and punishment are surely difficult teachings to fully comprehend and to reconcile with God’s patience and mercy, but He teaches of them and therefore we need to stop pretending He doesn’t.

I have written elsewhere on the topic of Hell and why it makes sense in the context of a God who loves and respects us: Hell Has to Be.

A mitigated form of presumption is procrastination, wherein we constantly put our return to the Lord out of our mind. About this tendency it is said,

There were three demons summoned by Satan as to their plan to entrap as many human beings as possible. The first demon announced that he would tell them there is no God. But Satan wasn’t too impressed. “You’ll get a few, but not many and even those atheists are mostly lying and know deep down inside that someone greater than they made them and all things.” The second demon said he would tell them there is no devil. But Satan said, “That won’t work, most of them have already met me and know my power.” Finally, the third demon said, “I will not tell them there is no God or no devil, I will simply tell them there is no hurry!” And Satan smiled an ugly grin and said, “You’re the man!”

Jesus rebukes the devil by quoting Deuteronomy: You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test. We ought to be very careful about presumption, for it is widespread today.

This does not mean that we have to retreat into fear and scrupulosity. God loves us and is rich in mercy, but we cannot willfully go on calling “no big deal” what He calls sin. We should be sober about sin and call on the Lord’s mercy rather than doubting that we that really need it or just presuming that He doesn’t mind.

The train is leaving the station soon. I hope that we’ve all benefited from this brief stop and have stored up provisions for the journey ahead: insight, resolve, appreciation, understanding, determination, and hope.

The journey ahead is scenic but difficult and temptation is a reality, but as an old gospel song says, “The gospel train’s comin’, I hear it just at hand. I hear the car wheel rumblin’ and rollin’ thro’ the land. Get on board little children, get on board. There’s room for many more!”

Never heard the song? Here’s a rendition of it:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Gospel Train Reaches Temptation Station – Stay on Board, Children!

Why Does the Lord’s Prayer Ask God not to Lead us into Temptation – Why Would God do Such a Thing?

101514Most of you know that I write the Question and Answer Column for Our Sunday Visitor. And every now and then it is good to bring these works of mine together. An interesting question came in today (actually it is asked quite frequently) and I’d like to give my answer and add just a few things more that wouldn’t fit into the column. First the question, then the answer and a brief elaboration.

Q: Why does the Lord’s Prayer ask God not to lead us in temptation? Why would God do that? I have also read texts in the Bible about God hardening people’s hearts. Again why would God do that? 

A: Part of the problem in understanding biblical texts like these comes down to the philosophical distinction between primary and secondary causality. Primary causality refers to God’s action in creating, sustaining, and setting into motion all things. From this perspective, God is the first (or primary) cause of all things, even things contrary to His stated and revealed will.

Thus, if I hit you over the head with a bat, I am actually the secondary cause of this painful experience. God is the primary cause because He has made and sustains all things that are involved: me, the wood of the bat, and the firm resistance of your skull.

As such, God is the first or underlying cause, without which nothing at all would be happening or existing. God is surely opposed to my action and even has Commandments against it. However, given His establishment of physical laws and respect for human freedom, He seldom intervenes by suspending these.

So to be clear, in my horrific little example, God is the primary cause since He is the cause of both me and the bat; I am the secondary cause of my shameful act of violence.

The biblical world was more conversant with and accepting of primary causality. Biblical texts often more freely associate things with God because He is the first cause of all things (without excluding the human agency that is the secondary cause). The Catechism speaks to this reality in Scripture:

The sacred books powerfully affirm God’s absolute sovereignty over the course of events: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.” And so it is with Christ, “who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.” As the book of Proverbs states: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.” And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (Catechism 303-304).

So the biblical world was more comfortable with primary causality. However, with the rise of the empirical sciences and secularism, we moderns are far less comfortable in speaking to primary causality (God’s world) and tend to focus more on secondary causes (our world).

