Saturday, August 01, 2015

Inviting Temptation for Tea

There is a sense in which this post is long overdue. After all, the video that I'm writing about is from Lent and it is high summer now. That is true and all, but this is also the kind of meditation which, even now in the midst of Ordinary time, isn't just a Lent thing, but an every day thing. That is because dealing with temptations are very much part of being human. We can try to run from them, but we never get far because they go so deep that they are difficult to distinguish from our virtues or, sometimes, even our true selves.

That would be grim observation, if we took the reality of temptation as a way to beat ourselves over the head and as a prompting to pervasive shame. If we are constantly tempted, then, surely, we'll fail and Hell is the natural result, right? Certainly, there have been Christians who have believed something like that and come to utter despair, if they didn't also have a strong eschatological sense in which Jesus will snatch them up at the last second from Hell's torment. This is the subject matter of a 'fire and brimstone' sermon, but not this video.

What this video suggests is a different way to look at temptation then, perhaps we're used to. We know about the total depravity concept of humanity suggested in the previous paragraph. And, I'm sure, we've all heard the opposite reaction: "I'm a good person, so don't talk to me about sin". This second aspect is something that we Anglicans, in particular, are prone to, As Stanley Hauerwas has suggested, tongue in cheek, I'm sure, Anglicans probably should stop using the theological term 'incarnation' because they often really mean that God became man and said, "Hey, this is pretty good". This view understands that God has created this world and that it remains good, but it forgets that our relationships to ourselves, to others and the world around us has been warped by our habits of sin, so this view can validate the injustices and deformations of this world uncritically.

Instead of these two extremes, what we get in this video is a way of thinking about sin and temptation which recognizes the wrong path that temptation represents, but seeks to probe back and see why it is happening in the first place. Inspired by the Desert Fathers, it sees temptation to sin as a natural part of the spiritual life- thoughts which should be resisted, of course, but  also which teach us about our own faults, making spiritual progress possible. Quoting Abba Evagrius, "without temptation, no one would be saved". We need saving and it is temptation which highlights just where spiritual healing needs to occurThe point of the incarnation (if I can still use that term) is that God became human to deal with the deformations that human sin has created, not to serve out an antidote to a virus, but to show the way we relate to the world. Jesus, as the video also points out, was tempted. He didn't fall into it and sin, but he was tempted. And, if Jesus- God and human, was tempted, who are we to think we're going to be immune?

Yet, the most beneficial thing in this video for me is the suggestion to hear temptation out, without falling into it. Inviting it to tea, but no more, as this video suggests, means that temptation has a wisdom all its own and can teach us where we need to grow. Temptation warns us something is wrong spiritually, so we would do well to listen and, with God's help, try to work out what it is. That is, if you think about it, what Jesus did in the desert temptations at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus listens to the tempter's suggestions, pinpoints the nature of the temptation and counters it. The temptation to turn stone into bread isn't about food, it is about trusting the Lord. The temptation to gain power isn't about power, but about worshiping only God. The temptation to throw oneself from the Temple isn't about Jesus' special status, but about not doubting God's goodness. Jesus faces down each of the temptations because he has the discernment to see what the real issue is.

What resonates with me about this realization about the wisdom of temptation isn't necessarily that it is such a new thing, but rather that it counteracts a tendency that I have to just trying to shove the temptation aside without, necessarily, dealing with what it is trying to tell me. All to often, I try to let go of a temptation too early in the hopes that it will just go off and peddle its papers somewhere else, leaving me alone. Life doesn't work that way because temptation just comes back, tugging at my coat-tails and telling me to listen for God's sake. The only way to disperse it, I'm learning, is to stop, listen and throw the fault to which temptation is pointing back to God for healing. That means the uncomfortable work of self-reflection and confession to God, but that is the only thing that begins to heal me from my defects of character. That is the only way that I can grow as a person and as a Christian.

So, I keep coming back to this video, even after Lent, as a reminder to reflect on and confess my faults. Temptation remains in its multitudinous forms. It remains because I remain human. The important thing is to hear what I need to hear about myself and throw myself open for God's healing.

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