The Temptations of Life

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God, he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command His angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you, he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left Him, and angels came and attended him.

Matthew 4:1-11

A story from my childhood. One day, I went with my father and siblings to visit one of our family farms. In the middle of this farm was a mango tree and we took shade under it. As I looked up, I saw a mango, and though I wasn’t hungry, I wanted to take it just for the sake of having it. I just had to have it for the pleasure of possessing it. My father warned me not to climb the tree because I might fall, but disobedient, I climbed and reached for the forbidden fruit, but the tree branch where I was standing snapped off, and down I went.

The 4th c desert monastic Evagrius of Pontus once said that our souls have certain disturbing emotions or “passions” (as the Greek Fathers called them) that predispose us to do harm or sin. He identified these passions as gluttony or excessive desire for food, greed that leads to excessively desire to possess things, excessive sexual desire, rage, vanity, unhealthy sadness, boredom with life, and pride. These passions are usually stimulated by some thought or object we see- like, for example, food, drink or money, or a sight of physically beautiful person. So when the sight of an object or a thought stimulates the passions, the mind and heart then conspire to build fantasies around the object. The mind and heart will convince us that the object being will lead to our happiness and pleasure, and so the mind and heart begin to obsessively chase after the object of temptation, and often disregarding the possible harm the object could pose us. We entertain these thoughts because our mind overpromises the benefits, pleasures and happiness contain in the object of temptation. Eve was seduced by the Evil One because the Evil One overpromised the benefits of disobeying God’s prohibition. The Evil One told her “Take and eat because the fruit shall make you gods.”  She ate not because she was hungry but because she thought she would become god, but then found out that she not only failed to be god, but she was banished from the paradise of oneness with God. Through the stimulation of our passions by temptation, our soul are enchained to our obsessive thoughts of pursuit of pleasure. We lose our spiritual freedom. In and of themselves, the objects might not necessarily be bad. The problem comes when we allow these things to overstimulate the unhealthy passions in us.  So in my story- there was nothing wrong with the mango (a mango is just a mango), but rather it was when my mind allowed it to stimulate the unhealthy passion of greed in my soul that led me to disregard the danger of falling from a tree.

The Gospel story tells us that the Evil One tries to present tempting thoughts to Christ in order to make him sin. But Christ confronts the Evil One and refuse to entertain the temptations. At each instance, Jesus warded off the temptations quickly. A big part of our spiritual life is about doing battle with our inner demons and temptations. The first thing we need to develop in ourselves is self-awareness and self-knowledge, especially of the kinds of emotions in us that are easily aroused to do something that would make us hurt ourselves or others. We need to know the kinds of things, including thoughts, that get us into trouble. Once we identify these things, we need to develop a plan by which we could deal with these temptations so that they do not hurt us, or through them, hurt others. We have to identify spiritual tools that could help us deal with temptations. Prayer, especially praying the Scripture, is one way. Evagrius once wrote a book called Antirrhetikos, literally “Talking Back”; it is a book of sayings from Scripture by which he could combat his destructive thoughts. He talked back to his temptation by quoting Scripture. Incidentally, this is the method used by Jesus. When the Evil One tempted Jesus to sin, he fought the temptation back by quoting Scripture. So, for example, when I catch myself having negative thoughts of putting someone down, I combat the temptation of emotional bitterness by remembering what the Lord said in Scripture: “Judge not let you be judged.” (Mt 7:1)  When negative thoughts towards someone you intensely dislike present itself in your mind, you could, for example, recall what the Lord says in Scripture: “Love your enemies.” (Mt 5:4)

The discipline of fasting and abstinence could also be useful. There is physical fasting and abstinence, that is, we refrain from the types of food that over-stimulate our desire for food, especially for food that are unhealthy for us. We do not abstain from all food but we do choose only food that nourish us and not harm us. If alcohol gets us sick, maybe we ought to fast from it. There is also fasting of the mind, by which we refrain from entertaining certain images that could lead us to sin. For example, when images stimulate us towards an unchaste sexual act, we can choose to cut off any images that come to our mind, or avert our es from images we see in print or on the internet. Manual work, exercise or some other physical activity were also prescribed by the Church Fathers as a way to could to distract us from our temptations. I have a friend who suffers from a great deal of sadness that leads him to isolate and despair; and the thing I usually tell him to do is go out of his house once a day, go to the gym, or do or be involved in some meaningful activity. That way he is distracted from his excessive sadness.

The Gospel story today is a reminder that we need to do inner work, the soul work of freeing ourselves from being enslaved by our hurtful thoughts and emotions, the soul work of freeing ourselves from the vicious circle of obsessively chasing every temptation like a dog chasing its tail to no end. Spiritual freedom and spiritual health come when our minds, hearts and souls are not disturb by temptations. 


©2018 Noel E. Bordador

Noel Bordador is a queer Episcopal priest in the Philippines. He runs Nazareth House, a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality for persons with HIV/AIDS in Manila.

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