When the Lord’s Prayer says lead us not into temptation, it is not asserting that God would directly and intentionally lead us into temptation, or tempt us himself (see James 1:13), but rather is alluding to the fact that God is the first cause of all things. We are thus asking that God’s providence allow fewer opportunities for us to be led into temptation by the world, the flesh, and the devil, and give us the grace to escape the temptations that inevitably do come our way.

Likewise, texts that refer to God hardening hearts employ similar thinking. God hardens hearts only insofar as He is the first cause of all things. But it is usually we who harden our own hearts. God merely permits the conditions and sustains our existence (primary causality); it is we as secondary causes who directly will the sins that harden our own hearts.

Primary causality is ultimately a confession of the fact that God is at the center of and above all things. God is existence itself and He sustains all things. It is not an untroubling doctrine in that it tends to intensify the questions surrounding the problems of suffering and evil. But even in permitted evils there is the mystery of providence at work. God can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way. He is at all times and in all things provident in ways beyond our telling. Scripture says of the Lord Jesus as the King and sustainer of all creation,

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word (Heb 1:1-3).

And again,

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:16-17).

Yes, Lord:

Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

Temptation as a Form of Martyrdom – A Meditation on a Writing of St. Ambrose

101214Temptation is a universal human experience. And because it’s so directly associated with sin, many too easily equate being tempted with sinning. But temptation is not the same as sin. If it were, how could the Scriptures say to us that Jesus was tempted in every way we are and yet was without sin? (Heb 4:15) Hence, the simple experience of temptation is not sin. It is true, however, that our past indulgence in sin can make us more susceptible to temptation.

However, properly understood, temptation is a form of suffering—even a kind of martyrdom—that the faithful must endure, and through it bear witness to the abiding and surpassing power of God’s grace.

Yes, temptation is a form of suffering that we must endure daily. Too many people, however, feel guilty merely for being tempted. Perhaps they think they are already sinning simply because the thought of sin comes to mind. To be sure, temptation does speak to our desires and hence presents what at least seems to be a pleasurable prospect. It would not be temptation if it did not have this quality. We are not tempted by something odious or by something that has no pleasurable dimension. Nevertheless, feeling tempted is not a sin. And thus in temptation the Christian should not think of himself or herself as somehow displeasing to God. Rather, we should remember that God is our helper, someone to whom we should turn in times of temptation. We should not feel ashamed or afraid of running to God and asking for His deliverance.

In a reading from last week’s Office, St. Ambrose quite eloquently spoke to the martyrdom of temptation. I’d like to present some excerpts from his writing (in bold italics) and make some comments of my own (in red).

As there are many kinds of persecution, so there are many kinds of martyrdom. Every day you are a witness to Christ:

  • You were tempted by the spirit of fornication, but feared the coming judgment of Christ and did not want your purity of mind and body to be defiled: you are a martyr for Christ. Yes, for you reverently feared God and considered the judgment of wrath that comes upon fornicators. You loved God’s rewards more than passing pleasures!
  • You were tempted by the spirit of avarice to seize the property of a child and violate the rights of a defenseless widow, but remembered God’s law and saw your duty to give help, not act unjustly: you are a witness to Christ. Christ wants witnesses like this to stand ready, as Scripture says: Do justice for the orphan and defend the widow. And here again, you considered God’s love for the poor and that remembered that giving alms covers a multitude of sins (Lk 11:41). God dismisses those who did not feed, clothe, or give assistance to the poor into everlasting flames (Matt 25:31ff). And thus, like a martyr, you resisted the pull of greed gave until it cost you.
  • You were tempted by the spirit of pride but saw the poor and the needy and looked with loving compassion on them, and loved humility rather than arrogance: you are a witness to Christ. What is more, your witness was not in word only but also in deed. Yes, you considered that we are all blind beggars before God and that the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us (Lk 6:38). You considered that the merciful will be shown mercy (Mat 5:7) and that merciless is the judgment on the one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13).

