Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan; Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
--Collect, First Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, p. 218
Those of us "of a certain age" can still remember the Flip Wilson routine similar to the one I've embedded from the old Ed Sullivan Show. Although we all remember in the "Rev and his wife" sketch, how the Reverend's wife always was saying, "The devil made me do it," what I also remember is the end of the skit, when the Rev asks his wife "How come the devil is always doing something for you? When's he gonna get around to doing something for me?" and her reply is...
"He said he already did something for you. Without him, he says you wouldn't have a job."
Our readings in the Lectionary this past Sunday--the first Sunday in Lent--historically talk about something that generally makes Episcopalians cringe--In year "A" in the Revised Common Lectionary coverAdam and Eve's fall, Paul discussing the universal nature of sin, and what we often refer to as "the temptation of Christ." It's a set of readings for those of us of a more progressive form of Christianity don't connect to very well, because, honestly, we don't imagine the devil lurking behind every lamp post looking to trip us up. I think it sells our faith short, frankly, when we use this persona of "the devil" to explain our bad actions.
I have said many times I am pretty convinced "the devil" lives between my own ears, and I am also convinced there are many people in this world who a threat of a literal Hell means nothing to them because they have truly experienced Hell on Earth.
But seduction and temptation, I can identify with THAT.
Last Saturday, I attended a Lenten Quiet Day at a parish in the Diocese of Iowa. Mostly I attended because one of the most knowledgeable people I know in spiritual direction is a priest in that diocese, and I figured any retreat day she was part of the program would be a good one. We had the opportunity to go have supper together and visit following the retreat, and we got to talking about the readings--she had yet to prepare her homily for Sunday.
We got to trying to define "seduction" and "temptation." What we discovered was it was really more difficult to define the terms in a way that focuses on what goes on in our own heads as opposed to an "outside force." It is simply human nature to blame others. But what we sort of came up with corporately was this:
Seduction is the call that an action or behavior will result in a satisfying form of gratification that, in those moments of our weakness, outweighs the negative consequences of that action.
Temptation is the act of settling for less when what we desire is more.
The truth is, we are more tempted by "good" than we are "bad."
I had said something in our conversation about how the "middle" temptation in the Matthew 4 story makes no sense to me. "I get the first temptation--Jesus is hungry and bread would look pretty good. I get the third temptation--"all this can be yours" is about power and control. But the second one--the "throw yourself off the cliff" one--makes no sense to me. Why throw myself off a cliff? There's no gain in that. "Woo hoo--The angels can catch me." Big deal." (In an interesting coincidence, the next day, in a parallel universe, my priest had gone through a bit of that consternation about the second temptation also, as evidenced in the homily!)
But back to the thoughts I had with my friend on Saturday. The pondering out loud got us to talking about how so many of the things that tempt us--so many of the seductive calls we hear--often have a promise of good behind them. For instance, we might be tempted to walk all over a co-worker to get a $2.00/hour raise. We say, "I can provide better for my family with that money." We might choose to manipulate the lives of those close to us, or try to force certain behaviors out of them, with the full intent of helping them. We might choose to interact with people a certain way to get them to "behave better." Not all temptations are to chase "forbidden fruit."
We so often have good intentions with our temptations, and the seductive voice we hear emphasizes that.
When we are tempted, I don't think it's some outside force of evil calling to us. The cartoon image of the little devil on one shoulder and the little angel on the other is cute, but probably not very accurate. I think what is actually happening is our own weaknesses are calling to us. After all, who knows our weaknesses better than ourselves?