Into the Wild

December 17 2014 | by

WE HAVE encountered temptation. The temptation to drive faster than the speed limit. The temptation to view something sinful. The temptation to tell someone exactly what we think of them when what we think is uncomplimentary. Generally we don’t succumb to these temptations. We don’t drive faster than the speed limit because we receive a traffic ticket. We refrain from looking at something sinful because someone may see us. We don’t tell someone exactly what we think because that person might be useful to us someday. Resisting temptations like these is easy because giving in to them could spawn disastrous results socially. Few of us aspire to be social outcasts.

Harder to combat are temptations that we can satisfy in secret or that make us look better with our peers. We sneak a cookie when no one is looking. We drop little hints about our successes or make offhand disparaging remarks about other people. We expand tales involving us to make them more impressive.  

Even the saints were tempted, but we tend to think that they had more graces than we do to combat sin. What false thinking! Everyone in heaven is a saint. Aren’t we striving to go there? The saints who made it to glory and we saints on the way there have a comrade in temptation: Jesus. Our Lord’s temptation occurred after his baptism in the Jordan River, immediately preceding his public ministry. Matthew begins the narration with this interesting line. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4.1). In the Our Father we pray that God will not lead us into temptation, but Matthew tells us that God purposely led Jesus led into a specific place where he would be tempted. Sometimes God does the same with us.

Why? To strengthen us for battle with the spirits of evil. Soldiers practice, drill, and fight mock battles before being sent into combat. Inexperienced soldiers are sent to areas of less intense fighting to prepare them for the front line. Why would God treat his Son or us differently?


Curing by opposites


St. Anthony tells us that Jesus was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” to prepare him for later in life when he “who, with his hands fastened to the Cross, did battle with the powers of the air. What wonderful strength, to overcome his enemy with bound hands!” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, I, p. 70, Messaggero di Sant’ Antonio – Editrice)

Christ’s first temptation in the desert was with unbound hands. The temptations there prepared him for the Cross.

Jesus was “led by the Spirit that filled him, of which Isaiah says: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me. [Is 61.1]” (Sermons I, p. 72). “The Son of God… came to restore a world that had been distorted by sin, came like a physician to heal the sick. It was therefore fitting for him to ‘cure opposites by opposites,’ as the saying is, just as by medical skill chills are cured by warmth, and fevers by cooling” (Sermons I, p. 72).

Medicine often cures through opposites. Diet cures obesity. Removal of diseased organs cures the disease. Immobilizing a sprained ankle enables it to heal so it can move freely.

Adam’s sin weakened the human race in Satan’s goal to destroy it. Christ’s desert, where “all was thorny, and there was no human help,” (Sermons I, p. 71) was the opposite of Adam’s “garden of peace and delight” (Sermons I, p. 72). In these diametrically opposed locations, temptation spawned two diametrically opposed results.


Temptation to vanity


First, our primeval parents were tempted to greed. God permitted them to eat the fruit of every tree in the garden except the one tree which God told them not to eat, lest they die. And just like children at a buffet who crave the one dessert they can’t have due to allergies, so Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation and ate the forbidden fruit. This greed to have one more fruit resulted in the total loss of the Garden. In contrast, Jesus, who was famished, had nothing to eat in the desert, yet, when Satan tempted him to turn stones into bread, Jesus resisted and quoted Deuteronomy. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God.” [Mt 4.4]

Anthony attributes the decision to taste the forbidden fruit to the sin of vainglory, which is inordinate pride in one’s achievements – a temptation to vanity. Satan told our first parents that eating the fruit would make them “as gods.” Anthony rips apart that lie. “What vainglory, to think that one could become God! What a wretched man! Because of your stupidity in setting yourself above your proper state, you fell below it in miserable ruin”( Sermons I, p. 74).

Satan tempted Jesus to vainglory when he took our Lord to the pinnacle of the Temple and told him to cast himself down and let the angels catch him. The vainglory would enter when Jesus would brag, “See what I can do!” Jesus rebuffed Satan with the words, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” [Mt 4.7]


Temptation to avarice


In the Garden of Eden, Satan’s temptation was also to avarice, an extreme greed for wealth or material gain. The first couple thought eating the fruit would gain even more abundance than they already had. Satan’s words were, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” [Gen 3.4-5]. Adam and Eve knew good. They had no idea what evil was. However, since they only knew good, they concluded that evil was a good they didn’t know yet. They wanted more good than they had. We can imagine their grief in realizing that evil is the absence of good. Instead of gaining more good, they lost the good they had. Satan tempted Jesus to avarice when he took our Lord to the top of a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, promising them to Jesus in return for Christ’s worship. Satan was tempting Jesus to gather in souls who have not done penance nor experienced conversion, as if God and Satan are engaged in a poker game to see who can amass the most souls.

“The devil always acts according to the same manner,” Anthony notes. “In the same way that he tempted Adam in Paradise, he tempted Christ in the desert, and he tempts every Christian in this world. First he tempted Adam by greed, vainglory and avarice, and overcame him by this temptation. Then he tempted Christ, the second Adam, in the same way; but in tempting Christ he himself was overcome, because it was not just a man, but God, whom he was tempting.” (Sermons I, p. 94)


Divine remedy


Adam and Eve had no idea that they were being tempted. We, too, often have no idea. Work harder. Get a bigger house. Buy on credit. Greed. Make yourself look good at work. Volunteer for a parish committee so the pastor will notice. Vainglory. Buy every new style. Put a pittance in the collection basket. Avarice. Anthony mentions a cure. “We share in both Adams, the first by the flesh and the second by the Spirit. We must put off the old man with his actions (greed, vainglory and avarice) and put on the new man by confession and renewal.” (Sermons I, p. 94) The Spirit who led Christ into the desert to be tempted also gave Christ the grace to overcome the temptation. The Spirit will give us the grace to overcome, too. We need but ask to receive.

Updated on October 06 2016