In the series “Heart-to-Heart Talks”
What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without food? Maybe you’ve had to prepare for a medical test or treatment and were instructed to stop eating at least 12 hours before the test or procedure. Or you couldn’t eat for a couple of days because of an illness you had. Perhaps you’ve incorporated fasting into your Lenten discipline, and so you might skip daytime meals or not eat for an entire day in order to focus on your spiritual growth.
When I worked directly in youth ministry before ministry and at my first couple of churches, we promoted an event to raise awareness and funds to fight world hunger. It was called the “30-Hour Famine.” Middle and high school students and adult leaders agreed not to eat for 30 hours and to spend time locked-in together studying scripture, engaging in service projects, playing games, and experiencing what hunger feels like.
If you’ve gone without food, you know how an empty stomach can affect you. Your stomach growls. After some time, you might develop a headache, grow shaky or feel light-headed. As hunger grows, you start to feel weak. Hungry people can be grumpy, or “hangry” as the Snickers’ wrapper calls it. And as the Snickers ad campaign that over the years has featured Betty White playing football or Elton John in a rap battle, portrays it, “you’re not you when you’re hungry.”
Jesus probably wasn’t above these struggles – after all, he is both fully divine and fully human. Still dripping wet from his baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness, where he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. Before he can find food or get to a town for help, he meets the tempter. Before he can begin his ministry or demonstrate his power, he reveals his humanity. He is famished.
The tempter opens the conversation with Jesus by attempting to take advantage of his hunger, encouraging Jesus to use his divine power to turn stones into bread.
Temptation comes to us in the same way. We are shaken or empty. Our heads hurt, or our hearts ache. When we are ready to lash out in anger, when we feel weak in body, mind or spirit, we have trouble resisting the temporary high of the bottle, the online purchase, or the text message we know better than to send. When we feel hollow enough, when we are frustrated or lonely, we may not have the impulse control to avoid that satisfyingly-greasy fried food, the lottery ticket, the flirtation with a coworker or neighbor, the harsh words we would never normally speak aloud.
For 40 days Jesus had lived without food, shelter or company. It might seem that he entered this conversation with the tempter at a disadvantage, weakened and vulnerable. But Jesus was not alone in the wilderness.
Sometimes we meet people who would willingly lead us into temptation. But let’s get real – more often, we become vulnerable to going astray when we’re leading ourselves, as though the proverbial angel and devil are on our shoulders debating the cost of giving into temptation.
“Go ahead, try it. No one will ever know.”
“But you and God will know.”
“Why shouldn’t I cheat (or lie or gossip or steal or fill in the blank)? Everybody does it. Besides, it will make me feel better about myself or my situation.”
“But you’ll hurt others and yourself.”
“I’m angry and hurting. I don’t like what’s going on. I’m in the right, so I’m justified in getting revenge or spreading rumors or fill in the blank bad behavior.”
“I’m sorry that you’re upset, but God says, ‘Be angry but do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.’” (Eph 4:26-27)
It can be very hard to recognize when temptation comes and to resist temptation in order to walk closely with Christ. What do we find in Jesus’ heart-to-heart talk with the tempter, Satan, to prepare and strengthen our lives?
First, Jesus recognized that the temptations offered to him as traps to deny who he is. Remember, the tempter began with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God,” and tempted him to prove it. But Jesus did not give into his physical desires and hunger. He would not let the tempter narrow his understanding of God’s word to a strictly literal reading to test his faith and his God. He will not try to grab power or influence so that he could be admired by others or make things work out the way he wanted them to be.
When we have accepted God’s claim on our lives, receive God’s forgiving mercy and empowering grace, and strive to live for Jesus, our identity becomes “Christian” and “a beloved child of God.” That must mean something; it must make a difference. Being tempted is not the problem – everyone, like Jesus, experiences temptation. And God’s Spirit gives us the power to resist, and scripture tells us, God always provides a way out (1 Cor 10:13).
From Jesus’ heart-to-heart with Satan, in each temptation, we find that Jesus put God first. He reminded us not to test God, but to trust God. He taught us to worship God alone. Essentially, in response to each temptation, he said, “Not today, Satan.” While it might be very hard for us in our humanness to resist temptation, Jesus turned down easy fixes and instead took up his call to live for God as one of us.
Our battles may not be as cosmic, though we do strive against spiritual forces and darkness. We may not find ourselves tempted to rule all the kingdoms of the world. Those temptations were meant to match the power and potential of the very Son of God.
We will feel empty, frustrated, angry. We will face challenges. When we come face-to-face with temptations and the evils of this world, we have a Savior who has gone through temptation and triumphed, a Savior who is standing right beside us.
When we encounter the lures of wealth and pride, like Jesus, we say, “Not today, Satan.”
When we encounter injustice and discrimination, we say, “Not today, Satan.”
When we are tempted to behave in unkind ways or speak unloving words to or about another, we say, “Not today, Satan.”
When we encounter fear of the other and the temptation to shun or demonize, we say, “Not today, Satan.”
When we are afraid and tempted to seek comfort somewhere besides God, we say, “Not today, Satan.”
When we are tempted to spread rumors or untruths, we say, “Not today, Satan.”
When we feel led to make something other than Christ the center of our lives, we say, “Not today, Satan. I serve Jesus Christ as my Lord.”
When we believe that we are not “enough” – smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, good enough – we say, “Not today, Satan.”
When we find ourselves struggling with feelings of doubt and inadequacy, we say, “Not today, Satan, because I am a beloved child of God and you have no power over me.”
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory over temptation in our lives. Amen.