How many hidden martyrs there are, bearing witness to Christ each day and acknowledging Jesus as the Lord! … Be faithful and courageous when you are persecuted within … in those unseen persecutions there are kings and governors, judges with terrible power. You have an example in the temptation endured by the Lord. Indeed, temptations are a kind of persecution, and the proper response to persecution is willing martyrdom. 

In another place we read: Do not let sin be king in your mortal body (Romans 6:12). You see the kings before whom you are made to stand, those who sit in judgment over sinners … There are as many kings as there are sins and vices; it is before these kings that we are led and before these we stand. These kings have their thrones in many hearts. Sinful temptations seek to rule our hearts like despots. But do not fear even the many kings arrayed about you. Stand before them with courage, even unto death. For though they can destroy your body, they cannot destroy your soul or take your spiritual freedom unless you let them. What is the worst they can do? Kill you? But this is pathetic, for then you go home victorious to Christ. Resist these domineering kings (of temptation), even unto death. For in dying faithfully you are born to eternal life! 

But if anyone acknowledges Christ, he immediately makes a prisoner of this kind of king and casts him down from the throne of his own heart. How shall the devil maintain his throne in one who builds a throne for Christ in his heart? Amen. As servants of Christ, we escape slavery to the kings of the world, to the flesh, and to the devil.

From a commentary on Psalm 118 by Saint Ambrose, bishop
(Sermo 20, 47-50; CSEL 62, 467-469)

And thus we see that temptation is a form of suffering, even of martyrdom, if we engage in battle and refused to be mastered. Our martyrdom makes us witnesses to the surpassing value of what God offers as compared to the trinkets and passing pleasures of this world.

Temptation is a form of suffering, but to endure it brings us a share in the crown of martyrs. As St. Paul beautifully said near the end of his life,

For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Ti 4:6–8).

Do not be ashamed of your temptations; do not be fearful that on account of them you have already sinned or that God is displeased. Rather, see them as a summons to battle and to glorious martyrdom. Let it not be said of you,  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (Heb 12:4).

In every temptation, hear the battle cry. Take to the field manfully and resist. Win through to the victory and remember the glory of the martyrs, whose company, through temptation, you are able to join.

Temptation Station Just Ahead

There’s an old Gospel song tradition that speaks of the Christian life as a ride on the “Gospel Train.”  But the Gospel Train not always and easy ride with perfect scenery. But you gotta get your ticket for the Gospel Train and stay aboard. The train sometimes passes through difficult terrain and life’s temptations. But just stay on board! Jesus too on his way to glory faced trials, hatred, and even temptation (yet without sin).

Today the Gospel Train pulls into “Temptation Station”  and we are asked to consider life’s temptations.   The three temptations faced by Jesus are surely on wide display in our own times. What are these temptations?

