What does temptation look like?
If I were to ask you to draw a picture of temptation, what comes to mind?
Maybe there’s a variety of images floating around in your heads right now, but I’ll tell you this: if you ask the internet what temptation looks like, temptation is very narrowly depicted. In a google search, the results are monochromatic. The only color you see is red, and you will see one of three images: an apple, a snake, and a woman’s figure – sometimes naked, sometimes scantily clad in skintight red patent leather. Sometimes it’s a combination of those images, like a naked woman seductively eating an apple with a snake wrapped around her. But depictions of temptation aren’t the least bit creative beyond that. Advertisements for everything from fragrances to TV shows use apples, snakes, and a seductive woman, all in varying shades of red, to say to you, “you know you want it, don’t you?”
But temptation isn’t so narrowly manifested, and it isn’t so easy to spot. It doesn’t come packaged in easily identifiable horns and tails, and it doesn’t wear bold primary colors. Despite the caricatures all around us, we can’t definitively say what temptation looks like.
But we are actually given a lot more clarity on what temptation feels like and sounds like. Rather than relying on monochromatic and monolithic artistic renderings, we can actually learn a lot more about the voice and feel of temptation from a closer look at today’s Scripture. The stories of both Adam & Eve’s temptation and Jesus’ temptation tell us a lot about the nature of the beast, no pun intended.
So here are a few things to know about temptation.
First: Temptation creates a sense of lack and scarcity, rather than focusing on abundance. When the serpent first approaches Adam and Eve in the garden and craftily asks Eve to reiterate what God said they could not eat, she first responds “We can have everything except that one tree over there.” Eve points out the abundance God has given them, not even giving second thought to the one tree they weren’t allowed to have. And so the serpent did what advertisers to this day continue to do: it pointed out what they didn’t have, and how much they were lacking in not having it.
Second: Temptation creates a sense of appeal around something we didn’t know we wanted. Adam and Eve didn’t think the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was desirable until they were told it was. It is only after the serpent tells Adam and Eve what the tree is that they see it according to the serpent’s description, as “a delight to the eyes” and that it “was to be desired to make one wise.” Then, all of a sudden, the tree was very appealing. Temptation tells us that we must have things we didn’t even know we wanted.
Third: Temptation makes us question ourselves and what we know. It piques the curiosity about your other options. Adam and Eve were completely comfortable and confident living according to God’s original commandment, until the serpent popped up and started sowing seeds of doubt. And while Scripture doesn’t tell us this explicitly, I’m sure Jesus had moments of doubt too, when he was being tempted to turn stones into bread and throw himself off buildings, after being famished from a 40-day fast. Temptation is deceptively destabilizing.
Fourth: Temptation comes to us promising to soothe what we desperately desire. Adam and Eve were promised to be more like God, closer to God, if they did what God had forbidden them to do; Jesus was promised the satiation of his hungry belly, and a relief from all the hardship of his time in the wilderness, if he just gave into the devil’s demands. Temptation meets us at our deepest desires with the promise of fulfillment.
And finally: Temptation comes to us when we are at our most vulnerable. Jesus wasn’t tempted when he was hanging out in a boat with his disciples, or on a mountainside surrounded by hundreds of listeners. He was tempted when he was alone in the wilderness, with nothing and nobody to protect him, with all his defenses down. Temptation knows to attack when it’s easy to go in for the kill.
And here’s the sneakiest thing about temptation: Temptation has the voice of an impersonator. It does its best to sound very much like your own voice, or the voice of what you think you want. We can be steered toward some very bad decisions by voices that sound very much like ones we love and trust.
This Lent, one of the things we are doing at St. Michael’s is taking an honest look at the history of slavery in our church. Our forums will examine different facets of our inheritance from the era of slavery, not only in our country and city, but in our church. We must be honest about the fact that for several centuries, the church did not recognize Satan’s voice, and gave into one of the greatest temptations and greatest sins in its history: the temptation to power and control at the expense of others, and the grave sin of enslaving people to keep that power and control.
For centuries, the church stood behind the fact that it was a trusted voice to use the voice of Scripture – the Word of God (after all, what greater voice can we trust?) – to condone and participate in the sin of slavery. Slave owners worshipped in this congregation. New York was home to the second-largest slave trade in the country. Instead of standing firmly against the slave trade, the Episcopal church as a whole and many of its individual members succumbed to the temptation of the wealth and power that slavery brought them. Moreover, the church justified this sin on twisted theological and biblical grounds. Temptation has the voice of an impostor. It pretends to be a voice we believe we can trust.
Temptation has a voice, but God has a voice, too. The reason we have this season of Lent, of self-examination and discipline, is to allow us to hear more clearly the voice of opposition to temptation: the voice of God.
It’s hard to cut through the voices of temptation because they come in so many forms. Even Satan tempted Jesus with some variety. He tried to lure Jesus using some of humanity’s greatest weaknesses: hunger, ego, power.
But pay attention to how Jesus responds to these strongest of temptations. Listen to how he doesn’t give into his hunger, his ego, or a thirst for power.
Jesus refuses to be concerned only with his own hunger while others still go hungry. Not only in the desert; before long he will feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish (Matt 14:17-21; 15:33-38), and he will teach his disciples to pray to God for their “daily bread” (Matt 6:11).
Jesus refuses the devil’s offer of political leadership over the kingdoms of the world. Not only in the desert; throughout his earthly ministry, he instead offers the kingdom of heaven to all those who follow him.
Jesus refuses to take advantage of his relationship to God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple and exploiting his own access to power. Not only in the desert; at the end of his earthly ministry he will endure his last temptation: “If you really are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Jesus endures the taunts of others and while trusting God’s power as he hangs on a Roman cross to redeem his own family (Matt 27:46).
And if Jesus resists temptation by looking out not only for himself but for others, then if we are to follow him, we must do the same.
The season of Lent is about our wholeness – our spiritual, mental, and physical wholeness. It is about exploring who God created us to be. The great 20th century American theologian Frederic Buechner said: “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent 40 days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”
This Lent you are invited to this question, both individually, and as a church: what does it mean to be yourself? What does it mean to be you, as a child of God? What does it mean to be the church, the body of Christ, a community of people who believe in the saving power of Jesus’ death and life? What does it mean to believe in a Savior who showed us power by emptying himself and taking the form of a slave, as St Paul writes? What does it mean to hear the voice of temptation and refuse to believe the lies it tells, and instead believe in the abundant life that Jesus promises?
I want to close with this abridged prayer of the abolitionist poet John Pierpont:
“Strengthen us, O God, in our fear of recognition that, as your children, we are all One and one in our failure to dismantle this vast sin [of slavery] within and upon all our lives. Protect us from the temptation to distance ourselves – by history, race, the current color of our skin within the layers of our generations going forth… Give us, we pray, the fullness of your grace and compassion, that we may proclaim, in thought, word, and deed, the truth of your healing redeeming love.” Amen.