Not in our stars, but in ourselves

temptationOur psalm today cries out, “Have mercy on me Lord, for I have sinned.” Maybe a better petition would be, “Have mercy on me Lord, for I am sorely tempted.”  Sin can be but a moment when one gives in, but then one knows the battle is over, but the war is not lost. There is forgiveness and at least the battle is over. Not so with temptation. It was more life the never-ending, deadly trench warfare of World War I: constant struggle, continuous causalities, and wondering “why” and “where are the reinforcements.” It seems as though it never stops. “Have mercy on me Lord, for I am sorely tempted.” Such is temptation.

Who here has known temptation?  Everyone of course. But we have not all know the same thing. If we were all close confidants, I could walk among the pews, hand you a microphone, and you could let us know some of the things that sorely tempt you.  And we are not talking chocolate, Facebook, a day of playing hooky from what we supposed to be doing.  I am talking about that which sorely tempts you.

I suspect that as each temptation was revealed, we would be amazed, baffled, confused, and mystified with the things that a particular person finds tempting. With each contribution to the discussion, there would simultaneously, the following reactions:

  • I know exactly what you mean… me too.
  • Sure, but it is not a major temptation for me – just depends
  • Really?  Really? That is so odd, that is not the least bit tempting.
  • …and, no doubt, a few variations betwixt-and-between.

Temptation is situational, personal, universal, sometimes ever present, sometimes nowhere to be seen, but never far away. And it seems to be always internal. Sure, there is an external element, but I think that is more a catalyst than the combustible material itself. The combustible material is within.

Lent is a great time, so sit by yourself and think of the list of that which tempts you. Think of the temptations themselves, the events/circumstances that are precursors, and consider the point at which temptation becomes sin and you join St. Paul in wondering why you do the very things you do not want to do.  Then ask yourself, “Why?”  And no fair hoisting up the old response, “The devil made me do it.”

The devil cannot make you do a thing. The serpent did not make Eve do anything. Didn’t do much more than ask a couple of questions, slant a statement or two, but temptation’s worm out there on the hook, and then reel ‘em in. Adam and Even made a choice

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” So speaks Cassius in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene II). A classic line of the playwright, which rings intuitively true to us here in this season of Lenten observance.  The fault lies in the choices we make when faced by temptation

What were Adam and Eve thinking? Why was the serpent’s questions so… so … tempting? What was the fault within them?

Good things to know about ourselves, because you know what… temptation is coming back. And don’t spend energy asking why won’t temptation leave us be? Go away? Mark Twain had a fairly low opinion of the human condition. He quipped that only way to make temptation go away was to give in.  What is it about temptation?

Just Google “the nature of temptation” and you will have links to some pretty insightful stuff from writers across the breadth and history of Christianity. I will share one thought.  It comes from the 18th century educator, Horace Mann, in his Thoughts to a Young Man. He wrote out of a lifetime of experience with temptation:

“The most formidable attribute of temptation is its increasing power, its accelerating ratio of velocity. Every act of repetition increases power, diminishes resistance. It is like the letting out of waters – where a drop can go, a river can go. Whoever yields to temptation, lets loose the flood waters.”

I think we know the truth of Horace Mann’s account.  Here is how it goes: We follow Mark Twain’s advise thinking that this temptation will now go away. Not having chosen God, we fail to fill up ourselves with the things of grace – and temptation returns.

Well, this isn’t good, but its not hurting anyone.  I should confess it…. But…. God’s knows I’m sorry ….there are the first few drops
This is just my ONE sinful pleasure – I don’t think God will mind – he understands human weakness ….and the drops are forming a stream
Really… I’ve thought about this and its OK for me… …the stream is becoming a river
I don’t know what the Church’s problem is…. …the waters are rising to flood stage
This really isn’t sin and the flood water are upon you.

Soon enough there is no sin. No sin? Then no need for salvation. No need for God and the flood waters sweep you away. It was your choice.

So let’s begin again and think about our interaction with temptation. Let us be assured: “No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.” (1 Cor 10:13). And think about why God tests us.  It is not so that God will know. God already knows. God tests so that you will know that you know. That you will know you have a way out, be able to bear it, and, as hopeless as it seems, we are not tried beyond our strength… if we choose God.

Adam and Eve choose something else. In our sin we choose something else because we are tempted to other than trust. And we fall for it hook, line, and sinker.

Maybe we are best served by praying for the insight and wisdom to know our fault lines, our weaknesses, and to ask God to let us see the precursors which wicked this way come. Then our way out, is to never get in as we preemptively choose for God. And somewhere amidst the fault lines is the dangerous memory that you are a child of God, loved by God – now, one need only choose to love God. Then God can act as the “chief plumber” and show you how to stop temptation’s slow drip.

And even if the flood waters sweep you away, the Divine Hand will be there to grip you and pull you from the raging chaos.  It is in desperation, but it is a way out. But even then you have to choose to love God.

So choose and then joyfully pray: “Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” (Ps 51)


One thought on “Not in our stars, but in ourselves

  1. When I do not hear your homilies in person at mass, I am grateful you are posting your thoughts on site. Such great insights “Not having chosen God, we fail to fill up ourselves with the things of grace – and temptation returns.” and “Maybe we are best served by praying for the insight and wisdom to know our fault lines.” make me think deliberately about what I am doing with and in my life. Thank you for your perceptions and your ability to convey them to us in such a constructive fashion.

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