  1. Pleasure– The devil (I intentionally do not capitalize his name not because I deny that satan is a person but why give him the honor of capitalizing his name?) encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread. After having fasted, the thought of bread is surely a strong temptation. In effect the devil tells Jesus to “scratch where it itches,” to indulge his desire, to simply give in to what his body craves. We too have many desires and we too are told by the devil in many ways to scratch where it itches. Perhaps no generation before has faced temptation in this area so strongly as we. We live in a consumer culture that is well skilled at eliciting and satisfying our every desire. All day long advertisements reach into our mind to excite desire and to advise that we MUST fulfill our every desire and wish. If something is out of stock or unavailable in exactly the form we want we are indignant. “Why should I have to wait? Why can’t I have it in that color?”  and so forth.  The advertiser’s basic message is “You can have it all!”  This is a lie of course but it is told so frequently that we  feel entitled to just about everything. Some of our biggest cultural problems are problems of over-indulgence. We are a culture that struggles with obesity, addiction, sexual misconduct, greed, and an over-stimulation that robs us of an attention span and causes boredom to be a significant issue for many who are too used to the frantic pace of a video game or action movie. We have done well in turning stones to bread. To all this Jesus rebukes the devil by saying, “Man does not live on bread alone.” In other words there are things that are just more important and bread and circuses, than creature comforts and indulgence. Elsewhere Jesus says, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  (Lk 12:15). I have written on this in another post:  The Most Important Things in Life Aren’t Things
  2. Popularity– Taking Jesus up a high mountain the devil shows him all the nations and people of the earth and promises them to him if Jesus but bow down and worship the devil. This is a temptation to power but also to popularity for the devil promises him not only sovereignty but also glory. Since most of us are not likely to attain to sovereignty, and since temptation is only strong in those matters that seem possible for us, I will focus on popularity. Here too we face a lot of this in life. One of the deeper wounds in our soul is the extreme need that most of us have to be liked, popular, well thought of, respected, and to fit in. We dread being laughed at, scorned or ridiculed. We cannot stand the thought of feeling minimized in any way. For many people the desire for popularity is so strong that they’ll do darn near anything to attain it. It starts in youth when peer pressure “causes” young people to do lots of stupid stuff. They will join gangs, get tattoos, piercings, wear silly clothes. Many a young lady desperate to have a boyfriend and thus feel loved and/or impress her friends, will sleep with boys or do other inappropriate things to gain that “love.”  As we get older we might be willing to bear false witness, make compromises etc to advance our career, lie to impress others, spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t really need to impress people we don’t really like, be silent when we should speak out for what is right and so forth. All of this is a way of bowing before the devil since we are, in effect, willing even to sin in order to fit in, advance, or be popular. Here Jesus says, You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve. The real solution to this terrible temptation to popularity is to fear the Lord. When we fear God we need fear no one else. If I can kneel before God, I can stand before any man. If God is the only one we need to please, then we don’t have to run around trying to please everyone else. Here too I have written on this matter elsewhere: What Does It Mean To Fear the Lord?
  3. Presumption– Finally (for now) the devil encourages Jesus to test God’s love for him by casting himself off the highest wall of the Temple Mount. Does not scripture say that God will rescue him? The devil quotes Psalm 91: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone. In our time the sin of presumption is epidemic. Many people think that they can go one behaving sinfully, recklessly, and wantonly and that they will never face punishment. “God is love!” they boldly say, “He would never send anyone to hell or punish!” In saying this they reject literally thousands of verses of Scripture that say otherwise. But they have refashioned God, and worship this idol. “God does not care if I go to Church,” they boldly declare, “He does not care if I live with my girlfriend.” The list continues to grow. The attitude is that no matter what I do God will save me. It is boldly presumptive to speak and think like this. It is true that Hell and punishments are difficult teachings to fully comprehend and square with God’s patience and mercy. Nevertheless God teaches it  and we need to stop pretending that it really isn’t for real. This is presumption. I have written elsewhere on the topic of Hell and why it makes sense in the context of a God who loves and respects us: Hell Has to Be. Jesus rebukes satan by quoting Deuteronomy: You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test. We ought to be very careful about presumption for it is widespread today. This does not mean we have to retreat into fear and scrupulosity. God loves us and is rich in mercy, but we cannot willfully go on calling “no big deal” what God calls sin and takes seriously. Hence we should be sober about sin and call on the Lord’s mercy rather than doubt we really need it and just presume God doesn’t mind etc.

Our train is leaving the station soon. It is to be hoped that you and I have benefited from this brief stop and have stored up provisions for the journey ahead such as: insight, resolve, appreciation, understanding, determination and hope. The journey ahead is scenic but also difficult and temptations are a reality. But as the Old Gospel Song says:  The Gospel train’s a’comin’, I hear it just at hand. I hear the car wheel rumblin’ And rollin’ thro’ the land. Then Get on board, Children, Get on board, there’s room for many a more!