By Canon Chris Palmer
When I was a child, my children’s bible has an illustration of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness, replete with horns and a forked tail. This caricature is somehow part of the image we have of the devil in our culture, though no one seriously believes the devil looks like that. At it’s best this comic nature of the image helps us to laugh, rather than cower before the tempter.
But if this account of the tempter doesn’t figure large in our understanding of faith, temptation is still an reality of our lives. And the story we read in Lent of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness reassures us that Jesus shared with us the experience of being tempted. Jesus grew stronger by resisting temptation – and the temptations we face also offer us the chance to grow in resilience and maturity.
But we need to be prepared! Here are three thoughts about temptation that come from a wiser person than me, in fact from St Ignatius of Loyola, though somewhat filtered through a modern lens!
Temptation acts like a spoilt child: the more you indulge them, the more demanding they get. But whenever we resist temptation, the temptation becomes less ferocious next time. Just as parents need, gently, to be in control of their children, so we must control our urges, and not let our urges control us.
Temptation acts like an adulterous lover, who is desperate to keep their advances secret. Secrecy is the context in which temptation flourishes, but when we reveal our temptations – or our sins – to another trusted, wise person, they begin to lose their power.
Temptation acts like a military leader attacking a city, choosing the weakest point to attack. So our temptations comes at the places and issues around which we are most vulnerable. So it’s important to strengthen ourselves at these points of vulnerability.
Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” It is a witticism that gets a laugh, but in reality, not resisting temptation produces a world of broken relationships, traumatised communities, and a polluted environment. Resisting temptation can feel unfashionable and prudish, but really it is wonderful good news: we can, with God’s strength, be our best selves – flourishing and enabling others to flourish too. Thanks be to God!
Image: Juan de Flandes, Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness. National Gallery of Art, Washington